Sunday, May 18, 2008

Muncie, Than and Now

For some unknown reason, I still remember sitting in my fifth-grade class one day and picking up a copy of USA Today that we were using for a group project. A graph—the paper’s specialty, of course—caught my eye: cities with the highest rates of population growth and decline across the nation. (Results from the 1990 census were probably emerging at this point.) I saw that Muncie, Indiana was in the “decline” category, losing people faster than virtually anywhere else. Muncie is a Rust Belt city, and its economic situation was becoming grim.

Several years later, I went to college at Ball State University, and lived in Muncie for nearly six years. Muncie’s manufacturing sector remained in a protracted state of decline (see Figure 2 here). In 2001, the manager of my church softball team told me that for the first time in well over thirty years, he was facing short-term layoffs at the tool-and-die company where he worked. Not long afterward, it was the city’s two major transmission plants—BorgWarner and GM’s New Venture Gear—that began the cycle of layoffs that would ultimately lead to shutting their doors. And the population continued to drop, though it has steadied a bit more recently.

So what about Muncie’s future? Libby Copeland’s article on Muncie for the Washington Post certainly doesn’t present a bright picture, and with good reason. Sitting next to each other, Ball State and Ball Memorial Hospital signify Muncie’s post-industrial transition. Education, health care, and other areas within the service sector are the city’s economic hope. But as she insightfully notes, this hope is predominantly located north of the White River. The downtown area has struggled to re-establish itself thanks to the commercial development—notably, chain restaurants—along Indiana 332 to the north. Go south of the railroad tracks that run through downtown, and one can indeed “see the frayed seams of the Rust Belt.” Example: a new Wal-Mart in the southeast corner of the city has instantly become one of the healthiest businesses on the south side, simply by existing.

Copeland does miss a couple of important factors in outlining this north/south divide. The railroad tracks have historically stood as a line of color as well as class, and symbolize the city’s struggles with racism (example here). There also isn’t any discussion of religion; one possible angle could have been a brief consideration of churches located in the “historic downtown,” and how their attendance compares to the almost-moribund state of the nearby area.

Still, this is very good overview for its length. Besides what I noted above, Copeland accurately captures the mixed legacy of the “Middletown” study. It’s been quite important to Ball State and academic scholarship in general, but what should it mean to citizens that are struggling for jobs? And her mention of Ball State graduates fleeing the area is dead on, as there’s simply little to nothing for young graduates in the area. That’s why I wasn’t particularly sad to leave Muncie; it produced a lot of fond memories, but my girlfriend and I knew that it couldn’t produce a meaningful future.

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