ESSAYS FROM WEST OF 98: POOR TOWNS AND DIRTY TOWNS, REVISITED

By James M. Decker 

Author’s note: In the coming weeks, thanks to partnership between Reclaiming Stamford and the City of Stamford, the Stamford, Texas community will launch a new wave of demolishing abandoned and dilapidated houses within the community. This was the second-ever edition of “Essays from West of 98.” I thought it would be appropriate to share the back story on this project, for folks who might be new to my essays or who are interested in following a new campaign of beautification.

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In 2005, a group of Stamford citizens formed a beautification coalition that would come to be known as “Reclaiming Stamford.” Since then, this volunteer group has demolished over 100 dilapidated structures in Stamford, sponsored numerous cleanup days, and eliminated over a dozen illegal dumpsites. But one sentence uttered by my father in an early meeting has resonated throughout the years and stuck with me ever since:

“You can’t always choose whether you’re a poor town, but you can choose whether you’re a dirty town.”

Stamford and similar rural communities have certain challenges that are no secret to any of us. Suburban sprawl is too far away to grow our own populations and tax bases. Oil booms, the fuel for much West Texas success, can be fleeting and unpredictable and have largely evaded some of our communities. Stereotypical “old money,” to the extent that it ever existed, becomes fragmented or detached from the community as it passes down through multiple generations.

These are some of the reasons that might cause difficulty for a rural community to maintain or achieve prosperity. A town that lacks growth and the financial resources to improve its situation may well be called a “poor” town. And yet, none of these challenges are an acceptable excuse to be a “dirty” town.

When an outsider drives through a poor town, they might not see shiny new retail businesses or freshly-paved streets, but the existing improvements might be maintained with care. What about a dirty town? Are the streets and sidewalks overgrown with weeds? Does trash collect on every street and vacant lot? Are broken street signs and park equipment left to linger for months? Are city codes properly enforced?

Bringing in new retail investment or building new streets can be a substantial financial challenge. But what about pulling weeds, picking up trash, fixing street signs and park equipment, and enforcing city codes? Those are all a choice.

If rural community leaders desire a better future, then outside growth and investment will surely be necessary. But does your town actually attract outsiders? When an outsider passes through, what do they see? Do they see a town doing its best with what it has, or do they see a town that has made the choice to be dirty? That choice suggests whether a community cares enough to make their place desirable. Without visible community pride from current residents, it’s hard to expect much enthusiasm from outsiders.

What do you see in your town? And will you be part of the choice to make it something better?

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James Decker is a lawyer, farmer, and mayor in Stamford, Texas, and the creator of the forthcoming “West of 98” podcast and website. He may be contacted through Facebook at facebook.com/james.decker. Listen to our podcast interview with James here.

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