I wrote about improving downtowns a few months ago, but when I reread my article, I realized I sounded a bit too upbeat.
So I talked to people I knew in Merced and asked them how they would improve their downtown, if they could. Many cited the usual things, such as better parking, more security and cleaner streets.
A friend I'll call Gloria looked at the situation a little differently. "I would try to first change people's attitudes and work ethic," she told me. "It really does start with the parents and how they raise their children. If parents raise their children with an I-don't-care attitude, then their kids grow up with that attitude and they pass it on to their kids. That I-don't-care attitude shows up in local businesses and how they run their business."
But that isn't the whole story.
After further reflection, she went on, "What's wrong with Merced is what's really wrong with me. I have done nothing to change it. I have participated in community service and I go to church, but my heart isn't in making Merced my hometown."
And, that, I agree, is the key to the problem of changing downtowns into viable, liveable and lovable communities. Too many people turn up their noses in disdain of small towns like Merced, a place where most people have "ended up" and not by choice.
I "ended up" in Merced, and for a while I, too, had a hard time finding the good in what I initially considered a place full of people who are no better than anyone else.
It took me a while to change my mind about people in Merced. But a lot of people did change my mind about Merced.
I was very surprised and delighted to find that most of the elementary school teachers in every school were very wonderful, concerned people dedicated to children's education. Every coach of my daughter's soccer teams had enthusiasm and dedication to improving skills, as well as a sincere interest in good sportsmanship.
Most of the people working at the supermarkets have been decent, sincere people who are trying to make a living while helping people find products. The supermarket companies really do try to select and supply good, clean food to their customers here in the Central Valley. It is nice to be a regular shopper at certain stores and know the people behind the bakery and deli counters, and see the same checkout clerks again and again something I could no longer do in Los Angeles.
But I had to change my opinion of Merced before I could find the decency and dignity some people still bring to town.
If towns are going to change, it starts with the hearts of people willing to try. So many people have told me about how the neighborhood we used to live in changed after Castle Air Force Base closed and most of the servicemen who lived there left. It was as if they were the ones who supplied the moral standards and code of honor for everyone else, and when they left, they took it with them.
That's the sad part, to realize so many people now rely on someone else to guide their hearts. Because if change could happen, it starts with people choosing to care and put their values into themselves and their hometown once again.
Holt is a landscape horticulture graduate of Merced College who divides her time between Merced and Mariposa. Send comments or questions to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.