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My Claremont optimism  and the bankruptcy of cities

I’ve only been to Detroit a few times, most recently a year ago. What I saw wasn’t pretty, block after block of abandoned stores and homes. Today, bankruptcy.

Back in the 1940s, and ‘50s, when I was growing up in Claremont, the only reason I had to think of the two cities at the same time was that my father went there on business. The Motor City was thriving, with a population of over two million, including my great-uncle Saul Firestone. My father’s company, the Claremont Waste Manufacturing Company, made flock, which is a kind of imitation velvet, the fuzzy stuff you used to see on greeting cards and wallpaper. It was also used to line glove compartments and trunks, and I remember hearing about sales calls to Studebaker and Kaiser. Back then, those companies’ cars were pretty popular, but they were gone by the early 1960s. I don’t think the flock was to blame.

At that time Claremont was also thriving, and it even converted from being a town to a city. The mills, my father’s included, were operating three shifts a day, the stores welcomed shoppers from all over Sullivan County on Friday nights, and the population was stable at around 12,000 or so.

Claremont’s population today is about the same as it was then, maybe a few hundred more, while Detroit’s population has dropped by more than 60 percent. Even so, like so many mill towns, Claremont has gone through difficult times. Nothing like Detroit, however, which in addition to losing more than half its population has the highest crime rate in the country.

A few Sundays ago I drove from Jaffrey to Claremont to meet my best boyhood friends, Ray and Mike, for dinner at the Common Man Restaurant. There are still vacant storefronts on Pleasant Street, but the downtown area looks better than it did a few years ago. Housed in what used to be a textile mill on the Sugar River, the restaurant was busy, a good centerpiece for our home town.

Most Claremonters I’ve known over the years seem to combine equal parts optimism and pragmatism, as if the members of the community collectively recognize that “we’ll never be Portsmouth,” and maybe not even Keene, but all in all it’s not a bad place to live. If I am a “terminal optimist,” as the Pianist claims, maybe it’s because of where I’m from. Even the city manager has an upbeat name, Guy Santagate. According to him, “Claremont only moves forward now.”

Detroit might want to consider inhaling a breath of Claremont optimism. Things can’t get much worse after all. Soon they’ll elect a new mayor, and the leading candidate is the county sheriff. His last name also seems to fit the situation. It’s Napoleon.

Last month the Red Sox traded shortstop José Iglesias to the Tigers. I felt sorry for this promising young shortstop, leaving Beantown for Motown, but then I checked the standings and felt better for José. Like the Sox, the Tigers are in first place in their division. I’m rooting for Detroit to pull out of the financials doldrums, but I hope they don’t beat the Red Sox in the playoffs.

I recently found out that in addition to my father’s business trips, there is another connection between the two cities. The 1873 map of Detroit, Michigan, was published by the Claremont Manufacturing Company of Claremont, New Hampshire. I looked at the company name and did a double take. Then I saw that the word “Waste” was missing and realized it wasn’t my father’s flock company.

Joseph D. Steinfield is a partner is the Boston law firm, Prince Lobel Tye LLP. He lives in Boston and Jaffrey.

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