Small towns loom large in the American imagination. In the nation's earliest days, Thomas Jefferson imagined a land filled with yeoman farmers, happily fulfilling both agrarian and republican ideals. More recently, Norman Rockwell captured our collective sentiment in his classic images of lanky farmers and jowly policemen, scrape-kneed kids and loving grandmas. While Rockwell created these images, the nation fought a war on two sides of the globe, using fearful armaments like the world had never seen; after the war, the urban consumer culture became the norm, as the suburbs grew and advertisers showed us the ticket to our hearts' desires. The pace of life quickened and reality moved further away from the Rockwellian vision, but we continued to yearn for small-town life.
Public radio's modern-day Rockwell, Garrison Keillor, spins tales of small town life with words rather than pictures, weaving the way back to "the little town that time forgot." His stories of Lake Wobegon tap into our not-so-subtle nostalgia for a pre-industrial past, our fantasy of a place where the ills of the urban world can't reach us.
Inside the most urbanized American, you're likely to find dreams of a little home in the country lurking just below the surface. Look at the growth of suburbs and the attendant issues of sprawl; even the names of our housing developments reflect our desire to escape the messy brew of the cities and settle in a pastoral paradise. Here in the West, we also live with the legacy of our favorite narrative of origin: the rugged individual pioneer hacking a civilized life out of the howling wilderness. Most Americans -- including those who've never set foot west of the Mississippi -- share a common vision of the West as a place of escape from the overcrowded and corrupted East. Vestiges of frontier imagery overlay our views of the region, despite statistics showing that more Westerners live in cities than in the hinterlands.
But what about the reality of small towns? How is daily life along Main Street USA in the first decade of a new century different from the nostalgia-laden images we carry in our hearts and minds? Is there really such a place as rural America, with concerns distinct from those faced by city-dwellers? Since most media is centered in cities, how can people who live in small towns get their voices heard? And what would they say if they did?
Those are a few of the questions that we've been asking ourselves here at The Inlander. After all, while we're based in Spokane, we cover events and activities in the vast geographic area known as the Inland Northwest. Like the West in general, most of our region's people live in cities, but most of our territory is rural.
So for the next year, we're going to take a closer look at life in the rural communities of our region. In the first issue of each month, we'll visit a town, talk with residents, and try to see the place through the eyes of those who live there. We'll take the pulse of each town and see what's working and what's not. Are these communities thriving or are they doomed to survive only in the history books? Are these towns the way we'd imagine them, all quaint and neighborly? Or are big-city problems creeping into their streets, too? The towns in our region are as diverse as the geography, but we're guessing we'll find some common issues faced by many towns both here and across the country. We haven't set out any strict rules for inclusion in our series -- no maximum population, no minimum distance from an urban center -- but we're aiming to reflect that geographic diversity in our selections.
Throughout the West, rural communities face challenges related to growth and the lack of growth, proximity to cities and excessive distance, transportation, water and declining municipal revenues. Ongoing agricultural consolidation affects not just family farmers but the market towns that depend on their business. As our cities grow, new development puts pressure on formerly isolated communities that suddenly find themselves in the bulldozer's path. Suburban lifestyles often clash with traditional land uses, leaving both sides bitter and disillusioned. And the lure of economic opportunity draws young people to the cities, leaving an aging population behind.
And the rural West is not isolated from the challenges and pressures afflicting the more urbanized parts of the region, either. The movement of people from urban centers to the country -- their escape from urban ills -- squeezes the resources of smaller communities. The newcomers bring in money, along with an expectation of services; the money may be welcome, but the pressures on property values, town budgets, environmental quality and open space can change irrevocably the character of a small community. Towns with recreational amenities may boom with tourism-related growth, but at what cost to the lives of long-time residents?
Those of us who live in the city may ask why we should care about what happens in some little town 50 or 100 miles away. Here in Spokane, we received an answer a couple of weeks ago from Daniel Kemmis, the former mayor of Missoula and current director of the Center for the Rocky Mountain West at the University of Montana. In his address at the Spokane City Forum, Kemmis urged city-dwellers to think regionally. Regions that learn how to think, act and work together as a region will gain competitive advantage over those that don't, he insists. Spokane needs healthy and vibrant communities around it in order to thrive as a regional hub.
Having logical business reasons to care about our small towns is an important plus, of course, but those reasons should be peripheral, we think. Since so much of our national identity is tied up in images of picket-fence towns, we need to care about our rural communities whether we live in one or not. It's just the right thing to do. After all, if our small towns wither away, what will happen to our vision of ourselves? Without a little crossroads out there somewhere over the horizon, what will happen to our dreams?
More in this issue: http://www.inlander.com/inlandway/304710459384573.php
Publication date: 05/06/04