If you haven’t lived in an American small town in the last 30 years, you may have grown up with a nostalgic, sentimental idea of what one is or was. They no longer resemble the TV images that were brought to us by shows like “Gilmore Girls” and “The Andy Griffith Show.” As if they ever did, right?
The contemporary country music video version still flickering on cable is also a construct, not a reality.
Maybe it is legitimate to say the image is what is aspired to – by some.
Absent is the real grit of real life in a small town, which is more about battling empty store fronts, aging inhabitants out of step with modern times, disillusioned youths, and rising crime; it is also less about easy going attitudes with a rise in more anxious and uncertain ones.
And with the desire of small towns to rebuild themselves and attract new inhabitants, members are forced to face and deal with the false beliefs about American small towns.
1. Small Towns Are Individual Communities
We may share the same tax rates and weather in a small town, but we do live in different communities. Lets call them micro-communities. Some intentionally set themselves apart from their neighbors, others are set apart by culture, or just the desire to deny reality and cultural changes.
Other micro-communities come and go with the seasons, like with migrant farming families, who are an important part of the agricultural community, and who may put down permanent roots for their children.
Peal back the thin skin of a small town, and there are cultural, financial, linguistic, racial, ideological, and theological rifts and fences to be found. Look at data historically, and you might find that these differences go back many generations.
And then there is resentment between the groups who seem to be battling for their last corner of what they thought their American small town was suppose to be, even if it was a mere illusion.
Bringing the diverse communities together, ones that are diverse in taste, opinion, and culture ought to be a goal, versus just a ruling family like group lording over the peasants that happen to live, work, shop, and pay taxes in their realm.
2. Small Town Crime Is Low Or Only Innocuous
It may seem low, but it gets personal in a small town pretty quickly if the convenience store or bank is only three blocks from your back door and an armed robbery takes place. Sometimes you learn about it because you see the flashing lights or hear the siren calls of the police cars, but often times it is a leading headline on the local newspaper.
Today, there are websites like My Local Crime regularly display crimes like the one pictured above on various maps.
And even if the crime is low, a situation can easily turn deadly like in a small Texas town, where the police chief was shot and later died after a traffic stop. As one officer said, a peaceful day can turn deadly in a few moments in a small town.
Often times, examples such as these are used to justify militarizing the police, and how can you argue? Unless you witness smoke grenades and sound boom devices used on a neighbor believed to threaten suicide.
Or an attack dog on someone shouting in a street also threatening self-harm. Having witnessed such events, not only do I wonder what in the world is going wrong, I wonder if the police don’t need the practices in combination with better ways to handle tough, long, stressful situations.
3. Everyone Gets A Say And Can Participate In A Small Town
This is sort of true and sort of not true. There are those who disenfranchise themselves by not showing up to meetings. There are those who do a lot of complaining but don’t do a whole lot more to get involved to rectifying problems.
Then there is the same faces on the board of this or that or the club of this or that. The young don’t seem to make time. The old have only so much energy. Those that do, do it all and need more help.
And it seems sometimes that it small circles of people who are included and acknowledged, because they’ve known each other for years or because they really are not very inclusive. One bad apple can spoil a small bunch. Small town politics seem to be a popularity contest that goes on forever.
If you are willing to lean in, to be organized, to work with people, especially as a volunteer or someone who can motivate volunteers, then you’ve got opportunity in a small town to make a big impact. You can train and become a volunteer fire fighter.
You can be on any number of committees. Churches always welcome another pair of helpful hands. There are problems others haven’t been able to address you might do something about, like homeless pets.
There are a number of nonprofits that are started just to address problems any area faces. Just start doing some research and start networking.
It won’t necessarily be smooth sailing from the get go. And don’t expect a small local government to open its arms or its purse strings to solve a problem that bothers just you.
Just get ready to take it on full force yourself!
4. People Are Neighborly And Not Confrontational In A Small Town
If you haven’t witnessed a neighborly dispute or been involved in one about loud music or where organic trash piles are allowed, you can read quotes and get some great head shots of shouting people at town meetings in your local paper.
Nothing makes a town meeting more fun than someone disagreeing about his right to bare arms while packing heat during a meeting, or someone showing up in just a coat, then stripping down to nothing and shouting at board members, both of which made local news in two small towns in which I worked in the last 10 years.
People shout. People get snarky. People insult each other directly. Luckily I guess that sort of news isn’t archived regularly on websites for a quick search, but it won’t be long before someone is quick enough with their smartphone video record feature.
In the between time, we have fun little moments like lawyers and former mayors throwing jars of Vaseline at governors.
Hopefully people move forward with a more live and let live outlook or at least learn to turn the other cheek, because in a small town, you are bound to run into each other at Dollar General or Walmart.
5. Small Town Life Is Less Stressful
If there is crime, violence, and confrontation, might there be some stress in the community? There are those that can coast by, but take one small town and put on one big event, and suddenly people are running circles around themselves – and there is always an event or a fundraiser.
Then there are the stresses caused from just having to work with the same two or three people every day five days a week, and dealing with the same sometimes idiosyncratic customers each week. Add some raised electrical bills, gas prices, water bills and suddenly there are fireworks at town meetings and on the editorial page about the cost of living rising and the pay-rates stagnating.
People struggling with their finances and employment deal with the stigma of being known as poor. They may even get labeled as trash. They may get handouts, but have fewer real opportunities to pull themselves out of their situation. And their children deal with evictions and regular food anxiety.
The documentary Rich Hill brings to light the story of three boys living in a small town who are struggling against their circumstances. In an interview on The Cycle, filmmaker Tracy Tragos expresses the desire to show things as they are versus how others would like to think they are.
The film itself does well in showcasing just how unromantic the reality of small town living really is.
6. Small Town Life Is Healthier
Daily Finance may claim this to be true, but I found that hard to swallow when I see people smoking openly while standing on sidewalks where there are full calorie soda bottles, empty beer bottles, and fast food wrappers lying in the gutters. Then I came across some of the research that was inspiration for the claim on Gallup.
Gallup had updated their findings after Daily Finance had published their article. The truth is, large metro areas are doing better in the area of health and well being, and small towns are battling the bulge, just like everyone else.
You would think fresh produce would be overly abundant in the middle of farm country, but as in my area, it is just as expensive and perishable as it always has been, junk food is as plentiful and nonperishable as ever, and farmer’s markets aren’t always open or convenient or reliable as, say, Walmart.
If a market may or may not have fresh vegetables, may I or may I not show up? (And have you picked-up on the fact that Walmart changes a town, maybe giving farmer’s markets a shove down not a leg up.)
Then there are incidents of cancer clusters, like in Fallon, Nevada. Or, did you hear about fish consumption advisories from you local department of health? Anyone want to go drop a pole over the bridge railing and see what is good to catch?
If the trash in the water or on the banks didn’t put you off, then finding out about containment ponds upriver failing or leaking into waterways will turn you off pretty fast.
7. Small Town People Stick Together And Are Less Dysfunctional
There are groups that work well together, and then there are the micro-communities that work against each other. It can be like a replay of high school. But for every great idea, for every worthy cause, there will be naysayers. There will be those that say the sky is falling, who will name 100 things wrong with your idea.
You want a park for the children to play in? But “they” will litter and destroy the property. Older kids will hangout and do drugs.
Want to save animals? “They” will take the dogs and breed more bad breeds. “They” will cost too much. “They” don’t want their taxes going to feeding unwanted animals.
Want to clean up the litter and put in some beautiful areas, maybe a community garden? “They” will litter more. “They” will deface. “They” will not fund it. “They” will find it too expensive.
You will even see the opinions spread across the newspaper as if they are verifiable facts. It will be an uphill climb against people in higher-than-thou places you didn’t realize were so negative and cranky.
You may even wonder if your whole area is cranky! You may find them attacking your character or way of life or your politics. It may be about litter, but you get raked over hot coals as a sort of amusement. What can we say? These types of folks are everywhere, even small towns.
8. There Is Less Traffic In Small Towns
Ha – excuse me while I wipe the tears from my eyes! If I could take an alternative route around a town without finding a bridge out, getting stuck behind a truck hauling chickens, or just not getting stuck behind someone going 10 miles per hour or less under the speed limit, I would have to site that all the big logging trucks, produce trucks, livestock trucks and more have to go through small towns to get to big highways, and in towns I’ve lived and worked in, that is Main Street.
And with export increasing, it has gotten to be a congestion problem for many towns.
Of course I love the argument against bypass routes, which cost millions and take years to complete, that if we let people bypass a town, then small towns will lose what little commerce it gets now.
Because we know all those truckers are just going to pull over on our two lane Main Streets and buy antiques and order big hot plates every time they pass through. And we know families will love to park and walk alongside Main Streets congested with overweight, wide load trucks.
And with the speed limits at 60, slowing down to 45, 35, and 25 with a few lights, timing is everything. Get behind a big rig, and you’ll be chugging behind the lumbering trucks all the way out of town.
9. Small Towns Are Beautiful
Not typically or stridently. There is a reason that there are top 10 and 20 lists of beautiful small towns, because there are vastly more ugly ones to compare them to, like Goldfield, Nevada, which is cited on an Ag Talk thread.
Empty storefronts are pretty ugly, aesthetically and financially, and to combat the realities that people are inclined to move away when there is less and less offered in small towns, forums, articles, organizations and alliances are forming to get new businesses started.
Real Tourism Marketing suggests using empty storefronts to display artwork. Other towns are starting Main Street Saturdays, where people come together to make their Main Street lively.
American Express has a Shop Small campaign they are promoting which towns participate in. And then there is the National Main Street Center, a large resource that helps preserve and promote small towns, giving them a leg up in reinvesting in and reinventing themselves, trying to reverse the dwindling trends of previous decades.
It has to be said, some small towns are making a comeback because of their collective desire to reinvent themselves and families’ growing desires to leave the crowded metropolitan areas.
10. Small Towns Are Quiet
What’s that? I can’t hear you – there’s a cargo jet passing overhead. Or there is a freight train passing by? Or, there are logging trucks banging by?
Or there is bass playing out of a car. Maybe the trailer of a truck going BANG over a pothole. Or the Army base is doing artillery training, while the fire trucks are heading out.
Perhaps the town siren’s are going off to call the firemen to the station. Then there is your neighbor’s barking dogs.
In some cases, towns may have one stop light or no traffic, but it is definitely not a given!
11. American Small Towns Have A Lower Cost Of Living
Sure, as long as you don’t want to go anywhere or do anything, which will cost a half a tank of gas or more to get to. Then there is the 45 minutes to get someplace, and the 45 minutes to get back.
And yes, it is less expensive to get work done to your house, but then you may or may not be able to get decent work done. Then there are taxes to do anything and everything, taxes which will go up.
And if taxes are low, health insurance has always been high, because of some cancer cluster in your area, the poor drinking water, or some environmental secrete left behind by pesticides or a closed factory.
The upside of American small towns is that they weather the downturn in the economy, because there wasn’t very far to go. Houses were historically slow to sell and sold for less than their equivalents in the city.
Expectations are low, so people sell for less than they should sometimes.
Retiring to a small town, especially if you are retiring from the north into a southern area, will definitely make your pension go farther. It also will help perk up the local housing market.
But watch out for the local culture, because the only local concerts being given and festivals being put on may not have any appeal for you.
12. Small Towns Are A Refuge
Or maybe they are an asylum or an institution…On websites like Cracked, they are the object of humor, saying small towns are where city people go to develop drug abuse problems and to access questionable drinking water. A Twitter feed called Small Town Problems laughs the dilemmas off saying rushing a friend to a hospital takes 45 minutes and that the hour bus ride to school is where you learned everything you are ever going to learn.
Regardless, I can’t help but be charmed by small towns. I love quirky old buildings that are reinvented as restaurants or coffee shops. I adore old signs and vintage gas pumps.
I watch American Pickers with excitement. And I wish with all my heart that small towns get a second life, one that is vibrant and healthy. But to do so, there are modern problems that will have to be dealt with, ones that create drag on progress.
Featured photo credit: SDR and Co via mrg.bz