Friday, May 25, 2012

One Possible Cure For Small Town Malaise

Ever since Sinclair Lewis diagnosed the “village virus” in his 1920 classic Main Street, America has remained deeply divided in its feelings about small town life. On the one hand, we often treat small towns and rural areas as bastions of earthy virtues and interlaced community. On the other, small towns often produce small minds, and serve as seething cauldrons of resentment. Unfortunately, both views are right, which means both views are wrong.

Anyone who has lived in America’s small towns recently, however, knows our rural communities are certainly one thing: marginal. This has been the state of American village life since at least the Eisenhower era, when cheap cars and postwar prosperity led to a concentration of industrial might in metropolitan areas. Small towns became stopovers on American transportation routes—and, with the rise of Interstates and cheap air travel, became not even that.

Nowadays, John Mellencamp serenades his happy memories of small town life, though his tours stay in cities large enough to support arena venues. Bill Clinton touted his birth in tiny Hope, Arkansas, while eliding that, when he was a boy, his mother moved the family to the resort suburb of Hot Springs, or that he left Arkansas altogether to commence his career. People tout small town origins, but have to leave to make something of themselves.

Jonah Lehrer, author of Imagine: How Creativity Works, describes studies that have indicated why some of the world’s largest cities have also proven the most creatively fertile. Where large, diverse populations interact, people have the opportunity to discover new points of view, prod others to greater accomplishments, and test each other’s capacities. Simply put, as the population increases, productivity increases, geometrically.

This thesis has its limitations. Were size the only relevant variable, Lagos, Nigeria, would be as creative and prosperous as London, which is about the same size. But if we look at those cities and neighborhoods that have proven the most productive over the years—Greenwich Village, Haight Ashbury, Bloomsbury, the Left Bank—we see they aren’t just populous. They’re also arranged to facilitate interaction among diverse populations.

Manhattan’s White Horse Tavern, famous for Dylan Thomas’s fatal drinking binge, began life as a longshoreman’s watering hole. Hampstead pubs famously draw artists, laborers, businessmen, and tourists. People meet one another across economic and social lines. Even the streets favor interactions, since crowded main roads slow traffic and advantage pedestrians. How many novels, paintings, and business ideas were conceived in Paris Metro stations, I wonder?

By contrast, the small towns where I’ve lived have a self-segregating tendency. We have working class bars, professional bars, student bars, sports bars, and their clientele never mixes. Different coffee shops and tea houses, different restaurants and businesses, cater to distinct customer bases, deepening divides. Too often, small town dwellers never meet anyone particularly different from themselves.

This is heightened by village layouts. Low land values and minimal space competition means towns sprawl. Without a car, small town dwellers are stranded, but with cars, they never meet anyone they don’t want to. People can ensure they only frequent businesses that cater to them, not ones near where they live or work. One of my town’s major coffee shops is drive-thru only, so you can enjoy your mocha frappe without any messy human entanglements.

Where communities have economy enough to encourage new building, that tendency becomes more pronounced. Single-use developments include similarly sized houses on identical lots, forbidding mixing of economic strata. They also seldom have restaurants, bars, shops, or hangouts where people can meet. They may have a few lots zoned commercial, but building costs ensure only chain businesses, like fast food franchises, can afford to move in.

In Nebraska, where I live, politicians invest much hair-pulling in wondering what it takes to keep ambitious, educated young people from leaving the state. Yet large-scale economic development funds exclusively create pedestrian-hostile towns which minimize human interaction. Even for those whose education and connections ensure economic mobility, social mobility has dwindled to insignificance. Free flow of ideas just doesn’t happen.

Shifting design priorities to boost interaction would alleviate at least part of the ennui that blankets many small American towns. If people could sit down to eat and drink in the same space as a callused tradesman and a necktied attorney, they would encounter new ideas, which they could then experiment with, until they created something truly new. If people had to walk to work, they could enjoy the surprise of simply saying hello to people they don’t see every day.

Such changes wouldn’t be a silver bullet to save America’s small communities. Many towns need to modernize their infrastructure and overcome cultural habits that defy the times. But if people could meet newer, more diverse groups, such towns would be well on their way to achieving such much-needed goals. The longer we wait, the harder it will be to overcome inertia.

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