Loran Joseph sat down across a backyard fire pit with Baker neighbor Ethan Wolston for a long chat about life in Baker. Here are some highlights of their conversation.
Part 2: Community in Rural Oregon
In the context of our community, I think being a good neighbor means taking care of yourself and your property. Not being a burden. I see more and more people that are not doing those things, and it was a problem that came to the city council constantly when I was on it. “My neighbor’s house is falling down,” “My neighbor’s garbage is spilling out everywhere.” There’s a mindset that would say, well to be a good neighbor you should be helping your neighbor instead of bringing it to someone else. Why don’t they have trash service? Why do they have three cars parked in the driveway that are all torn apart? What’s the issue here, how can we help? But, unfortunately what I’m seeing is that those people don’t want help, or they expect help, or they’re not capable of accepting help. And we end up with a conflict that can’t be resolved. The more I get to know people in Baker, the more I understand how important personal responsibility and self sufficiency is to them. It has shaped my thoughts on what it means to be a good neighbor. So to me a good neighbor is someone that takes good care of their situation, which makes them then available to help – if someone else needs it, and wants it, and asks for it.
The demographics here have changed, as a community we get older all the time. For example, the high school is at about half capacity, but when I was there it was packed. The place is exactly how it was when I graduated, but people had to share lockers then. We didn’t have enough lockers for all the kids.
We’ve got a lot of older people here that are finding it difficult to do some of the things that are required to live here, like shovel snow and take care of property. There is a gap. Then some older business owners are on the verge of retirement. Another gap. And then we have my generation. A lot of my classmates are still here or came back and started families, and so now the middle school is jam-packed and they don’t have enough kindergarten classes. Then we have another gap of 20 and 30 somethings. Unfortunately, a lot of young people leave and never come back, and so, we have these big gaps in demographics here. It’s difficult to connect from one group to another – everyone’s got a different worldview. Folks have difficulty seeing community through another’s eyes, and maybe they have ideas on what Baker needs, but they have no concept of what that means for the younger generation, for what the younger generation wants.
What do we need for high school graduates to stay here? Well, a lot of people say jobs, but we actually have a lot of jobs. If they really wanted to stay here, there are great opportunities. But they don’t want to stay here because their friends aren’t staying, and there’s very little culture and entertainment for their age group. So, that’s one of the things that I’ve been trying to address by creating this music venue with Brian and Corrine (Churchill School). But there’s so much else that needs to happen in order to keep youth here. That is a big thing that a lot of people miss. It’s not just jobs. I can give you lots of examples of good paying jobs that have been very difficult to fill. It’s hard to recruit people to somewhere that doesn’t have the lifestyle appeal they want. So we’re having a disconnect between these segments of people in our community. And as a whole, we don’t have a good vision for the future. When we talk about, hey let’s improve quality of life, there are a lot of people that are against it. They consider it Portlandizing it. But it’s not Portlandizing to have good food and good coffee. Yes, I known that is what Portland is known for, but it would be great if we also had good food and entertainment, good coffee, and places to shop.
Community does seem fragmented, but it’s not a Baker City problem; it’s a national problem; it’s a world problem. We have the ability now to stay in our house, be entertained, get our news, talk to people, all those things we used to get from community. That’s allowed us to continue to seek out the things that don’t create any conflict in our psyche, that suit us, and that reinforce what we already believe because that’s comforting. That is causing huge social divides and tribalism. We’re seeing people that believe only certain things because they can find people to reinforce it and find news sources that reinforce it over and over and over again. We seem to have lost the ability to go out our front door and walk down the street and say hi and wave to everybody, and to stop and lean over the fence and talk to our neighbors. I have no idea how to challenge or change that. I have neighbors that are just completely polar opposites on the political spectrum. I end up being the bridge because I talk to everybody. When I’m talking to these people they’re talking bad about those people, and so forth and so forth. But, it doesn’t matter. They’re your neighbors, they’re here, you’ve got to get out there, you need to interact to find common ground. That’s how we start to rebuild a sense of community.