The small towns where I grew up did not fret much about civic improvements. If the levee held, city fathers celebrated.
One of the towns took pains to convert a dilapidated antebellum mansion, its remaining windows once popular with rock throwers, into local historical site. Not sure how well that translates in 2020.
But getting a crop in stood as civic betterment. So did a bunch of guys gathering on a Saturday to build a swing set in the community park, sinking lead pipes into buried vats of concrete.
No one focused on grandeur. That’s why we had churches.
A small bit of livability would suffice.
Forgive me then a measure of country-cousin wonderment on the matter of vision and St. Joseph.
True, Joseph Robidoux had money in mind, not civic initiative, as his trading post evolved into a town. True, too, his choice of a Frederick Smith design for St. Joseph optimized smaller lots and profit potential.
Yet no one in the century to come had to devote so much acreage to a Parkway System that continues to deliver on the concept’s foresight. Industries rise and fall, come and go. Nature does not fail.
Lesser leaders could have pushed for a City Hall with a more utilitarian look, but the building that stands today, 93 years old, continues to impress, classic and elegant, an Italian Renaissance marvel.
Projects like these in any community become a testament to their times and, if fortune smiles, to all times. As St. Joseph residents, we would be poorer today if critics had prevailed back then.
Older cities, like older people, have experience, the hard-won sort that speaks to tides of prosperity and setback. Blessed be those who learn not to flinch at either circumstance.
Some recent travels found me one night in Butte, Montana, about half the size of St. Joseph and 36 years younger.
Butte arose from a mining camp, then became a boom town in the harvesting of copper. Like St. Joseph, the town hit a streak of affluence in the late 19th century that left behind some beautiful Victorian architecture. Also similar to our city and its vast reach in meatpacking, Butte’s fate would rest on the whims of an industry.
A massive open copper mine, the Berkley Pit, accounted for a great deal of the citizens’ livelihoods. In April 1982, the Anaconda Copper Co. closed it amid falling prices.
Around this same time, a local resident named Bob O’Bill got set to make good on a prayed promise to build a 5-foot-tall yard statue of the Virgin Mary after his wife recovered from cancer.
In this steep economic downturn, O’Bill and his friends expanded the plans. They decided to built a 90-foot-tall statue of the Blessed Mother atop an 8,510-foot peak overlooking Butte, a symbol not just of one man’s faith but of a town’s determination.
Townspeople donated the labor and materials. A National Guard helicopter lifted the last piece into place just before Christmas in 1985. There on the Continental Divide, Our Lady of the Rockies still has her protective gaze on a community.
St. Joseph finds itself in a bit of a predicament these days, at odds over the extent to which citizens should wear masks, over the business environment once the COVID crisis passes, over the reopening of schools, over a world championship football team not being able to train here.
Its university, an economic driver and part of the civic identity, has an additional set of problems.
Adversity need not leave us low. Room always remains for boldness of vision, a path to better days.