Revitalizing Small Town America
September 5, 2018 11:42 PM   Subscribe

How to Save the Troubled American Heartland - "Some places can't be rescued. Those that can need help from business, government and nonprofits."
"Our Towns" presages a country where small towns of 5,000 give way to small cities of 50,000. This must be the future of the Rust Belt. Of Appalachia. Of the Inland Empire. Etc.
'Our Towns': How small cities aren't just surviving, but thriving - "Journalists Deborah and James Fallows' 100,000-mile trip to find what's working in this country."

'Our Towns' finds optimism in America's smaller cities - "Husband-and-wife journalism team James and Deborah Fallows spent five years traveling the US via passenger plane and returned with a refreshingly positive story to tell."

Our Towns. Solutions & Reinvention: James Fallows - "The America they saw is deeply conscious of its problems-- from the appalling opioid epidemic to decades of economic dislocation. But many communities are coming up with practical, lasting solutions, in contrast to the rigid paralysis of national politics."

more: also btw...
-US cities where incomes are shrinking the fastest
-US cities where incomes are growing at the fastest pace

-US population changes: What's the fastest shrinking county in your state?
-US population boom: Fastest growing county in every state

-These are the cities Americans are abandoning the most
-Population migration patterns: US cities Americans are flocking to
posted by kliuless (47 comments total) 56 users marked this as a favorite
 
Based on discussions with family living in the UP of Michigan and friends & family in the Pacific Northwest, small town recovery is viewed by a lot of people as "someone" showing up with money and jobs to bring back a dying economy. In some places, there's an active effort to attract "someone", but it often feels like multiple degrees of Waiting for Guffman.
posted by ptfe at 6:06 AM on September 6, 2018 [11 favorites]


I know this particular Spongebob meme is superannuated now, but let me just say: MeDs AnD eDs

anyways i love visiting america's flourishing medium-size towns with populations of 50,000 like, uh, Columbus, Ohio
posted by The Bridge on the River Kai Ryssdal at 6:58 AM on September 6, 2018 [1 favorite]


ultimately the US is a very decentralized and enormous place with freedom of movement within it that leaves a lot of room for experimentation. the founders got a whole fuckin assload of things wrong, but that part they got right. the states that immiserate their people (kansas) will in the end suffer population loss, as will, for a different reason, those places that are only pleasant to live in for those with money (nyc, sf). people will figure shit out and move where they need to move. eventually the people priced out of big cities will revitalize the small towns that need an infusion of energy, or at least some of them. if the current anti-immigrant craze ebbs after the (fingers crossed) dissolution of this iteration of the republican party, the recovery will go all the faster.

i have much more confidence in the ability of the US to rebalance economically than politically. but that is a rant for another thread...
posted by wibari at 7:00 AM on September 6, 2018 [2 favorites]


I'm so proud of James Fallows for demonstrating that it's not just self-important white dudes in the South Bay who can get money and prestige reinventing something that already existed fifty years ago (in this case, uh, a major branch of American urban policy) and dressing it up as an exciting solution they've discovered. Turns out self-important white dudes from DC can do that, too! Inspiring!
posted by The Bridge on the River Kai Ryssdal at 7:07 AM on September 6, 2018 [4 favorites]


Let's do something gang, how about a MiFi commune, we all get together in Tiptonville and take over, get high speed fiber and the new millennial holistic non-religious high wage (for the area) good natured prototype prototypical new-new age community for the twenty third centurary! Good natural food, low rent, good family values (no patriarchy misogynists allowed)! Spread the word of Mat! Lead by example.
posted by sammyo at 7:12 AM on September 6, 2018 [3 favorites]


those places that are only pleasant to live in for those with money (nyc, sf)

That's not what those places are, actually. And certainly they're not trending population growth in the way you describe.

small town recovery is viewed by a lot of people as "someone" showing up with money and jobs

They will be waiting a long time. The value of free farm land and untapped resources that cheap transportation enabled in America's heartland and west is not going to happen again. These 'someones' only show up to extract existing wealth and receive your mortgaged future.
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 7:15 AM on September 6, 2018 [16 favorites]


get money and prestige reinventing something that already existed fifty years ago

Now, now. Rediscovering and/or popularizing something with your bully pulpit has value too, even if the something in question is known to somebody already. I mean you could argue his quest to ban the combustion-powered leaf blower is just reinventing the longstanding tradition of quiet, non-polluting dead leaf management or what have you, but if it means I can get tranquility and clean air then all power to him.
posted by hyperbolic at 7:17 AM on September 6, 2018 [2 favorites]


As someone who has just moved from a big city to a small town of 28.000 inhabitants and is thinking of moving to an even smaller community of 1600 inhabitants, I am looking forward to getting through this amazing post. Thanks kliuless.
My motivations for moving out: I've found a great job in that small town, and I love it. The town is fine two, but also very conservative in a bad way. But the even smaller place offers a great open-minded community and hi-speed fibernet (those two things are one), meaning I could grow a business there or find work with good people.
posted by mumimor at 7:35 AM on September 6, 2018 [1 favorite]


Not to abuse the edit window. I don't think the migration towards the urban centres is a final thing. It makes sense right now for a lot of people, and specially it has made sense for the last 20 years. But that sense is ending. The internet is finally beginning to deliver on its promise (see hi-speed fibernet in tiny village), and the effects of global warming may well push people out of the cities.
posted by mumimor at 7:39 AM on September 6, 2018


Saw this article this week about a very rural county south of Pittsburgh, In Greene County, school budgets are being hollowed out by dwindling coal reserves. I don't really know what the solution is for a place like Greene County, PA. I mean the state can help fund the school districts but there's nothing to do there and without coal, there's no real reason for anyone to stay there or move there.
posted by octothorpe at 7:46 AM on September 6, 2018 [4 favorites]


I'm from a small town in Appalachia, and it's the same as what octothorpe says. It's one of those places where you know from an early age that your choices are The Mill (which is constantly threatening to close and/or relocate), The Mines (which are dwindling), or GTFO. Almost everybody with aspirations beyond graduating high school opt for the getting out. Even if there were viable jobs there, there's not much to do outside of drinking, fishing, riding dirt bikes, and shooting guns. No "arts", no dining that's fancier than a Ruby Tuesday that's 20 minutes away, nothing that most suburbanites or city-folk take for granted.

There's no reason for any industry to actually put a factory (or data center, or anything tech-related) there. You can get just-as-cheap and more plentiful labor closer to civilization, and use the existing infrastructure like rails and roads.

It's a nice place to visit, but there's no way I'd want to live there.
posted by Mr. Big Business at 8:00 AM on September 6, 2018 [20 favorites]


"My" village was once entirely dependent on fishing. The 5th largest harbor in Denmark, in spite of the then tiny population of 900. There was a big fish processing industry there, and a lot of adjacent industries like a ship builder, and navigation electronics. For years after that crashed, they were depressed and mourned the past. But then somehow they turned around. I don't know a lot yet, since I'm only a prospective inhabitant. But I am very curious, and they are seeing growth. Because of that former prosperity, you generally meet educated and ambitious people there, who are giving their perspective to their kids.
posted by mumimor at 8:12 AM on September 6, 2018 [1 favorite]


The small town I grew up in is suffering the same fate. In my opinion, between the 1950s-now, every small town tried to become a suburb (spreading things farther and farther apart) but with no major city attached, which depleted the community aspects and made them worse places to live. The smart ones have a historic main street but it's a tourist stop more than a legit place to shop as a resident. I can see the charm in a small town, but a suburb without a city is a terrible place to live for most.

Also, the amount of government intervention is often way overstated - massive amounts of state and federal cash flashed expanding roads and (maybe) funding the schools. But that's it. It's not spent on the existing town.

The town I grew up in had high-speed internet - but you can't live your whole life on the internet, so I don't see that as a savior.
posted by The_Vegetables at 8:20 AM on September 6, 2018 [3 favorites]


Metafilter: you can't live your whole life on the internet, so I don't see that as a savior.
posted by Melismata at 8:23 AM on September 6, 2018 [11 favorites]


Here in Canada smaller towns are being revitalized by both tourism and remote work. Tourism can provide a great source of revenue for any enterprising town as social media and lower costs of travel attract more and more people that want to see the world. And I just found my first ever remote working job (they are not nearly as common in Canada yet), so now I'm pondering my options - why live in a big expensive city when all I need is solid internet and the world is my oyster?
posted by tatiana131 at 8:27 AM on September 6, 2018 [3 favorites]


Decentralizing agriculture would do a lot to support smaller towns.

Say every urban area for a certain population threshold had to source their produce from small to medium hold farms with a hundred miles that observed best organic and carbon sequester practices! You’d see a lot more empty exurbs turning to productive land use and a lot more market towns.
posted by The Whelk at 8:34 AM on September 6, 2018 [16 favorites]


Here in Canada smaller towns are being revitalized by both tourism and remote work.

I think that coastal small towns are much better off than landlocked small towns in that sense. There will always be people looking for a cheap place to live and visit that's near the sea. The old coal and mill towns in Appalachia and the midwest have no such luck.
posted by tobascodagama at 8:37 AM on September 6, 2018 [6 favorites]


I'm from a small town in Appalachia, and it's the same as what octothorpe says. It's one of those places where you know from an early age that your choices are The Mill (which is constantly threatening to close and/or relocate), The Mines (which are dwindling), or GTFO.
I grew up in Mississippi. The notion that I would leave, and never come back, took root very very early, as it does with so many smart kids who have options there.

I think I've said this before, but I was a National Merit scholar. My high school class produced 8 of us. Only 1 stayed in Mississippi, and he moved to Jackson. That's not the kind of ratio that speaks to growth.

It's probably important to note something else, too, though. It's not just opportunity. It's the mindset of smaller, more homogenous places. MS is on the far end of this spectrum, but the close-mindedness, the social conservativism, the unrelenting racism, etc, all tend to show up when you have smaller municipalities dominated by, well, white people (and I are one). This creates an environment where even someone like me -- a white, upper-middle-class cis straight white guy with great test scores -- felt unwelcome. And that's getting worse (self-link, but prior writing on topic).

"The Internet" doesn't solve this problem. You need other people that don't make you crazy, and you need to be able to physically congregate. And, in places like MS, the other people like you have probably left.
posted by uberchet at 8:46 AM on September 6, 2018 [28 favorites]


AMEN, uberchet. There is NO scenario I can imagine, including someone literally giving me a free house, that would make me move back to small-town MS. The only thing that would make most of these places attractive to people like us would be a massive influx of open-minded, culturally aware folks of similar like mind and some places to hang out with them. Why would anyone want to move their industry to a place with 25 evangelical Christian churches, no library or community center, a dilapidated asbestos-filled school, a ravaged landscape of coal sludge pits/clear-cut pine woods/etc. and a main drag filled with Dollar General, check-cashing places, a beauty parlor, and used car lots?! I dunno, I hate to sound pessimistic but...I'm skeptical of any way of fixing the thing. It's just hard to understand unless you've actually lived in places with such a bleak hopelessness of spirit.
posted by SinAesthetic at 9:05 AM on September 6, 2018 [29 favorites]


"The Internet" doesn't solve this problem. You need other people that don't make you crazy, and you need to be able to physically congregate.

This. My own small hometown had only one in-town industry (that closed in the early 80s) and not a lot to do. There was something of an art scene, thanks to a super-enthusiastic community theater group (Waiting for Guffman resonated with me on a deeply, deeply personal level), and that art scene is expanding; they just opened a big stage for live music last month, and someone has taken over the old mill and is turning part of it into studio space and subsidized artist's residences. Another part of the mill was slated for tech use as well.

And despite all that - I wouldn't go back. Because even though I found a team of creative people while I was there, I still nevertheless didn't really....fit in with them. There is a homogenity of thought in small towns, in my experience, that you only really notice if you're on the outside of it; not that people would be outright rude to me or anything, or that they were when I was there, but I would definitely be treated like a visiting outsider; kind of held at arms' length. The only place I could really fully be me was in a city, where there are so many other people thinking in their own unique ways that nobody really gives a shit if you think out of sync with them because so does everyone else.

The more diversity in small towns, the better.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:07 AM on September 6, 2018 [9 favorites]


The thing is, they're not talking about small towns. They're talking about small cities, and some of them aren't that small. (They mention Pittsburgh, which I think of as a medium-sized, at least, city.) A lot of them have at least one college or university. There's a big difference between small-town Mississippi and Burlington, Vermont or even Sioux Falls.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 9:20 AM on September 6, 2018 [3 favorites]


That's probably fair, but (a) it's a continuum; and (b) the MS "small town" I grew up in had 100,000 people in the greater area, give or take. The probably doesn't go away with scale until you become genuinely urbanized.

Honestly, Jackson's not a lot better, and its metro area is over half a million.
posted by uberchet at 9:30 AM on September 6, 2018 [1 favorite]


Here in Canada smaller towns are being revitalized by both tourism and remote work.

And it is fine as long as you are young and healthy. As soon as you need surgery or specialized medical care you discover why cities are better really fast. Usually at least at the speed of the highway + 30km/h that takes you there for chemo/physio 3 times a week.
posted by srboisvert at 9:32 AM on September 6, 2018 [7 favorites]


MS is on the far end of this spectrum, but the close-mindedness, the social conservativism, the unrelenting racism, etc, all tend to show up when you have smaller municipalities dominated by, well, white people (and I are one). This creates an environment where even someone like me -- a white, upper-middle-class cis straight white guy with great test scores -- felt unwelcome.

Yes, this. My family comes from a small town in the south. It's a low-cost place that's close enough to a bunch of highways that companies like it there, so it still has a functioning economy. But it's the sort of place where people are fanatically anti-union and casually anti-intellectual, so life is probably not going to get any better than it is now. The smartest people there don't want to stay. And the people who stay are very defensive about it. ("_____ is a great place, it was good enough for my parents and it's good enough for me." "I guess _____ isn't very interesting to some people, but we do just fine here," etc.)

I know one can't blame the Republican part for everything, but it's hard not to blame them for a lot of this. My grandfather wasn't an educated man, but he made sure his kids were. The math was easy for him: you kids are smart, why would you want to break your back working for a pittance when you could get an education and become a lawyer or an engineer? He was part of the generation that saw government-funded projects to increase access to electricity, sanitation, transportation, etc. These changes radically improved the quality of life for everyone in town. The area further benefited from the boom years of NASA and other Cold War spending. He was alive to rail against "starve the beast" mentality, but if he survived to see the cult it evolved into, I think he might cry. Has there ever been a constituency as eager to destroy their own communities are Republican voters?
posted by grandiloquiet at 9:34 AM on September 6, 2018 [21 favorites]


Say every urban area for a certain population threshold had to source their produce from small to medium hold farms with a hundred miles that observed best organic and carbon sequester practices! You’d see a lot more empty exurbs turning to productive land use and a lot more market towns.

Or you would have a bunch of cities outside of California trying desperately not to cross the threshold. Nobody wants to eat nothing but rutabaga all winter.
posted by praemunire at 9:38 AM on September 6, 2018 [7 favorites]


And that's getting worse (self-link, but prior writing on topic).

And just in case you think uberchet is exaggerating, just go read the comments to the linked post. And it's not one crazy person, it's practically everyone, including plenty of members of your own family. It royally sucks, but if you've got the wheels, you roll away.
posted by The_Vegetables at 10:21 AM on September 6, 2018 [2 favorites]


And it is fine as long as you are young and healthy. As soon as you need surgery or specialized medical care you discover why cities are better really fast. Usually at least at the speed of the highway + 30km/h that takes you there for chemo/physio 3 times a week.
Greenville, Sioux Falls, and Pittsburgh all have teaching hospitals. Eerie has a hospital affiliated with University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. There could be some gaps in health care, but I don't think people in these places would have to travel hours for chemo.

I don't know. I moved to a small city like the ones they're talking about, and I think I'm mostly glad I did. There are definitely some trade-offs, but they're not necessarily the trade-offs you'd expect. Our healthcare is fine. The library is great. It's not diverse, but on the other hand it's not nearly as segregated as the big cities I've lived in. The state legislature is an absolute shit-show, but there are big cities where that's also the case, and there are small cities in blue states. I could make a case for people moving here, although it's definitely not right for everyone.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 10:27 AM on September 6, 2018 [1 favorite]


Pittsburgh's not a small city though, the Pittsburgh MSA is in the top 25 for the country. It's only slightly smaller than Portland.
posted by octothorpe at 10:33 AM on September 6, 2018 [3 favorites]


I've lived mostly around Central FL in the types of places described as suburbs without any major urban area attached, and yeah, even with some better urban-like amenities like a tiny art museum, some libraries, a few newer public parks, it's still a place with very little culture to offer. Sure, there are outdoor things to do, but a community theatre that cycles through the same 5 musicals for decades and an art museum that doesn't attract nationally-recognized exhibits aren't really providing much enrichment. In these sorts of places, social lives often take place in corporate-owned spaces: starbucks, franchise restaurants, the one mall in town that sometimes sponsors a fall festival or similar. And the widespread knee-jerk conservatism is real. You do get tired of being surrounded by people who are okay with the schools teaching Christianity, the low priority given to education, the sense that everyone has to make it on their own so we don't need public transportation or social programs. People have a disdain for the communal projects of urban areas. For example, in my town people lost their minds over the possibility that a light rail project to connect two urban areas might include a stop here (an area which does cater to a smaller volume of tourism) because they didn't want "those people" from Large Minority-Population City around. People sincerely use the names of cities as pejoratives. There are so many white dudes who are literally grumpy that their neighbors even exist, but they need to live near a Buffalo Wild Wings and a Wal Mart.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 12:16 PM on September 6, 2018 [4 favorites]


The old coal and mill towns in Appalachia and the midwest have no such luck.

I understand that sentiment, but I would visit the crap out of Appalachia, if there was an Airbnb around and somewhere to eat, and some enterprising company doing local tours of whatever. I really would. I loved Deep Run Roots and would visit the crap out of Appalachia if someone fed me. Small coastal towns rock too, but they're usually seasonal and quite expensive too.
posted by tatiana131 at 1:53 PM on September 6, 2018 [1 favorite]


if there was an Airbnb around and somewhere to eat, and some enterprising company doing local tours of whatever.

You might have to slum it in a hotel or conventional rental property company rather than something web 2.0, but you absolutely can do this in many areas. As an added bonus, the places large enough to have a tourist industry tend to be pretty scenic. I've spent extensive time in Appalachia and can assure you that there's plenty of fine dining and places to stay to be found.

Yes, you'll hit areas where there's little tourist industry and deeply depressed towns with little hope of recovery, but if the thing holding you back from visiting is being worried about not finding better food than Applebee's, you've not looked hard.
posted by Candleman at 2:20 PM on September 6, 2018 [3 favorites]


There's actually AirBnB's aplenty, even here in Appalachia (which, I should remind folks, spans several entire states). I frequently peruse them when fantasizing about getting away from it all in a manner that doesn't require me to fly anywhere or drive forever. There's also tour and outfitting companies in areas with national and state parks. It's beautiful country, you should visit.
posted by soren_lorensen at 2:30 PM on September 6, 2018 [7 favorites]


I was in rural Appalachia this summer, and I'd go back in a heartbeat. I actually think I may go back next year. Also, I kind of loved Knoxville. I think I could probably live there, although it's hard to get a great sense of a place in a weekend. But Knoxville seemed kind of surprisingly great.

The thing is, I think that the places in Appalachia that the Fallowses are talking about are Greenville, Ashville, and maybe even Knoxville. (It's really hard for me to tell what the cut-off for a "small city" is for them.)
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 2:33 PM on September 6, 2018 [1 favorite]


I grew up outside of Knoxville, and it was my Mecca, my big city. Until I moved to Nashville. Which was awesome, until I moved to St. Louis and then Kansas City.

I knew as a child that I'd never grow in to be the me I wanted to be in Lenoir City, but I didn't really understand what my options were either. For us, moving to the big city meant Knoxville, maybe Nashville or Atlanta if you were wild. When friends from school find out I live in the midwest, it's like I've moved to LA. Which cracks me the hell up because the only reason I didn't move to the real cities was because I got distracted by life and jobs and stayed in the mid-range. I've never really lived in an epically big city like New York or LA, but I love the mid-range bigger city with rational liquor laws, good food, kind people, and a gesture towards diversity. They let a small town girl pretend to be fancy while not being to intimidating or expensive.
posted by teleri025 at 3:24 PM on September 6, 2018 [4 favorites]


One thing that I find often missing from these conversations is how tiiiiiiny LGBTQ communities can feel in even medium cities. I'm not even talking about representation or political affinity here, though that's also a big deal, but simply "if I'm not already partnered, how hard is this gonna be?" In my own experience, even cities around 100-200k can feel pretty darn tiny for LGBTQ folks, and once you further filter for your rough age group? I wonder what the actual numbers are for young-20s single LGBTQ people. I suspect we migrate towards bigger cities even more than the general trend.
posted by nakedmolerats at 3:44 PM on September 6, 2018 [13 favorites]


Say every urban area for a certain population threshold had to source their produce from small to medium hold farms with a hundred miles that observed best organic and carbon sequester practices!

I'm not sure that's feasible given the sheer volume of food you need to keep a city fed. Just keeping up with NYC's wheat consumption would mean putting 1/2 of Rhode Island to plow.
posted by nathan_teske at 3:58 PM on September 6, 2018 [3 favorites]


Fantastic post, kliuless.
posted by doctornemo at 4:16 PM on September 6, 2018


Telework is great... so long as there's actually broadband available. Rural counties and many towns are being hit hard by landing on the digital divide's wrong side.
posted by doctornemo at 4:22 PM on September 6, 2018 [3 favorites]


an art museum that doesn't attract nationally-recognized exhibits aren't really providing much enrichment.

Whoa there! I've lived in small cities for many years and find the culture issue to be overblown in a lot of ways, though not all, when the small city is relatively liberal leaning like many college towns. Becoming a supporting member of a small museum can offer lots of fulfilling experiences. For those less well off, like myself, it is an opportunity to engage with a museum in a manner that isn't as possible in bigger cities where big dollar donors attract most of the attention. While you won't get "major" art shows of world famous artists you can find shows by up and coming artists, art that is connected to the area, and many exhibits that are simply enticing for what they are, even if the works themselves aren't famous.

Local music concerts too can easily be as fulfilling to attend for the smaller, more approachable size of the venues and lack of distance between performers and audience. Bands that stop by on tours may not be famous yet or ever but that doesn't mean the performances aren't enjoyable. Most popular music styles translate fine to smaller populations, and some are even easier to locate depending on the area.

Small cities certainly don't offer the broad smorgasbord of attractions available everyday that big cities might, and some will certainly be lacking in some particular strains of art that one may enjoy, but, if you're willing, what they do have can still be as enjoyable for the smaller scale as big city art is for its greater renown. If you need to frequently attend different art events for a place to be livable, then, yeah, small cities may feel too limited, but as most people don't actually attend events as much as they like to think about attending, then letting go of that mindset and going with what there is instead of simply enjoying looking at a bigger menu can be very rewarding.

As to the larger issue, one thing that strikes me is how much of the problem is tied to values. The articles and studies, as well as my personal experience, seems to suggests improving small cities and towns requires an injection of at least moderate liberalism into the area, which is exactly what many small towns desperately seek to avoid. I grow up in a first ring suburb of a moderately big city and, as soon as I could, moved close to the downtown area for the diversity and cultural aspects and stayed there for many years. In all those years I only ran into two people from my conservative high school. (Outside a handful of friends who moved close to downtown as well.) Most of my class that stayed in the area moved farther away from the downtown area to second and third ring suburbs to avoid the very things I sought. At the same time, a friend of mine from out of state who grew up in a smaller town regularly ran into people she went to school with who sought to get away from the conservative values of their town by moving to the closest "big city". They were seeking a sense of community that supported a large LGBT community and diverse values.

Conservatism is largely based on fear and conformity, and because of that diversity is anathema to those who cling to those values. In talking to people from the suburbs, the belief was the city was radically unsafe, which was ridiculous. They honestly feared their lives would be in peril if they spent too much time there, aside from attending mass spectator sporting events and the like. Working near downtown I had people request I walk them to their cars a hundred yards away at three in the afternoon out of worry they'd somehow be attacked in broad daylight in a thriving business district for being white basically.

Converting small towns to more successful existence requires converting belief in the value of diversity, but that isn't easy in a country that elected Trump. Too many small cities are filled with people who desperately do not want to engage with anyone unlike them and create a welcoming culture. They want to isolate themselves and entomb their values rather than change or grow. Fighting that mindset is difficult as only the experience of success through diversity will help, but it will be fought and place people in hard, potentially dangerous, situations if forced, such as can happen with immigrant populations or any "outsider" that doesn't fit the norm. It's hard to get small towns to thrive when the people in them prefer to hide from a world they don't understand.
posted by gusottertrout at 12:09 AM on September 7, 2018 [11 favorites]


the belief was the city was radically unsafe
Yeah, this is a huge lie suburbanites LOVE to believe. The actual difference in level of safety between a downtown area and a suburb, as measured in, say, violent crime stats, isn't typically that big. It's certainly not big enough to justify the claim that "oh, we moved to the suburbs for safety!"

No. You moved to the suburbs because you wanted homogeneity.
posted by uberchet at 8:47 AM on September 7, 2018 [2 favorites]


the belief was the city was radically unsafe

I blame local news for this. I used to live in rural Southern Maryland (an area that these days is less rural and more exurban, but when I lived there was still very rural). The "local" TV you get when you live there is Baltimore or DC stations, both fairly large cities and both a 90 minute drive away. I've also lived in DC so I know exactly how dangerous it is there (i.e., it's not at all if you're an average middle class white person). When I lived in Southern MD I taught high school and occasionally I'd mention to the kids that me and my husband were going to spend the weekend in DC to visit friends/museums/get a city fix and the kids would all be like ooooomg aren't you afraid you're going to get shot???? It took me a while to figure out that they had this weird skewed impression of the safety of DC because every night for 30-60 minutes, every single violent crime committed in the District was beamed directly into their living room. Because they didn't actually live there nor even ever visit they had nothing to counter this with. No opposing evidence. Just guns guns guns stab stab stab rob rob rob fire fire fire.

I see the same effect here in Pittsburgh with suburbanites who also work in the suburbs and really only ever come into town for specific events. They watch the same news as me (well, okay, I don't really watch local news anymore because, like, who does?) but they don't have the same daily experience of riding the bus and walking down the street and interacting with the people.
posted by soren_lorensen at 10:17 AM on September 7, 2018 [9 favorites]


What's really weird to me is that the same thing is true even in the smaller city I live in now. The population is only a bit over 100,000, but there are still "suburban" types who refuse to live in the city proper out of worry over crime and other assorted badness. They move to even smaller towns or live out in the county. It's nuts.

I have to think it also ties in at least a little to the other thing that keeps throwing me off about life here, and that's how religious people are, or more accurately perhaps, how strongly they associate themselves and "community" to their specific churches. This has been true in the other smaller cities I've lived in as well, where one's religion seems to be used as a strong social marker, occasionally for some good, in a we take care of our own sense, but as often in an exclusionary or judgmental way. I'd almost say that if you want to revitalize small towns, start by dealing with the churches that so often preach conservative values.
posted by gusottertrout at 1:12 PM on September 7, 2018 [4 favorites]


> You moved to the suburbs because you wanted homogeneity

I moved to the suburbs because I couldn't afford to live in the city any more.
posted by The corpse in the library at 1:23 PM on September 7, 2018 [11 favorites]




The Technology Frontier and the Rise and Fall of Cities (via)
Abstract: We analyze the universe of U.S. patents over the period 1830-2015. We document how innovation patterns have evolved over time and space, paying special attention to the evolution of leading technological sectors and the location of innovation hubs. We infer the leading technologies at different points in time from the evolution of the patent citation network. We document the rise and fall in prominence of different technologies and show that the technology frontier has moved towards more income elastic and skill-intensive sectors. We document innovation patterns at the city level using geocoded information for all patents in our sample. We find that innovation has become more clustered in space over time and, at the same time, the average distance between inventors of a patent has also increased over time. We then analyze whether the technological mix of a city has predictive power for future city growth. We also explore whether recombinant growth has become more prominent over time.
Technology and City Cycles: "We then analyze whether, given the technological mix produced in a certain geographical area, it is possible to determine its resilience to future negative economic shocks. Specialization might bring higher growth over the short-run through increasing returns, but areas with a more diversified technological portfolio might be able to respond to shifts in demand more promptly and adjust their production to take advantage of new economic opportunities."
posted by kliuless at 9:59 PM on September 8, 2018


the belief was the city was radically unsafe
This is true here in Denmark too, and I think it's a dogwhistle. People asked me "how can you live with children in *that* dangerous place?", one of my brothers-in-law was scared of parking his car in my street, my gran always thought I'd get food-poisoning (yes, WTF???), and what they all meant was: there are majority brown people. Now as I've moved to a small town, I've even had the one Muslim person I've met here think that way. Sigh.

Gussertrout's comment nails it: the hindrances for change in the flyover states of the US and in the corresponding areas in the EU are mainly cultural, not economical. In places where the locals have accepted incoming artists and entrepreneurs, things are already changing.
posted by mumimor at 9:41 AM on September 9, 2018 [1 favorite]


Great post. This is one of the topics Metafilter is often bad at, but it's nice to see that no one's jumped down anyone else's throat yet, particularly since there's a lot to unpack here.

The value of free farm land and untapped resources that cheap transportation enabled in America's heartland and west is not going to happen again.
QFT. In many cases there is simply no economic reason for these towns to exist anymore. It's only a sort of cultural revanchism that gives small town America a lot of its romance; scratch the surface and much of it is motivated by reactionary ugliness and in-group/out-group exclusion.

There are all sorts of great reasons one might want to live in a small town or smaller city, but many of us ex-rural city-dwellers always end up in these threads reminding people that small towns can also be horrid and toxic.
posted by aspersioncast at 11:32 AM on September 9, 2018 [2 favorites]


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