Rails Across America, Part 3
The third installment in a series of Dispatches chronicling Ryan Kim’s journey by rail to small towns across America.
Cadillac, Michigan, is a classic example of a comfortable and modest small middle class American city. It’s the kind of town where telemarketers still call your hotel room phone, young guys shout to you from their cars at the gas station offering to buy your cool suitcase for ten bucks, most all the tourists are other Michiganders (according to the Visitor’s Bureau), and “el pollo mexicano” is pronounced phonetically. The city’s character is defined by its plainness.
For example, Rod, a local business owner and Cadillac native, feels that taxes are reasonable, local government is effective, and the community is cohesive; it’s all pretty simple. Other community members report that the public schools are good and crime is fairly infrequent, besides occasional violence. Contrary to this, however, I met several individuals (usually at restaurants) who reported that a surprising number of meth labs have been uncovered in the past few years. According to a number of folks, the 1990’s arrival of the interstate bypass, which has so badly diminished other communities across America, hardly affected the businesses downtown. And, Economic Development Director Jerry Adams tells me, Cadillac has even managed to weather this past recession with impressive resilience, relying on the three engines of its diversified economy: industry, tourism, and retail. The city I found appears to be hung in complete stasis, appearing to have neither enjoyed much growth or development nor suffered any infrastructural deterioration or depopulation in perhaps decades.
With its hospital, college, well-preserved Victorian neighborhoods, influential historical society, and active visitor’s bureau (which keeps the community calendar filled with public events), Cadillac seems to offer a pleasant life for its residents. I can clearly see why the throngs of tourists have arrived in trailers to camp out and barbeque along the small canal between the two lakes, Lakes Cadillac and Mitchell. Cadillac citizens also have easy access to commercial amenities, ranging from Walmart to world-renown Austrian Chef Hermann Suh’s European Café, a phenomenal restaurant. Furthermore, locally owned businesses like Chef’s have tangibly anchored Cadillac economically and culturally. “Chef” (as he is called), owner of the Café and the inn upstairs where I stayed, told me, “The feeling of hospitality when you travel… that’s what I’m going to protect for the rest of my life.” These are all terrific community assets.
But with all the comfort Cadillac offers, I admit that I was horribly bored as a young and lone traveler. Beyond visiting the historical museum and rounding the lakes, there was really not much more to do but drink coffee and read the daily. Additionally, though many residents defend it strongly, I found Cadillac’s downtown to be marginally attractive and at times very unpleasant to walk. The main street is both noisy and hazardously wide, carrying four lanes of traffic between parking lanes on either side. And though Jerry Adams informs me that the commercial vacancy rate downtown is only eight percent, there seems to be quite a few storefronts that are as empty as the sidewalks. Yet despite my minor criticisms and inclination not to return, the many individuals with whom I spoke throughout the city agree that Cadillac is a good place and the multitudes of visitors corroborate that it’s a good place to visit. If the city can find a way to retain more of its youth, particularly the young males who seem entirely absent, Cadillac will continue to thrive as a prosperous middle class town for decades to come.