Tag Archives: small towns

Taking Root in Rural America

28 Oct

Take one on rural America, from Brian Alexander in a recent Atlantic article:

The social good of such places, [Arthur] Morgan insisted, was being “dissolved, diluted, and submerged by modern technology, commercialism, mass production, propaganda, and centralized government.” While many big-city residents might not worry about the fate of small towns, Morgan believed they should because the “controlling factors of civilization are not art, business, science, government. These are its fruits. The roots of civilization are elemental traits—good will, neighborliness, fair play, courage, tolerance, open-minded inquiry, patience.” These traits are best transmitted from one generation to the next in small communities, he argued, from where they are then spread throughout entire societies. To erode small-town culture was to erode the culture of the nation.

Take two, from Kevin Williamson of the National Review in the run-up to last year’s election:

The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. Forget all your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap. Forget your sanctimony about struggling Rust Belt factory towns and your conspiracy theories about the wily Orientals stealing our jobs. Forget your goddamned gypsum, and, if he has a problem with that, forget Ed Burke, too. The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin. What they need isn’t analgesics, literal or political. They need real opportunity, which means that they need real change, which means that they need U-Haul.

I spend my days working in regional community and economic development, which means devoting a fair amount of time and thought to towns across my corner of the world in northeastern Minnesota. I attend a number of small-town meetings, almost all of which are heartening: from Virginia to Sandstone, from Two Harbors to Aitkin, people deeply committed to their towns come out in force to these meetings and share their love for them. They acknowledge problems but are devoted to fixing them, and in many of them civic engagement seems far more robust than in Duluth, where politics appears to have devolved into vicious tarring of one’s opponents on social media. (Okay, I’m being an election season cynic, but the pettiness is a wonder to behold.)

Even so, it’s not hard to sink into doubt about the future of small towns, either when one looks at macro level trend data or takes a walk down Main Street. Not much is happening, the population is greying, things are boarded up, and yes, in some places, one can find people on the streets high on something at midday. Occasional new development on the outskirts gives some dated facilities a needed refresh, but leaves behind empty space in places where that’s not easy to fill. Many towns can seem trapped in a slow, downward spiral with no clear escape.

On Friday, work took me to Bruno, Minnesota (population 102). There’s not much to Bruno: a bar, a church, a small gas station, a thrift store, a handful of houses, many of which have seen better days. It’s 40-odd miles from Duluth on a beautiful but fairly lonely road, so it’s not one of those small towns that enjoys the spillover from a convenient metropolitan area. But, tucked up a side street sits a former schoolhouse, sits the Nemadji Research Corporation, a world-class medical billing and data mining company with 47 employees on site.

Bruno’s champions are the founders of Nemadji, Gene and Becky Lourey. The late Gene was the brains behind the operation, whose tech skills were decades ahead of his time; Becky, to use her own words, provided the heart. That exuberant human touch was so evident that Becky, whose picture probably appears next to the phrase “bleeding heart liberal” in mid-2000s encyclopedias, got herself elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives and then the Senate in this rural district, and also mounted a failed campaign for the DFL gubernatorial nomination in 2006. (Her son, Tony, now holds the Senate seat.) She infuses Nemadji with a deep conviction born of a long and tumultuous life that has never seen her waver in her enthusiasm and grit, even as she endured business failures and lost three children. Its facility includes a daycare, a lunchroom, and an experiment in hydroponics; employees get excellent benefits, which in good times have even included college tuition. Becky Lourey has built a legacy in northern Pine County that will last long after her, though at 74, she’s not exactly showing any signs of slowing down.

Not every town can have a Nemadji, but the Loureys offer lessons for local communities everywhere. Their power is remarkable, and it’s worth nothing that their roots aren’t miles deep in the Bruno area: they grew up in different Minnesota towns, and if Becky had had her way, they would have stayed in Minneapolis’ Lowry Hill East neighborhood, where they lived for a spell and helped found the local neighborhood organization. But once they settled down in Kerrick (just up the road from Bruno), they left a mark. One need not share the Loureys’ politics, but one does need to recognize where Kevin Williamson’s assessment of small town struggles goes wrong.

First off, rural America is not a monolith. And while small towns may not exhibit much demographic diversity, there is a lot of economic diversity both within and between them. Williamson commits the now-frequent fallacy when he implies the people dying from painkillers are the ones voting for Trump when instead it’s usually the relatively well-off rural voters who are reacting to all of the decline around their relative success. For every dying small town, there’s another that’s holding its own and producing its share of decent jobs. Even places like Virginia, the Iron Range town where the population is down while poverty and perceptions of crime have multiplied, still serve as vital links in one of the nation’s most important industries, even if we can now get iron ore out of the ground far more efficiently than we used to. And while I’ll shelve a full examination of this for a later date, the interplay between low birth rates, immigration, and politics has particular consequences for the American rural-urban divide.

The deeper issue with Williamson’s thesis, however, is his conception of economics as a strict matter of “satisfying human wants, not defining them.” This is true insofar as that we should not expect economic theory to behave in moral ways on its own. But even Adam Smith understood the necessity of a moral support structure behind capitalism to build a stable society. Badly aligned incentives can unravel whole cultures, and when culture unravels or collapses, whether into the inner city crime waves of past decades or the silent scourge of drugs and disability in small towns today, the ugliness never ends. It has a direct political spillover, drives migration patterns, and leaves behind wreckage that may stick around for decades. The physical signs of decline may fade away over time, but the pain in the present and in future generations can be a mountain to overcome. Every effort should be made to overcome it, but the odds are hardly stacked in a favorable way.

This brings me back to Brian Alexander’s insistence that small towns do matter, a perspective he renders with proper respect toward metropolitan areas. There is a fair amount of mushy ground here, as the piece paints the suburbs in a lazy trope, and it’s impossible to prove whether or not small towns are a sort of moral compass and proving ground for a nation. (I am, however, generally sympathetic to the notion that forcing people into proximity with other people from a wide range of backgrounds is a healthy thing for personal formation. This doesn’t just come through sharing a town; after my grandfather’s funeral, a cousin and I discussed how having so many aunts and uncles in our sprawling family gave us an immediate window into a broad swath of life.) But there are some essential insights in his piece.

Just as Williamson tell us failing small towns deserve little sympathy, it’s become fashionable in certain urbanist circles to shrug and say that the economy is what it is, and that small towns are doomed to die. No doubt the dwindling, especially in a relative sense, will continue in many places. But decline does have profound political consequences, and the alterations to a national culture that stem from economic and cultural upheaval are not to be taken lightly. Change will continue, and we’ll need as many Loureys as we can get to weather the storm. Relying on that exceptional level of dedication and service is a bit of a Hail Mary; efforts need not go that far to be a success. But they do require a moral commitment to place that goes beyond graphs of economic performance and understands what it means to take root in a community. Cut off the roots, and the tree will die.

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Forward, and into the Past

15 May

It is just over 450 miles from Duluth, Minnesota to the western suburbs of Chicago. Growing up in the former and but coming from a family built around the latter, I cannot count how many times I’ve made that drive. It is not a particularly thrilling ribbon of road; while the Northwoods of northern Wisconsin and the rolling hills around Madison are pleasant, they don’t stand out in any obvious way, and as with most any freeway in this country, there are long stretches of blah suburban sprawl. But it’s a drive I’ve made so many times that even the most indistinct farmhouses and office buildings lining the road take on a certain familiarity. With familiarity comes comfort, comfort lends itself to repetition, and before long, improbable traditions are born.

There’s the cheese barn in Tomah, where we always stop for a hunk of 5-year cheddar; there’s the rest area near Black River Falls with a hiking trail up a convenient bluff—the perfect way to get one’s legs moving after several hours in the car. Sadly, the Rocky Rococo’s Pizza Parlor is no longer in Wisconsin Dells; it wasn’t particularly remarkable pizza, but we always stopped there anyway, and now have to improvise, either by heading on to another Rocky’s in Madison or going to the sit-down pizza place up the road with the fantastic giant moose atop their delivery cars. (The Dells are still an attraction in themselves, being one of the most impressive monuments to American consumer kitsch this side of Vegas.) There’s the ABS Beef billboard with its witty slogans, the offbeat coffee shop in Eau Claire, and the Illinois border, always a welcome sight despite the looming tolls and inevitable construction clogging up the last hour or two of the drive.

In southern Wisconsin, there are places that have a deeper place in my psyche than merely passing amusement. There is Madison, where my parents met and went to school; even though I’ve never lived there, it still brings out all the nostalgia of a former home. No summer is quite complete without an afternoon basking in the sun on the Memorial Union Terrace, or wandering up State Street in search of the most obscure possible culinary experience. (“Nah, we went to one of the Afghan places last summer; let’s try the Nepali restaurant this time.”) I see a lot of Madison in myself: a mix of Midwestern homeliness and university life (including both its intellectual and, um, “less refined” delights), interested in both the wider world and every move of the local sports teams. (I adopt the Badgers for sports in which my alma mater doesn’t compete.) It all adds up to one of the most vibrant small cities this country can offer, and on this road trip, it’s always a reassuring sign to see the capitol dome rising above the skyline.

After filling my granola quota in Madison, a short drive south takes me past the place where our old Honda once broke down and on to Edgerton. Edgerton is a town of some 5,000 residents, and in many ways couldn’t be further from the cosmopolitan pretension of Madison. To the passerby, it’s no different from any of the other towns lining the freeway, and the one or two facts one might learn of it—home to the world’s largest Culver’s restaurant! home of an annual “Tobacco Days” festival!—hardly inspire the casual driver. Further digging might reveal some things that might intrigue a few people: say, the home of children’s author Sterling North, or perhaps the intriguing political dynamics of a town halfway between lefty Madison and its industrial southern neighbor, Janesville—the hometown of Congressman Paul Ryan. Still, Edgerton seems exactly the sort of town people imagine when they hear the words “flyover country.”

But Edgerton will always be more than that: it was where my first memories were formed. I wasn’t born there, and it proved a fairly brief stop, convenient for its location between my mother’s graduate program in Madison and my father’s work in another Wisconsin town. I don’t know anyone who lives there anymore, and the memories are so distant that I only barely recognize the landmarks. What remains is a profound sense of rightness, one that comes rushing back when we make a pit stop at the old gas station, swing past the handful of places I remember: the house with the little creek in the back yard, a land I claimed as my kingdom; the school where I tormented my kindergarten teacher by making her look up the names of bizarre dinosaurs while other, more sensible children picked normal spelling words; the park with the pool whose water slide I was never quite tall enough to use; the library with its card catalogues; the daycare where I’d sit in the kitchen on a cot with pile of books during naptime because I couldn’t sleep.

On my most recent drive along this route, down from Duluth to Chicago with my mother to visit her mother on Mother’s Day, we listened to a book on disc, as we often do on these road trips. Our selection this time was Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose. It was an ideal book for this drive: a story of pioneers that takes its time, buried in so much rich detail that one can zone out along the road for a spell without missing much, but also drift back in to find a sudden gem of brilliance. It is the story of a retired history professor who, at an advanced age, finds himself divorced and unable to relate to his own son, alienated from the modern world he lives in. Lost in the present, he returns to the past, and sets out to write a fictionalized family history, following his grandparents across the American West. It’s a very long book, so we only made it halfway through, but the incisive opening passages were all I really needed to set my mind thinking about the past.

Perhaps Edgerton is the reason why, despite a lifelong fascination with the countries whose cuisine one finds lining State Street, I am still most at home in Middle America. Perhaps it is why I can take these apparently plain little towns and see not a cultural waste, but a diversity just as rich as that of any other place, all hidden in the details and waiting to be discovered. It is almost certainly why my own lurching attempts to write fiction always come back to places not so very different from Edgerton.

I try to be suspicious of nostalgia. It can lie, make us believe we should go back to a past whose faults have faded from memory, leaving only a false, pleasant haze. But we also shouldn’t dismiss it as irrational; instead, we need to reflect on it over time, recognize that it ties us to things that are part of who we are, and things that are worth carrying forward. There is value in any history if we read it carefully, and that is exactly what that drive across Wisconsin invites, no matter how distant my life may wander from it.