New Urbs

A New and Misleading Story of Small Town Revival

Small town New Mexico (Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock)

Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America, James and Deborah Fallows, Pantheon, 432 pages.

For many people, the story of small towns outside the country’s major metropolitan areas is one of decline and disinvestment: businesses moving to more central or more populous locations, and factories and farms employing fewer people thanks to automation. As people move out, small businesses suffer from a reduced customer base—and now local retailers face even more competition from warehouse giants such as Amazon.

The causes of urban decline, especially among smaller cities, can seem obvious, but revival is less understood. But even the simple narrative of decline and revival can be misleading. For instance, the Rust Belt is regarded as a place in decline, where a lot of jobs have gone away, but a closer examination reveals that while many traditional industrial jobs have left cities, other sectors of the economy have become prominent, concentrating jobs in city centers while the employees live in more distant suburbs.

Revival is also more complicated. Take Columbus, Miss., a city recently profiled in a bestselling travelogue. A town of about 23,000 people in southeast Mississippi, its initial prosperity was based on labor-intensive manufacturing—there was a toilet seat factory, and mattress and textile plants, along with a U.S. Air Force base. Like in many other communities, the traditional factories closed, resulting in high unemployment and an empty downtown. But the state’s Congressional delegation was able to prevent the base’s closure, and the local community college worked with remaining employers to help residents get the skills demanded by today’s industries. Regionally, Columbus is located in the Golden Triangle, with Mississippi State University in nearby Starkville keeping young people in the area, along with the Mississippi University for Women (now coed).

By now Columbus is thriving, with multiple high-tech manufacturing concerns, including a helicopter factory, an unmanned aerial vehicle plant, and a Steel Dynamics mill. There are also hospitals and the universities themselves are important employers.

But there are signs that “revival” is not the best term for what’s happening in this part of the rural South. None of the major employers is “home-grown” and the factories are as much attracted by expensive infrastructure projects like work on the Golden Triangle Regional Airport and two Tennessee Valley Authority megasites. For readers of sites that promote fiscal sustainability, such as Strong Towns, this is the kind of thing that sets off alarm bells. How was the airport and megasite work paid for? Are they depending on growth and more factories coming in to sustain municipal budgets? Are they building places that generate a lot of tax revenue per square foot of property, or are they building miles of unneeded roads so WalMart can offer customers lots of free parking?

These are the sort of questions that are important for towns to ask themselves—and for journalists to be asking boosters. But too often the latter elite group of reporters ignores these key issues, making their work seem superficial. One recent prominent case of this missed opportunity is the multi-year journey of Atlantic writer James Fallows and his wife Deborah.

* * *

Between 2012 and 2017, the two Fallows crisscrossed the United States in a light aircraft, reporting on urban revival. These stories, expanded and repackaged into a coherent narrative, have now been published in book form: Our Towns: A 100,000 mile Journey into the Heart of America. The places they visited ranged in size from the 94 inhabitants of Uncertain, Tx., to the aforementioned small town of Columbus, Miss., to the over 800,000-strong metropolis of Columbus, Ohio.

According to the Fallows’s reporting, towns that appear to be in the midst of a revival certainly have some features in common. Our Towns emphasizes things like the presence of a research university or liberal arts college, openness to immigrants, a successful community college, a microbrewery, a local arts scene, and so on—until they sound like a parody of once celebrated theorizing about the “creative class.”

Yet if these features are common to successful towns, it does not seem like they necessarily generate new growth. For all the places that have been revived, there are just as many places in the nation’s forgotten corners that continue to be mired in high unemployment and blight. Some small cities defy all expectations: Lynn, Mass. is a post-industrial city less than ten miles northeast of Boston. It has a commuter-rail station, comparatively cheap real estate, and the sort of old brick mill buildings million-dollar tech startups love to repurpose for their incubation. Despite being so close to the heart of one of the most dynamic metropolitan economies in the United States—if not the world—Lynn’s economy persists in lagging behind. As far as most theorists of urban revival are concerned, Lynn ought to be full of entrepreneurs priced out of Cambridge’s Kendall Square or the Seaport Innovation District. Instead, in Lynn one can buy a three-bedroom condo on the water for less than $400,000—possibly the only place in all of Massachusetts where that’s possible.

The Northeast seems to be full of similar counterexamples. The whole Knowledge Corridor—as the stretch of Interstate 91 between Brattleboro, Vt. and New Haven, Conn. has been branded—contains a higher-ed cluster that includes the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Yale University, and the University of Hartford, with the University of Connecticut not too far away. These towns have microbreweries, community colleges, art scenes, and the whole nine yards. But they still have high unemployment, high levels of poverty, and the other signs of decline. One of the Knowledge Corridor cities, Springfield, Mass., even attracted a casino using Massachusetts’s expanded gaming law.

Perhaps the story of urban decline and revival is about more than statistics. Yes, residents and officials need to face their reality and stop pursuing economic development strategies around tax incentives and factories or big box retailers—and start supporting local entrepreneurs and adaptive reuse instead of demolition. But the most important thing seems to be loving the place. The real story of Our Towns is not one of economic incentives and kitschy art shops, of craft beer and land-grant universities, but of committing to a place and persevering to help overcome the obstacles.

As GK Chesterton wrote of a 19th-century workaday London district, “If men loved Pimlico as mothers love children, arbitrarily, because it is theirs, Pimlico in a year or two might be fairer than Florence.” As with Pimlico, so with Eastport, or Bend, or Lynn.

Matthew M. Robare is a freelance journalist based in Boston.

This article was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

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12 Responses to A New and Misleading Story of Small Town Revival

  1. connecticut farmer says:

    Want to see poverty and squalor? Take a ride through New Haven. Drive past the Yale campus and the immediate artsy/fartsy environs and you’ll find all you want.

  2. FL Transplant says:

    You write that “…the factories are as much attracted by expensive infrastructure projects like work on the Golden Triangle Regional Airport and two Tennessee Valley Authority megasites”. Yep, pretty much

    I defy you to show me factories the are located in places that don’t have access to transportation paid for by the government–highways, airports, shipping ports–and utilities–gas, electric, water, sewer–that are either directly owned by the public or are so heavily regulated that they are quasi-public concerns.

    Infrastructure is a basic requirement for any industry, beyond a home-based craft set-up. Every one of today’s remote workers, sitting in their home office using a laptop to do their business, is dependent of the incredibly complex infrastructure that was needed to do everything from establish the connectivity to build the laptop. Farmers–GPS–much government infrastructure there? How about the complex supply chain, using government transportation networks, that gets the spare part for the bush-hog or combine in his hands overnight–did FEDEX built all the airports they use? And the electricity in his barn or work shed–the REA and local electric CO-OP had a lot to do with that, since no one else was willing to run lines out to where he lives.

  3. mrscracker says:

    “Our Towns emphasizes things like the presence of a research university or liberal arts college, openness to immigrants, a successful community college, a microbrewery, a local arts scene, and so on…”
    I live in the country outside a small town.
    I appreciate what community colleges have to offer (and we have a rural extension one right down the road) but I’d rather take a pass on liberal arts colleges, microbreweries & local arts scenes.

  4. Jon says:

    Unfortunately love does not cut it either. The prosperity of a small town as pointed out in the article depends upon the state’s largess. Earthworks, seaways, and roadways though built by private construction crews are subsidized by taxes and propped up with bonds. And tax abatements, tax credits and public works enter into the mix of necessary ingredients for a town’s revival. Love? Not so much.

  5. M. Orban says:

    Perhaps these small towns are struggling, diminishing because no one wants to live there anymore?

    I just talked to one of my coworkers, from small town Ohio… He got married, and they moved south one of the larger cities. They visit their folks back home, but they would never live there.

  6. Mother124 says:

    “Our Towns emphasizes things like the presence of a research university or liberal arts college, openness to immigrants, a successful community college, a microbrewery, a local arts scene, and so on…”

    Or, you could get lucky and have a gutsy entrepreneur do the job almost single-handedly.

  7. Dan Green says:

    I am originally from Illinois. As Illinois lost most of its manufacturing, and farming was influenced being commercially owned, a state with always considerable corruption, ended up broke. So like many other states taxes are always going up chasing folks out of Illinois . Point being it is a vicious circle. If some town attracts a new enterprise but folks cannot afford the taxes to what end? New enterprise are always lured by a town or state with zero taxes as the benefit.

  8. john jeter says:

    It is becoming tiresome to continue invoking Wendell Berry in response to articles such as this, but what can you do? He gets it and he gets it right and no one says it better or more succinctly than he does.

    “Rural America is a colony, and its economy is a colonial economy.

    The business of America has been largely and without apology the plundering of rural America, from which everything of value—minerals, timber, farm animals, farm crops, and “labor”—has been taken at the lowest possible price.”

  9. mrscracker says:

    john jeter ,
    How is taking raw materials & turning them into marketable products “plundering”?
    If folks have the means & ability to do all that each from their own facility, that’s fine but it sounds like a lot of replication.
    Plus, if you’ve ever tried to market directly to the public you know how time consuming that is & how your farm & family commitments can suffer. And how you can end up with surplus going to waste for want of customers.
    There’s a reason most farmers don’t attempt to do it all. But I do think we can try to be more creative. That takes family & community involvement like you see in Amish areas.

  10. Suzanne says:

    My small Texas town of 5,000 souls passed up the opportunity for a Wal-Mart and for other big box stores because they would have put the local businesses out of business. The problem with the city council decision, is that the long-time local businesses charge much higher prices than Wal-Mart or Lowes, so the locals take a 25 mile round trip to save money, if budgets are tight. So local businesses took, and are still taking, losses. Never occurs to them that they could lower their prices to match the big boxes.

  11. Jon says:

    In response to Suzanne whose point is well taken, the big box stores have greater economies of scale than small enterprises hence the lower prices. Economies of scale is reached when the average cost per unit of each item for sale is equal to the revenue it produces.

    The big box stores have greater space to warehouse and display their goods than that of the local corner family owned enterprise. Also the rent per square foot is lower than that of a local store. And with the higher volume of sales, the cost including indirect costs such as rent, utilities and payroll (i.e., overhead) is less per individual item available for sale.

    But then we also have the issue of congestion. The big box stores have large parking lots. Parking is free. The local family owned and operated store in downtown might be situated in a congested area where the streets have metered parking only. In addition to the higher prices from the smaller town stores one has to put up with traffic and with paying for parking on the street or in a corner municipal parking lot. While traveling to the box store entails gas consumption, they are often located by highways (freeways in Texas).

    Where I had lived before in the mountains over here near the east coast, the drive to these wonderful big box stores took a good forty-five minutes or more. No traffic and free parking but over thirty miles away.

    Small towns have their charm. But, when operating a small retail shop there are the long hours waiting for a customer to wander in and buy something. Often pedestrians, visitors to the town, will meander up and down the street walking aimlessly possibly taking in the view never to venture into the shops. In most cases they do not bother even to window shop. They will enter the restaurants for a repast. One wonders how the shopkeepers pay their rent, utilities and taxes. It is a profound mystery how they manage not to shutter their businesses.

    In some cases they are injected with cash from a foundation supported by wealthy entrepreneurs who have made their fortune elsewhere. But for a steady injection of funding these business could not possibly remain open for long. The others are an anomaly perhaps serving as tax write-offs for the proprietor. Ah, but there are the town whose main street is pockmarked with darkened storefronts with for rent signs remaining that way for years.

  12. Brian M says:

    Nobody loves going to Walmart really. The employees are almost universally glum, the customer base equally stressed out.

    The big boxes, too, will be largely obsolete. As efficient as Walmart may be, Amazon is better. These, too, will disappear in the relentless, unceasing “need” to wring out any inefficiencies (i.e., anything that does not mean more returns to the 1/2% ownership class).

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