Performance Communities

I can’t get the idea of the gnome census out of my head. Don’t get me wrong. I live now in a tourist destination. I love to have people come and visit Nashville and see the Ryman and do the honky tonks and walk around downtown in their cowboy hats (you can always tell the tourists because no one who lives in Nashville wears cowboy hats). And I certainly know our city would be in deep shit if we didn’t have tourism.

But, if I don’t want to be a part of it, I don’t have to be a part of it. I can nap in my hammock or find excuses not to weed or whatever and that doesn’t help or hurt the cause.

What wigs me out so much about Midwestern towns pouring their hopes of saving themselves into becoming tourist destinations by coming up with these kinds of gimmicks–we’re the town with the gnomes! We built our houses of bacon! Or whatever– is that it depends on the performance of as many people as possible.

Now it’s not just that people can go find weird places, but that everyone in that place is expected to perform some weirdness or quirk in order to lure people.

And I think that’s okay. I think. I mean, I like for people to have a way to live where they want to live, you know?

But it weirds me out, too. I wonder if that’s just how towns die. First we were something, then we pretended to be something, and finally we were nothing.

Maybe that’s how life goes, too, the more I think about it.

Anyway, it feels like Disney. Let’s all display ourselves in ways that delight outsiders in order to bring them in and get them to leave their money.

And, like I said, I think that’s fine.  But I wonder, too, you know?

8 thoughts on “Performance Communities

  1. This reminds me of what Rosemarie Garland Thomson has to say about the freak show and displaying the abnormal body as a process of modernity. These Midwestern small towns have been romanticized extensively as ideals of civic life, explicitly for their participatory culture. That was never wholly true, but as fewer and fewer American places have any claim at all on that style of life, the exaggerated displays of participation have had to get bigger and bigger until they are now freakish “here is the town where the locals all wear their underwear on the outside.” What we once beheld in wonder, we revisit in disgust.

    It reminds me of the kid who drinks way too much milk as a stunt at lunchtime to get attention. It might be self-destructive, but at least someone is looking.

  2. Oh, and if you really want to see how this dynamic works, juxtapose the reading of something like Blue Highways by William Least Heat Moon with Travels on the Lost Continent by Bill Bryson. The first book sees the wonder; the second is a one-man show of contempt.

  3. As it happens, I’m traveling to Metropolis, IL tomorrow, the “Birthplace of Superman.”

    Apparently there’s a statue.

    The only reason we’re going there is because it’s within easy driving distance of a family member who lives in a small town, and we’ve exhausted the entertainment value of the area on previous visits.

    I’ll have to be careful about blogging without irony and snark, because my in-laws (who I love) planned the trip so we can surprise a niece who’s a bit of a shut-in.

    If she doesn’t really know who Superman is, it won’t matter, she’ll still be happy to be with family.

    Carefully worded trackback to follow…

  4. Ginny, if you have your traveling shoes on, you might consider a trip to Riverside, IA — future birthplace of Captain James T. Kirk. TrekFest is always the last weekend in June.

  5. The town where I went to high school (but which cannot claim my birthright) styles its tourism draw after its most infamous historical contribution: The Last Ride of the Dalton Gang.

    It is also the home of the heaviest hailstone on record, weighing in at 1.67 lb. (It was the largest on record until 2003.) That and the land-based PCB incinerator aren’t quite the thing that people will go out of their way to go see.

    And believe me, the Dalton Jail isn’t really worth the time…

  6. Bridgett, I really love this idea of “exaggerated displays of participation.” I mean, yeah, if you don’t have the barn raising any more (because people just put up big metal sheds) but you still have the impulse to do big group projects like that, it makes sense to find it directed into strange amusements.

    I guess it’s just the idea of strange amusements FOR THE SAKE OF OUTSIDERS that I just can’t get over.

    And, like Andy suggests, what a place thinks of as their greatest asset and what outsiders might regard as their greatest asset are two different things.

    I don’t know. I guess to me it just is too dependent on this idea of a service industry culture. And what happens when you and all your friends have all seen the gnome town once?

    I guess I see the deaths of these towns as kind of inevitable, but I hate it.

  7. I loves me some good kitschy, quirky promotion, but you do have a point. I’d personally much rather visit someplace authentic than a simulated Disney-fied version. (Besides gnomes creep me out a bit.)

    I’ve worked in tourism in New England for the past few years and understand that a creative hook is sometimes needed to draw visitors to the worthwhile, less sexy venues that might have historical or cultural value.

    For example, people come from around the world to see the witch hubbub at Salem, MA – especially during Oct. & its monthlong celebration of Haunted Happenings. The witchcraft hysteria was a small (and regretable) event in the scheme of all that has happened in this region. Hopefully, once they’ve visited the witch attractions, they’ll also check out the Peabody Essex Museum, National Park Service sites, historical homes, art galleries, coastline and surrounding communities. There’s so much more to see and re-see for both outsiders and locals.

    So, the gnome invasion isn’t my cup of tea (no Boston reference intended), but I applaud the town for coming together and trying to bring in visitors/boost the local economy. And, Andy, if they somehow preserved that hailstone, I’d go a little out of my way to see it.

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