Are small towns worth saving?

Abbot, Albaville, Burkett, Berwick, Cameron, Easton, Home, Junctionville, Loyola, Marengo and 10 more. These were the towns in Hall County, Nebraska, that didn’t make it. Each one had its own post office. Some were personal ventures, other cooperative and still other were business related. Many were around for a very brief period of time, hoping the railroad would come through. When it didn’t, they died off. Some were around for 50 years.

In the scheme of the developing western United States, the challenges small towns face now look a little different. The rails have already been laid for the most part, trucks allow people to live in remote places without growing all of their own food. The internet allows people in rural America the option of living with the same luxuries, if they have the money, as the people in large cities.

Small town America as a charity case
Last week, Damaris at the Internet Monk suggested the church in America make small towns a new mission field. She lives in a small town that just lost its grocery store. The owner retired and there was no around to replace him. “Where are the wealthy churches willing to back a small business operator in a rural area as their mission project? . . . running a doctor’s office or grocery store in rural America isn’t typically considered missions by many Christians. But if caring for people’s daily needs is a means of mission work in Burkina Faso, why not here?” That in itself is an interesting question, but it’s not the question that really prompted this article.

In the comments following Damaris’ appeal, a few people began to question the validity of saving small towns in the first place, let alone with church monies. Some people were suggesting we should, perhaps, just let them die — maybe even help them close up shop.

Should a small town try and be revived, or should it die?

Life in a small town — and by small here I’m thinking 2,500 people at the very most — wasn’t something I ever really wanted in life. My idealized space was always the countryside outside of a large city or the actual core of the city. Living in Siloam Springs, Arkansas for more than six years (not exactly small by rural standards at 14,000 people, but half the size of anywhere else I’d lived at that point) probably opened the idea up to my subconscious. Giving serious consideration to Hazelton, Kansas was the first active step in my considering life in a small town, very small. The past month I’ve been pondering a property for the arts center in the even smaller Kansas community of Ada, which appears to be made up of all of 8 named streets.

Who makes the call?
If we say that we think small towns should die, who makes the call? How small is too small? Do some small towns have cultural value that gives them precedence over their peers that might not have a museum or small college?

The debate over the value of rural America is actually already underway. A few weeks ago I heard a news bit about whether or not road maintenance in some of the more the rural parts of Nebraska should continue to be funded, or simply be forgotten at the state level. Fuel taxes are among the highest in the country in Nebraska and they still don’t cover the cost of highway maintenance.

Even if current sentiments and economics seem to suggest certain small towns are not worth keeping around, these may not be the best way to place value on rural communities. Some things about rural life can and have been argued for even as the world becomes more and more urban, and these ideals are worth fighting for.

When I was in college I took a community planning course — unfortunately I only had time for one. One of our projects was to anticipate the growth of our own city, Lincoln, Nebraska. The projects were then evaluated by a professional planner, and after the critique our professor pointed out that we all assumed the city would get larger. Why do we always assume our communities will grow?

What happens if we decide we need to shut down small towns now and then in 100 years see a need for them again?

The new small town
Is there an in between, does it have to be all or nothing? Is there a new look for small towns, can they persist, indeed flourish in a new way that hasn’t necessarily defined yet?

When thinking about Hazelton and Ada, I’ve realized quickly that the internet presents business opportunities that were formerly not an option in rural communities. Hobby farms or organic farming might work as Americans (thankfully) continue to become more and more aware of where their food comes from. Rural places will have to find ways to leverage their less-considered natural resources in order to attract outsiders. A good example of this is the Star Party in the Nebraska Sandhills.

Some sacrifices will inevitably have to be made, but I believe creative individuals — people who think outside the American lifestyle box — will be able to make it work. How would you make life in a small town work?

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About pcNielsen
Paul Nielsen founded The Aesthetic Elevator late in 2005. He owns a piece of paper, located somewhere in his house (not on the wall), stating that he earned a B.F.A. from the University of Nebraska around about 2001. While there, he studied studied architecture, graphic design and ceramics, graduating with a degree in studio art. Paul presently serves as communications manager for a small non-profit doing their print design and marketing. He spends as much time sculpting in his studio as possible — which is not nearly enough. Visit his website at pcNielsen.com.

7 Responses to Are small towns worth saving?

  1. sojournwanderer says:

    Wow, Paul. I’m glad to come home to this. My first thoughts in response will be upon my blog; I hope it’ll turn into a conversation.

  2. I have lived in Las Vegas, L.A., Washington D.C. and Atlanta. However I tresure the time I lived in the small town of Boulder Utah, pop 65 families. Small town life does take a certain mentality, but the rewards far outweight the downsides. Small town america actually built this country. We tend to forget that. Even your lincoln nebraska was once a single street. Do a little history reading and you will find that alot of our most famous inventor came form small towns.

  3. I’ve been painting for nearly 40 years now, and have lived in rural towns from 2- 12k. The last 23 years in a town of 12k surrounded by farmland for 30 miles in every direction. I don’t recommend it as a route to a successful art career, otherwise I wouldn’t change a thing. The internet helps and I expect it to gradually dissolve the need for proximity to a major city. The nearest major art venue is an 18 hour drive from here. That being said, there are things about myself, life, and about people I would never have learned in a city. I see it in my friends & family who live in cities, there is a distinct lack of self reliance, a sort of dependence, as compared to most of my friends at home. There is also an arrogance in anonymity among city dwellers which could earn a man a broken jaw here.
    PLUS there is the interesting complex subtleties of the people, the beauty of the green rolling hills, the ever changing agricultural landscape, and a variety of green and brown hues most city dwellers are blind to. Anyhow small towns are a great place to paint,, and think and live. It’s also easier to raise a family here, far easier.

    • pcNielsen says:

      “Successful art career” is subjective. If we’re talking about getting rich like Damien Hirst, than not likely. If, however, we’re talking about excelling at our craft and refining our concepts, that can be done most anywhere — although it does help to be in community with other proficient and engaging artists.

      And your comment about a lack of self-reliance on the part of city dwellers is interesting to me, and something I’m beginning to observe as I look for it. I think you’re right about that in many cases.

      • Julie says:

        I’ve been wondering what I’d consider a successful art career. Yes, I would love to make a living at it – if I could do it on my terms, by doing what I would do anyway, if I could feel unpressured by money, by wanting the next things to sell, too… well, wish me luck and Godspeed.

        It wouldn’t bother me to make a living outside of art; it would bother me to lay aside art practice in order to do it.

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