The Last Good Chance, by Tom Barbash

Set in a dying town in upstate New York, The Last Good Chance is about that peculiarly American activity of reinventing yourself. Jack, who grew up in Lakeland and became famous as an urban planner by writing a book castigating the soulless urban environment, returns to Lakeland to spearhead a waterfront development that promises to re-invigorate the town. Anne, his fiancée, follows him, leaving behind the lively NYC art scene to paint in the barn of a house she and Jack rent outside of town. Steven reports on local news and longs to make his mark in the journalism world so he can get out of dead-end Lakeland. Harris is Jack’s brother who never left town. The story focuses on these characters and their struggle to create authentic selves.

Barbash captures the bleak hopelessness of a New England mill town where all the mills have closed and the jobs have evaporated. What Jack brings is hope. His plans for a festival waterfront development catch the imagination, not just of the townspeople but also the national media. Suddenly it seems possible that the town can indeed recreate itself as a desirable destination.

Reading about Jack’s ad campaign, featuring photos and stories of this future town, seemed eerily familiar to me. It echoed the false promises I’d been reading about in Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time about the Dust Bowl and the charlatans who lured unsuspecting homesteaders out to the High Plains with assurances—outright lies—of existing infrastructure, fertile farmland, and sufficient water.

Yet Jack seems like an honorable man, a man who genuinely wants to help his hometown. It takes so little to turn a place around. I’ve seen it in Baltimore: one person who was somehow able to make people believe in his vision for the city has actually gotten people to move back to the city. However, I’m not sure a festival marketplace is the way to go. I was not a fan of Harborplace when it was first suggested, feeling that the money could be better spent in improving city services. Although it has been more successful than I predicted at remaking Baltimore as a tourist destination, its prosperity has not spread beyond the harbor.

A few years ago I went to the Dover Fish Fest where my son and some friends had been hired to sing sea chanteys. Port Dover is a small town in Ontario on Lake Erie, known in the early 20th century for its lakeside ballroom. The Fish Fest was a wonderful quirky celebration that drew a lot of people. There were none of the booths I seem to see at every craft show and town festival, selling fried dough, pottery, wind chimes, etc. Instead, Dover gave us the best of itself. We wolfed down fish and chips with salt and vinegar that we got from shacks near the pier. We watched the tugboat pulls and cardboard boat races, cheering on our favorites. We ducked into pubs for a pint and some singing. Best of all was the Port Dover Harbour Museum. Although it may sound boring, it was anything but. The exhibits brought to life local legends and true stories related to Dover’s fishing industry, Lake Erie shipwrecks, and the War of 1812 that kept me fascinated for hours.

At the time, I had been reading Jane Jacobs and other urban planners, so I was curious about the way this town marketed itself. It seemed to me that the best thing was to stick to what was unique about your town. However, I think now that the false promises may have potential as well. After all, the settlers who arrived in Boise City to find only stakes in the dust went on to build the city anyway. Jack’s vision for Lakeland resonated with its citizens and gave them a reason to believe that they could shape their future.

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