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Little Dutch Oasis On The Prairie

Orange City is a strong small town. How liberal can it afford to be?

So many of you sent me Larissa MacFarquhar’s great New Yorker piece about a small Iowa town that’s thriving in an age when so many are dying. It is so perfect for this site that, ironically, I almost forgot to blog about it. Bullet dodged. Here’s how the piece begins:

Orange City, the county seat of Sioux County, Iowa, is a square mile and a half of town, more or less, population six thousand, surrounded by fields in every direction. Sioux County is in the northwest corner of the state, and Orange City is isolated from the world outside—an hour over slow roads to the interstate, more than two hours to the airport in Omaha, nearly four to Des Moines. Hawarden, another town, twenty miles away, is on the Big Sioux River, and was founded as a stop on the Northwestern Railroad in the eighteen-seventies; it had a constant stream of strangers coming through, with hotels to service them and drinking and gambling going on. But Orange City never had a river or a railroad, or, until recently, even a four-lane highway, and so its pure, hermetic culture has been preserved.

Orange City is small and cut off, but, unlike many such towns, it is not dying. Its Central Avenue is not the hollowed-out, boarded-up Main Street of twenty-first-century lore. Along a couple of blocks, there are two law offices, a real-estate office, an insurance brokerage, a coffee shop, a sewing shop, a store that sells Bibles, books, and gifts, a notions-and-antiques store, a hair-and-tanning salon, and a home-décor-and-clothing boutique, as well as the Sioux County farm bureau, the town hall, and the red brick Romanesque courthouse.

There are sixteen churches in town. The high-school graduation rate is ninety-eight per cent, the unemployment rate is two per cent. There is little crime. The median home price is around a hundred and sixty thousand dollars, which buys a three- or four-bedroom house with a yard, in a town where the median income is close to sixty thousand. For the twenty per cent of residents who make more than a hundred thousand dollars a year, it can be difficult to find ways to spend it, at least locally. There are only so many times you can redo your kitchen. Besides, conspicuous extravagance is not the Orange City way. “There are stories about people who are too showy, who ended up ruined,” Dan Vermeer, who grew up in the town, says. “The Dutch are comfortable with prosperity, but not with pleasure.”

You will have guessed by now that the “Orange” in Orange City comes not from citrus but from the Dutch who founded the town in the 19th century. Until recently, it was almost entirely Dutch. The townspeople today have embraced their Dutch heritage. Here’s what makes Orange City so different:

Every June, a couple of weeks after Tulip Festival, another ritual is enacted: a hundred of the town’s children graduate from the high school. Each of them must then make a decision that will set the course of their lives—whether to leave Orange City or to stay. This decision will affect not just where they live but how they see the world and how they vote. The town is thriving, so the choice is not driven by necessity: to stay is not to be left behind but to choose a certain kind of life. Each year, some leave, but usually more decide to settle in—something about Orange City inspires loyalty. It is only because so many stay that the town has prospered. And yet to stay home is to resist an ingrained American belief about movement and ambition.

MacFarquhar writes about why so many Orange City young people either never leave, or come back shortly after they do. The town is quite conservative, but it is not angry, nor is it economically stagnant.

The stories people in Orange City tell MacFarquhar about why they left, and why they returned, are fascinating. I’m not going to summarize them here, because I want you to read the story. But the gist is the sense of being anchored in community:

But, while this was for some kids a reason to leave, for others it was why they wanted to stay. In Orange City, you could feel truly known. You lived among people who had not only known you for your whole life but known your parents and grandparents as well. You didn’t have to explain how your father had died, or why your mother couldn’t come to pick you up. Some people didn’t feel that they had to leave to figure out who they were, because their family and its history already described their deepest self.

And this too, describing why so many Iowa small towns are dying, but not Orange City:

The sociologists Patrick Carr and Maria Kefalas spent several months in a small Iowa town and found that children who appeared likely to succeed were from an early age groomed for departure by their parents and teachers. Other kids, marked as stayers, were often ignored in school. Everyone realized that encouraging the ambitious kids to leave was killing the town, but the ambition of the children was valued more than the life of the community. The kids most likely to make it big weren’t just permitted to leave—they were pushed.

In Orange City, that kind of pushing was uncommon. People didn’t seem to care about careers as much as they did in other places.

Orange City forms the kind of kids who grow up to care about things other than career success. Even if they go out into the world, some of them turn their back on corporate success and the prospect of wealth to return:

“I said to myself, ‘What is all this about?’ ” he says. “ ‘Is it just about me and where I can take my career, or is there something bigger?’ Here, you feel like you’re connected—that you belong someplace.”

This comes at a price … but you also get things you can’t get in any other way of life. The story of Julie Vermeer’s leaving and returning resonated so very deeply with me. Here’s MacFarquhar on what Julie learned by going away and coming back:

Imagining that moving home could resolve your conflicts and fulfill your longings was as misguided as imagining that leaving would do the same thing. Home should not be idolized, she believed—only loved.

Read the whole thing.  Please, please do.

I’ve read the piece twice now, and am struck by how much Orange City’s stability depends on cultural homogeneity. The author makes it clear that there’s an effort underway to reach out to the Latino immigrants who have moved into the area to work in the agricultural sector. I wonder, though, if that can succeed. Orange City is overwhelmingly Protestant (descendants of the Dutch Reformed Church); the immigrants are Catholic. Midwestern niceness is doing a lot of good work there, and I hope they are able to integrate the newcomers.

Still, it’s hard to imagine how you would live there happily if you didn’t share a lot of the values of the community. I suppose you can’t entirely separate out ethnicity from the picture, but look, I’m a white guy of northern European stock, and I can’t say that I would fit in there. Aside from my distinctly non-Protestant religious beliefs, I am culturally of the South, not the Midwest. And, to be fair, I so admire and envy the sense of stability and continuity the people of Orange City have — such an oasis in liquid modern America! — that I would not want to be the interloper who upsets what they have by not being able or willing to conform to their way of life.

Orange City would be very hard, maybe impossible, to duplicate. But I think it’s possible to build a meaningful semblance of that community. Here’s what I mean.

Reading this profile of the town reminded me of what Marco Sermarini and the Tipi Loschi are trying to do in San Benedetto del Tronto (I wrote about them in The Benedict Option). They are Catholics, and they have a rather different sociological base than the Orange City folks do. San Benedetto is a small, modern city of 50,000 — about ten times bigger than Orange City, so not nearly as close-knit. But the Tipi Loschi have built a tight-knit community within the city. From The Benedict Option:

The story of how Sermarini and his lay Catholic community began in San Benedetto del Tronto, a small city on the Italy ’ s Adriatic coast, inspires because of its improvisational quality. 

Sermarini, who is also head of Italy ’ s G. K. Chesterton Society, and his community began as an informal group of young Catholic men inspired by the example of Pier Giorgio Frassati, a twentieth – century Catholic layman and social reformer who died at the age of twenty – four . The Blessed Pier Giorgio (he has passed the first stage of canonization, earning the title) was known for helping the poor — and that ’ s what Sermarini and his friends did in college, reaching out to at – risk youth.

After college, the men found they enjoyed each other’s company, and helping the needy, so they stayed together. As they married, they brought their wives into the group. In 1993, encouraged by their local bishop, they incorporated as an official association within the Catholic Church, an association of families they jokingly called the Tipi Loschi — Italian for “the usual suspects.” 

Today the Tipi Loschi have around two hundred members in their community. They administer the community school, the Scuola libera G. K. Chesterton, as well as three separate cooperatives, all designed to serve some charitable end. They continue to build and to grow, driven by a sense of spiritual and social entrepreneurship and inspired by a close connection to the Benedictine monastery in Norcia, just on the other side of the Sybilline Mountains. As the Tipi Loschi’s various initiatives succeeded (and despite some that didn’t), the association of families came to regard each other as something more organic.

They began helping each other in everyday tasks, trying to reverse the seemingly unstoppable atomization of daily life. Now they feel closer than ever and are determined to keep reaching out to their city, offering faith and friendship to all, from within the confident certainties of their Catholic community. This is how they continue to grow.

“The possibility to live like this is for everyone,” says Sermarini. “We have only to follow an old way to do things that we always had but lost some years ago. The main thing is not to go with the mainstream. Then seek God, and after that, look for others who are also serious about seeking God, and join them. We started with this desire and started trying to teach others to do the same, to receive the same gift we were given: the Catholic faith.”

It’s becoming clear, Sermarini says, that Christian families have to start linking themselves decisively with other families. “If we don’t move in this direction, we will face more and more crises.”

The first time I visited them, I asked Marco how the parents of the community hope to keep their kids at home in the city after they graduate high school. This is a hard question, he conceded. These days, if you want to succeed in your career, and make a lot of money, you have to go to places like Milan, Rome, and so forth. The only way San Benedetto can compete is by introducing the children of their community to a different way of life, and encouraging them to choose to settle there, and become part of the next generation of Tipi Loschi. The way of life that the kids are being raised in puts faith, family, and active community life first — not wealth and professional success. Those kids are not groomed for departure by their parents.

I can’t say this for sure, but my sense is that they are not necessarily groomed to stay. They are groomed to value faith, family, and community above other goods that liberal individualism prizes. In order to have those things, you have to be willing to sacrifice a certain degree of wealth, individual liberty, and professional advancement.

It’s also the case that the community must have metaphorical walls, as a monastery has literal walls. That is to say, it must retain a strong sense of what defines it, and maintain that focus to the exclusion of those people and practices that would distract it from its mission. In the case of the Tipi Loschi, theirs is a voluntary association based on shared Catholic faith — of an orthodox kind — and living that faith out palpably in community. Anybody is welcome to join their group, but they have to be willing to live by the group’s values. True, it’s hard to see why you would want to join the group if you weren’t an orthodox Catholic, but the point here is that the liberal value of “inclusion,” understood as “here comes everybody, so let’s accommodate them” would mean the dissolution of the community.

A town is not a voluntary association — and this is the difference between the Tipi Loschi and Orange City. As a legal matter, as well as a moral matter, it cannot decide who it will allow to settle there. One would not want Orange City to have the right to decide that only northern European Protestants could settle there. Yet it’s still a reasonable question to ask: how far can the people of Orange City go to accommodate newcomers, as well as hometown dissenters from the conservative status quo, without losing what makes their community so strong?

Or, to put it another way, how liberal can Orange City afford to be? (I mean “liberal” in the sense that most of us are broadly committed to liberal values of tolerance, individual freedom, equality before the law, and so forth.) Do the goods that are so strongly and beneficially present in Orange City depend on a culturally illiberal foundation that no one there talks about, and may not be fully aware of?