Take, for example, old Mokulumne Hill. Back in the 1980's, it was a small but reasonably thriving old gold rush town. There was a sandwich shop, a hotel with saloon (the saloon was actually a coffee shop and bar) where the locals hung out, a melodrama that put on plays on the weekends, an antique shop, a bar full of giant musical instruments, a library, a real estate office, chamber of commerce and souvenier shop combined, a catering place specializing in theme picnics, and a shop selling Native American goods, run by Jessie Sky Eyes. There were also a few places up on Highway 49, like a soda shop, a gas station, etc. Kids played in the park, and you could hear happy shouts.
Now, I go back, and of all of these, there is soda shop and gas station on 49, but the old downtown is down to the hotel and saloon (still with locals hanging out), the library, and Sky Eyes Outfitters (now says to call, with a number in the window). It looks like there was a blacksmith there, some years back, now closed up. That's all. There used to be signs of kids in the yards of the houses. I no longer see signs of kids. It now feels...like a ghost town. It was an old mining town that dried up, but it was still a town. Now...it's just deserted.
Back at Angels Camp, I look at the big new bypass under construction, that will take folks past Angels Camp to Bear Valley Ski Resort, and reflect that you no longer even have to pass through some of the business districts. Will we watch the gas stations and sandwich shops in Angels Camp start to dry up? Will Angels Camp start having only retirees, and you'll watch the attendance at its schools start to drop off, as the kids grow up, and move out of the area, because there is no work?
I stopped at the "New Copperopolis Town Square" on the way back. I was curious, because I was hearing about Saddle Creek, a new vacation/retirement community on the radio, and it talked about this, and I saw this strange cluster of buildings under construction. Now, Copperopolis had something like a population of 90, with a few old buildings, and a bit of ruined ghost town feel, because it had dried up sometime around 1925, when the copper had run out. But a few people still lived there. The "new town square" was, as Andrew put it, as artificial as Santana Row. It was like a Disney version of what a town should be. A couple buildings (recently sandblasted and reconstructed) were almost recognisable as original, but most was a happy meal version of Old West Victoriana, terribly cute and sterile, down to the unoccupied bandstand in the center of "town." There was a Panini Grill putting the finishing touches on, one of the first new "residents." A small town built for older people with money, a glorified shopping mall. A movie set version. It made my skin crawl a bit. I wondered what they had done with the "real" residents. Paid off to move someplace else?
Where are the families with kids going? How many kids will ever experience what it's like to live in a small town, or with rural America around them? How many small towns will simply evaporate, as everything becomes a sterilized corporate entity, where we shop at malls that have recognised brands and ape something else, with theme decor? It's not a picture I like to imagine.