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May 24, 2008 - 11:58am

Contemplating Bill Kauffman's Batavia

posted by Howard B. Owens in batavia, thebatavian, bill kauffman.

I've been thinking of my old home town in Southern California this morning, and Batavia.

If it seems odd that I would be thinking of two towns 3,000 miles apart, thank Bill Kauffman.

Yesterday, I sumbled upon a pair of essays Kauffman wrote in 1991 about Batavia. Here's Part I, and here's the Conclusion of "Back to Batavia."

For Kauffman, Batavia has gone to ruin -- grand old buildings destroyed, venerable local stores shuttered and chains, corporations and big media pulling residents away from a pace of life that was seemingly more connected, more rooted.

Everywhere In Batavia I found small independent businesses in retreat. The Tops grocery chain has opened a super store on West Main, and all those little corner grocers, where at three o'clock the kids liberated from school, bought pretzel sticks and Bazooka Joes and Red Hot Dollars, all those Lamberts and Wandryks and Says and Borrellis are gone, gone, gone. Mr. Quartley just died, and the Platens are hanging on, barely. And now Tops has a pizza oven, and a Domino's just opened in the K Mart Plaza, so Pontillo's and Arena's and Ficarella's and Starvin' Marvin, you'd better dig in and fight. Or maybe it would just be easier to sell out, pack the wife and kids into a U-Haul, and slink down to Florida—to a trailer-park reservation with all the other white Indians.

Kauffman calls himself a localist.  I knew very little of Kauffman before we launched The Batavian, but in an odd way -- a way I'm sure he would find very odd indeed -- he might be our godfather, or at least a good touchstone of what we need to be about.

One of Kauffman's complaints is that modern New Yorkers know little of their regional literature, so rather than assume that Batavians know who Kauffman is, let me supply some background. 

Kauffman was born in Batavia in 1959 (which makes us roughly the same age). He is a writer of books and essays, mostly on politics, social and cultural issues from a conservative/libertarian bent (which makes us roughly aligned, though there seem to be many specifics on which we diverge).  His most famous book seems to be Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette, which is about Batavia. His most recent book is Ain't My America.

Kauffman believes in small town America, and in Batavia.  I've spent my entire journalism career working for small town newspapers.  Community journalism is all I know and all I care about.

I've never said this about myself before, but I guess I'm a localist, too; albeit, one lacking the true small town roots of a Bill Kauffman.

As we've said before in The Batavian, community journalism long ago lost its small town soul.

Kauffman's own analysis isn't far from our own:

The daily newspaper has passed from the Griswolds and the McWains—fine old Republicans, how gentle that Main Street Harding hauteur seems now—to a chain. The chain sent a team of journalism school, degreed outsiders to Batavia, where they patiently instruct us in contemporary etiquette. (Let's get some foreign titles in the video store! What Batavia needs is a nice Mexican restaurant!) The editorial writers are all looking to move up and out, so the paper's leaders feature plenty of "Outlaw Pit Bulls" and "Dwarf-Tossing a National Disgrace" and "A Plan for World Peace" and nary a "Save a County Courthouse."

Yes, The Batavian is owned by a corporation that runs chain newspapers, but the goal of this project is to give back to community journalism its soul.  While neither Philip nor I currently live in Batavia (for myself, I wouldn't mind seeing that change some day, but it doesn't seem at all a realistic possibiility now), the future staff writers of The Batavian will be residents (and we hope native Batavians). 

See, I know what it's like to watch a small town lose itself in its quest for glory and riches.

That old home town I was thinking of this morning was El Cajon, a suburb now of San Diego, but once a two-hour stage coach ride from the big city, so it developed its own identity. 

We didn't move to El Cajon until I was 14, but I knew the town well because most of our extended family lived there.

My dad moved us to El Cajon so he could start a business.  He put me in the same high school he had attended.  Eventually, I would get my first daily newspaper job in El Cajon, and I would start my first entrepreneurial enterprise in El Cajon (an online community news site in 1995, which is in some ways the precursor of The Batavian.).

By the time I launched that online site, the El Cajon of my youth, the quaint small town of the 1960s through early 1980s that I knew, was gone.

The old buildings on Main and Magnolia, gone.  Empty shops dotted what was left of Main Street.

All in the name of urban renewal.

Batavia went through that, too.

Kauffman:

Batavia responded to the demise of Route 5 with an act of parricide unequaled this side of Rumania, where the demonic Ceausescu once waged war on pre-Communist architecture. The city fathers rushed headlong into urban renewal, whereby the federal government paid Batavia to knock down its past: the mansions of the founders, the sandstone churches, the brick shops, all of it (even Dean Richmond's manor, which had become an orphanage financed by Miss Edna, the city's legendary madam with a heart of gold, may she rest in peace.)

Batavia tore out—literally—its five-block heart and filled the cavity with a ghastly mall, a dull gray sprawling oasis in a desert of parking spaces. The mall was a colossal failure, but it succeeded in destroying the last vestiges of our home-run economy. J. C. Penney and Wendy's were in; the Dipson Theater and the Dagwood Restaurant were out. As our chamber of commerce might put it in one of their doggedly goofy brochures, Batavia had entered the global economy.

The mayor who stole El Cajon from me was Joan Shoemaker, who envisioned turning El Cajon -- a smoggy valley populated by factory workers and cowboys -- into the La Jolla of East County, with boutiques, quaint book stores (not that disheveled and dusty 50,000 Books I shopped in throughout high school and college years -- inset picture of now closed bookstore) and "white tablecloth restaurants" (a phrase that will be acid in my ears until I'm an old man).

It's been two years since I visited El Cajon.  Except to see my grandmother, I have no desire to go back.

The city has slipped completely into poverty and waste and ruin.  Joan Shoemaker's vision of an "East County La Jolla" has vanished behind trash on the streets and graffiti on the walls of her strip malls.  A city that once was home to modest people earning a modest living raising their families in quiet and security has been overrun by Section 8 housing and Dollar Tree stores.

Batavia is nothing like that.

And here is where Kauffman and I diverge.  There is still much about Batavia that is local.

Downtown is full of good, locally owned restaurants and stores. While pedestrian traffic is often light, it is not non-existent and plenty of people still seem to frequent the city's core.

Yes, City Center is pretty much a monstrosity, but there is still something left of old Batavia on Main Street. (I wonder if any of the former city leadership who led the charge to destroy all those grand old buildings are still around, and if they would own up to the failure of the project?) (And I should mention, the BID has done a great job with downtown, and expect to see that group yet make something useful out of City Center).

As somebody who comes from 3,000 miles away, a transplant to Western New York who thinks the region is just great and plans to spend many decades living here, I've got to say that I see no reason Batavia can't have a very local present and future.  We hope The Batavian can help encourage a vibrant localism.

And I've got to say, I'm glad I've learned about Bill Kauffman. He is my first open window into literary and historic New York.  In California, I had a grand collection of regional books, and I had explored the state thoroughly.  When I left California with an idea that I would never return, I donated those books to Matt Welch, then an editor with the Los Angeles Times and now editor of Reason Magazine (where Kauffman used to write).  Those books sit on some shelf in the Times building, I'm told. I trust they're in good hands.  Now it's time for me to learn more about, and embrace, my adopted state.

For a visual look back at old Batavia, here is a collection of pictures and one of postcards.

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