Tuesday, November 8, 2011

A Bit Frayed Around the Edges

My husband’s relatives visited this summer. Between our two families, we can’t travel in one vehicle so they followed us home from our evening destination. I chose the route carefully. Down this street, turn this way, then that way. I looked in the rearview mirror. Darn it. I lost them.

Left on their own in Tarkio, they could easily find their way back. But what they might see of our little town….well let’s just say we don’t always put our best foot forward.


Tarkio has had a rough 30 years. The beef packing plant which hired in the thousands closed first, followed closely by the burning of the Mule Barn (our own historic and theatrical landmark). Just a few years later, Tarkio College, a small liberal arts college, closed its doors taking with it several hundred students and its highly educated staff. Just when things seemed to have stabilized, Tarkio Academy, the youth correctional facility that made its home in the empty campus, pulled up stakes in 2005. An economy built around these mainstays crumbled. The aftermath…an empty college campus, empty stores on Mainstreet and close to 100 empty houses in our city streets.

Missouri winters and summers didn’t take long to do their work on those abandoned properties. Paint peeled, shingles blew away and weeds grew. Soon our little Mayberry started looking a bit frayed around the edges. The hardships of the last 30 years could no longer be hidden. We had a problem on our hands.

In some areas of the world, tickets are written, court appearances made, contractors called and buildings demolished. There are rules about house color, dumpster spacing, bush planting and parking. A quick call to the zoning board, homeowners association or city council will take care of your wayward neighbor. Soon your problem will be fixed and your property value protected.

Small towns are often labeled as being intolerant. Slow to change. Yes. Intolerant? Hardly! You see, we can’t ticket that house. She just lost her job. He is disabled and they won’t be able to paint. He’s owned that business for 30 years. She is storing her late Grandma’s antiques in that old family home. They are working on that house, but there’s no money. His house is a mess, but he is a member of my church….like family.

Don’t get me wrong, we take pride in our town, but we also take pride in our neighborhood. Being a neighbor means sacrificing your own wants for the needs of others and putting yourself in their shoes before passing judgment or writing tickets. As a result, we look a little shabby and we might for quite a while. But I’ll take a dose of neighborly compassion sprinkled with some tolerance any day over privacy fences and 5 colors of beige.

We are dealing with our issues in the most neighborly fashion we can. We’ve started a non-profit which collects donations for the removal of dilapidated and dangerous buildings and sponsors beautification projects. We move painfully slow waiting for someone to volunteer their property and ask us to help, but we have been successful. Over 25 properties have been cleaned up. New land has been added to the City Park and we started a program where we offer FREE LOTS for stick built homes.

We have a long way to go, but we are proud of the progress we have made. A few new businesses have located here in the last 6 years and a few new coats of paint have made their appearances. We move slowly, we consider the person first and we work as team to make our community a better place. It’s not quick and we may never be Mayberry again, but where we fall short in perfection we make up for with compassion and tolerance.

So if you are a local, make a donation to Tarkio Renewal and help us make a difference. You can read how to do that in the Tarkio Avalanche this week and next. If you aren’t, the next time you drive through my small town, put a name and story to each one of those homes with or without the picket fence or paint job. You can be assured that we have.

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