In 1979, the University of California at Irvine was fairly new and still small by the standards of that region. Santa Ana College, a two-year school just 20 miles to the north, was time and a half larger than KU, while UCI was more the size of Fort Hays State. I took a photography class, taught by a staffer from the L.A. Times. My classmates included one slightly younger Hispanic man and a collection of very pleasant suburban women. After the other man showed his final presentation, I said, "Crow Village," and he nodded. In the background of one of his shots, the letters "CVR" had been spray painted on a stucco wall. It was evident that no one else in the room knew what we were talking about. Now, as then, it is likely that the real housewives of Orange County are largely unaware of the location or even the existence of such neighborhoods. In most any community, regardless of size, only a few live in new houses. The rest of us, whether by choice or by circumstance, make our homes in older structures.
By the 1980s, we had moved to the tiny little town of Wichita, making frequent trips to Garden City to visit my parents. On one such commute, my beautiful wife pointed at a home quite some distance from the highway. "Oh look, they've painted that house." To which I replied, "What town are we in?"
On a recent trip back to Wichita, I passed through Greensburg for the first time since the storm. Seemingly they had gotten a lot of national attention and help from both ends of the political spectrum. The Bush league saw a chance for a do-over, to make up for their callous lack of response to New Orleans after Katrina. The lefties were probably more enamored with the town's name than with the town itself. In the sixties, we had a similar fascination with Zap, North Dakota. Based on all I'd heard, I approached with a kind of excitement, expecting to find some new version of Tomorrowland; only to discover that even now there is very little to hang a memory on. The hospital is still operating out of trailers. The recently built Dillon's and Kwik Shop combination must truly be a blessing. The hometown desire to re-build, and even the utopian vision of a "greener" Greensburg should not be discouraged, but the true ecology of any town includes those stick-framed carbon-emitting structures where most of us, whether by choice or by circumstance, choose to live. Most people live in old houses, and nobody knows how to build those. Re-growing Greensburg will take time.
In spite of my admitted lack of observational skills, one thing there was hard to miss. On a highway that is still nearly devoid of businesses (or buildings) stands one towering monument to irony. Greensburg, Kansas has a Chevrolet dealership.
My first car was a Packard. Larry Moore, the boy next door, usually had enough wax on his old Studebaker to make it look like a rolling candlestick. It was a happy day when my dad sold off that dumb old car and I got my first Ford. If that Packard is still out there somewhere, it is now worth more in collector dollars than the Ford I currently drive. (Hang on to your granny's dumb old Impala; it may be worth more than your Roth IRA someday.) No company should be too big to fail, and it's fair to say that if General Motors goes the way of Packard and Studebaker, then no dealer anywhere will be able to sell you a new Chevy. Secondly, the way General Motors and Chrysler have handled this mess is not so very different than the way most retail corporations operate. Decisions about what's going to happen in the vast majority of chain stores here in Kansas are made by people who've never been to Kansas, and who have no real understanding of the dynamics of a small town economy. The person who killed off your dealership will never have to look you in the eye.
Greensburg currently seems to be surviving on symbolism. Undoubtedly there are some franchise car dealers who will be more than happy to say goodbye to Chrysler and General Motors, and then move on to new opportunities. For those who choose to stand and fight, perhaps Greensburg can be your Alamo. In any event, I hope some intrepid Telegram reporter will follow up on this story. It will be interesting to see if that lonesome little car dealer has survived the second storm.
John Dailey, a Telegram contributing columnist, is the owner of Sandhill Books. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.