I made a quick trip back to my hometown of Appleton, Wisconsin over the weekend. The occasion was my nephew's baptism.
Typically, it's not a quick trip from my current home in the suburbs of the Twin Cities to Appleton, Wisconsin. According to Yahoo Maps, it is 296.8 miles from my house to St. John's Church in Little Chute, Wisconsin, the neighboring town where the baptism actually took place. It used to be a pretty tough trip, because for many years there wasn't an adequate east-west highway going across the northern half of the state of Wisconsin. For reasons that I've never really been able to determine, when the interstate highway system was developed, the Fox River Valley was not part of the system. And to this day, Appleton, which had an official population of over 72,000 people in the 2000 census, is still not served by an interstate highway. Green Bay, which lies 30 miles to Appleton's northeast, got an interstate in the 1970s, but otherwise the most significant infrastructure change in the last 50 years hasn't touched Appleton at all.
Despite this, Appleton and the other towns along the Fox River have largely thrived over the years. Appleton is a very prosperous town with a manufacturing base largely built on paper mills. Even though we seen the heralding of an increasingly paperless society over the past 20-30 years, there's still a lot of paper around and that is not going to change.
The city continues to reinvent itself. The main drag in town, College Avenue, was once the center of commerce in town. When I left for college in the early 80s, you could find four department stores downtown -- Sears, J.C. Penney, Gimbel's and Prange's. Prange's was a big store for a small town, with 6 floors of shopping and a bargain basement. There were also dozens of clothing stores, jewelers and other shops along the street. About 25 years ago, a huge regional mall was built on the outskirts of town. Now, all the department stores are long gone from downtown and while there are a few merchants with storefronts on the streets, College Avenue is no longer a retail destination. The mall won that battle, but downtown Appleton has now become very different place, with a performing arts center, hotels and an array of nightspots that draw visitors from all over the state of Wisconsin.
I've been to a number of towns in the Midwest that are pretty depressing places. Rockford, Illinois is a very sad town, as is South Bend, Indiana, to say nothing of Beloit, Wisconsin, where I went to college. There's a sense that time has passed these places by and that they aren't coming back. Appleton isn't like that. You can see that Appleton is alive and thriving. It's a happy thing.