Last spring, I set out on a nine-week journey to scout out interesting small towns in the western United States. I was looking for towns to post on my small-town travel site, and had a specific set of criteria in mind: the towns needed to be of a certain size, had to have good recreational opportunities, had to have at least a couple of places to stay, and non-fast-food eating establishments. Interesting festivals, strong arts, and a community interest in good food were pluses, but not essential.
While most of the criteria remained relevant over the course of the trip , I quickly came to see that there were more important, less visible (to the outsider) components that made some small towns alive and vibrant, while others were drying up. The underlying story of these towns mirrored that of my own over and over again.
Most small towns were founded on a particular livelihood or asset -fishing, agriculture, mining, logging, and later, manufacturing. As natural resources have depleted, the jobs around them have also dried up, and many of the towns that were built around these occupations have faded along with their industries. It is difficult to raise a family where there is no source of income, and as fewer people settle in small-town America, there are fewer reasons for young people to stay.
Despite this downward trend however, some small towns have bucked the odds -reinventing themselves to create thriving communities that are attracting newcomers rather than witnessing mass exodus. Of course attraction raises some issues as well. Many small towns were also established around shared ancestry, religion and values. Making decisions about how things should run is much easier when a community is more homogeneous. Newcomers bring new ideas and new ways of doing things, which sometimes are at odds with long-established traditions, and can seem threatening, peculiar, or downright deviant to the accepted way of life. This tension between new and old frequently causes friction, as often times there is little trust between the two, fomenting fear and precipitating resistance to change. When tradition holds so strongly to the notion of stability that new ideas cannot take root, a town is often dying by the time people recognize what is happening. Young people move away and stay away, local businesses fail, and the town loses its spirit and soul.
I see it in many of the areas surrounding my own small town. Places that were prospering in the 1950s and 60s are now skeletons of their former selves and losing population every year. The most successful business is, more often than not, the local watering hole. What I may have, at one time, thought of as a phenomenon unique to my particular place was repeated over and over again on my trip: there were many towns that met the fundamental criteria I had established, but were definitely not places most people would want to travel to. The towns that were thriving had something more. They were the ones who had worked to create community, considered new ideas, used their resources of their town to create something fresh, and re-invented themselves while there was still young, creative energy in place to bring new ideas to life.
In the case of my particular small town, 30 years ago young, idealistic people moved out here because they wanted to live off the land, and there was still affordable, beautiful land to be found here. As they grew older, they had children and wanted to educate them in ways that were different from the traditional offerings, so a small Waldorf School was founded. Next came the small farmer's cooperative that over time morphed into the large farmer's cooperative known as Organic Valley. Things continued to build from there, and now there is a thriving arts community, theatre, music, a booming food co-op, many small retail stores, healthy, independent book, grocery and hardware stores (despite the fact that we also have a Walmart,) two local newspapers, and most recently, a listener-supported radio station. In short, Viroqua has all of the things that signify a flourishing small town. At some point the scales tipped, and creative energy built and intensified, until the town became something new and different from the traditional farming town that it once was.
These changes are not easy. They take hard work, and open-minded communication and coalition-building. They take vision and leadership, coupled with support and service. They take a willingness to consider differing opinions as valid. And even when these obstacles are by and large surmounted, there will always be people who are entrenched. Accordingly, there are unspoken codes of civility. People must try to be polite in small towns, but in the best of circumstances, this civility is accompanied by an effort to reserve judgment; an effort to try to talk and listen and work through differences with respect. In my mind this is the first critical step in being able to revitalize a town that may be on its way out.While I am a champion of small town living, I cannot say that it doesn't come without some major challenges and drawbacks. Some of these are obvious; primarily the lack of diversity, and the lack of privacy. Upon closer look however, it is easy to see that while there may not be diversity on the surface, there is plenty of less visible diversity. There is economic diversity. There is educational diversity, there is political, ideological, and religious diversity. And the lack of privacy compels us to work out these differences in community. Working to find common ground with open-mindedness and civility is the first step towards fostering a fellowship that can live and thrive and prosper into the future.