I get it, you don’t like Billings

You can stop telling me now.

Although, I am going to miss it when you list out the reasons for your dislike and then openly wonder how anyone could possibly choose to live in or in the vicinity of Billings. I’m also going to miss it when you tell me about the refineries and the sugar beet factory as if I’ve never seen them before.

I did like our chats though. I’ll fondly remember the times you used anecdotal evidence to make broad generalizations about the town and the people who live here. And I was very flattered when you told me that I don’t seem like I’m from Billings.

It’s been fun.

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Montanans can be a judgmental bunch it seems. The Montanans who came from settlers, which I am one, judge you by how many generations your family has been here, while generally excluding Native Americans from their consideration. After that, we seem entitled to judge people based on which part of the state they live in - east or west - and then we judge the town people live in.

Never once have I asked someone, “so what do you think about Billings?” And yet, over the years, I have listened while people offer me their opinions about the town I grew up in.

When I was just out of graduate school, I began working for the National Wildlife Federation in Colorado. We had meetings with folks from our Washington D.C. office and then went out to dinner that evening. I sat down next to a woman who I had just met for the first time that day.

“Where are you from?” she asked.

“Billings,” I said.

“Oh, I’m sorry.” she said and laughed.

“What are you sorry about?” I asked.

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.

It’s a American tradition after all. We give our opinions all the time, about everything, and many times without much thought behind them.

Years later when I was talking with my friend Wally McRae about the "where you from?" conversation that inevitably happens in Montana, he told me, "Never be ashamed about where you're from. Everybody has to be from somewhere."

Damn right.

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I could go on and on and list out the different experiences I’ve had with people telling me what they think about Billings. Occasionally in Bozeman and Missoula I've been shocked at the disdain some people express. If you don't think this sort of attitude has long-term political consequences, think again. However, that is a conversation for another day.

When I was hemming and hawing about this topic, the question in front of me was, do I write a blog called In Defense of Billings where I list out all the great people, restaurants, galleries, and events that happen here? If I had taken that route I would also feel compelled to acknowledge the significant problems in our community. I’ve written about some of them before and I think it’s important to air them out in a public manner. Should I list the them so that you know I know they exist?

But I’m not going to try to convince you that Billings is worthy of a deeper consideration because I’m actually quite tired at this point of feeling defensive about it. Maybe one day I will. To be clear, I welcome actual conversations about Billings with people who either live here, have lived here, or at least have a tiny bit of affection for the place.

If I could, I would let you borrow my memories for a day. You could walk the alleyways and streets and see what I see. You could see the past, the present and the future swirling around in my brain. You could see what Billings was, what it is now, and what it could become.

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What I’m asking is pretty simple; try to respect other people and their places and work to make your community better. If we all agree that it means something to be a Montanan, that it is an identity we are proud of, I hope we can spend more time trying to lift each other up and support all of our towns and communities instead of tearing each other down and making judgements that keep us divided.

The questions I’ll pose to all of us, myself included, is how does complaining and judging the places other people live help or lift anyone up? How does it contribute to solving the issues in our communities? How does it make the world a better place? To paraphrase a brilliant passage from an essay by Wendell Berry, it costs you nothing to be a critic.

I’ve always felt that the entire state of Montana was my home. I love every part of it. Every town and community is unique and has great qualities and also huge problems.

Many of us, in all parts of the state, from east to west, from north to south, in all different communities are trying to make things better.

We are all in this together so my suggestion, which you can take or leave, is we start acting like it.

19 Comments on “I get it, you don’t like Billings

  1. I agree with you 💯. Every community, town, city in this state is unique to its own story. I’m in love with this state. I find it’s history intriguing. It’s beautiful, complex and fascinating.

  2. I’m always saying, “our MONTANA in some of my posts on FB, I can’t imagine living anywhere else, although I toy with the idea of moving to the west-coast to be near my beautiful grandchildren and now great-grandchildren, but the idea dissipates as soon as I think of the quiet beauty of my Cheyenne homelands, the culture and traditions, the language that I have the grand opportunity of enjoying each and every day! There is no place like home they say, that’s true about “our MONTANA” and I have lived in Billings recently, and loved it!

  3. I’ve always felt that cities/towns, just like people, have a personality. If you take the time to get to know them you will find some good things about them.

  4. Thanks for this Alexis! I feel sure I have done this myself…..and thank you for the wake up call…love the quote “everyone can be a critic”. It is easy to throw words out thoughtlessly. Keep up you good work in writing!

  5. This is such a great point of view. Thanks so much. This post drew me to your blog, which is so thoughtful and though provoking.

  6. Great article. I’m a Billings native and am just glad I don’t live in Butte!😄

  7. Admittedly we only moved to Billings two and a half years ago. But there’s never been a morning when we didn’t wake up feeling blessed to be here. Most wonderful place we’ve ever lived long-term — and that’s saying a lot.

  8. Alexis, you put a voice to something I strongly share with you. I’m one of the fortunate who has chosen this place as my home. I always say that Montana adopted me – I really didn’t have a say in the matter after falling in love with her. And I’m proud to call this wonderfully evolving, old cowtown my home. It’s time for us to shed our judgemental self-talk and embrace this cultural experiment we call Billings.

  9. As a native of the Rust Belt in upstate NY (the Finger Lakes), your column sounds eerily familiar to what I have heard/endured on and off for year. Ditto for the decades I have lived in California. Many non-Californians have a pretty negative idea of what this vast state is like. Most of those many are dead wrong. Nice posting… Thanks…

  10. Everybody has to live someplace and the best way to do it is sink roots and make it home. We live in Butte (for the last 30 years) and love it, and I’d guess some people would feel sorry for us. By virtue of living in Montana, we’ve certainly spent lots of time in Billings and if the fickle finger of fate had put us there to live we’d sink those roots and like it.

  11. I Graduated from Eastern Montana College through ROTC and than did 30 years in the Military all over the world. I was always very proud to say I’m from Billings and tell folks I met about it. I am also one of those people you wrote about, both sides of my family homesteaded in eastern Montana, four generations ago. I Love Billings…

  12. Thanks for your thoughts here. I was raised in Billings. 3rd generation Montanan. I’ve lived in San Diego for 35 yrs now. When I go “home” I love being there. Until some idiot bashes me for being a Californian. Such resentment against me for where I live now!! Some of us have had to move to places where we could find work in our career path. Here, I always honk and wave at any vehicle I see that has Montana plates! I welcome them and the memories that come from seeing those license plates. Bless Montana and I wish people weren’t so judgemental!

  13. I think Montanans are people who live close to their history and to the land even though most of us live in communities. I love being a Missoulian (in spite of its flaws I know as well as you know Billings’ flaws!); it is a place where I choose to invest myself. Looking at every Montana community, you will find people who invest in their communities through volunteering, contributing funds, working for civility and good governance, etc. As long as you find those people, you will find a community worth living in.

  14. Love billings but it takes a second day to get to know the city! Billings really needs to be proud of its place at the center of montana wyoming!

    Calling our college “city college” was a slam a generic moniker. For starters Lets correct that and rename msu-billings to billings state !

    Lets slso establish a dinosaur museum of the magnitude of museum of the rockies and buffalo bill Cody. We need a msjor attraction. The private museum of ancient life in utah is a good example. This is dinosaur and “cowboy and indian” country ! The Real west

  15. I normally do not respond to many blogs, but this one got my attention as it was so well written.
    I am originally from western Montana. My career path has taken me all of the United States over the past 32 years. When it came time to find that last job before pulling the plug on working I had choices. I could have went back to the Hamilton or Missoula and enjoyed the lovely views of the mountains. I could have went to Bozeman and enjoyed the layed back lifestyle they have. I chose neither and came to Billings.
    This city has it’s own, unique personality. It can be as laid back as one would want or as progressive as any city in our region. Arts, brew walk, concerts, trails, education, medical care, affordable homes, musuems, and on and on….. yet one can leave the city and in 5 minutes be out in the middle of nowhere….People say “Oh I am sorry you live in Billings”……I think not. I am so very glad I live in this great community.

  16. I have lived in Billings for 6 years now. I lived in Helena for 16 years. Everyone always talked about how great Helena was. I hated it there. It’s beautiful but the people….. no thank you. I like Billings. It’s fun. Always something to do. It’s clean. Ya there are the crappy areas like everywhere else but that’s true in every city across America. There is more diversity. More culture. Maybe that’s what other Montanans don’t like about Billings. They don’t want to see anyone of color or other religious beliefs. They want their own little secluded place to have things all boring and routine everyday. I went to Helena to visit and a girl I used to work with me made this horrible face when I told her I was living in Billings. She asked why would you move to Billings? My reply..Why would I stay in Helena. My only beef with Billings is the number of homeless people who wonder the streets and alley ways downtown. I with the city would do something about that so it is more comfortable to wonder around downtown in the evening without worrying about who is lurking on the street or sidewalk and if my kids are safe. I recently moved to Joliet because of that but I still work in Billings and I like living here. I really don’t get the whole unapproving attitude about it. It is beautiful here. Just stop joining in on the other opinions you have heard and look for yourself for once. Go up on the rims and look down upon our fine city and see how beautiful it is. I think people frown on us because everyone else does. Most people who complain about Billings don’t know anything about Billings. My 3 cents.

  17. My family and I just moved to Billings at the end of last fall, for work. I’m not going to lie, I cried for a week when I found out we had to move here. It’s cold and very monochromatic and cold. Did I mention cold? However now that we’ve had some time to get to know some people, see some sights and experience life here, I can honestly say my husband and I, who have lived all over the nation, LOVE Billings and Montana in general. Of course there is room for improvement, as with ANY place but if you think drugs are more concentrated here than elsewhere you are sadly mistaken. The only strong complaint we have is the overall, general racism against Native Americans. It is not only widely evident everywhere you go here but it’s “justified” by everyone. Perhaps if more Montana’s chose to educate themselves and worked to fix the problem things they complain about like homelessness, drunks and drugs would improve… but hey… Who am I? Just a lowly world traveler, in a current torrid, love affair with the majesty of Montana. I