The Good Life
April 11, 2008 8:40 AM   Subscribe

Do you remember those days when mom and dad used to pack you up in the back of the station wagon and drive you to grandma's and grandpa's? Or when you were a dreamer with nothing else on your mind but to escape from the one street town to the big city? Have you ever dreamed of going back, maybe to settle down, get in touch with your roots, and start a new life for yourself. Well, here's your chance. Why not just get up and do it this time. Sure, it's not going to be easy, but maybe it's the change you've been looking for. On the other hand, maybe not, so be advised. But whatever you decide, it sure does look like a way of life that does hold a lot of potential.

The Time and NYT articles linked to are quite outdated ('80 and '87 if I'm not mistaken) so maybe if some of the USians can chime in and corroborate what the authours of those pieces had expected at that time, it would be much appreciated. All I was able to dig up were these two USA Today articles if it's of any help.
posted by hadjiboy (42 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
My grandma lives in rural Minnesota, still chops her own wood. She's 94.
posted by LordSludge at 8:48 AM on April 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

My grandma lives in the city, still drives her car. She's 93.
posted by Burhanistan at 8:52 AM on April 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

"Freelancing full-time? Are you out of your mind?"

Why, yes. Yes, I am.
posted by miss lynnster at 8:55 AM on April 11, 2008

The Time and NYT articles linked to are quite outdated ('80 and '87 if I'm not mistaken)

time -

"Two years in New Buffalo, Mich. (pop. 2,700), out of Chicago, Newspaperman Robert Zonka says that the only new close friendship he has developed is with another couple from Chicago."

new buffalo is a lakeshore community where chicagoans buy summer cottages - it was in 1980 and it is now

move 10 miles inland if you want to live in a country town
posted by pyramid termite at 9:19 AM on April 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

My grandma can beat up your grandma.
posted by LordSludge at 9:37 AM on April 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

But whatever you decide, it sure does look like a way of life that does hold a lot of potential.

Small town America might hold a lot of potential: but like with any form of stored-up energy, it doesn't produce any work.
posted by three blind mice at 9:37 AM on April 11, 2008 [5 favorites]

I grew up in and loved one of those small towns. Then people discovered that they could sell their very expensive houses elsewhere and buy lots of land and beautiful McMansions there. At first it was ok, because you can't be selfish and growth is good. But then they started complaining there was no other place to shop besides Wal-mart, so they wanted a "Downtown Development" committee. More people moved in, and they started complaining there was no place to buy a latte, so they petitioned the city council to try and attract a coffee company. There was nothing to do except a little theater, so they started an Arts Council. After awhile the ranchers discovered they could make much more money selling land than raising cattle, so the ag base left. People were "worried" about "losing the ag base," so they brought in polo and chariot racing.

At the same time, the local grocery market split into two types: Wal-Mart and the grocery store where people could buy fancy cheeses and wines. People wanted a place where they could buy organic beef. Meanwhile, back at the one last lonely ranch, surrounded by the golf course and the polo club, the ranchers were battling the neighbors who complained of the "smell." Yes, cattle smell, especially in the winter when you have them in one area so you can feed them before you release them into the summer pastures to eat the grass so they can be called organic, which used to to be just the regular beef everyone in the small town ate.

Now everyone there just loves talking about how they "moved to the country" because they "love the small-town lifestyle," and they need to work really hard to preserve it.

*takes breath* Uh, so yeah, anyway, many people my age had to leave because there they could no longer afford housing there: the cycle completed. It is just one story played out multiple times all over the U.S., and in the grand scheme of things it is nothing to complain about, but that doesn't mean it doesn't hurt when it happens to your community.
posted by barchan at 9:39 AM on April 11, 2008 [12 favorites]

I freelance (full time-ish) and work from home. I could easily work anywhere in the UK but I choose to live in inner city London (which whatever Notting Hill would have you believe is a massive city, not a collection of villages).

Whenever I go back to the pleasant medium-sized town I grew up, for the first two days, I think "Wow, why don't I live here?" By day three I usually know exactly why I don't live there. I can't imagine wanting to move back and reconnect with my roots - and my roots (my parents) would probably think I was a bit weird if I did.
posted by rhymer at 10:00 AM on April 11, 2008

my parents were part of that mid-70's flight to the small towns that the Time article talks about (though in Canada). i grew up in a village with a population of 300 whereas my parents both grew up in Toronto.

it's funny. on the one hand, i value my small town upbringing. on the other, i moved into the city as a teenager and can't imagine ever going back. the photo's in Michael Jang photoset fill me with a strang mixture of nostalgia and dread.

oh... and this is my first comment as a mefite... is there somewhere i'm supposed to introduce myself?
posted by 256 at 10:00 AM on April 11, 2008

I live in a nice small town, but I prefer cities. *bats eyes at PDX*
posted by everichon at 10:01 AM on April 11, 2008

For only $250,000 U.S. you can buy
Half a Downtown on the Mississippi.
posted by Floydd at 10:07 AM on April 11, 2008

I feel there's a strong similarity between living in a very small town and living in a very large city. In a big city the neighborhood vibe is a lot like small town life--you patronize the corner store, they know how you like your coffee, you get to know all the dogs and the bartender at the restaurant on the next block and you can see through windows into other apartments and overhear their conversations whether you mean to or not, so you are kind of in everyone's business and they in yours. You walk a lot, you get to know your surroundings from a street level point of view.

Truly, the years I spent in San Francisco were completely alien compared to growing up in the suburbs, but always evoked the summers I spent in Pretty Prairie, Kansas with my grandparents (except that it was warm in Pretty Prairie in the summer, of course).
posted by padraigin at 10:08 AM on April 11, 2008 [3 favorites]

I'm just reading Little Heathens (2007) written by a woman in her 80s recounting life growing up on the farm in Iowa during the 1930s (Depression) - everything they needed they grew or made on the farm. The skill and knowledge is intense and the quality of life seems amazing, actually better than city living (if your not luxury oriented, not that their life was rough, just not luxurious). Anyway, great uplifting book, short read - this is what life on the farm was like (and can be like).
posted by stbalbach at 10:20 AM on April 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

I was just a small-town girl, living in a lonely world. So I took the midnight train going anywhere.
posted by Koko at 10:29 AM on April 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

Unfortunately it was to another small town, so I had to take another train.
posted by Koko at 10:31 AM on April 11, 2008 [2 favorites]

That train ended up in some trainyard in farm country, so I said fuck it and bought a car.

But I never stopped believin'.
posted by Koko at 10:33 AM on April 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

Hold on to that feeling, Koko.
posted by Floydd at 10:40 AM on April 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

I live by choice in a small town (Carrboro, NC) and I am, coincidentally, also a freelance writer. My small town is amazing in a lot of ways--progressive, green, great schools, friendly, everything walking distance, free public transportation, great nightlife--but as we're part and parcel of a larger college town and a much larger metro area, things aren't always what they seem. Housing isn't cheap, property taxes are considerably higher than those elsewhere in the state, the job market is tricky (unless you're lucky enough to work for the University or satisfied working in the service industry, you're probably going to have to commute) and a lot of people I know are getting priced out of our idyllic small town and, ironically, moving back into a more urban setting (in this case, Durham). All that said, I love living here. I know all of my neighbors. I've had drinks with the mayor and at least a couple of the town aldermen. The policemen have been known to drive down my street and offer suggestions of where party guests can park safely. And it really doesn't take long before you're on a first name basis with a lot of people in town.

Small towns aren't for everyone, but they certainly aren't all the same. I do wonder if my work didn't require me to travel as much as I do whether my small town wouldn't feel claustrophobic, but I still have no plans to leave.
posted by thivaia at 10:50 AM on April 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

We don't have to drive too far--just 'cross the border and into the city. You and I can both get jobs, and finally see what it means to be livin'.
posted by box at 10:51 AM on April 11, 2008

256, that's really pretty much exactly how mefi introductions (such as they informally exist) are done. Welcome aboard.
posted by cortex at 11:09 AM on April 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

More people moved in, and they started complaining there was no place to buy a latte, so they petitioned the city council to try and attract a coffee company.

You'd think that instead of petitioning the city council, someone would, you know, take out a business loan, buy some commercial espresso machines, and lease some space in a vacant storefront. I know, call me crazy.
posted by deanc at 11:15 AM on April 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

I moved from a medium city to a small town and I cannot wait to leave.

The cattle smell does not bother me and I buy my beef from the locals. The lack of latte does not bother me, I simply make my own. The lack of something to do bothers me a little, but I try to concentrate on my work.

The rampant animal cruelty bothers me. Farm and companion animals.
The fact that, since we are new and no one knows us, people let their dogs crap on our lawn--that bothers me. Sometimes litter garbage, too. When I smile and say hello (don't be that snotty 'city' girl, Oflinkey) no one smiles back. I am sick of seeing confederate flags (and we are in the north!). I am sick of seeing beat-down women get yelled at by their men in Wal-Mart. At Christmastime, I sent cookies over to the woman next door and she has not spoken to me since. It is, as Mr. Oflinkey says, as if everyone we encounter here does everything with a little dash of resentment.

I know two people in this town, despite walking around when the weather is warm and trying to be as polite as possible to everyone. One of those people is someone I work with. Neither one of these people have ever taken me up on coffee or a drink.

It is not friendly. It is not quiet. It is not quaint. It is, like many other small towns across America, dying from lack of education and the loss of industrialization. The people here know this and are deeply angry. They refuse to or are unable to adjust to the decline. So they will continue this ride into rural poverty.

A few weeks ago, I went to visit my sister in Manhattan. Originally being from Eastern NY, I have been many, many times, but this time was something else. As I said, I can't wait to leave where I am.
posted by oflinkey at 11:16 AM on April 11, 2008 [10 favorites]

I grew up in Crawford, Texas, freakin' way. YMMV.

Another first commenter. Hi, everybody.
posted by sdswift at 11:16 AM on April 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

I was just a small-town girl, living in a lonely world. So I took the midnight train going anywhere.

do you know why you never met that dude from south detroit?


god, that song gripes me
posted by pyramid termite at 11:23 AM on April 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

You'd think that instead of petitioning the city council, someone would, you know, take out a business loan, buy some commercial espresso machines, and lease some space in a vacant storefront. I know, call me crazy.

They were going after a specific coffee company. But yeah, I know!
posted by barchan at 11:37 AM on April 11, 2008

I think I live in the same town as the Oflinkeys. I moved from a big city that really didn't feel all that big (Jacksonville, FL) to a town of 10,000 rednecks. I've really tried my best to make friends, volunteer at the schools and in the community and they flat shut you out. On 2 seperate job interviews I was asked what church I attended and what my husband did for a living (because obviously I couldn't be 41 and have children and not have a husband). The restored historic home I live in is on a block that has some houses bought and restored and other houses turned into apts where the children are left uncared for to roam the streets and into neighbor houses. Oh, and a registered sex offender lives on the corner.

If you didn't grow up here, you don't exist. People give you blank looks if you're pleasant in line and if you say you're going to Orlando or Jacksonville to go shopping they act as if you need a passport and a visa to leave our county. The pickup painted in camo that has a NAAWP sticker and confederate flag that sits in the Walmart parking lot perfectly exemplifies this small town. It has completely fallen down, industry has moved out and any ideas for building up the waterfront by putting a marina in is shot down by the people who don't want their downtown overrun by strangers. However, this town hosts more freakin festivals than anyplace I've ever seen. We have the Azalea Festival in March, the Blue Crab Festival in May, the Magnolia Festival in September and some sort of Christmas by the River stuff. And it's all the same people in all the same booths selling hand made God's eyes or soap or their world famous spice rub. And every shriner in the southeast riding up and down the street in their little cars or dune buggies or scooters throwing wrapped candy at your kids.

I tried it and found out quickly-I'm not a small town person. Maybe if I'd been born and raised here and ran into my prom date and his wife and kids while shopping at "the Wall-marts" while I was having my toes polished with a french manicure, I"d fit in. As it is now, I'm goin back to a real town.
posted by hollygoheavy at 11:39 AM on April 11, 2008 [2 favorites]

John Mellencamp - Small Town.
posted by ericb at 11:55 AM on April 11, 2008

Simon & Garfunkel - My Little Town.
posted by ericb at 12:00 PM on April 11, 2008

It's very interesting some of the generalizations that have come out in this thread. There's my own (big city people=change=bad) and what I hesitantly generalize as the redneck stereotype.

In my small town, I've been frustrated many times by non-locals lumping me into the redneck category just because I'm from X. At the same time, I know I've often automatically lumped people from out of town into a certain stereotype (you're from California? - ah, that explains your landscaping).

But I would guarantee that a registered sex offender can be found most anywhere, that animal cruelty also happens everywhere, and the stereotypical Bush voter must be found most places as well, that snobs and jerks and the prying and resentful are equal per capita. Perhaps in a small town these flaws are more visible, our assumptions and prejudices - from either viewpoint - more easily exemplified.

I feel for the ladies in this thread that have not gotten to experience small town life at its finest, just as I feel for myself for not understanding why living in a city is so awesome. I too shudder at some of the examples of humanity they portrayed in their posts, as I think many people in a small town do. I've thought on many occasions there must be some kind of "pride in poverty" that keeps these people going. But I would move to submit that many people in small towns live rich inner lives, and quietly go around unnoticed - just like the people you find in a big town. And as my mom says, it takes all types to make the world go 'round.
posted by barchan at 12:12 PM on April 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

It was 1998 when my ex-partner and I got the bad news from our landlord: He had sold the house we rented in San Francisco's Mission district and had 90 days to move.

This was at the height of the dotcom mania, apartment vacancy rates were low and rents were breathtakingly high. We decided to opt out instead of play the game, loaded up a battered old Jeep and headed for the hills. Er, plains. Rivers? All of the above. We ended up living in Galena, IL.

Galena is more of a bed-and-breakfast destination for Chicago residents than anything else. There are vacation homes in a fancy development called the Territory, and a ski lodge to bring in the winter trade. A few resorts with nice golf courses, I'm told. Tourist kitsch, yes, but in a fun way and downtown's Main Street (previously seen in Field of Dreams) was freaking adorable.

We were lucky to have a friend who lived and worked there for most of her life and as a result we had an easier time being accepted by the locals. I did freelance and telecommuting jobs for Open Source and gaming projects, while my partner did the same. It was everything I could have hoped for when I opted for the small-town lifestyle.

Never mind that downtown was a useless unless you wanted an overpriced meal or drink, or needed to buy scented candles or some other tourist-focused trinket, or that you had to drive half an hour just to see a movie or 3 1/2 hours for something with a little more cultural flair.

It was nice, peaceful, safe and affordable but I began to feel more like an isolated prison than a place I wanted to call home.

So... yeah. The move didn't work out, the relationship tanked and I was probably lucky that I went back to San Francisco right before everything crashed and the contracts dried up. It took me a while to a find a job after the dotcoms imploded but I would have been so screwed had I stuck with Galena.

But I'm grateful for the experience. I met some amazing people, before it started to suck it was a lot of fun and now it's something I can cross off my Great Big List Of Things I Always Wanted To Do.
posted by dantsea at 12:24 PM on April 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

I moved from a big city that really didn't feel all that big (Jacksonville, FL) to a town of 10,000 rednecks.

*googles the festivals*

Oh, holy shit. You moved to Palatka? I'm so sorry. Congratulations on escaping.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 12:51 PM on April 11, 2008

We live outside of a small town (1,000 people) on an island, but it doesn't feel isolated because the ever-burgeoning Puget Sound Megalopolis is just a ferry ride away. I like it over here, but ours is a "cute" town, catering to upper-crust types (not us) and doesn't feel confining. If we were in the middle of the prairie, yeah, I think this might be harder.

However, we're going through the same stuff barchan mentions; people move over here because they like the town, and then they immediately start to try and change it. And I don't buy the "growth is good" thing; I think it's bullshit. People often are full of contradictions; they want a small town "lifestyle" (ignoring the meth problem and resultant petty theft) but aren't interested in sacrificing big city perks to do so. They lament the lack of affordable housing for "young families" but ask huge prices for their own homes when its time to sell. Etc.

My biggest complaint is the incessant whining from the businesses in town as to how they're going to stay in business. Our downtown is great if you want scented candles, soap, or expensive art; it sucks if you want Levis or boots. In other words, it depends on the tourist trade, and that's fine, but don't ask me to buy more than, say, zero expensive bars of soap when Irish Spring from the supermarket suits me fine at 1/10 the cost.
posted by maxwelton at 1:34 PM on April 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

What the fuck is it with small towns and scented candle stores? I grew up in a small town (pop. 2500) and now live in the middle of Manhattan and if I wanted some scented candles I'd probably just call my mom back home and have her send me some.
posted by Stonestock Relentless at 1:58 PM on April 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

What the fuck is it with small towns and scented candle stores? I

And fudge! There's always some place in town that sells fudge.

Usually owned by the people who run the scented candle shop.
posted by dantsea at 2:18 PM on April 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

What many people call "small towns" are really retirement communities, glorified tourist traps, and suburb-suburbs.

My family comes from small towns through out south eastern Idaho and northwestern Utah. And I mean SMALL.

Most left for larger cities. But a few held on to their farms and ranches. And thanks to the Farm Bill, subsidies and selling out to big Ag— the ones that stuck it out most got rich. Which involved utterly compromising their supposed values (hello WalMart!).

Their kids are not staying, so they sell the farms to ever larger Ag businesses who are getting sheaper and ccheaper deals as people get desperate.

The result has been the near destruction of the towns themselves. Slowly city retiree's come into town and buy up cheap property, build desired amenities, and provide a tax base and are making the town center come alive. But it won't last. AS gas prices go up more and more people move out to larger communities.
posted by tkchrist at 2:32 PM on April 11, 2008

barchan: ...But I would guarantee that a registered sex offender can be found most anywhere, that animal cruelty also happens everywhere...

Yes, of course these things are everywhere, but they do not seem to be as codified as they are here. The animal cruelty example is especially good for illustrating this. The city I came from was Buffalo, NY, not exactly the paragon of green, vegan animal rights. And there is certainly dog fighting and abandonment/cruelty there as well. The difference is that in Buffalo, you could find other people who actually cared to stop it. You could find people who, when they saw a dog chained to the same fence for two weeks would call the police and then the police would do something about it. Here? That is just the way we treat dogs out here. That is just what we do.

But I would move to submit that many people in small towns live rich inner lives, and quietly go around unnoticed

Yes, that is fine, I agree, but I have to add that while these folks are living their rich inner lives, there are members of their community-- people who could help or bring in resources-- who are being ignored. How hard is it to smile back? How hard is it to follow the law and scoop the dog poop? Or leash the dog to begin with? To say thanks? To say you're welcome?
posted by oflinkey at 2:56 PM on April 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

My biggest complaint is the incessant whining from the businesses in town as to how they're going to stay in business.

Ah! The eloi/morlock struggle. Chuck Palahniuk talked about gentrification in an interview I listened to this morning (from Rick Kleffel's Agony Column Podcast

Chuck talks (at 17:20) about a society in his book Diary where the old-wealthy people on a beautiful, isolated island are down on their luck & have to create an economy to service the nouveau-riche who they secretly loathe. In his story, the old "destroy and consume" the new and replenish their wealth every 100 years. He says this is what people in Vail or Alcapulco (or even Portland, OR) probably dream of doing.
posted by morganw at 3:00 PM on April 11, 2008

I guess I'm one of those guys who's a bit of a dreamer then, after reading some of the comments here by people who've had not so good experiences living in small towns, but the ones who did have something positive to add give me hope.

(Not to get all self indulgent, but living in Hyderabad for the past 15 odd years or so, I've seen a lot of changes. I remember when I first cam here and settled down, in '93, there was hardly a mall in town. My friends and I would go to the local theatre and catch the newest Hollywood flick, which would be the biggest outing we'd have, but it felt like we were doing something grand. Even the school felt close-knit. I was in eighth class when I joined, and our seniors (XI and XII graders) were referred to as "Bhaiyas and Bajis" (Brothers and Sisters in Hindi) who we could look up to and ask for help, and they were always there for us. Of course, they laid down the law and kept you in line, but that was only for your own good. It was only after they left and a year or two passed that I realized that something was missing. The camaraderie had gone. That trust, that bond we'd shared, was no longer there with the new seniors. And now, if I were to go to school--I'd be surprised if some of the kids even knew who their seniors were. But that's life I suppose.)

It's been 15 years and Hyderabad's changed a lot. We've got malls everywhere, and everyone in my area is selling off their house and moving out because the price of the land has risen so exponentially that it's too tempting for them not to. And this has kind of a domino effect because once the apartment complexes start to surround your house you don't feel much like staying. Which is why my family and I are also planning to move out and settle down in a small community somewhere else, that isn't so close to the new Industrial area of our city (the IT parks and Outsourcing giants).

McDonald's, Pizza Hut and KFC have started to appear on the horizon, and more and more kids are getting hooked on fast food junk than the natural cuisine that our elders ate and made us eat which kept us healthy and fit. But I still have hope. There are so many eateries in town which offer the traditional dishes that I'm optimistic that they won't lose their edge so quickly. But who knows in another ten years or so, what my children will be eating.

I guess the kind of small towns that I was talking about weren't the type where people have become so cynical that they despise outsiders who come into their lives, instead of greeting them with open arms. There must be a few of those places still left out there. Or where animal cruelty is something that's taken for granted. (Speaking of which, I've seen far worse things that have been done to animals by kids living in cities than children who've lived with animals all their lives. And wife-beating isn't certainly restricted to rural areas.) I guess what I'm trying to say is that there are a lot of preconceived notions on both sides, and people can make any sort of situation work for them (big city living, or small town life) if it is something that they are truly passionate about.

posted by hadjiboy at 8:37 PM on April 11, 2008 [3 favorites]

PS. Hey sdswift and 256.

Hope you guys stick around and enjoy yourselves!

posted by hadjiboy at 8:40 PM on April 11, 2008

I was born in Philadelphia and I've lived most of my life in the suburbs of Phoenix.

I won't say I particularly like it here, but in all the ways I dislike it, I can only imagine a small town being a thousand times worse.
posted by Target Practice at 4:02 AM on April 12, 2008

Regarding the sex offenders, I went onto the database once to look up how many offenders lived near my homes in LA and SF. Then I looked up how many live near my Fundamentalist Christian sister's little home-made Waco compound of a farm north of Sacramento. Let me put it this way... her God-loving community has waaay fewer neighbors, yet the high amount of registered offenders (especially when compared to those listed in the big, evil city) shocked me.
posted by miss lynnster at 11:05 AM on April 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

My experiencing driving across country a number of times along back roads and stopping in many small towns is that they are all very different. In some places the people are open and friendly, others they are reserved and unfriendly. This on a town-wide basis. It's the same way with small businesses. It has to do with the mix of people, personalities play a big part in small groups. So does history.
posted by stbalbach at 7:36 AM on April 15, 2008

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