A Tale of Two Towns in Transition

'FAR From Home" is a tale of two very different towns in the 1980s. Cairo, Ill., is bust in the rust belt. Kent, Conn., is flush in postcard New England. The author, Ron Powers, accents the contrast by alternating chapters on each. Yet his common approach to the towns unveils a common theme: He sees economics and vulgarity endangering all American towns, and thereby the mythic community they represent in the collective conscience.Located at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, Cairo was born of speculation, overwrought with river riffraff, and racked by racial strife. It never was nice; now that its industry has fled, it's worse. Powers paints a picture of squalor - of broken windows and greasy spoons. Puritan settlers made Kent an agrarian idyll of simple architecture and manicured fields. Its denizens grew stolid and connected. In the '80s, yuppies lurching northward from New York City in search of second homes created a land boom and problems for Kent. Powers draws his premise from his own childhood. He believes America is rooted in small, stable communities where nature is a presence rather than a backdrop, and enduring proximity binds people together. More important, towns are a refuge from urban sprawl, which Powers says is growing unbearable. But will the towns be there when Americans finally hit that country road? Powers fears not. "Far From Home" chronicles the community groups that emerged to address the predicaments of Cairo and Kent. The contrast is striking. Cairo's activists sport bouffant hairstyles and wear polyester. Their leader resembles the Music Man. Their creed is salesmanship. Kent's activists are genteel. They gather at dinner parties to support low-density zoning. Their aim is to keep Kent's wealth and countryside intact. Each town plays to its past, but neither wants it back. Cairo's past was seamy. Kent's was mar ginal farming. Cairo wants to airbrush its history. Kent wants controlled growth. Powers says both efforts are futile. His doleful insight is that small towns no longer hold a place in the United States economy. There is only the urban juggernaut, which either bypasses or engulfs a town. Cairo has been bypassed, leaving both industrial plants and people to rot. A remnant group in the town crosses race and class lines to plot Cairo's redemption. They settle on a riverboat theme park, a prettified diorama of a river city. But they can't raise the money. Consultants offend by preferring an industrial waste dump or a large truck stop. Ultimately, speculators and politicians dismiss the riverboat park in favor of riverboat gambling. Kent is being consumed. Some farmers cash in, starting a cycle of higher taxes and higher land prices. More farmers sell out, and strip malls arrive. Outsiders bring their vices, and once they reach a critical mass, their impersonality. The recession slows but does not stem the tide. An Americana reporter for CBS News, Powers worked out of New York City before burning out and moving to Vermont. This book stews in personal angst, yet Powers remains more reporter than thinker. He reports what he sees, hears, reads, and above all, feels. His observations have implications, but they remain undeveloped. Powers's account will appeal most to urbane Americans. But the book is relevant for other readers also because it radiates the unease with American life that many citizens share. Communities have dissipated. Neighbors have become strangers. Americans find themselves far from home.

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