Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette: A Mostly Affectionate Account of a Small Town’s Fight to Survive
© 2003 Bill Kauffman
Bill Kauffman, as a kid, went places. Starting from a little town in upstate New York, he journeyed as far afield as Los Angeles and D.C., for a time serving on the staff of a Democratic senator. Then, disillusioned, he returned home and started lobbing colorful grenades at those very places, becoming an ardent champion of local cultures and places over homogeneity and the politics of Big. Although much of his writing has concerned localism within America in general — celebrating regional literature, for instance, or chronicling with joy the history of self-rule movements in the US – he often makes allusions to the place he has called his home, and in Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette he looks at it fully.
Batavia, NY, is not Mayberry. From Kauffman’s writings both here and elsewhere, it’s a place whose downtown was gutted by “Urban Renewal”, whose businesses were shuttered after the big box stores arrived in the periphery, and it’s had its share of ethnic conflict between Italians, English-types, and a few black immigrants. But when Kauffman looks at Batavia, he looks at through eyes of love: “It ain’t much, but it’s better than nothin.'” “Nothing” is what prevails today — in rootless politicians and tycoons whose detachment makes it much easier for them to act like brutes in power. Distanced from the consequences of their actions, they deal in ideas and abstractions. Consequences, whether they be blown-up weddings in Yemen or dead towns in Ohio, are a far-off notion. Within these Dispatches, Kauffman celebrates local figures, some of whom are known abroad, like John Gardener. Kauffman also recounts the decline of Batavia’s downtown, shares quirky stores from its past like a sudden rush of anti-Mason hatred, and hails its locally-owned ballclub. All this is not just flavor or local color, because mixed within the recollection is reflection. Kauffman values his local team not for some sentimental attachment to baseball (though there is that), but for the fact that his town owns that team. When so much of Batavia has been lost to the bulldozers of progress (“progress” is always a four-letter in a Kauffman book), the ball club is a locus for continuity, tying generations together. Young attendees become older players and then — in their maturity — may sit on the board that manages the team. Kauffman himself served as a president. Likewise, in the chapter on a few local politicians, Kauffman ruminates on the vast gulf between local voting and national voting. Politics matters at the local level, and elections can swing on a single vote, and the people put into office are close enough to keep accountable. (“Close enough to kick”, as GK Chesterton put it).
Although a book like this only seems to be of interest to those who live in Batavia, or at leas Gennessee County, I don’t think that’s the case. Batavia’s is an American story; I’ve never found a town yet whose downtown wasn’t riddled with shuttered buildings or proud buildings reduced to yet another parking lot, and cookie-cutter sprawl camped nearby. All Americans are affected by the distance of DC, even those with the misfortune of living near the Virginia-Maryland border, and estrangement and frustration with the system seem to increase every year. Even if we can’t fix the system — and I know of no polity in history which has passed into empire and then restored itself — we can still within the span of our lives re-turn our attention to what matters — our places, our families, our quirks and histories. It may not be much, but it’s better than nothing.