Small Town Resilience

Last week a colleague spent three hours advancing 15 miles in the cancerous landscape of Atlanta.

Around the same time, I was commuting in central Missouri down a two-lane highway through a largely depopulated land of corn and beef cattle ornamented with the occasional red-brick one-room schoolhouse sitting in a grove of trees. The schoolhouses, long empty, were universally well kept, no broken windows, grass mowed—buildings cared for symbolic of the hope or expectation that they might once again serve a purpose.

The housing stock was older, yet well cared for and solid. But it was a lonely landscape of older couples and few children. I drove past the occasional activity of men in distant fields loading hay onto trailers using tractors built to accomplish much, the work done with such little effort as would have stunned even their grandfathers. Little effort and fewer people, freeing up the children and grandchildren to follow the classic road to town and city, a well-worn path since the ancient world, but one accelerated by our fossil-fueled innovations.

I stopped for the night in Boonville, Missouri, on the banks of the Missouri River. Boonville is not a prosperous town. Its trail of empty strip mall architecture dribbles from the outer fringe of the town’s core to the interstate, signaling a raising of the drawbridge, a calculated retreat against a yet unacknowledged enemy. But the core is still vibrant with neighborhoods, small-town hardware and furniture stores, plumbing and electrical businesses, an elegant restored hotel, a diner, and a bar and grill.vfiles38877

That evening I walked from the old hotel to the bar and grill, a place called Maggie’s, for dinner. The Midwest small-town bar and grill is unique. It is the genuine third place Ray Oldenburg spoke about. Warm and friendly, with people of all ages and classes: farmers, workers and professionals, town and country, producer and consumer. These gathering spots are spread across the agricultural heartland. They are the glue to the community, providing face-to-face time between neighbors. Time not gained in a traffic jam.

I am not naively asserting a rural idyll, without strife, tension, unemployment, severed families and the ills of too much idle time. Yet the small town is fundamentally more resilient, resilient because of its smallness and its proximity to productive land. Rural communities, with their face-to-face interactions, have provided the template for human existence for the past thousands of years.

Communities within a megacity are a mere echo of that life. They can nourish and sustain in the ascendancy, but their larger host survives only as wealth is pumped in from the outside world. When the pump is turned off, the decline is inevitable and rapid. Consider Rome, from a city of a million to a village of thousands in the space of mere generations. Or the specter of Detroit, reduced by half in one generation.

Perhaps these Boonvilles, these freshly painted one-room schoolhouses, these Midwestern pubs are the starter-cultures for the wort, the yeast for the fermentation required to restart the small farm, small-town life, a way to redirect the human trajectory from the cancerous growth to the healthy organism, from the complex to the comprehensible?

The cities like Atlanta in our landscape offer nothing but a promise of continued sprawl, congestion, and three hours and 15 miles stalled in the present. And if history is the judge, they offer us nothing in their inevitable decline.

For all the problems in that rural Missouri landscape, it is still one of latent hope. The problems it faces are fundamentally local and scalable. And if the survival of our future allowed bets, mine would be on the Boonvilles and rural counties in this land.


9 thoughts on “Small Town Resilience

  1. One wonders whether Maggie still has her farm. If so, I ain’t gonna work on it no more. Dylanesque reference aside, were you treated well at the bar and grill? Small town hospitality seems to vary more now than I recall from my younger days. I can empathize with the suspicion of strangers that you might run into from time to time, so getting a warm and welcoming smile from a stranger in this sort of environment gives me hope.

    “So where y’all from?” or “What brings ya to these parts?” as the waitress holds the coffee pot a little higher in your direction asking in a non verbal way whether you want a cup. In my experience its the next second or two that sets the stage for the rest of the experience. If your immediate surroundings get real quiet waiting on your response you’re best served sharing a warm smile and short little reply to introduce yourself. If done well you’re no longer among strangers and an enjoyable experience is at hand.

    This may be over generalizing, but the BIG CITY experience is likely to be far more anonymous. You may get a very welcoming waiter or waitress, but it’s not likely anyone at a nearby table or booth cares the least little bit where you’re from or what you’re doing.

    I like my privacy, so anonymity doesn’t make me uncomfortable. But there is a difference between a lack of discomfort and the warm comfort of sharing a time and place with others. The ubiquity of smart phones is changing how we interact anymore. So often I enter a small place where only one or two real face to face conversations are taking place. Everyone else is staring into the little box in their fingers. And their conversations take place at 140 characters or less. I suppose it’s no wonder writing on the level of a Twain or Woodhouse is so hard to find in modern literature.

    • I wonder how much of the desire for anonymity is driven by our technology?

      Your observations on anonymity does get to the core of one of the chief non-economic reasons for leaving a rural or small town culture. It is similar to the current anti-google trend in Europe: The right to be forgotten. Almost as powerful as the ties of land, kith and kin is the desire to get a fresh start. Perhaps that was the driving force behind those few ancestors who first decided to leave Africa, they just wanted to be forgotten?

      Good to see you this weekend in Tennessee.

  2. Clem sez: “there is a difference between a lack of discomfort and the warm comfort of sharing a time and place with others.” I rather like that observation, though as you point out, the presence of others in our lives has often been replaced by virtual presence (mediated by tiny screens and keyboards). I, too, have boyhood experience with some of those small Missouri towns. Many now seem like paradoxical persistence of a bygone America. I can’t say whether residents of such places feel remorse or gratitude that the world has largely passed them by. But it’s not for nothing that, when opportunity arises, most people who can leave do so.

    • No doubt that many are attracted to what cities can offer. But it is also an age old desire to return to the land and the village. There are a lot of things that drive the exodus of rural to city. Interesting parallel between late empire Rome and the US is that both economies favored the consolidation of land into ever larger estates. With similar results in a rural landscape that was depopulated. Sending an ever increasing stream of low wage workers into the cities. Sounds a bit too familiar. But there is also plenty of evidence, across cultures, that many prefer to stay if not forced.

  3. I enjoyed the article. This part of the country is beautiful and there is nothing like the small town lifestyle. I lived in Boonville for 10 years and if it wasn’t for a job opportunity in another state I would still be there. I have family and friends who still live in Boonville and surrounding towns and we visit as much as possible. Maggie’s Pub, Route B, WJ’s and many others, are all good, friendly places to eat and visit where you will encounter personable service. Brutus your comments about “feeling remorse or gratitude that the world has largely passed them by” is far from the truth. That small town has everything the world has to offer, and more. You can walk down to the Missouri River, see wild life in your backyard, walk or bike down the Katy Trail, visit the Museum and see the History of Lewis and Clark. You can find a Walmart if you need one, a Casino if that’s your thing, and there is even a few Auto Part stores, Hardware stores. Antique stores and more!! As far as “when opportunity arises, most people who can leave do so”, that is also not totally correct. I was so surprised when I moved there at how many elderly people have lived their all of their lives, and their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren live there or in surrounding towns now. I believe it’s the peace and quiet and maybe the slower life style, the small community atmosphere that keeps these people in these towns. Everyone knows everyone, and if they don’t know you, they will make you feel welcome pretty quick.

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Any thoughts or questions?