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?


Nan said...

Such a thoughtful, beautifully written and illustrated piece. I really loved this. Just today I read an article in Yankee Magazine about the town of Hardwick, Vermont reinventing itself. Really fascinating. And one of the men has written a book about it all. The Town That Food Saved by Ben Hewitt. I'd like to read it. I'm a small town girl - I still live about 15 minutes from where I grew up.

Linda said...

Dear Nan,
Thanks very much for your kind comment. I was really inspired by Childe Hassam to write about small towns. I have always wondered what it would be like to grow up in a small town, and not a suburb. I also think it must be very nice to live so close to "home." All the best.

Anonymous said...

This is beautiful! Lovely thoughts illustrated by beautiful paintings. American small towns are so different from English ones, and I love seeing images of clapboard churches and white picket fences. They represent the heart of America for me.

I grew up (and still live) in the London suburbs, and small town life is alien to me. However I do long to live in a community that is self sufficient, revolving around local businesses and industry, where people live and work and are involved in each others' lives, rather than commuting out to a bigger city every day to work and never speaking to their neighbours. I suppose I'm just an old fashioned girl at heart! My secret dream is to live in a small town in New England, in a little clapboard house, and know everyone by name. That would be bliss for me.

emilyatheart said...

I love Childe Hassam's work especially the paining of the mother and child walking through the Boston Gardens in winter. Boston is my hometown but I live in a small fishing village now. My favorite book on small town life is To Kill A Mockingbird. But when distressed, I read Miss Read's book about village life in England.


Val said...

I love these lovely. I grew up in a midwestern town of 15,000 that is rapidly shrinking. So many people are leaving the midwest for other places with more work. I have to wonder if we will have more truly small towns in this part of the world in the future, because our larger cities are shrinking.