Our small towns are dying
Several road trips through southern Indiana have persuaded me that all is not well in small-town America. Our towns are dying. Except for the larger county seats, most of the little towns in each county are withering fast, as though someone had tied them off with a tourniquet.
In the 1800s and early 1900s, in every small town across America, you’d find at least one doctor, probably two pharmacists, several lawyers, several schoolteachers, plenty of small business owners, a local newspaper office, and at least one rich man. Each small town had a brick and cast-iron downtown district with buildings pressed side by side, placing all the urban necessities into one convenient area. Small towns were good places to be from, and quite a few American presidents were born in small towns. Such places supposedly harbored all the classic American virtues of hard work, self-reliance and community — think of Bedford Falls in the movie “It’s A Wonderful Life.”
But today in these same small towns one will find boarded-up storefronts, vacant lots where structures have been demolished or burned, an abundance of bars, maybe a forlorn-looking beauty salon, maybe a thrift store, and several liquor stores. At a recent stop in a small town to buy gas, the only other patron of the gas station was driving a battered 1980s model with a large pit bull pacing back and forth in the back seat; the driver was so emaciated that her clothes hung as if draped over a pile of sticks. Methamphetamine production is enormously prevalent in rural America today because it’s the only profitable sector of the remaining economy, and the sight of addicts who look like walking skeletons is commonplace.
How did our small towns come to such a pass? It’s as if Bedford Falls in the movie had indeed been taken over and destroyed by the evil Mr. Potter. Here is a short list of some of the reasons.
1.Agriculture declined in earning power. Farms got big, and small farmers got out.
2. Small towns lost their pool of talent. The smart kids who left town to go off and get college educations never came back to teach or to practice law or to take over their parents’ businesses.
3. The rise of corporate big-box stores like Wal-Mart destroyed Mom-and-Pop stores, gutting the local economy.
4. The construction of interstate highways pulled commerce toward them, sucking it away from the more isolated communities.
5. Housing values declined in semi-rural areas. As people grew poorer, they were unable to take care of their buildings. Thus old business districts have become unsustainable. Accidental fires (and arson) have become common.
6. The national downturn in the economy since 2008 hit our smaller communities with the force of the Great Depression. They look very different today than they did just a few years ago.
For years antique stores flourished in these small communities, but today even antique stores are in decline as buyers turn to eBay. With no local commerce left except for gas stations, bars and meth, why would anyone want to stay on in in the towns where four or five generations of their ancestors have lived and died? It makes much more sense to get out as soon as possible, and relocate to a larger city. And that’s why the small towns now appear as skeletal as their remaining inhabitants.
If there’s a solution, I’m not wise enough to be able to see it. The only way to make small towns sustainable again is to strengthen the local economy, but the states and the federal government don’t really have any good way to set about doing this. Their concerns are with the larger cities where the bulk of the population live. The small towns are left to their own resources, and they will swim on until they sink.
R.I.P., Bedford Falls; and R.I.P., Anytown, USA. You were great places to live until Mr. Potter got his hooks into you. It’s been good to know you, and I’ll miss you very much when you’re gone.