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Seedy places / May 08, 2019
Perhaps you’ve noticed, perhaps you haven’t, but it’s been a while since we filled up this portion of The Sun’s weekly real estate — you can blame (or thank) a heavier-than-usual workload for that. Meantime, I have no idea if this is a coincidence or not, but as chance would have it our editorial space this week is filled with some excellent contributions from Sun readers. Jeff Dunson of Clarksville weighs in with a historically (and politically) astute piece on Confederate monuments and their broader meaning in an op-ed appearing on the facing page (it’s long, but well worth your time), while Joe Vitanza of Chase City and John Lesnik of Clarksville have sent in Viewpoint letters in response to our front-page article last week on the Town of Clarksville’s desire to do something about blighted and abandoned structures. Allow us to offer a few thoughts on the latter topic.

Vitanza picks up on the Operation Clean-Up effort in South Hill on April 27 to ask of the town’s redoubtable volunteers, “how [will they] feel in a few weeks when they return to the areas they cleaned up, only to find that less civic minded individuals have felt it was their right to throw their trash anywhere they desired, thereby reversing the efforts of the clean-up?” Truer words have never been written. I’ve seen people jump on social media to talk about their diligent work to clean up roadsides, only to see the effort go for naught because someone tossed trash in the road mere moments after clean-up volunteers moved on to their next destination. It truly is an infuriating situation. What do we do about it?

Vitanza suggests stepped-up law enforcement and stiffer fines for litter bugs, enough to sting people into observing better behavior. (He ties this issue to Clarksville Town Council’s discussion of dilapidated buildings by observing, accurately, that blighted homes comprise some of our worst trash repositories.) I gotta say, I can’t see how this idea of more fines and policing works in practice — certainly the Sheriff’s Office is stretched thin as it is, and town police departments can’t really be expected to pick up the slack in enforcing such low level offenses. Vitanza makes the argument that it’s a mistake to view littering as a trivial issue, and he’s surely right about that, but to my way of thinking the community’s incessant litter habit is the symptom of a greater problem, not the cause. That problem? Traditional social norms collapsing all around us, or so it seems.

Don’t get me wrong: Some of those old mores deserved to go — America appears to have finally moved past its misguided gay marriage debate, although people like Franklin Graham still have odious thoughts to offer on the subject. (Let’s hope our right-wing Supreme Court doesn’t turn out to be so right-wing that justices decide to raise their voices in concert with the ridiculous reverend.) I don’t buy the non-stop caterwauling of graying Baby Boomers who proclaim the worthlessness of the younger generation — the Kids These Days are actually quite awesome much of the time — and rather than believe society is overrun by violence and crime, I prefer to rely on data that show neither of these things is true. Yet some worrisome declines obviously are real. The country has a terrible drug abuse problem with the proliferation of opioids and cheap narcotics — I’m old enough to remember when heroin usage was a genuinely exotic thing in this area — and I don’t doubt that major employers are having a heck of a time hiring people who are sober enough to operate heavy machinery and run the assembly lines. More broadly, life expectancy is falling for members of the middle-income white working class, which is a shocking reversal of everything we’ve always internalized about America’s unstoppable march towards progress and prosperity. It’s not just middle-income whites who are feeling the heat, either; the stresses of modern life strike pretty much everyone outside of the rarified 1 percent. It may be a mistake to assume this somehow leads to trashy behavior — figuratively or literally — but it’s fair to wonder where the roots of social breakdown lie. And given the depth of trend, and its reach even within evangelical communities, I don’t think the answer lies with encouraging better church attendance, however laudable in other respects.

I wrote a long time ago about the sensation of walking around my local neighborhood and seeing some of the houses there go to seed: I happen to live up the street from the old J.P. Stevens textile plant in South Boston, in an area that once fit to a ‘T’ the description of “company town”: the modest arts-and-craft homes of the neighborhood were ideal living quarters for the employees working at the JPS plant at the end of the street. With the disintegration of the factory floor, we’ve indeed lost many essential things: jobs and payroll income, of course, but also the moderating effect of people working side-by-side, dependent on each other and conversely more self-reliant and attuned to the greater community good. Recapturing that ethos will require more than handing out stiffer fines to people who step out of line. The strictly punitive approach, tried in so many contexts, is a recipe for failure.

So what should we do? Vitanza goes on to suggest in his letter that we should ramp up efforts to teach school-age kids not to litter, and while this idea comes with its own set of problems, the general sentiment is one I agree with wholeheartedly. We all could do a better job in challenging ourselves to uphold a higher standard of behavior (and what a target-rich environment that particular topic is.) But to circle back to our original point, people could also use a few more carrots in life and less talk of sticks in determining how they should behave. Maybe a country with less reason to grab a quick dinner at the fast food window and with more time to cook at home would be a country that littered less. I dunno. I do think that if we dragoon the schools into fighting the battle against litter, the likes of McDonald’s and Burger King should be conscripted, too.

Which brings us to John Lesnik’s letter, in which he, too, riffs on the discussion of dilapidated homes and identifies a related problem that might be more solvable through Town Council action: empty downtown storefronts. (Not exclusively a Town of Clarksville problem by any means.) Mr. Lesnik suggests passage of ordinances to put pressure on landlords to do more to attract tenants for their buildings. Is this just another heavy-stick, water-running-uphill approach to an intractable problem? Maybe. But I’ll admit to being intrigued with Mr. Lesnik’s ideas — out-of-town ownership of downtown Clarksville storefronts has been a matter of longstanding complaint, typically expressed as the RentS ARE Too Damn High.

Mr. Lesnik describes policies in communities elsewhere in the U.S. that force landlords to get crackin’ or get out, and while I’m way too much of a capitalist burgher at heart to have much of use to add to this, Mr. Lesnik — and Mr. Vitanza, too — has done a service by widening the scope of the debate over dilipdated buildings. We all could stand to apply our thoughts to the challenges of personal and community uplift. Our letter writers have provided a fine start.

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