The annual pilgrimage “home” to Alton for the holidays tells a lot about our appeal

(this post was originally published on December 23, 2016, in Advantage News)

The holidays are a time for families to get together and be thankful for what we have.

christmas holidays home
Traveling home for the holidays, from far away.

Getting families together typically involves travel, whether it be across town, across the metropolitan area, or across the country.  These travel patterns typically involve grown children traveling  “home” to visit their parents for holiday reunions.  These travel patterns therefore illustrate where people have been moving to, and moving from, over the years.

Fast-growing places like Austin, Texas, empty out over the holidays, as young adults travel “home” to spend time with their parents.  Places experiencing slow growth or decline, such as St. Louis and many of its surrounding cities, such as Alton, are buzzing with activity during the holidays, as these young adults and families from all over the world return to where they grew up, to attend their family reunions.  This annual mass pilgrimage home to Alton has been going on for so long, we scarcely give it a second thought.  It’s just how things are.

This accepted, annual holiday pilgrimage represents a very painful reality that is an insidious consequence of Alton’s struggles.  Perhaps this is in part why the holidays can be so stressful.  We are reminded that too many of the people we love now live far away, and soon we’ll have to say “goodbye” once again.  Virtually every current or former Altonian has been touched by this, either directly or indirectly.

Alton has lying at its feet many opportunities to improve our quality of life.  However, many of these opportunities remain unexploited, which makes Alton a less desirable place to live and work than it could be, with fewer good job opportunities, to boot.  As a result, families have been literally torn apart as our brightest young children move away in hopes of finding a better life.  If you are lucky, your children still live nearby.  But do all your nieces, nephews and cousins still live nearby?  Do all your friends, and your friends’ children, still live nearby?  Probably not.

Indeed, this problem affects us all.

These friends and family who have left Alton represent not only painful family separations.  These long-lost loved ones will not be around living in our neighborhoods as responsible family homeowners, and they won’t be around as customers buying food, goods and services every day from local businesses.  This creates a substantial negative “multiplier effect” on our local economy, as these local businesses need fewer employees to serve a diminishing customer base.  This diminishing jobs base leads to even more people moving away, which leads to even more job losses.  And so the cycle continues, over and over again.

It was not always this way.  Indeed, it was quite the opposite.  For most of its first 150 years, Alton was a place people moved TO, and during these 150 years of “good times” for Alton, the children of Altonians were also much less likely to move away.

It’s not too late to once again make Alton such a place, nor is it too tall an order to do so.  Yes, Alton became a Rust Belt city as our factories closed down, one by one, during the 1980s and 1990s, and these losses dealt a painful blow to Alton.  But thankfully, Alton is not stuck in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by miles of flat, boring terrain.  Instead, Alton is a city blessed with hilly brick streets and stunning river vistas, a rich history, beautiful old architecture, friendly and hard-working people, and a location right at the edge of a major metropolitan area.

Alton can indeed once again be that place where people move to, rather than a place where people only briefly return to, during the holidays.  It’s obvious how serious the effects of Alton’s decline are for its people, and therefore, it’s critically important that we do whatever possible to end this decline, and the pain it causes.

Our children grow up so quickly, so let’s make these changes now, before more of our children grow up and move away.  It’s almost time to make our New Year’s resolutions.  Perhaps this year we can resolve to support real, positive changes that will help Alton realize a renaissance.

Happy holidays, everyone!


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