At this writing, the Merc is mostly demolished, hollowed-out, a giant broken Easter egg in the middle of downtown filled with bricks and rubble. It is as we all feared: Missoula is ruined.
Indeed, now that Mayor John Engen has smashed the Merc to smithereens—probably riding the wrecking ball himself, a la Miley Cyrus—nothing remains of the Missoula that we all once held so dear. After all, what is Missoula without a defunct and demolished department store? Just another town with shining rivers, forested mountains and farmers markets clogged with strollers and chard? Just a valley-like depression for addicts to litter with dirty syringes? A place where corporate media outlets occasionally buy formerly spunky alt-weeklies? Is Missoula just a place where the scenic university campus grows quieter every year as enrollment decreases? Is it a place where the population is still growing anyway?
Wait a minute... Missoula is all of those things. And no single building or business can lay claim to singularly defining this town. New York City without the World Trade Center is a New York City that has suffered a grievous loss. But is it any less essentially New York City?
The forces that create long-term change in a community—economics, climate change, culture—are bigger and more unstoppable than any developer from Bozeman. Managing those changes is harder than planting yard signs with slogans like "Save the Merc." (Or, as also circulated on Facebook, "Pave the Merc.") In the early 20th century, when the Merc was ostensibly in its heyday, Missoula was a markedly different place. In the 1960s, college students arrived via passenger train and stepped out onto the depot platform to greet a valley filled with pollution from all the lumber mills. Strangely, no one's yet posted "Bring Back the Mill Pollution" yard signs. But the mills shaped the community we share today every bit as much as our quaint downtown did.
At this stage in American history, Missoula is benefiting from a rise in popularity of small, walkable communities swimming in craft booze and accessible outdoor attractions. Some beloved institutions may crumble. New ones may yet arise. Sometimes the wrecking ball wins, but perhaps the Merc's destruction will illuminate what remains around its absence: a vibrant, living city.