Monday, June 28, 2010
Can Small Towns in America Be Revived?
Church in a New England Village by Childe Hassam, 1901.
Childe Hassam (1859-1935)was a prolific painter and it seems painted nearly every place he came across in his long career: cities, seascapes, scenes from rural France, Paris, Italy, England villages, London, the western United States, gardens, people in parks, people at work, children. Among my favorites are his pictures of small town or town life, mostly in New England and Long Island.
Of course, when Hassam painted these works, many more Americans lived in small towns than they do today. In 1900, for instance, 10% of Americans lived in towns of between 1,000 and 4,000 people, and another 54% lived in hamlets or farms of less than 1,000 people. From 1900 onward, though, people were leaving rural areas heading for the cities; the decades of largest migration to the cities were in the 1930s, as farmers lost their land, as documented by Dorothy Lange and many others, and in the 1950s.
Today 17% of Americans live in small towns (categorized as between 1,000 and 5,000 people), and only 6.5% of Americans are involved in farming. However, since 1970, reports the Carsey Institute, the decline in population of small towns has begun to reverse, with the most growth in the 1970s and 1990s. Factors in this turnaround include retirees moving to rural areas where real estate and the standard of living are cheaper, immigration, and revival of rural areas with recreation attractions and what the Carsey Institute calls "amenities." Generally, new industries have not come to small towns that were once centered around textile mills, furniture making, and other manufacturing that have since gone south or overseas as a result of globalization.
End of the Trolley Line, Oak Park, Illinois, by Childe Hassam, 1893. Oak Park is now a suburb of Chicago.
Nevertheless, small town life remains attractive to many people. The small towns of yesteryear tended to be organized around a single economic enterprise, which was matched with a culture that was for the most part culturally homogeneous. This is no longer the case, as people from the highly urbanized New England and Mid-Atlantic states move south, southwest, northwest, or north, and immigrants are moving into the American heartland without stopping first in the big cities.
I am hoping that one factor that boosts a revival of the small town is the ability to telecommute. A friend of mine picked up stakes from the burgeoning Washington, D.C., metropolitan area a new years ago and now runs a successful business, based mostly on clients in the D.C. area, from her home in a small town in Ohio, where she is close to family and a short walk from the bank, the town library, and the post office. The ability to grow small businesses is a critical factor in keeping small towns alive and growing.
Provincetown Grocery Store by Childe Hassam, 1900.
Small towns are also reversing their decline with the construction of new highways that permit distance commuting for those who work in metropolitan areas, but want to stay or move to a small town. It would be interesting to find out if the growing "eat local" movement has helped small town life by helping farmers.
The Great Plains and central Midwestern states still continue to see an exodus, particularly of young people, as the rural economy continues its decline, even with a Homestead Act passed a few years ago that gives tax incentives and other benefits to people who move into these areas and set up small businesses.
One of the best known book about small town life is Winesburg, Ohio (1919) by Sherwood Anderson, a book I dearly loved when I read it decades ago. I also enjoyed Cold Sassy Tree (1984) by Olive Ann Burns. And there are the well-loved Mitford books by Jan Karon. Do you have a favorite book about small town life?