Responses to Why We Need Small Towns

small-town NebraskaOne of the frustrations of a short-form essay is that you don’t get to say all the things you’d like to say about the topic. This in turn leads to responses which actually end up saying many of the things you’d have liked to say if only you had more space. So it is with the responses to my Why We Need Small Towns essay published recently at Rod Dreher’s blog and at Brian Gumm’s Restorative Theology.

The essential point raised in both responses is that it’s lovely to speak of the necessity of small-town life and of what small towns can teach us, but if we don’t have a plan for participating in and preserving the economic life of small towns, we are radically unprepared to actually act upon any of our words in any meaningful way. That’s a true point, and certainly one deserving of a response.

To begin, small towns may not be as doomed economically as they’re sometimes made out to be. One of the blessing of the foodie craze is that more and more young people are looking to farm. While it’s true that the food fad has inspired lots of silliness, it has also pushed us toward a greater awareness of our dependence upon creation and our responsibility to steward it affectionately–and for that we ought to give thanks.

Just this summer I met a young man who is choosing to farm in Vermont rather than pursue graduate studies, and he’s hardly alone in making that choice. As local coops and national chains like Whole Foods and Natural Grocers continue to grow, the economic incentive to farm will continue to grow. These trends explain why we actually are seeing a net increase in the number of farms in the United States for the first time in nearly a century. Additionally, there are many millennials who would like to go into farming if only they had the financial capital to make it work. If this problem can be surmounted, either through agricultural states enacting policies to help aspiring farmers or through groups like the one established by the Berry family in Kentucky, then we should see more family farms cropping up in the years to come.

The other piece that makes me hopeful for the future of small towns is that even though the conventional American small town of the past–comprised chiefly of farmers, teachers, and professionals providing services to the local community–may be largely a thing of the past, a new kind of small town may well emerge as family farms are revitalized and, equally important, remote work becomes more widely accepted. Here Dreher’s example is itself telling.

Here is a journalist who writes about politics, culture, and religion for a magazine based in Washington DC while living in a small Louisiana town of around 2,000 people. 50 years ago such a thing would have been unimaginable because the work would have been impossible. As remote work becomes more common and more accepted, I suspect we’ll see more and more jobs like Dreher’s, positions grounded in the life of one place but based in another.

So will we see a town where 85% of the population are farmers with the rest made up of teachers, lawyers, barbers, ministers and the like? No. But the rise of remote work suggests that we may see towns with a smaller proportion of farmers and a larger proportion of various professionals and self-employed entrepreneurs. Indeed, we’re already starting to see this boom as smaller towns are revitalized by workers and companies you’d typically expect to find in large cities. Consider Nifty Marketing, an online marketing firm based in Burley ID as well as the example of marketing guru Jay Baer, whose family moved to Bloomington IN because they decided they wanted a change and favored a smaller midwestern town. This New York Times story about a small Mississippi town revitalized by a few university families may also be instructive.

That said, the formulation offered above–a life grounded in one place but based in another–should still grate on the ears of the Wendell Berry loving localists amongst us. While it’s preferable to have a small town populated with remote workers like Dreher than no small towns at all, I do wonder about the shape of community in a small town where many of the residents draw their livelihoods from work concerned with another place somewhere else. Speaking only for myself as a writer based in Lincoln, NE whose reading habits more closely resemble a resident of Washington DC or New York than my midwestern neighbors, I have real questions about the strength of a community shared by people who share a place but not an economy. My own experience of life in Lincoln suggests that cultivating deep community when people share a place but not an economy may be quite difficult.

Of course, cultivating community when a place is shared but the work is not is a problem for cities as well. The reality of globalization is that very few people now live in a place whose life is largely grounded in the local soil. Most everyone living in one place draws some part of their livelihood from another far-off place in a relationship that would have been unimaginable prior to industrialization. (This isn’t an unambiguously bad thing either. The diversity of places involved in a person’s work can enrich the work. When I work on a magazine story with people from Chicago, New York, or DC, my experience as a resident of Lincoln enriches what I’m able to do. My question is whether or not this works the other way as well–are places helped by work that focuses itself on a distant, far-off place? How does my work enrich the life of Lincoln?)

Assuming these trends continue (which may not be a safe assumption), my hope is that we’ll see more people in small towns that will begin to figure out some of these problems. Hopefully they can find ways to create real, tangible community that more closely resembles the life of the traditional American small town. It pains me to say that I strongly suspect that the days of Berry’s Port William (or Robinson’s Gilead) are likely coming to a close. But that doesn’t mean that we’re headed toward a dystopian urban reality like something out of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. It simply means that technology is changing the nature of work and is reshaping our relationship to our home place.

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  • Matthew Loftus

    I would argue that this is sometimes easier for city neighborhoods because you must have proximity in city neighborhoods, whereas in small towns and rural neighborhoods it’s a lot easier to live miles apart. if done well, city neighborhoods can host a variety of businesses and institutions that have both local and hyperlocal impacts– including plenty of farmers! (my own neighborhood in inner-city Baltimore just launched some hoop houses, thanks to the help of our partner church and a local grant: http://articles.baltimoresun.com/2012-11-30/news/bs-md-big-urban-farm-20121122_1_sandtown-winchester-big-city-farms-love-ii)

    • jakemeador

      I’m certainly open to this argument, but I still have questions about the architecture of city life. City structures are almost always going to favor mobility and transience over rootedness and stability. In some ways, that’s actually not a bad thing. But when we’re talking about establishing long-term communities, I think it’s a really difficult problem. And even if you get a group of people living in a city who are committed to the place, want to stick around, etc. they have a unique challenge because they are to a large extent living against the grain of their city’s design. That’s not to say it’s an impossible goal, of course. But I do think it’s like trying to cultivate a grounded mature community of Christians marked by deep wisdom and sound judgment in a megachurch setting in which relationships are difficult, the liturgy tacitly communicates that church is about entertainment, and the sermons skew toward self-help. Can such a church create mature, stable Christians? Sure. But does the architecture of the place aid in that objective or hinder it? That’s my question with these kind of hyperlocal neighborhoods in larger cities.

      • Matthew Loftus

        Jake,

        Thanks for your thoughtful response. I think you are exactly right– but only about “center city” architecture. In my city (as in most big cities), there is a distinct downtown area with all of the community-challenging aspects that you
        describe surrounded by or intertwined with numerous neighborhoods with
        their own distinctive identities and histories. They are much more conducive in design & architecture to good community-building and we’re far more of what I had in mind. Although resisting the forces that divide us is tough!– just look at how much damage was caused historically by practices like redlining. There’s still a lot of hope for communities, especially those centered around strong churches or schools.

  • http://bookwi.se/ Adam Shields

    I lived for about 15 year in and around Chicago, most of it in the Hyde Park neighborhood around University of Chicago. It was a very dense neighborhood and I loved it. I mostly walked to the store and restaurants.

    But 7 years ago my wife and I moved to the Atlanta suburbs to be closer to her family. We now live a mile from her sister and family and about 5 miles from her mom. There are many things I like about the suburbs, easy access to stores and highways are among them. But not community. I felt more community in Chicago where I shared an entryway with neighbors and we all had to walk our dogs on the same streets and I was far more likely to run into friends at stores.

    About 3 years ago my mother in law bought a cabin outside of a small town in the North Georgia mountains and most weekends the whole extended family goes to the cabin. We were just talking yesterday that in many ways we would prefer either the city or the cabin. But the suburbs are the default place because of family relationships and job situations. My work can be done from the cabin and we are planning on taking most or all of my wife’s maternity leave at the cabin. But my wife is a teacher and there are no jobs for teachers in rural GA because of declining student enrollment and budget cutbacks.

    But because our cabin is close enough to Atlanta the town near it has decent options for high end food, it caters to weekend shoppers. It does feel like the town encourages visitors but not transplants.

    • jakemeador

      Adam – Reading this reminded me of one of Wendell Berry’s biggest principles for living responsibly in creation: “Do what you can with what you have where you are.” Put another way, I think the most important thing may be that we’re thinking about these things and trying to act on them. Obviously if all this stops at wistfulness and a desire for something different without any action, we aren’t any better off. But I don’t think it will. If someone starts walking to local businesses and saying hi to neighbors instead of driving… that’s a win. If another person starts trying to buy more food from a local farmer, that’s a win. I think if we go into this thinking “we have to recreate Port William” then we’re setting ourselves up for failure. But if we go into this thinking, “We want to take one simple step followed by another followed by another,” then we might really be on to something.

  • http://restorativetheology.blogspot.com/ Brian R. Gumm

    Awesome response, Jake; thanks a bunch for posting this.

    My own working situation is similar to Dreher’s. I work for a university in Virginia from my home in rural Iowa, and the critical questions you raise about telecommuting arrangements like this are totally ones that I wrestle with every day.

    In addition to the impact on the quality of local community you rightly name, there’s a personal cost, too. The loneliness, for instance, that occurs when everyone you work with/for is five states away is sometimes quite difficult to deal with. I often go up to the local diner between the breakfast and lunch rush, get a cup of coffee, and do my work there just so I’m in the physical presence of other real people! :)

    • jakemeador

      Brian – I’d imagine there’s a special challenge for folks like you in that your job involves a certain degree of bookishness that isn’t often found in the rural midwest. I have a hard enough time finding people to talk about stuff with in Lincoln and we’re a university town! I’d imagine that having those kind of conversations and relationships in a small town of 2,000 is even more difficult.

      • http://restorativetheology.blogspot.com/ Brian R. Gumm

        I’m starting to cultivate a few friendships here in town that provide some level of the more intellectually-oriented mode of reflection that I seem to need. It’s not wide-spread, but it’s there, and it’s a gift.

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  • Gracy Olmstead

    Interesting post, I enjoyed reading it yesterday. Just posted some thoughts on urban community at The American Conservative this morning, and included a link to your story: http://www.theamericanconservative.com/finding-a-commons-in-the-polarized-polis/

    Sincerely,
    Gracy

    • jakemeador

      Gracy – Thanks so much for the link. I’ve enjoyed your writing over at TAC. Y’all do great work over there.

      The big issue you’re pointing to in your piece is the need for “third places.” And yet behind that need there is an essential social capital, or perhaps social capability, that a people must have to even create or maintain the third place to begin with! I think what we’re seeing now is a desire for third places, but no clear idea of how exactly to cultivate them. Of course, I don’t want to overplay the cultural criticism angle. I think that’s a factor, but I also wonder how much of it simply comes down to an issue of time. I know in our neighborhood there is a fantastic coffeeshop two blocks away that my wife goes to occasionally but that I almost never visit. I’m not home from work till 5:30 or 6, we do a bedtime routine with our daughter at 7, and the coffeeshop closes at 8–so I simply don’t have the ability with my current daily routine to participate in the life of a third place. (The irony? Remote work would make me far more capable of participating in third places, even while perhaps undercutting my ability to be emplaced. I guess what I’m saying is: This is complicated…)

  • Christopher Benson

    I
    do wonder about the shape of community in a small town where many of
    the residents draw their livelihoods from work concerned with another
    place somewhere else – See more at:
    http://mereorthodoxy.com/responses-to-why-we-need-small-towns/#more-125899

  • Christopher Benson

    Hi Jake,

    You write: “I do wonder about the shape of community in a small town where many of the residents draw their livelihoods from work concerned with another place somewhere else.” Indeed, I don’t think we should be celebrating remote work because it seems to encourage displacement and disembodiment. While we – the online readers of the erstwhile Notes from a Small Place and Mere Orthodoxy – enjoy reading your thoughts, the Internet is not a real community compared to your neighbors in Nebraska. How does a writer “enrich the life of Nebraska.” Presumably, he doesn’t do it by making a name for himself elsewhere. Instead, he could start a publication in Nebraska that employs other writers. He could establish and lead a guild of writers in his own town.

    Christopher

    • jakemeador

      Christopher – Apologies for the delay in getting back to you. I got busy toward the end of last week and am now revisiting comments on this post.

      This would take a longer response to address completely, but the brief response is that I want to launch some kind of local work in Lincoln, but there are a lot of moving pieces that go into doing so and those require a great deal of time to build up and establish. We are doing a lecture series at my church and I’m hoping to expand that into a larger work in the future. But we’re having to start slowly.

      The broader point I want to make as well is that I don’t think there’s a contradiction between being emplaced and being tied in a significant way to people who do not share your place. Wendell Berry himself has maintained relationships with a tremendous number of writers, scientists, and academics who do not share his rural Kentucky home. This could likely be expanded into a more basic theological point–the incarnation is fundamental to our knowledge of God, and yet very few of us have actually beheld the incarnate God with our own eyes. Indeed, no one has for 2000 years. And yet God still manifests his presence with us through the written word. It’s late and I don’t have the time (or, honestly, ability) at the moment to flesh that out further, but it does seem a significant point for those of us with strong localist sympathies to consider. God could make himself known to everyone bodily if he so desired. But he didn’t. He chose the written word. At the very least, that suggests to me that there is hope for cultivating and maintaining relationships over a long distance when face-to-face contact is not possible, but making one’s mind known to the other through writing is. What do you think?

  • http://restorativetheology.blogspot.com/ Brian R. Gumm

    I just had another thought here, Jake, and it has to do with your statement that:

    While it’s preferable to have a small town populated with remote workers like Dreher [or Gumm] than no small towns at all, I do wonder about the shape of community in a small town where many of the residents draw their livelihoods from work concerned with another place somewhere else.

    The sociability of working locally is one thing (bumping elbows with local folks), and that’s something I do not have with my telecommuting arrangement, which is why I often go hang out at the local diner and drink terrible coffee to chat w/ the ladies who work there and any neighbors I might run into there, while I work.

    But the economic dimension of working locally is also a consideration. For working age men in my rural county, the most common form of work is agriculture-related (farming, naturally, but also industrial-scale ag operations like the seed plant a block from my house). Construction is next. So aside from service workers for locals homes and businesses (builders, repairers, plumbers, electricians, HVAC guys), local male workers seem to have the same problem as me, because – economically – their work is also “concerned with another place somewhere else.” While these male workers and their employers may not be remote, their goods produced don’t stick around here and are therefore remote/abstracted from the commons of the local community. for the most part, corn & beans go bye-bye. Cows & pigs go bye-bye.

    What we’re left with are mostly jobs related to education and health & human services, positions which tend strongly to be filled by women: teachers, mental health workers, job development folks.

    I guess I’m sounding a cautionary note that telecommuting work isn’t necessarily is more “remote” than working locally, so long as we keep in mind both sociality and economics (in a goods & services – i.e. non-Berry – sense) with respect to work/livelihood. At least for men around my neck of the woods, either way you’re mostly not working for the good(s) of the local community…