One 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.