Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher

Here in the homeland

Today I’m in sub-freezing, wet south Louisiana, where I flew yesterday from Phila. I’m picking up a couple of pieces of furniture from my mom and dad’s place, and driving it back to Dallas in the morning in a U-Haul. You can imagine how excited I am about driving a 14-foot moving van eight hours on an icy road. I’ve already slightly injured my back again loading the stuff this morning, but at least I got something good out of it: our neighbor Mr. Ronnie, who helped me hoist the furniture into the van, shared with me his recipe for his potliquor soup, which is great stuff I had once at his camp on the creek. So there’s that.

I’ve also got to give a speech tonight at the local Chamber of Commerce banquet. I hope people show up; not only is the weather abysmal, but tonight’s the national college football championship game. Alabama vs. Texas. Personally, I’m undecided. Naturally, I want to support the SEC champion. But I live in Texas and more to the point, am married to a UT graduate. Please do advise. I confess that I’m supporting ‘Bama … until I cross the Louisiana-Texas border tomorrow, in which case: Hook ’em, Horns!


It’s been a bit of a struggle trying to figure out what to say to local folks tonight. I want to say something meaningful, but I haven’t lived here regularly since 1983. So I don’t have a lot of credibility. On the other hand, a lot of the things that have happened here over the past 20 to 30 years, and are happening right now, play into the themes I write about a lot: a sense of place, the role of “progress” in changing a place, the inevitability of change, the role of economic structures and human choices in establishing the character of a place, and so forth.

West Feliciana Parish, where I’m from and from where I write today, is still largely rural. It’s one of the most beautiful places in Louisiana, and historically significant too (lots of plantation houses around here). But there are fewer people living here today than 100 years ago. The consumer economy is less diverse today than it was when I was a child, and far less diverse than when my parents were children. As beautiful and as wonderful in many ways as life is here, there aren’t many jobs for the young. It’s fine to talk about the need to build up your community, to stay in place and all that, but you’ve got to be able to provide for your kids. This is something the parish and its leaders, both political and in private industry, are grappling with: how to grow economically so it’s economically feasible for families to remain here across the generations, while also preserving what is essential about the local culture and character?


There is no formula for this, and as an outsider it’s not my place to tell people here what policies they ought to be following. The solution, if there is to be a solution, is going to have to be worked out by local people — the people who have to live with the consequences of their decisions. But in my speech tonight, I’m going to suggest a broad framework for thinking through this challenge. I think it’s the best I can do.

Strange to think about the kind of speech you would give if you were given the opportunity to address an audience in your hometown. I’m giving a particular kind of speech tailored to this particular hometown audience, but it’s interesting to think about what I would say if asked to address a general audience here in the place I grew up in. How about you? If you had the chance to spend half an hour talking to a representative office in your hometown, what would you say? Why would you say it? What would you leave out?

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posted January 7, 2010 at 5:32 pm

I’d talk pros and cons. I grew up in Mobile. I’d pay homage to what I learned about graciousness, about being a good neighbor, about hard work, about loving and serving God, about field peas and Greens! (in your case etoufee). I’d say the things I had to overcome was the stifling attitude about race, and about outsiders. That I’m happy that part of the old south is dying

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posted January 7, 2010 at 5:39 pm

Just because you are living in Texas doesn’t mean to you have to support the Longhorns. In fact, not supporting them is a very Texan thing to do.
Gig ‘Em Tide!

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Your Name

posted January 7, 2010 at 10:03 pm

“The consumer economy is less diverse today than it was when I was a child, and far less diverse than when my parents were children.”
Rod, could you expand on this a bit? Clearly, I am not familiar with the area, but I can imagine northern Wisconsin in the 50s through 70s. Yes, most of the local stores have closed. However, an individual town would not have that much. One town had a bakery, another a clothing store, etc. A town would usually have a grocery store of sorts, imagine a 7-11 with with a meat department and fresh (in season) vegetables. I would not consider the consumer economy more diverse then. You went into town to choose from their slim choices, or you drove to the city where there was selection and price. People made the second choice, and the local businesses could not compete, either on price or selection.

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posted January 8, 2010 at 12:26 am

I grew up in a small densely populated city immediately across the river from Manhattan. After Castro the city became the locus of the Cuban flight to the US and my childhood was colored by all the resentment and the changes that occurred with a growing Hispanic population. The city is unrecognizable to me now but is thriving. The main street is full of small hispanic stores – no more vacancies. Homes have been renovated, new schools built. Not a square inch of space anywhere though and traffic makes navigating the place frustrating and there are flashing neon signs all over. The one regret I do have about all these changes is that a sense of the cities history seems totally unimportant to people and a number of historic buildings were happily demolished. I can’t imagine anyone there now who would even care to hear from a former citizen. One thing that maintains the small family owned businesses is that traffic in the area is so bad (the Lincoln Tunnel cuts through the city) that it is difficult to get to the big box stores and malls that are outside the city. So people still patronize the smaller businesses.
What I do miss from living in that community in my childhood are things like the family run bakeries – which tended to be ethnic. There was a Swiss bakery (lindzer torts being a specialty), an Italian bakery that made bread to die for, and a German bakery that had the best Black Forest cake. Everything fresh and baked on the premises. Those sorts of shops aren’t around much anymore. The greengrocers – whole stores that sold nothing but crates of veggies and fresh fruit are something else I miss too. Even small dress shops which catered to a particular demographic – like older woman with more conservative tastes – are harder to find. I think this is the sort of consumer diversity Rod is speaking of.
I think if the concerns about stuff like peak oil and an enduring economic downturn turn out to be accurate then a lot of communities are in deep trouble.

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posted January 8, 2010 at 1:57 am

I don’t have a hometown. 😉

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posted January 8, 2010 at 11:22 am

I don’t know what I would say to people in my hometown of Syracuse, New York. I was born in 1980, and Syracuse was already several decades into its inexorable decline. My grandparents could remember well the good years, but they are no longer with us. I was sad to learn recently that Webers restaurant, one of the last holdouts from the old German North Side, has closed its doors. The fabulous basilica my great-great grandparents were married in is barely hanging on with one sparsely attended mass a week.

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David J. White

posted January 8, 2010 at 1:58 pm

Just because you are living in Texas doesn’t mean to you have to support the Longhorns. In fact, not supporting them is a very Texan thing to do.
It’s pretty much the same in Ohio, where I’m from. Aside from Ohio State alumni, I don’t think very many people in Ohio, outside Columbus, support the Buckeyes.

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Steve Jones

posted January 8, 2010 at 4:55 pm

For your concern about talking to the folks back home. Your talk was excellent and very much to the point. I am going to request that the local television station run it several times so that the general public gets to hear it. I think it had just the right mix of wisdom, practicality and humor.
Change can be a very fearful force and it can paralyze the best of us, individually, as well as a total community. But change is life and my body is telling me that each day. It is the fear we have to overcome and work through so that we can save that which is valuable. The task is to work through the fear to understand that which is valuable and that which is not. Fear and lack of understanding are the components that blur the lines between good and bad.
Your talk was great.
Hope you made it back to Texas safely and the SEC did win the National Championship again, which makes the world a better place.
As for home, it is that place that a shrimp po-boy taste like a shrimp po-boy and grits are a must at breakfast.

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Your Name

posted January 8, 2010 at 11:34 pm

Rod, don’t know what I would tell the people from my hometown. But I have thought about it often over the years. I grew up in a rural area near the Quad-Cities (Rock Island-Moline, Illinois; Davenport-Bettendorf, Iowa) An organized labor town. UAW. Home of John Deere. Caterpillar just down the road in Peoria. International Harvester and Case. (Both now gone.) Left in the early ’80s. An area that has seen economic constriction. I probably would tell them what I did during the ten years after my return from college and graduate school. Attempt to maintain educational excellence. Attract a branch of your state university. Watch for national trends. Keep close attention to the movements of educated populace within our nation. THAT is a key indicator. And above all, do not be complacent in prosperity. In the international currents of commerce of our day, it can change dramatically in a very short amount of time.

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