Friday, August 21, 2009

A statistical sense of place


One of the most useful sources I have found as a writer of regional mysteries -- whodunits with a sense of place -- is www.city-data.com. It is one of many web sites that gather information from the U.S. Census Bureau and other sources and amalgamates it into easy-to-understand graphic form.

It has long been known in Ontonagon, Michigan -- prototype of my imaginary Porcupine City -- that the town has been losing population at a rate of 10 per cent each decade, like many rural villages whose mining and timbering industries have dwindled and disappeared. This is a place that scratches and scrambles to hang on, and that unhappy fact helps give it a remarkable characteristic: its people tend to look out for one another.

The hemorrhage of people is getting worse, though. From 2000 to 2008, the Census Bureau estimates, Ontonagon's population plunged by 14.5 per cent. It is a safe bet that the drop between 2000 and 2010 will top 15 and maybe 16 per cent; the town's only independent nursing home has just closed and its residents relocated elsewhere. Some of the workers laid off when the paper mill closed last fall left town when the mill reopened this summer with a smaller labor force. [Sept. 15: It gets worse. The mill closed again today. No one knows what the future will bring.]

What's more, the median age of Ontonagon citizens is 46.7 years. The median age for the rest of Michigan is 35.5 years. The joke around town is that Ontonagon is becoming Upper Michigan's largest retirement community.

These things help explain why the cost of living in Ontonagon is so low: 72.5 per cent of the national average of 100.0. Conversely, in Evanston, Illinois, where the Lady Friend and I spend the other seven months of the year, the cost of living is 117.5 per cent of the national average. That is a 49-point spread.

These things also are meaningful to Sheriff Steve Martinez, hero of my mystery series. Will the population loss mean an increase in certain types of crime for him to deal with? Are the crooks he faces getting grayer? Stay tuned.

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