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Better late than never

By Joseph Darter

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[January 20, 2014]  I know the uproar from the NPR article has mostly died down, so this article may seem just a touch out of date, but I have come to some realizations that I would like to share.

I moved out of Lincoln in the fall of 2002 and have lived in East Peoria since then. I used to think that I was one of the lucky ones who made it out, but as the years have passed by, I am beginning to question why I thought that. What caused me to think that? Was I overcompensating for something my life in East Peoria was failing to provide? I think I might have been doing just that. It is never easy to critically think about your own life, but if I am to be honest about where I want to go in life, I have to be honest about where I have been.

My upbringing was unusual because I lived with my mom, sister, aunt and grandmother, but I think that is precisely why I had such a good upbringing. My aunts and uncles were always around, and my cousins were some of the best friends that I ever had. My mother and aunt worked like dogs to provide for us, and our life was good. We had our ups and downs like any family, but what kept our heads above water was the fact that we relied on each other. My family was spread out across Lincoln and stretched out to Latham, but the stop signs and miles that separated us never seemed to matter. We helped each other when times were good and when times were bad. We helped each other with electioneering. We helped each other when one of us was sick. We worked together, and to put it simply, we were an average family. We were like most of the people in Lincoln who helped out friends and neighbors when they needed help. The town of Lincoln provided the atmosphere that my upbringing provided. I cannot separate my family life with my life in Lincoln. The two will forever be linked together.

When I think of Lincoln now, I think of the empty buildings up and down Woodlawn. I think of the way the street that I grew up on has gone downhill. I see the infrastructure crumbling beneath the tires of my car. Rightly or wrongly, I used to think of people who stayed as being trapped with no better options. On my trips down Interstate 155, I used to thank the Almighty that I was one of the lucky ones who was spared from a lifetime of living in Lincoln.

I think my years of aversion to Lincoln have a lot to do with the death of my mother when I was 21 years old. I had a very difficult time with it. In a short time span, my sister had moved out of town, my mother passed away and my aunt moved away to start her own life. When my aunt moved away, our family home became a fortress against the responsibilities that awaited me. I was left to my own devices, and I simply was not ready for the responsibility. I made horrible decisions that cost me a tremendous amount of pain as well as a tremendous amount of money. I had hitched my problems to Lincoln and had blamed the town for my problems and events that were out of my control. The first 20 years of my life had been hard, but I was relatively happy, and then in a few short years, I had lost it all. I lashed out against myself but blamed the town. Time has allowed me to view myself and Lincoln differently.

When I left Lincoln, I did not like myself, at least not to the point that I do now. I left Lincoln alone and with no friends in my new town. I moved to East Peoria because of a job promotion that I took as a way to start over again. I thought that my life would be different because I had left a dying and decaying town behind. I began to feel smug and thought that I was somehow just a little bit better because now I could look down upon those poor Lincolnites.

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So you can understand my unadulterated glee that I felt when I started to read the article by NPR about the state of small-town America. I would ask, often rhetorically, "Why can't these people in Lincoln understand that she is using Lincoln as a metaphor?"

I think what caused the article to have such an impact was that it seemed to come out of left field. The people were caught unaware. Like me, the people of Lincoln were a little too close to the trees and therefore could not see the forest. The NPR story was accurate and the facts cannot be argued against. Crime has risen; unemployment is a huge problem as well as drugs. The people of Lincoln cannot bury their heads in the sand to these problems. The town of Lincoln, and to be more to the point, the city government of Lincoln, has failed in some way to each citizen. There is a shortage of new ideas in Lincoln, and that is directly tied to the one-party system that Lincoln has had for the last 60 years. The spark of new ideas cannot happen in a vacuum, and this is where we find ourselves. One party has had an uninterrupted rule for decades now.

This has led to the stagnation that was so easily pointed out by NPR. I know when I speak with my fellow liberals, I quickly become bored because it is no fun just agreeing with another version of me. I need to be challenged. I need to have someone hold my feet to the fire. This is why I love to talk politics with Republicans. I love to feel my brain firing on all cylinders. This doesn't happen when I am in a room full of people just like me. Oh sure, the occasional good idea may spring forth, but most of the time it doesn't. A new dynamic is needed to breathe life into this old city.

The town cannot survive on past accomplishments, and a new way should be demanded by the people. If the city wants to reverse the image that was painted by NPR, new ideas are needed and they are needed quickly. What I see when I drive into town is real. The 15-year-olds who sell drugs are real too. Getting upset at an article doesn't do anyone any good.

It is true that Lincoln is a wonderful town and that a few bad apples do not deserve the right to tarnish the whole bunch. I loved the small-town living that Lincoln provided me. But just as I knew that my life wasn't what I wanted, Lincoln has to ask itself the same questions that I asked myself. Is Lincoln the way that the people want it? I would guess that the answer would be no. I now know that I viewed Lincoln through the eyes of an angry young man. I didn't realize when I lived in Lincoln that I had the power to change. It wasn't easy to do, but slowly, I was able to change the parts of me that I no longer liked. If Lincoln wants to be successful again, they have to acknowledge past mistakes, take responsibility and change the parts that they no longer like. Lincoln will not survive if the city council remains to view the town through the eyes of an angry old man.


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