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Why Small Places Still Matter

My mother’s family settled in Oklahoma in 1889, in that great moment of pioneering pandemonium known as the Oklahoma Land Rush. They settled in the southwest part of the state along the Red River near a small farming community called Hess. Poor farmers from Texas and Tennessee, they came—like so many others—looking for good land to raise their crops, a house to call their home, and a community in which they could put down roots and raise a family, thankful for all that God had provided.

It was, perhaps, not the most ambitious vision of the good life, but it was their vision, and they set to the task with fervor. From their dugout they eventually built a house, and with their neighbors they helped to build the Baptist church, a local grocery and dry goods store, and a clubhouse for the ladies’ quilting club.

Today, if you were to drive through Hess, you might be tempted to call it nowhere—as if a place of so little global importance was not worthy of being called a place at all. But the value of a place, a home, a people, is not determined by its importance in world affairs or the global economy. Rather, it is in deep-seated affection that all true places have their origin—affection for the land, for the people, for the buildings and the memories they contain.

These kinds of affections are particular to each place. They cannot be manufactured or synthesized. Rather, they must be nurtured over generations, through the communal stories that make up our common life.

Today, America has almost entirely forgotten itself—shedding like a snake its local affections and destroying its best-loved places in the never-ending quest for “progress.” Amidst our sprawling modern life, we have lost the American Story. But in these times, the small places—our towns, our villages, our hamlets—offer a glimmer of hope. For inasmuch as they have participated in and suffered at the hands of the Great American Story, every small town preserves in part those local affections that arise from its own particular story.

From Plymouth, Massachusetts, settled by the Mayflower pilgrims escaping religious persecution, to Princeville, North Carolina, established following the Civil War by Americans newly freed from the shackles of slavery, every American small town has a story. And because these places have such stories, they are more genuine places than nearly anywhere else built in America today.

If we are to renew our culture and our nation, if we are to—as the Charter of the New Urbanism suggests— “dedicate ourselves to reclaiming our homes, blocks, streets, parks, neighborhoods, districts, towns, cities, regions, and environment,” then such reclamation must start with the small towns that still preserve the seed of local community within them. For as the poet and author Wendell Berry says, in this cause “the common denominator is the local community. Only the purpose of a coherent community, fully alive both in the world and in the minds of its members, can carry us beyond fragmentation, contradiction, and negativity, teaching us to preserve, not in opposition but in affirmation and affection, all things needful to make us glad to live.”

Ryan Terry is principal and managing partner with R + T Studio [1], a real estate development and consulting firm in Bryan/College Station, Texas.

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18 Comments To "Why Small Places Still Matter"

#1 Comment By Tancred On July 6, 2018 @ 5:48 am

Some big city neighborhoods can sometimes produce similar feelings of community although they too are subject to the winds of change especially through demographic succession.

#2 Comment By Clifford On July 6, 2018 @ 9:20 am

Small places will matter when people ACT like they matter. I see a lot of New Urbs preaching from their offices in Manhattan, in Houston, and LA, but not a lot of them moving out of those places to the small towns they romanticize. Prince Charles didn’t give up Kensington for Torquey.

Give people a reason to move to a small town and I think many would. But the reason must include the opportunity for a paycheck and a reason for their kids to stay.

People crave what small town America was. Look at how most new subdivisions (“communities”) are marketed nowadays. People want clean, safe streets, a chance to know and rely on their neighbors, economic opportunity, freedom, and a decent school system.

Give them that in any small town, and they will come. To get out of the faceless, nameless cities they feel they must get to in order to survive, they will come.

But they need to see the vision in place and working. Where are they? (Please, don’t bring up Seaside. That was not founded on the values you espoused – it was a themed development).

I am quite ready to move.

#3 Comment By The Scientist 889 On July 6, 2018 @ 10:02 am

“Today, if you were to drive through Hess, you might be tempted to call it nowhere—as if a place of so little global importance was not worthy of being called a place at all. But the value of a place, a home, a people, is not determined by its importance in world affairs or the global economy. Rather, it is in deep-seated affection that all true places have their origin—affection for the land, for the people, for the buildings and the memories they contain.”

People who live in these small places value their homes. That is fair enough, the question is why should I care about their town? Why should I be taxed so these people can live where they choose to live? This article has made no argument why the majority of the population who don’t live in these rural places should care at all.

#4 Comment By Gerald Arcuri On July 6, 2018 @ 10:22 am

Pure nostalgia. This is rich, coming as it does from the pen of a real estate developer in Texas. Sadly, that America is GONE… forever. Thank the internet and social media.

#5 Comment By mrscracker On July 6, 2018 @ 10:52 am

I live out in the boonies & prefer rural or small town life too, but big cities have stories, also. And the stories may be different, but they’re no less genuine.

#6 Comment By Ken T On July 6, 2018 @ 2:05 pm

big cities have stories, also. And the stories may be different, but they’re no less genuine.

Thank you for this, mrscracker. I am lucky enough to live where I can straddle both worlds. Rural enough to see the occasional bear in my backyard (I won’t even talk about the deer!), and buy produce directly off the farm that grew it; but close enough to New York to go in for dinner and a concert once in a while. And while I personally would not want to live in the city, I can completely understand those who do. It is different, very different, but as you say no less genuine.

#7 Comment By peter in boston On July 6, 2018 @ 2:20 pm

Gerald Arcuri says:… Thank the internet and social media.
Really?? Kunstler noted well before social media that America had largely become a nation of places not worth caring about. And how large a part did the internet play in creating a country where the private automobile is essentially required for daily life? (answer: zero) You’re right: that America is gone. The question is: How best to bring back community life to places with so little of it?

#8 Comment By I Don’t Matter On July 6, 2018 @ 5:52 pm

“Today, if you were to drive through Hess, you might be tempted to call it nowhere—as if a place of so little global importance was not worthy of being called a place at all. “

This is an astonishing non-sequitur. Who on earth thinks only places that deserve to be called a place are those of “global importance”? People who live there value them. Others may not. So what? What are “we” supposed to do about it?

#9 Comment By TheScientist880 On July 6, 2018 @ 5:53 pm

Small towns are going to die because Millenials are happier in the city than they are in small towns. For the record, most of us aren’t in college anymore. Most of the generation is in their thirties or close to it at this point. All this pining for small towns is coming from old people. I never hear my contemporaries dreaming of small towns, only my highly religious in-laws are like that and they are highly unrepresentative of the generation.

[2]

#10 Comment By Tom Blanton On July 6, 2018 @ 8:53 pm

Scientist 889 asks “Why should I be taxed so these people can live where they choose to live?”

Simple answer! Nobody should be taxed so anybody can live where they choose to live. But, this weird question the scientist asks implies that it is fine to be taxed so that some other people can choose to live in a place that is more to the liking of the scientist.

Perhaps without the constant redistribution of income and wealth for purely political reasons pertaining to cultural differences, small places could thrive. After all, why should people in a small town pay taxes to pay for the cultural preferences of random scientists?

#11 Comment By Jon On July 7, 2018 @ 10:58 am

To hit home, does Bryan or College Station fit this bill of the ideal for New Urbanism? My impression is that these twin towns are suburban to the hilt even with farm fields. There is nothing wrong with that, but stepping off the campus of Texas A&M one does not get the feeling of a college town at all.

I will say that treating my family to ice cream in Bryan was a joy in mid August not because of the incessant heat. It was an odd day, a very odd day for the temperature was cool with a refreshing wind. And the sunset over the fields (prairie?) across from the ice cream parlor made for a scene right out of a painting of the Hill Country from either Jose Arpa, Emilio Sanchez, or Julian Onderdonk. Of course this part of Texas is not Hill Country.

Alas, that was only for a moment. And beautiful but rare sunsets under a calm sky does not make for an ideal community.

#12 Comment By Egypt Steve On July 7, 2018 @ 11:24 am

We need a redistributive fiscal regime that puts money and public goods in the kinds of places you’re talking about. The invisible hand of the marketplace has decreed the death of small places. Only an activist government with a vision of resurrecting the entire country can save them.

#13 Comment By MikeL On July 7, 2018 @ 11:30 am

“People who live in these small places value their homes. That is fair enough, the question is why should I care about their town? Why should I be taxed so these people can live where they choose to live? This article has made no argument why the majority of the population who don’t live in these rural places should care at all.”

It is “cultural conservatives” of your ilk who truly deserve neither the political moniker nor the neighborly treatment such small towns abstractly described in this article provide to its residents.

This article correlates well with two recent articles:
[3], and [4]

Though I dispute intensely the premise that geographic place alone constitutes America, the premise of the first linked article, this article bridges the first article and the third because it shows how institutions in small towns manifest the concepts of the founding documents and how they relate to American culture.

First, the author’s thesis addresses the sense of place unique to rural America: family-owned businesses, churches, charitable and volunteer organizations once omnipresent in small towns. He never suggests in any form that somehow tax money is or should be appropriated from “you” to “them”.

Second, he recalls a time when residents of towns actually knew each other’s name, connected with them through economic transactions, e.g. getting a haircut or purchasing something at a store. Those type of communities developed a social safety net and a sense of history. What connects people is just such stories.

His premise does not ask you to care about your fellow American; he assumes a true American understands intuitively why what he writes about should return. I doubt the plausibility of such a reversal of cultural time, most because of the world of social media and how that has eroded social interaction.

In any event, I certainly would reciprocate your cynical irascibility to you and your kin. Yet, I certainly would not want to reside in a place where curmudgeons hold a town meeting to circulate a petition demanding American’s national anthem “Hey, (hey) you (you), get off of my lawn!”

#14 Comment By Chris On July 8, 2018 @ 8:06 am

Its “almost” like this is a paid advertisement for R + T Studio’s vision of urban planning lol.

#15 Comment By Christine B Griffith On July 8, 2018 @ 1:30 pm

I moved to Claremore OK 2 years ago from Winston-Salem NC, a much larger, more urban area. Claremore is doing just fine. Redeveloping the downtown, lots of local stores and cafes. And jobs, too. I don’t see decay. I see a small community with vision. Very conservative, very christian,and yet encouraging growth and development. It is when the towns stop looking forward and long for the past that things go downhill.

#16 Comment By Youknowho On July 9, 2018 @ 11:13 am

Everyone likes to visit small places, but not to the point of moving there. A lot of people get nostalgic about those places forgetting the reason they, or their parents moved away.

A small place means a dearth of things to do, or places to see. And while close neighbors can be cordial and helpful, they can also enforce conformity in ways that are more than some people would endure – and that’s why they leave.

And the job prospects are limited.

The rose glasses of nostalgia do not help in evaluating the question, and what’s to be done.

#17 Comment By LouB On July 9, 2018 @ 4:02 pm

Anyone who presumes that there is an enforced conformity in small town America needs to take a peek at the lovely existence enjoyed by the denizens of the multitude of gated communities.

The folks who buy into these developments are usually moderately affluent, and often are transplants from either upper income suburbs or re-gentrified areas of northern urban core.

So the irony comes from seeing snark being spewed by those who just may be ghettoizing themselves before long!

#18 Comment By TheSnark On July 12, 2018 @ 3:42 pm

The hard fact is that many small towns no longer have an economic basis to exist. The farms of 1900 need far more labor to produce the same amount of food as farms do today. In the first half of the last century that excess labor was often taken up by new local factories. But today, automation has eliminated huge numbers of factory jobs, too.

The local farms and factories may be putting out as much, or more, than before, but they need a small fraction of the labor to do it. And if only a small fraction of the local labor pool can get jobs, the town will have to shrink. Beyond a certain point, there is no town left at all.

If we want to maintain that “way of life”, we will have to subsidize it. That is a political decision.

As an example, the Austrians heavily subsidize their Alpine dairy farmers, because they “maintains the landscape” and therefore benefit tourism (pretty cows in the Alpine meadows are a big draw). I can see that, maybe, being done in the US in some scenic areas like the Rockies or in coastal fishing towns. But in south-western Oklahoma? I kinda doubt it.