It’s a lovely little city nestled in the hills of southern Indiana. Population of 70,000, give or take a few. It’s big enough that I don’t claim to know everything worth saying about it, but small enough for me to give you a decent introduction.
Here, I’ll show you around. The main artery of the downtown is a street called Kirkwood. Stretching outward from the Indiana University campus, up to the courthouse square, and onwards towards the edge of town. It may not be the busiest street in terms of cars and trucks, but it is in terms of foot traffic. There are stores, restaurants, bars, a park, a library, trees-- the typical stuff.
Sorority girls in designer sweatpants with orange tans sashay by in little posses, laughing and talking into cell phones. The future skater punks of America-- twelve years old with acne and hoodies, still secretly shy underneath their posturing-- laugh and scowl and practice their tricks. A small black man with sad eyes and an arrogant expression calls out, “Hey pretty lady, you got something to spare?” He’s there almost every day, and while I don’t particularly like him, I keep giving him change because I like being called pretty. There’s a well-groomed man in a suit and tie walking by. There’s a guy in an ancient tie-dyed shirt with an unkempt beard hanging down to his belly button. There’s a twenty-something in a polka-dotted nineteen-fifties dress with roses and snakes tattooed up her arms. There’s a middle-aged woman in an Indian-print dress and hiking boots. There’s a clean-shaven young man in army fatigues. You big city folks may not think too much of this diversity, but remember that this is southern Indiana.
We’re not to far from some of the oldest parts of town here. A few blocks away you’ll find streets paved with brick, not asphalt. Dignified wooden farm houses from the first half of the nineteenth century, just a few of which are left, are crammed in between newer homes and apartment complexes. In 1819, when this city was founded on the edge of the frontier, they had to build a fence around the courthouse square to keep stray pigs and chickens from wandering through. The courthouse was made out of logs back then. They also, in one of the first official acts of the town, set the prices for the local tavern: a half-pint of whiskey was 12 1/2 cents, brandy was 18 3/4, and breakfast or dinner could be had for 25.
Before the county was designated in 1818, Bloomington and its environs were part of Indian territory. The Miami Indians lived here traditionally. I have never met a Miami person in Bloomington, in 15 years here. Between 1805 and 1846, most of them were forced out to Kansas and Missouri (and later, to Oklahoma and beyond). Arrowheads turn up occasionally in farmer’s fields when they turn the soil in the spring, last little admonishments of stone for a well-concealed theft.
But you’re standing here on Kirkwood on a sunny afternoon, and looking around you, it’s easy to forget history even that shallow. Hell, it’s easy to forget the history of five years ago: which of those blandly sprawling subdivisions out east used to be farmland? Which small businesses have come and gone, quiet little tragedies behind their painted facades? Lately they’re tearing up some of the unused railroads that used to cross the town, and walking down the gravel beds where they once snaked along, endless rusty spines, I can’t help but feel sad. Like with many towns in the Midwest, here, too, trains were once a big part of the picture, chugging through daily on their ways west, north, east, south. Carrying the produce from the local farms, the limestone from local quarries, and the timber from the old-growth forests (all gone now). The state motto of Indiana is “The Crossroads of America,” due to its strategic placement directly in the path of people going other places. But things, inevitably, change. Now this is flyover country.
The city grew and breathed with the university. It was founded as a seminary school in 1820, and became Indiana University in 1838. Something like 40,000 students attend annually, making up nearly half of the town, keeping the median age low and the political atmosphere liberal. It makes this small, white, Indiana city startlingly multicultural: how many comparably-sized towns around here have a mosque and a Buddhist monastery? It also helps the local alcohol industry turn a tidy profit, and feeds the imagination of the basketball nuts.
Personally, I wouldn’t be here without IU. My grandparents lived in a meadow on campus in 1949, in army barrack converted to student housing after the war. After my mother’s oldest sister was born, they qualified for their own place, their very first own place: a tiny round trailer where icicles formed on the inside curve of the walls in winter, over the baby’s crib. Still no running water. My grandpa, who’d gotten through the Depression as a kid by raising rabbits to eat, was now a handsome young man going to school on the GI Bill, working three jobs and somehow still managing to procreate. On the weekends he’d bring home extra money from card games, winning easily at poker because he was the only man there who wasn’t drinking. My grandma worked at the RCA factory gluing rubber on the inside of radios, one more pert young girl in a long line of pert young girls along a conveyer belt. They hired women because they were better at the detail work, with their smaller, finer hands. It was a time of aluminum-shiny post-war optimism, it was a time of newlyweds and magic.
There is an affordable housing crisis in town. So many students crammed into such a small area of the city means no houses and apartments are left for the townies. The working-class folk employed in the service sector are pushed out to the edges of town. The luckier ones have a car or a bus pass and can get into the city to their jobs in the morning.
See, Bloomington-Home-of-Indiana-University has a quieter Siamese twin, Bloomington-the-Southern-Indiana-Town-Whose-Factories-are-Closing. Factories like the one where my grandmother worked fifty years ago. The industries that used to support this town— electronics, elevators, furniture, limestone quarrying— are slowing down and drying up. Head out west of the affluent downtown, away from rich college kids driving cars their daddies bought them, away from stores that sell organic avocados to university professors, and you’ll see the rest of the story. Trailer parks and soup kitchens, houses with no running water and overgrown yards full of rusted-out junk. Of all the counties in Indiana, Monroe County has the highest percentage of its population below the poverty line.
Few people realize this. It’s a capricious city that changes when you’re not looking: drive in a straight line and you’ll see the layers shifting and striping away. If you look closely enough.
I once felt like I was too big for this place, wanted to get the hell out of Dodge. I was excited to move away. And then I changed while I was gone, in a number of ways that did and did not have to do with no longer being in Bloomington. In the end I came back: no longer so hopeful, no longer so ambitious, no longer so young, no longer so strong.
I had missed the trees an awful lot. I had missed the hills. It’s funny, I never really felt like I belonged here until I left, and then it hit me, that while I might not be a perfect fit around here I’m probably an even more imperfect fit everywhere else I might get it in my head to go. There’s always something about the place you grew up that infects you.
It has its flaws, but for what it’s worth, I love Bloomington.