Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes: How This Pandemic Is Forcing the Evolution of Our Species

It is not the strongest of the species that survives, not the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.Charles Darwin

from the New York Public Library Digital Collections

Downtown Bennington is small, like Bennington itself, with a ‘four corners’-style crossroads at its heart, North and South Streets radiating out from it in those directions, and Main Street intersecting them on east-to-west trajectories. It’s quaint and uncomplicated, like most little villages in Vermont. But Bennington is one of a handful of towns in the state with a little more substance to it, which is to say, we have some big box retailers here you won’t find in other towns in this chiefly rural state, and a little bit of corporate dining that coexists with the indie-style eateries sprinkled around town, that kind of thing. We also have a regional hospital here with ties to Dartmouth-Hitchcock over in New Hampshire. I wouldn’t call those points bragging rights, exactly, but mention them merely to help paint a picture of a small town with critical mass.

Beyond the main intersection lie residential blocks, mainly, with older but charming homes packed in pretty tightly, most with at least a little front lawn and a few mature trees. Ours has a generous back yard, too, flanked by neighbors to the east and west of us, but defined on the south by the fast-flowing Walloomsac River, a piece of the landscape here we found so attractive when we first looked at our home, and so unusual, flowing through the center of town as it does.

On some of these little urban streets, several houses have long been converted to businesses, including one street in particular where you can count multiple dental practices, law offices, and financial planners as you drive down it. In my grad school urban planning program at the University of Tennessee, we’d have considered this commercial incursion into a residential area as undesirable, a situation that typically snowballs until there is little or nothing left to a neighborhood except commerce. I don’t see that happening here, though; the businesses seem to coexist peaceably with their residential neighbors, and more often than not actually peddle helpful community services.

A thing that still strikes me, though, is how relatively gritty and urban Bennington can feel, despite its small size (as of the 2010 census, the population here was around 16,000 or so). And in that urban-ness, how varied the condition of the structures, even on the same side of a street, in the same block, like a crazy smile with a tooth missing here, a rotted one there, and a shiny new white one over there. To be fair, before the pandemic dug in its heels in earnest, there was also a fair amount of house ‘flipping’ going on, an encouraging sign; ours was one of those. And some of that continues, in spite of our beleaguered economy.

My city running route takes me down a strange little street, where Scout-the-Goldapeake-Retriever and I first pass a pair of homes lovingly cared for, and then a vacant and overgrown parcel surrounded by a high chain-link fence with a padlocked gate and a small, tumble-down industrial structure—maybe a barn at one time—on the Walloomsac riverbank, then another immaculate house, and then an utterly forlorn one, beaten to a pulp and all but left for dead; for the last several years an official-looking notice remained affixed to its front door manifesto-style, most likely warning anyone entering that the interior pipes are winterized. That’s the house with the yard where Scout always likes to take care of business, as if he somehow understands nobody lives there and thus it’s No Big Deal (rest assured, I always clean up after him).

The front porch on this two-story clapboard house is in bad shape, and that is being kind, the stairs leading up to it more or less missing. Over on the side of the house, another porch is in still worse shape, with an overhanging roof sagging in the center and coming apart in layers, the way a French pastry does, only these layers are black and fouled with years of water damage and neglect. The main part of the house looks solid enough, though; you might say it has ‘good bones,’ I suppose.

At some imperceptible moment, maybe in late spring or early summer, a realtor’s sign popped up on the front lawn, and shortly thereafter, down it came and someone moved into the house that had heretofore seemed all but uninhabitable. On an early morning run not long after that, I could clearly see lights burning inside. And then little by little the lawn grew decidedly more kempt (Scout still prefers it), a small television dish appeared on the house up near its eaves, and one sunny afternoon I saw that several rose bushes had been lovingly planted along the fencerow; a bag of potting soil lay in the grass next to them. So somebody is living there now and starting to resurrect the bruised little house. How they’re coming and going is anybody’s guess, but the transformation, however halting, is a joy to behold.

Stretching past that house are several others, and beyond them looms the Energizer battery factory, where a survey of the campus takes one through its earliest days and grandest architecture (I am guessing late nineteenth century) to subsequent building episodes that run the gamut from mid-century modern industrialist to just plain brutalist. The factory actually straddles the street, with a causeway connecting one building to another high above the road beneath it; affixed to it is a larger-than-life image of the pink Energizer bunny beating its drum in mindless perpetuity. I once opined to The Chef that this factory is something of a blot upon the landscape, and he quipped, it’s a good thing it’s there—the neighborhood would be worse off without it.

He is right, I suppose, for the industry going on there and the jobs it provides, around 90 of them or so.

Unfortunately, the factory is scheduled to close for good some time in early 2021, said the local news a few months ago; seems Energizer acquired Rayovac in 2019, and deems its plant in Wisconsin a better, more efficient one, so the operations at the two plants will be consolidated there, and the silly pink bunny will soon march off the causeway and out of Vermont.

Anyway, that’s what’s supposed to happen; that announcement came before COVID, so who knows? And if the closing goes on as planned, then what will Energizer leave to us? Maybe a rotting industrial campus, right around the corner. One of our neighbors opined the empty factory should be repurposed as paintball facility, because that’s what Bennington really needs.

Hmm.

Another said she thought it would lend itself to an art museum like MASS MoCA down in North Adams, Massachusetts, and then went on to tell about how her father had worked there in its original iteration as Sprague Electric. While I could certainly get my head around a groovy art museum within walking distance, my guess is it wouldn’t fly, because Bennington already has an art and history museum, and the demographic here probably can’t support another—not even with the help of tourism.

What might fly?

What we’ve observed happening here lately is an influx of new residents into the state—people coming our way from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and elsewhere, ostensibly to escape the kind of problems spawned by the pandemic in its early stages; while Vermont hasn’t exactly flown under the COVID radar, we’ve fared better than most states in the country. So maybe the Energizer facility would lend itself to more housing, with mixed commercial uses in the structures that lack good lighting or architectural character of the sort that most folks with money to burn are looking for. We already have a pretty ambitious mixed-use project underway at the Putnam block on our four corners, maybe paving the way for another like it.

Nothing like a pandemic to test one’s adaptability; now’s a fertile time to adapt and evolve, it would seem. Here we are, months into one with no real sense of when it will end, nor how the end will look, but already it has forced our hand, made substantial changes to how we live and work and coexist.

Adapting. Some adaptations really do show how resilient we are as a species, I think; others underscore also how savagely some of us behave under pressure. Maybe that is simply Darwin’s natural selection at work. Some of us seem able to keep going and going and going, like the Energizer bunny, and that is laudable. But strong or intelligent (or weak or dimwitted), if we’re not to perish at the bottom of the gene pool, adapt we must.

2 thoughts on “Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes: How This Pandemic Is Forcing the Evolution of Our Species

  1. There have been several closings of stores and eateries since COVID arrived but most of them have been the “Big Box” variety. My town was very supportive of the independent restaurants. Still, we lost lots of jobs when the big manufacturing plants closed. People took multiple service industry jobs instead and now dining out is way down and the servers and busboys, dish washers and cooks have all lost hours and wages…

    • The restaurant industry is always volatile, and it’s disheartening to see so many swept away with the business. The Chef agrees it’s sad, but also points out that some restaurants actually *deserve* to go out of business. (Natural selection?) Still, I hope all those people thrown out of work are resilient/creative enough to find their way elsewhere. For my part, I’ve already ‘reinvented’ myself once, and I’m not sure how I would do it again, should that come to pass. Oh, and we are deeply committed to buying local, whenever we can. ~D

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