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​Should America save small towns?

Last Word | April 18th, 2024

Dismissing the value of small towns for the future of our nation is a mistake

By Bill Oberlander

arcandburn@gmail.com

According to U.S. Census projections, by the middle of this century, roughly 90% of the total population will live in an urban setting. This conclusion follows a trend that began at the start of the industrial revolution. Advances in machinery and technology moved the largest labor demands away from farms and rural outposts into urban centers. People have been moving to the city for almost two centuries and there seems to be no incentive for it to stop.

Historically, it has been the case that cities are an indicator of human progress and play a vital part in forming civilization. Removing the burdens of subsistence living and taking the stresses out of managing every aspect of our existence left mental room for contemplation on loftier matters. The birth of science, philosophy, art, and literature happens when people have congregated in cities.

I’m not here to take an anti-urban position, but I am here to suggest that in the modern world, the ability (at least in the U.S.) for major cities to be hubs of art and culture is waning, perhaps in some part due to the leveling out effect of the internet. Technology is also increasingly making it possible for white-collar workers to earn a living anywhere when it isn’t completely displacing their jobs.

Today, many cities are coasting on the borrowed goodwill of the past as places of opportunity as well as art and culture. They are “where it is at” but the cost of living and doing business in a city are rising and the troubles that come with densely populated areas are making the upside of urban dwelling just out of reach for many, as they struggle paycheck to paycheck trying to maintain a way of life they’ve been lead to believe is desirable.

Cities should, and will, continue to exist and provide a benefit to the total social fabric of the U.S. But in a country as rich as this, we should consider the possibility of supporting and encouraging another type of community life that has been slipping into obsolescence — that of the small town.

Small towns were initially an important part of the establishment of this country, giving travelers either a place to set roots or a rest stop on their way to something. Small town life has its own culture, pace of life, and contribution to make to the national conscience. They are in essence still a significant part of the total identity of the U.S. and provide an alternative to the urban setting.

The continued compressing of our growing population into cities and suburbs should be deliberately counteracted. Incentive programs should be put in place to encourage the repopulating of diminished areas. The artist in a crowded market, the entrepreneur priced out of the market, the apartment-bound service worker wishing for a home, the stressed commuter, etc. all have the chance to give and receive something meaningful in a small town.

Spread people back out a little, and reinvigorate the independent spirit that built this country– let people begin to see possibilities where it isn’t always obvious. Small towns offer the chance to have in-person businesses and live art experiences that have been reduced by online living. They are a remedy for loneliness and social atomization. They are places to share talents and gifts with others, they’re places to belong.

Government and enterprises on all levels should enact a comprehensive program that promises small towns are places for the average can-doer to bet on for a chance to fulfill dreams, make important contributions, and live in community. The right amount of tax breaks, grants, or whatever combination could induce a revitalization of small towns. All of these things exist for many big city downtowns and blighted neighborhoods. It may be naively optimistic; sometimes no amount of benefits can shake people from an embedded habit. A healthy society, like anything, is most successful when it strives to balance all things, and in the U.S., a vital network of sparsely populated burroughs adds to the wellness of the whole.

My bias in all of this, if it isn’t evident by now, is that I grew up in and eventually moved back to my hometown, Mott, North Dakota. Population data has its recent number of citizens at 616. Its peak was around the 1960s with roughly 1,400 people. The town has seen a steady decline in business, school, and population, but many of its most loyal community members have worked tirelessly to maintain the way of life that we all recognize as worth preserving. This has come in the form of active city leadership working with businesses and state and federal government to attract opportunities and keep a high quality of life for the citizens here.

Unfortunately, many business priorities are toward efficiency and centralization. The town of Mott experienced this with the recent closure of its nursing home by Sanford Health, which it began management of in 2019.

The town was also hit this year with the closing of a meat processing plant that had only been open for two years. The plant was built through private funds, public grants, and economic development loans. A number of factors played into its quick demise.

The community has endured a fair amount of loss and has had its hopes tested by the pressures of a world that seems to have no regard for the goodness that small towns produce in the world. I am loyal to my town. It has had my back, and gave me a quality of life growing up that people from big cities find almost unbelievable.

If this country is as rich as it claims to be, and if the goals of leadership in the highest halls of government and business truly do have the best interests of the everyman and woman behind their actions, then they should be considering the role small towns could play in the future of this country to alleviate spiritual and emotional struggles and grant the fulfillment of dreams to the hearty few willing to roll up their sleeves and take on the challenges of bringing something wonderful to those parts of the country desperate to live on. It takes bold vision and action from the power-wielders. And I’m afraid their minds and hearts aren’t tuned into it.

That doesn’t mean I’m giving up — and neither is my small town. I’m betting on the importance of small town life for the future, and I think you should consider it, too.

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