Billings: More than Meets the Eye

“I can’t believe you live there.”

“Have fun in the Tragic City.”

“Billings is just the worst..”

These are just a few of the things I have heard from my Western Montana friends since moving to the Magic City in 2010. And I can’t be that mad for them saying such disparaging things, since before Billings became “home” I said similar (and probably more profane) things about this seemingly redneck town (being a Butte Girl and all). I mean just driving by Billings on I-90 the view is a refinery. Followed by another refinery. And another. Pretty rough.

I moved here for work, not choice. Pure and simple. I was living in Missoula at the time, wanted the job I have now and when I finally got the offer it came with a condition. “We will need you to move to Billings.” As I weighed this decision, it was difficult to ignore my assumptions about Billings (dirty, flat, boring, conservative). But I needed a job, and wanted to stay in the organizing field, so I accepted and started the move to south central Montana.

It didn’t take me long to fall in love. Not with a person, but with Billings. Digging into the town beyond the rough exterior I found a town that sticks up for itself, that tends to embrace its diverse communities, always has stuff going on, and even has a few restaurants that stay open past 9:00 pm.

I love Billings, despite the atrocious actions from a select few that have brought unwanted national attention to my town. The past two years have given us some dandies…..(I would mention something about the caricature of an old white man, but that’s a whole other topic)

Richard Cebull: Last year’s news, Former US District Judge Cebull cast a negative light on Billings when he made the news for sending racists jokes over his work email.

Judge G. Todd Baugh: Billings made national news over a sitting judge making some of the most absurd comments ever regarding a young rape victim. He claimed she was “older than her chronological age” and in “just as much control of the situation” as the rapist. He then attempted to apologize with some very odd remarks about “forcible violent rapes” and “movie rape.”

Max Lenington: I honestly don’t know what to say about this guy. With every month there is a new story about his blatant racism and disregard for rules regarding appropriate workplace behavior.

Despite these characters, my love for this small town (yes I realize it is the largest city in Montana, it is still by every definition a small town) has grown because of its response to embarrassing individuals. Organized town-halls and community outcry followed the news about Cebull, leading eventually to his early “retirement.” The largest rally (in recent memory) Billings was quickly organized to protest Baugh’s victim blaming language. And sure enough, the outrage against Lenington continues to grow. None of this is surprising, considering our history.¬†The Not In Our Town movement launched in Billings in 1995, when the community stood together against hate. We may not look, feel, or vote all that progressive, but when push comes to shove, Billings is a supportive community.

And while the rest of the country is dealing with the aftermath of the recession, and towns are struggling to make ends meet, Billings has voted the past 3 consecutive elections to invest in our community. First with the Public Library Bond, then in back to back victories for our public schools, with the most recent school victory being a decisive Bond measure victory.

Not that bad for a town with some clearly rough edges.

Update 11/06/2013 5:35 pm… How could I forget to mention the beer?!?! 7 breweries right in downtown. If that doesn’t sell you on Billings I don’t know what will.

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About the author

Sheena Rice

A professional rabble rouser, Sheena is a Butte girl now calling Billings home. She loves Montana, music, politics, cheap beer and dinosaurs. She hates the big banks and pants. All of her posts are done on her own time and of her own accord and are not associated with the organization that she works for.


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  • I went door-toor door for Ralph Nader in 2000 in Billings collecting signature to get him on the ballot. Response was overall friendly, and I gathered perhaps a thousand signatures – memory fails me at times. Of course some folks thought I was working for Natelson, and I did not set them straight. Who am I? Their brain nanny?

    Billings turned out well for Nader that year, and I think a lot of it was mere awareness, bypassing the boob tube where he was ignored in total and going directly to the doors. People of hot flat right-wing Billings did respond well to a progressive candidate.

  • Having gone to high school in Laurel, I think I have a more negative impression of Billings than it deserves. I simply haven’t spent enough time there outside of speech and debate tournaments. Perhaps I’ll have to experience the city as a tourist one of these days.

    • You Should! But I would wait for summer… winter in Billings does leave a bit to be desired, lack of mountains and all. Just let me know when, I’ll be sure you have a good time : )

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