This Saturday I decided to go to Belding, Michigan, to photograph. It’s a town of about 6,000 people, a half an hour northeast of Grand Rapids. Its biggest economic sector is manufacturing, at a bit under 20 percent of local jobs.
Like last week, I photographed with a Polaroid look and cropped almost all of the images to a 1×1 format. The look often fits my mood when I visit small towns like this. They are patriotic and often show strong support for the military, in part because many of the men have served, including in recent wars. There is evidence that they struggle economically, as the image below of the back of a building downtown suggests. I thinking about John Mellencamp and Bruce Springsteen songs when I photograph in towns like this.
Historically, much of the local economy was manufacturing–notably textile mills (e.g., silk), using power from the Flat River. There also was a basket factory. The town is named for the Belding brothers, who operated silk mills. Today, at a quick glance, the bigger operations are a couple of modest-sized metal fabrication plants.
A few things struck me about the town as I drove and walked around. The first is that it does not really have a downtown anymore. It looks like they tore down much of the historic downtown at some point in the late 20th century and put a shopping plaza in its place with a good-sized parking lot around it.
This “development” has left the town without a clear geographic center or an architectural identity. The image below was clipped from Google Maps. It looks like some of the old plants were removed along the river just north of the historic downtown area and the area converted into park space.
A second thing is strong support of the military and veterans. In the area just north of what used to be the town center is a park area that has the Belding War Memorial, several monuments to veterans and to the mothers who sacrificed their sons and supported soldiers. One of them echoes the memorial in Washington, DC. There also is a VFW center (Veterans of Foreign Wars) nearby.
Here are a few images of manufacturing in Belding, past and present. The first set of images is the old basket factory. The last of them is the back of the factory’s tower, seen from the old downtown area. The first one is distorted by the close-up view and the very wide lens I used (18mm full-frame equivalent).
Here’s a few of a new plant. The first looks up a set of stairs towards the backside of a metal fabrication plant. The other two are of a facility that I could not identify (admittedly not looking very hard); but it seems to be associated with the metal fabrication plant. The stairs in the first image take you down to the smaller facility shown in the next two pictures.
Here is the old Richardson textile (silk) mill, now converted into an apartment complex. Across the street from it is public housing and a public housing commission. People tend to think of inadequate affordable housing as a big city thing. But it’s a challenge in rural and small-town America too.
The Belding brothers, who gave the town their name and operated textile mills, also owned other businesses in the historic downtown area. Here is one of the remaining old downtown buildings. Much of it looks empty, but it is being renovated for new businesses. The second image looks through two sets of windows (the corner of the building on the bottom right.) You get a sense of the open space downtown near the Flat River.
The last two images are standalone, from the historic downtown area. The first is the historic main library, now with a historical society facility added to it. It’s a lovely old building with a neo-classical feel to it. The style feels discordant in the town today. It may have fit better before the historic downtown was torn down. The second image is some birds flying near the Flat River near the VFW. I took them by chance on a whim. But they capture something of my mood and the place.
The part of the town I was in was mostly quiet, some cars and trucks driving through, but not many people there. It was a warm morning, quickly getting hot. The weather continues to be strange this summer, with a brief hard rain and high wind from small storm system passing through West Michigan in the late afternoon. More of the terrible heat (and wild fires) in the West.
Stay safe out there. We haven’t got back to the old, pre-COVID19 normal yet, and we should not fool ourselves. All the evidence suggests that the Delta variant of COVID19 is going to keep spreading in the US into October.
Categories: Weekly Image