Perpetual Garage Sales in Elkhart, Indiana

Sad NY Times article about hard times in Elkhart, Indiana:

To understand just how grim things have gotten in this northern Indiana town, consider a new law passed last month by the City Council that limits residents to one garage sale a month.

It seems the perpetual garage sales — which for scores of people in this town are a sole source of income, and for others the only source of clothing — were annoying some residents. The restrictions will make the financial pinch that much tighter.

“I have no other option,” said Todd Baker, 34, who lost his factory job in July right before his wife gave birth to their third child. Friday was his last permissible day to sell old children’s clothing, muffin tins, a fake white Christmas tree, stereo speakers and dozens of household doodads out of his garage…

Elkhart, near the Michigan border in an area known as Michiana, is the white-hot center of the meltdown of the American economy. Its main industries, the manufacturing of recreational vehicles and motor homes, have fallen apart over the last year because of high gasoline prices. That has taken down ancillary businesses like R.V. parts suppliers and storage warehouses.

The jobless rate in Elkhart has increased more than in any metropolitan area in the country; it rose over 4.8 percentage points from August 2007 to August 2008.

This obviously shows why/how Indiana is in play for Obama.  There are probably a lot of desperate people in Elkhart and elsewhere in the state whose natural instincts would, in normal circumstances, lead them without question to the white P.O.W. air force fighter pilot over the black Hawiian/Kenyan former Chicago community organizer… but these aren’t ordinary times.

I taught Dickens’ Hard Times last week and kept thinking about resonances between the novel and our moment.  This article made me think about the role of entertainment and “amusement” (to use Dickens’s term) in our economy.  Hard Times puts a traveling circus at the heart of its imagery as a symbol of the need for imagination, play, and entertainment in everyday life.  Part of what I found sad about this article is the way the fate of this town has been linked to the manufacture of Recreational Vehicles.  Of course the 7 m.p.g. R/V is as good a symbol as any of the arrogant recklessness of the U.S. over the past several decades in terms of energy use.  But if you can bracket that, you can also see the R/V as an embodiment of American optimism and the middle-class promise of a retirement filled with travel and modest adventure/exploration.  That promise is now basically lost in such a dramatic way that people aren’t simply selling their R/Vs at bargain-basement rates, but the whole industry is disappearing into an economic black hole of “perpetual garage sales.”

Maybe that’s a subject for a different post, but until a year ago we lived in a slightly more modest neighborhood in town where there was a bit of the perpetual garage sale phenomenon.  For a while our neighbor across the street, a U.S. mailwoman we were friends with, had one every weekend — or she let some friend or cousin or something who lived in the country outside of town use her driveway for one.  It drove me a little crazy, this weekly sale with something of the quality of a Dollar Store — a lot of random cheap stuff (“muffin tins, a fake white Christmas tree,” etc.) some of it presumably purchased to sell here.  It’s a big class divide: the yard sale as a fun, very occasional family ritual, on the one hand — a chance for the kids to sell some of their old toys and clear out the basement — and on the other, as a serious opportunity to eke out an additional $100 or whatever for the week.

Going canvassing again this afternoon…

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