Story by Ed Kemmick. All photos by John Warner.
There’s so much to do in Billings. There really is. Really.
The music scene is amazing, for one thing. It seems like there’s a great new band making a debut every week, and we have singer-songwriters doing work that should be heard nationally. We’ve got a punk-infused music and arts festival coming up on its seventh anniversary, and this summer we’ll host the third annual Big Sky Gypsy Jazz Festival.
The food scene is dominated by young chefs who share a taste for fresh, local ingredients and innovative menus, and they won’t charge you an arm and a leg. We’ve got seven craft breweries, three distilleries and a cider mill. Last summer saw the launch of the Montana International Film Festival, and our local independent movie theater recently took over operation of the grand old Babcock Theater in the heart of downtown Billings.
On top of all these wonderful things, unfortunately, we also have one big problem: We have an inferiority complex. Sometimes I picture Billings as the big ungainly schlub on the playground, wondering why the girls are so blind to his charms, why there is so much injustice in the world. Maybe we have never shaken the attitude of one of our earliest residents, Parmly Billings, son of the railroad executive for whom the town was named. The father, Frederick Billings, never lived here, but his son did, and in 1886 Parmly wrote a letter to his father.
“I should advise a young man,” he wrote, “who was in search of some place where he could be thoroughly lonesome, have no friends, that is of course intimate ones, where vice in its worst types was omnipresent, where board was high, and grub proportionally poor, to go direct to the town of Billings.”
Poor Parmly. Poor us. Now the general complaint is that despite our enormous progress since the early days of lonesomeness and bad grub, we are looked down upon by the people of Missoula and Bozeman, and not particularly liked or respected by the residents of other, smaller towns in Montana.
One of the most common manifestations of this inferiority complex is a kind of defensive cheerleading that I hear constantly in Billings. I heard it during the opening of the film festival, I’ve heard it during performances by local bands, and I’ve heard it over dinner at several of the hot new restaurants. It never seems to be enough to comment on how good the music is, or the food, or how promising some new event is. No, in Billings there is almost always the reflexive, chip-on-the-shoulder addendum:
- “Can you believe this? Missoula and Bozeman think they’ve got good restaurants. There’s nothing like this in either town!”
- “God, I wish my friends in Missoula could see this. They’d never believe it. Billings! We’re the best-kept secret in the Northwest.”
- “Listen to these guys. All you ever hear in Bozeman or Missoula is how many amazing musicians there are. Ha! The music scene in Montana is right here, right now.”
- “I wouldn’t live in Missoula. I really wouldn’t. Or in Bozeman. We’ve got everything going right now, and better yet, we don’t have to live with those goddamn snobs.”
And keep in mind that they are saying these things to other people who live here, as if they needed to be convinced … which of course they do, as do the people who keep issuing these defensive utterances. How can this be? How did the biggest city in Montana, the financial capital of a great inland empire, an efficient, no-nonsense, can-do metropolis buzzing with money and culture, set in a spectacular river valley an hour’s drive from the highest mountains in Montana, come to think of itself as inferior to Missoula and Bozeman, and somehow lacking the cool factor of even smaller cities like Livingston and Butte?
Apparently, so I’m told, because people from other, ostensibly more charming parts of Montana, and even people from other states, regularly bash Billings for being crass, money-grubbing, conservative and irredeemably unhip. Billings, the big little cowtown, they say. Billings, the capital of West Dakota. Billings, Spokane writ small.
Alexis Bonogofsky is a native of Billings who raises goats and sheep just outside of town. She is also a photographer, a wilderness advocate and a blogger. One of her most-talked-about posts, which she put up in the summer of 2018, was titled, “I get it, you don’t like Billings.” In it, she told how, shortly after going to work for the National Wildlife Federation, she had a short conversation with a woman from the federation’s Washington, D.C., office. It went like this, according to Alexis:
“Where are you from?” she asked.
“Billings,” I said.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said and laughed.
Then her apology started. She had assumed I would agree with her and that we’d laugh and then I’d explain to her how I had escaped from a shitty town.
I have heard similar stories in Billings, though I can’t honestly say I’ve encountered such sentiments personally. Except, of course, when I used to harbor them myself. I’m from Minnesota, you see, and I’ve lived in Bozeman, Missoula, Anaconda, Butte and, since 1989, Billings.
In Missoula, the first friends I made in Montana taught me to look down my nose at Butte. They said a lot of bad things about Butte, best expressed by the single word made famous by President Donald Trump: shithole. So, yeah, I was young, eager to fit in, and I came to think of Butte that way. Until I finally visited the place. It took about two minutes to drive from the interstate to the lower slopes of Uptown Butte, and within two and a half minutes I had arrived at the opinion I still hold today: that Butte is one of the oddest, wildest, most interesting burgs in the whole country. I would later learn that Butte people are not defensive about their town, not the way Billings people are, at least. If you don’t like Butte they simply figure you’re uninformed, as I was before that first visit, or too dumb or too puckered-up to get it. Basically, screw you and the horse you rode in on, an attitude that only increases my esteem for the place.
As for Bozeman, I’ve never quite been able to figure it out, but I have never actively disliked it. In some of the swankier parts of town I pick up distinct, creepy Stepford vibes, but I’m willing to admit that my own lack of perfection, my feelings of inadequacy in the face of sleek beauty, may skew my perception. My only gripe with Missoula is that it is no longer the town I knew as a young man, for which I can’t quite forgive it, but that’s not really Missoula’s fault. Well, and there’s the weather. Once you escape the months-long damp blanket of a Missoula winter, it’s hard to imagine going back, the splendor of spring and fall notwithstanding.
Then there was Billings. God, I used to love to hate this town.
It didn’t help that for years I came here only to play hockey. Like everyone else who wore a Missoula Flying Mules jersey, I didn’t like anybody on the Billings team, in fact passionately detested several of them, and felt an equally strong dislike for the city they represented. How could anyone live in a place always wrapped in the stench of several oil refineries, a beet-processing plant, stockyards and a meat-packing plant? “Smells like money,” we used to say, and we were given to understand that the people of Billings said the same thing, but not as a joke.
Even after I moved here with my wife Lisa, a native of Missoula, it was only because we were desperate to get back to Montana after a few years away. Somehow, we figured, we’d work our way out of Billings and get back to the “real” Montana. Thirty years later we’re still here. The problem initially may have had something to do with inertia. It’s not so easy to pull up stakes and try something new when you have three young daughters. But somehow, at some undefinable point, we no longer wanted to leave Billings.
We can remember when the first post-Folgers coffeeshop opened downtown, and then the second and the third. We were here when the first brewery opened its doors, the first real bakery, the first restaurant to advertise “locally sourced food.” Before we quite knew what had happened, Billings had somehow become an interesting, attractive town that met virtually all our needs. We even saw evidence of that long-hoped-for phenomenon: young people who had fled from Billings within days of high school graduation were filtering back home, finding jobs and settling down. Yes, there were hipsters who found Billings sufficient.
Despite all, most people in Billings just can’t seem to accept this city for what it is, preferring to lament what it lacks—a “real” college with a “real” football team, for one thing, or a cachet that carries some weight outside of Montana, or a status that would no longer allow people in Bozeman and Missoula to look on us with pity or disdain. The attitude of Billings people toward their town might be best exemplified, I think, by the reaction to two magazine articles, published decades apart.
The first was a piece in the June 22, 1998, issue of Time magazine, which used Billings as an example of the meth epidemic then raging. It became gospel truth that the influential news magazine had dubbed Billings—depending on whom you were talking to—“Crank City,” “the crank capital of America” or “Crank Town U.S.A.” In 2005, when I was a reporter for the Billings Gazette, writing my own series of stories about meth, I hunted down a copy of the article to see exactly what title had been bestowed upon Billings. As it turned out, Time had done no such thing. There was only a passing, lower-case reference, at the very end of the story, to one of the meth heads heading back out into “crank city.” In context, it appeared to refer only to the murky world where crank was sold and used, not specifically to Billings.
My reporting did not destroy the myth, not even close (which says something, too, about the real power of the press). People wanted to believe in our notoriety and they still do. I guess the thinking was that if we could not be as desirable as certain other Montana towns, then by God we’d be a hell of a lot worse.
The other magazine piece was more recent. In September 2016, in its annual “Where to Live Now” competition, Outside picked Billings as the “adventure town” of the year, beating out 15 other contenders including Seattle, Denver and Boise. It was a good article that neatly captured some pretty cool things about our humble town, but the most common reaction I encountered was, “Huh?” Missoula and Bozeman have been so frequently celebrated that when the attention was suddenly, unexpectedly turned on us, it almost seemed as if there had been a mistake, or that maybe we were the butt of a joke.
Then came a more problematic reaction. The Billings Chamber of Commerce put a big billboard on the side of a building at the main entrance to the downtown, trumpeting the Outside article. What the billboard said, though, beneath the logo for the magazine, was “Best Town Ever.” Under that, as a hedge, it did say “2016,” but it is difficult to put any other meaning on the word “ever.” And while it might seem petty to call out the Chamber for a mere gross exaggeration, it exemplified our lack of confidence, our fundamental lack of belief in ourselves. A town that really thought it deserved the title of “best town of the year” would have no need to pretend that it was the “best town ever.”
I would like to propose that the city’s apologists and its overactive boosters are as wrong about Billings as its detractors. It is my opinion—and I think it helps to be a transplant, rather than a thin-skinned native of Billings—that we have fully as many opportunities to make good lives here as anywhere else in Montana. And being the biggest city in the state helps, in that we instantly have more opportunities than almost anywhere else in Montana, with the possible exceptions of, once again, Missoula and Bozeman. And we have one more thing.
Dennis Taylor, who served as the Billings city administrator around the turn of the millennium, and who had held similar positions in Helena and Bozeman, once made an observation about Billings that has always stuck with me. We were talking about the rapid growth in Missoula and Bozeman, and in places like Whitefish and the Bitterroot Valley. Billings, meanwhile, had been chugging along with a growth rate of roughly 2 percent, year after year after year. That was the kind of growth that made it possible to expand with some deliberation, to deal with sprawl by tweaking existing regulations, rather than always playing catch-up.
The result, Taylor told me, was that Billings was the only major city in the state that still felt much like the Montana he had known when he first came here in the 1970s, looking for some breathing room after serving as a frontline Marine in Vietnam. It’s been almost 20 years since Taylor made that observation, but in many respects I think it still holds true. There is an indefinable something in the air here, beyond the smell of roasting sugar beets, that always brings me back to the Montana I knew when I first came to this state, about the time Taylor did. It has something to do with the fact that Billings is still, despite the profusion of doctors, engineers and lawyers, recognizably a blue-collar town.
And it is, like no other big city in the state, still in the heart of Indian Country, and in important ways inextricably bound to its Native American past. It’s no use pretending that old prejudices aren’t still here as well, but we continue to make progress in the face of contrary winds on the national level. At least we don’t sugarcoat the problem, or wish it away.
So, yes, we have all those things—well, a good many of those things—that people move to cities for, with wide-open wildlands just a few jumps away. And on top of that we have a living legacy, hard-earned and stubbornly if unconsciously held onto, that other cities lack, which we ought to celebrate. But in keeping with the values of an earlier Montana, we should celebrate it quietly, with an absence of bluster, without apology, and without feeling the need to measure our city against any other.
I would love to live here long enough for the Chamber of Commerce to offer up a defiant slogan to the rest of the world, something like “Billings: Take it or leave it.” Or this: “Billings: We can’t complain.”
I won’t hold my breath.
This piece originally appeared in the Summer issue of Montana Quarterly, which does not post its stories on the web but gave me permission to reprint the article here. You really should get yourself a subscription. It’s a hell of a magazine.