It’s likely that Alto will be my last visit this year to a village/small town in the region around West Michigan to photograph its business area. I’m glad I went. I had a great conversation with a local librarian and archivist who saw me photographing and was curious. We chatted about my project and about Alto–and a bit of “shop,” as fellow archivists.

Like many of the small towns I photographed this summer and fall, you can see a few signs of economic difficulty in Alto–e.g., in boarded-up buildings that once presumably were thriving local businesses. It’s hard for many kinds of small businesses to compete with larger towns and cities nearby, especially those with big box stores. But the signs of life and energy in Alto stood out more for me.

Among them is some manufacturing, on the edge of the village, by the railroad tracks. In the first image below, which looks West you can see a manufacturing business on the left and the business district of Alto on the right. The second image looks east.

The library was a bright spot. When I glanced at it, I thought it was a large book store for a small town, but then realized it was a branch of the Kent District public library. The first two pictures are of the library. Across the street, as you can see in the reflection in the second image and in the third image, was a tavern busy with the lunch crowd.

The old Grange building (farmer’s organization) has wonderful architecture. The first image is mine, from last week. The second is an older one, from the era when it was built. The third and fourth are mine. Today the building is a home, as you can see from the fourth image. I saw pictures of the inside on a real estate agent. It’s a really, really nice home!

Like many small towns and villages in the Midwest, Alto has an American Legion post. You can see a bit of the original look of the building along the roofline. I’m curious what the face of the building, now under siding, once looked like.

A couple of buildings caught my eye for their quirks. The first two images are of a business, an auto repair shop, with an image of John Wayne helping to keep the riff-raff away. There’s a “no soliciting” sign in front of Wayne, at belt level. The third image looks to be a vacant building.

Finally, here are two images of one of the churches in Alto. It’s a lovely old building. I was going to add, “even with the utility lines cutting in front of it.” But I’m not sure I mean that. The utility lines are reminders that small towns and villages are not museum pieces but living communities (even if some towns have museums and their history and old-timey appeal is a source of tourist revenue).

Cold weather and winter are here. So stay warm. And more than ever, think about staying safe. Michigan has the worst COVID-19 numbers in the country at the moment; it’s bad enough here that we are driving the nation’s numbers. And there is news of yet another nasty new variant spreading around the world.

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