On identity, possibilities, and giving my hometown a chance

By Jacob Titus

Not long ago, I was reading at a restaurant when I overheard a question at a nearby table: Do you think you will stay in South Bend?

The response was quick, sharp, and delivered sternly: No. I am not going to apply anywhere in South Bend. There is a zero percent chance that I am going to live here. Zero. I don’t care if Notre Dame offers me a position with a $200,000 salary.

I gathered the speaker had not already made concrete arrangements to live elsewhere but was instead proclaiming what plans would be made. No matter the circumstances—earning $200,000 here can only be described as extraordinary—South Bend was not in the cards.

I can’t blame them because I once was them. Growing up, I didn’t imagine my future happening here. Who did? I was a senior at Riley High when South Bend landed on the fabled “America’s Dying Cities” list. If you accept that judgment about a city (I did), what sort of future could be tied up with it? It’s hard to imagine a happy life in a dying place.

It didn’t matter that I had been on a plane precisely once and could only afford to attend college in Bloomington thanks to state aid programs. My life, as I understood it, was a one-way train from South Bend to anywhere else—as long as that elsewhere had at least a million warm bodies.

That was my understanding right up until it wasn’t, and I was on a return train to the guest bedroom at my in-laws’ on the south side. I was not happy to be home. This was not the right story. But with new ‘outsider’ eyes, I became curious about the city and slowly found my way to a real sense of purpose here.

I have to guess that the zero percent chance response at the coffee shop had little to do with any experience of South Bend itself and everything to do with an assertion of identity: I’m not the kind of person who stays in this kind of place. I would have said it myself a decade ago.

But what if I had lived with an open heart to the city all along? What possibilities do we miss by physically living here and mentally living in the future someplace else? I wonder what might happen if that person made the ever-so-slight shift to a five or ten percent chance that they might be the kind of person who stays in this kind of place.

Maybe they would still leave. Being open to staying doesn’t mean that you will, or that you have to. Over the past year, a number of my friends have left. But they all had an openness to the possibility of a place like South Bend while here, and I think each would say their life is richer for it.

I wish that I was always more imaginative about the city’s future and my place in it. I want to have told a more interesting tale than “I’m moving to Philadelphia.” But, generously, the world conspired to tell a better story for me. ■



This essay first appeared at West.SB.

Jacob Titus is the founder of West.SB, a blog about South Bend, Indiana.

Cover image by Jacob Titus.

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