Middletown, Teetering On the Divide

By Libby Copeland
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 6, 2008


In the 1920s, two amateur sociologists went searching for a city that was singularly unexceptional. They wound up here.

They made a study of Muncie, asking its children how often they read, and its women how often they ironed. Then more sociologists came, and market researchers and documentarians and journalists, poking and prodding over the decades, measuring Muncie with the calipers of their trades.

And the people here took it with characteristic good humor, except for the rare occasions when they wanted to run some pointy-headed jerk out of town. They understood why people came. America was nostalgic for a city like this, for a solid Midwestern community that called itself "America's Home Town."

Only now, Muncie is nostalgic for itself.

* * *

On the eve of the Indiana primary, does Muncie have anything to tell America? (And is it sick of being asked?)

"I don't know what to tell you about Muncie, but it's a dying town," says Ron Cantrell, working the cash register of a dusty liquor store on the south side of town, where things are bleakest. "It's almost dead. It's like a cockroach lying there with its legs in the air."

Muncie looks okay from certain angles, kind of like America. North of the White River, which bisects Muncie, things are pretty good. There's Ball State University and Ball Memorial Hospital, both large employers. There's Muncie Mall and the big-box stores, and -- why would anyone shop in Muncie's historic downtown anymore? How could those little shops possibly compare with Wal-Mart?

South of the river is the industrial part of town, and this is where you see the frayed seams of the Rust Belt. Here are the slumped houses, the abandoned fast-food joint, the wreckage of a leveled auto parts plant. Manufacturing jobs, long the backbone of the city's economy, have been leaving. Muncie has lost more than 10,000 people since 1980, and the population is now 66,000.

There are establishments on the south side that are little more than squat boxes with barred windows, built entirely for function and not a bit for beauty. One of these is the store where Cantrell works, which used to have two cash registers and now has one because there isn't that much business anymore. He sells cheap vodka and Natural Ice beer to people who walk and sway and shuffle in.

Cantrell, 51, says he'll be voting Democratic this election. He's not sure for whom yet, but Democratic for sure. Hillary or that guy, whatever his name is.

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