By Eric Jansson
Published by the Financial Times, 16 September 2006
I once knew a guy who got shot in the head. Call him Jim. He was a popular guy in a small town and so, as the story goes, an innocent victim. When Jim got shot, we learned that God had given him a skull made of something like steel. The bullet lodged in his skull and he carries it round with him to this day.
Jim had been hanging out in one of the rougher neighbourhoods in Racine, Wisconsin, an industrial town on the west coast of Lake Michigan. The lake is home to the loveliest series of lakeside cities in the country: Racine, Kohler, Manitowoc, up north to Sturgeon Bay.
A rough neighbourhood in Racine looks like a blossoming Eden to anyone from anywhere genuinely rough. It has wooden houses built in the early 20th century, roomy verandas, tidy little front yards angling down to the street. The serpentine Root River flows through under the shadow of old willows. Crisp breezes blow off the enormous lake through lush green summers, fiery orange autumns and deep white winters.
The only trouble is drugs. Racine makes a handy drop-off point for narcotics traders from Chicago to the south and Milwaukee to the north.
Rumour counts in a small place and one rumour had it that Jim came too close to one of these hardmen. But the true, incredible, story is that some violent fool tried to steal his shoes.
What is it about the US that marries pleasant, peaceful places and splendid natural beauty with sudden, aberrational, extreme violence? Hard to say.
Once I was riding my bicycle in Racine when a terrific black cloud appeared overhead. The sky had been quiet and blue. Then rolling out of the west came a floating wall of squid's ink what looked like a mile high.
This happened on the good side of town, along a curvaceous lakeshore where urbanity has yet to scare away the deer, fox and raccoon. Here in the prismatic interplay of lake and sky, residents owe their wealth to the robust presence of smart, adaptable light industry - something increasingly rare elsewhere in the US.
So I was pedalling along some cosy avenue in Wind Point when the demon cloud drifted in.
The world went perfectly still. The jet-black cumulonimbus veiled the sun, a breeze picked up, trees bent, hailstones clattered, sticks flew. Wind toppled my bicycle. I ditched it, sprinting for shelter. The universe roared like a steam engine. They say it always does when tornados touch down.
What they don't say is that a tornado can leave a chaos of beauty in its wake. Scattered everywhere were shredded bits of tree and melting ice pellets. Tranquillity returned abruptly. A new sky of mute pastels coloured the earth. Bright-eyed people emerged from basements, full of vigour, grateful to be alive. Their houses remained intact, apart from one rooftop ripped off a garage by the whirlwind.
Racine is a city for survivors; it does not "do" atrophy.
A couple of decades ago, downtown was a dead zone. It was the 1980s, when some newfangled thing called the shopping mall was devastating main streets across smalltown America. Where the river flowed into the lake, Racine's landmark buildings stood soot-blackened and derelict. Among them is the Shoop Building, once headquarters of the city's 19th-century "patent medicine king", Clarendon Shoop. In its shadow, one felt the American dream had sailed through, never to return, as if the age of industry might curl up and die.
What saved the city was an invisible weapon: invention.
This is the birthplace of the kitchen blender and garbage disposer, Horlick's malted milk, Jerome I. Case's wheat thresher and the many products of Johnson Wax. Floating like a frosted halo above all these inventions is the queen of pastries, the kringle - a Danish import perfected in Racine. These peculiar assets kept the city going through hard times.
Today, Racine's latest invention is its own reinvention. How else to explain the decision by the New York Times to brand this hardworking town "the Hamptons of the Midwest"? Racinians roared with laughter when they read the description. Solid and sober, Midwesterners count on New Yorkers, slick and snobby, to stretch the truth. Yet, as a Racinian by birth returning to the city with fresh eyes (after a corrupting spell in New York), I agree with the glittering review.
Try to find a more impressively rejuvenated main street in the Midwest. Non-chain shops and art galleries bustle with activity. Steps away, the once-neglected lakefront - now a permanent festival site - offers splendid views, boat moorings and luxury accommodation.
Pleasure-seekers who until recently had never heard of Racine flee the skyscrapers of Chicago on warm weekends to sit in quiet beer gardens by Lake Michigan's gilded horizon. Shades of the Hamptons, indeed.
Even the old Shoop Building looks jolly these days. An almighty sandblast has revealed that its outer walls are not black but patterned in cream and red brick. A mildly resurgent 19th-century aesthetic now rubs shoulders with the Frank Lloyd Wright buildings of downtown.
What is it about this place that makes it so conducive to invention, reinvention and survival? Whatever it is, it goes way back.
One guy even moved to Racine just to reinvent himself. It was 1852 when Joshua Glover, a Missouri slave, ran away from his master. Some 300 miles north in Racine he found people who loved freedom and loathed slavery. They welcomed him with a job and lodging.
In 1854, Glover's grisly old master tracked him down, seizing him with the help of federal marshals who then spirited him away and jailed him in Milwaukee. When citizens of Racine caught wind of Glover's abduction, they exploded with righteous fury. A flotilla of private ships sailed for Milwaukee.
The Racinians landed and marched to the jail, smashing down the doors and freeing him. They hid Glover from the law, then sailed him 300 miles further to freedom in Canada. How many little cities can tell a prouder story than that?