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Our small towns are dying

April 28, 2013

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.

The back side of Stinesville's historic downtown limestone block. Only one of the buildings is still usable; the rest are decrepit.  This town had 1000 inhabitants in its heyday, and about 200 today.

The back side of Stinesville’s historic downtown limestone block. Only one of the buildings is still usable; the rest are decrepit. This town had 1000 inhabitants in its heyday, and about 200 today.

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.”

This limestone storefront is sadly diminished. (Click any image to enlarge.)

Click any image to enlarge.

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.

This wonderful early 20th-century bank building now serves a humbler purpose.

This wonderful early 20th-century bank building now serves a humbler purpose.

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.

Remaining inhabitants try their best to keep up crumbling buildings, and host seasonal celebrations to try to attract outside money.

Remaining inhabitants try their best to keep up crumbling buildings, and host seasonal celebrations to try to attract outside money.

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.

A flash of hope: the thriving downtown district in Napoleon, Ohio, is vibrant and active. But it's also a city of some size. County seats like Napoleon are at an advantage over smaller towns. What will the future hold?

A flash of hope: the thriving downtown district in Napoleon, Ohio, is vibrant and active. But it’s also a city of some size. County seats like Napoleon are at an advantage over smaller towns. What will the future hold?

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9 Comments
  1. Chris Sturbaum permalink

    Hopeful thought: Just as the historic districts were recognized for their forgotten value and just as abandoned larger downtowns have recently been reoccupied and rebuilt, perhaps the next wave could be the discovery of these struggling small towns. E-commerce doesn’t need a regional advantage and companies like Cook doesn’t have to build a company town if they build a factory where cheap housing and a small downtown already exists and is ready to be revitalized. The opening of the Tivoli and the future of Spencer will be interesting to witness. Will this be the next direction with historic preservation leading the way? This could accompany the reboot of our economy and the resurgence of these little towns, where young people can afford housing, could become a reality.

    I liken it to a reef that has lost much of its coral. A scientist has been breeding coral off site and is beginning to set new coral in old reefs. With new life, the fish come back and the reef can be reestablished. For all these small towns, lets hope that in the coming decades, the fish come back.

    • Thanks for writing, Chris! I certainly hope that something can come along to help these struggling communities. The affordability of real estate is a big attraction to outside money, obviously. Even so, we can’t help ALL the small towns, only some of them.

  2. Chris Sturbaum permalink

    Didn’t proof read. Forgive grammatical error….

  3. Steve Miller permalink

    That second picture could be just up the road in Kirklin, where the major business had been antiques. I don’t visit frequently, but each time it seems there are fewer stores.

    I drove into Bloomington yesterday, coming in from W. 3rd. Good as it is to see a healthy business area along “new” 37, it’s always disappointing to note those are the same chains built along 67 in Mooresville, or all over the periphery of Indianapolis. It’s nice to be able to find what you need in a hurry, but it may NOT be what you want.

    These chains are built on stocking whatever sells most at largest return (and lowest cost) to them, not on providing specialized service to any particular customer.

    Instant gratification=uniform & consistent mediocrity.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Steve. I have so much so say on this topic that I ought to simply reserve it for another blog post! This topic is a sore point with me, and with many Americans like myself who are interested in a more wholesome and locally-based economy.

  4. Michele Swink permalink

    Springdale, PA is one such community that once was thriving but now struggles to keep a simple bakery/coffee shop in town. It’s a complete shame; however the good news is that recently a lot of younger folks have moved into the area and have a vested interest and plenty of forward thinking ideas for improving our quaint town. We just need to get the right people on council to get things moving forward! I for one would like my children to grow up as the Baileys did in their day!

    • Thanks for commenting, Michele! If I ever find myself near Springdale, I will be sure to make a stop at the coffee shop. 🙂
      Carrol

  5. St. Gore permalink

    That which conservatism killed will not be resurrected easily.

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  1. Photo Essay: State of Our Town, April 27, 2013 | Exopermaculture

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