Trust Lessons from Independence Day in Small Town USA, 2009

In Ludington, Michigan, on July 3 at 9:30PM, it was still light outdoors (Ludington is at the far western end of the Eastern Standard Time Zone).  So it was easy to see the ten blocks of Ludington Avenue, ending at Lake Michigan, where the next day’s parade would be held. 

Two things stood out.  One was that the street had been planted with edgings of red, white and blue petunias, especially for the fourth.

The other was that virtually the length of the parade route, at 9:30PM, was already blanketed (literally, with blankets) and personal lawn chairs (some of them rather expensive) by way of reserving those particular spots for the 1PM parade beginning on the 4th.  

No one had any doubt that every one of those chairs would be there the next day.  No locks, police patrols or citizen brigades needed, thank you very much.

Nor would that be surprising to Ludington’s citizens.  By a (very) unscientific poll, well over 50% of Ludington households don’t lock their house doors at night.  Of course, Ludington is only 20% the size of the Big City of Muskegon, 50 miles away.  But I suspect it’s not all that different in Muskegon. 

The July 4th parade in small towns in America’s Midwest is a distinctive event.  Having been to parades in my youth in towns like Seward, Nebraska and Pompey, New York, I can personally relate, despite having been citified for a few decades since.

The Fourth happens at a glorious time in the calendar, when summer is just hitting full stride.  It is unabashedly patriotic, small-d-democratic, self-congratulatory, and wildly upbeat.  Half the town marches in the parade (fire trucks, beauty queens, conservation groups, HVAC companies, mayors, school bands, veterans and—in Ludington’s case—the Scotville Clown Band, since 1903), and the other half applauds enthusiastically.  All generations are represented, all consuming copious quantities of ice cream and pop (‘soda’ to you ‘coasters). OK maybe a few beers too.  And it’s curious that the celebration of independence is such a community, collaborative affair.

You can get all fancy with trust—and I do, the rest of the year—but it bears noting that there is one simple, in your face, no-BS version of trust in towns like this. 

You can leave your car and house doors unlocked.  ‘Nuff said.

You just don’t do that in South Orange, New Jersey; which is a small town, by the way.  Nor do you do it in most cities I know of.  Fuggedaboutit. 

For those (including me) who live in lock-the-door areas, it has a faint whiff of the naïve about it.  But not to those who live in no-lock towns.  It’s real.  I know, because I remember what it was like, and I got reminded of it again this 4th.

To be fair, there are some social reasons for this.  No-lock towns usually rank very low in diversity, which means everyone feels like they understand everyone else, and they pretty much do — people most easily trust those whom they most resemble.  In small towns, the degrees of separation are very small.  And I suspect (though without data) that the population is fairly stable.  This all makes it pretty easy to trust, to preach trustworthiness, and to enforce both.

I personally resent Governor Palin and others attempting to politically hijack small town values for their own divisive purposes.  I equally resent big city people who look down on small town folk as unsophisticated; they are sadly misinformed. 

But all that’s talk for another time.  On the Fourth of July, in a small midwestern town in the US of A, the glory of what it is like to live in a trusting, interconnected community is on full display.

And along with the sunburn and too many hot dogs, it makes you feel real good.