If your vision of an ideal country place is a small town or village, then this chapter is for you. The quality and the character of small towns, the likelihood of change and the nature of small-town communities are all factors that bear consideration.
Small-town changeThe price of a good community is eternal vigilance.
Norm Crampton, author of The 100 Best Small Towns in America, wrote under the title: “Small is Beautiful” in USA Weekend, 12-3-95: “Today, something surprising is happening in America: Small towns are growing again. More people who grew up in them are staying put. More people who left them are coming back. And more people from big cities are being drawn to small-town life.”
It is tempting to romanticize small towns and life therein—easy to be influenced by nickel-ice-cream nostalgia. Some of us grew up in a small town; most of us are only a generation or two away from one. Memories persist of clean, uncrowded, crime-free communities, of warm evenings on front porches, of shy boys kissing giggling girls behind lilac bushes. Those who are a generation or more away have heard family stories about small-town life, commonly, “the good old days.”For any American who had the great and priceless privilege of being raised
I find it difficult to generalize about small towns. I’d like to say that they reflect our heritage, our roots, from whence come the values that are the foundation of our national soul. I’d like to say that they exude a sense of community. I’d like to point out that small town inhabitants can be counted on to smile and wish us a good morning or good afternoon—and mean it. I’d like to say that small towns are like good parents and grandparents, a dependable source of trust, support, encouragement. In my nostalgic dream list small towns change their human faces with births and deaths, but their hearts keep the same predictable beat.
Well, some do, some can, some are and some will. But many small towns are no longer trustworthy. Too often today, in the time a person gets to know one well, it changes to another identity. Osha Gray Davidson reviewed two books relating to the dilemmas of small towns (“Mixed Media,” Utne Reader May/June 1993). In the first we are presented with part of the picture: “Some rural communities are being destroyed by economic decline, others by infusions of prosperity” (Raye Ringholz, Little Town Blues: Voices from the Changing West). In the second another image: “Once-stable villages in New Hampshire, Connecticut, Vermont, and upstate New York are being ‘pureed by progress’—blended into an increasingly diffuse, culturally ambiguous, and urban-influenced mass” (Ron Powers, Far From Home: Life and Loss in Two American Towns).
Change is inevitable, destruction of community is not. The lifeblood of a small town, of a community, is the people. As with marriage and friendship, good conditions prevail when the participants are motivated by love and respect to protect, preserve, enhance. Small towns preserve their heart and their health when residents care enough to make it happen. Many communities have adopted slow-growth or no-growth laws, but that’s only part of the solution. Any community is composed of all its factors and features and unless attention is paid to them all something inevitably will go awry. The destruction of small-town qualities has become widespread but it is far from universal.So, do you think that small town life in America is disappearing?
The characteristics of small-town life is passed from elders to children. Ron Alexander’s “Metropolitan Diary,” The New York Times, 1-14-96, included a letter from Mary Anne Christofferson: “In the small town of Port Crane, N.Y., where my grandchildren live, neighbors toot their horns as they drive by and family members look up from gardens, swings, lawn chairs or snow shovels to wave hello or to call out a greeting. Here, in New York City, I walked with Daniel in his stroller and was not surprised by angry drivers blasting horns impatiently. Daniel, almost two, smiled, looked up, waved and said, ‘Hi.’ Bless his country heart.”
Bona fide small-town atmosphere is the result of generations of people who have lived by the demanding natural rules of their place. The elements of small-town quality are natural and man-made beauty, stable economy, strong community, low population density—and time. Only in low-density beautiful, natural places is the human spirit preserved and nourished. Compacting people causes certain social disease. Again—never forget—all cities once were villages.
“Christopher Alexander, the author of A Pattern Language, a primer on architecture and urban design, recommends between 5,000 and 10,000 as the ideal population for small towns; like Aristotle before him, Alexander bases this figure on the number of people that can effectively govern themselves” (Witold Rybczynski, City Life).The one small-town quality that does not change
There is one thing that is constant in all small towns. It was true in Ben Franklin’s time and it will be true when our great-great-grandchildren are smoothing their lawns with automatic, preprogrammed, solar-powered, satellite position-guided, laser-zapping grass trimmers. The one thing that is constant in all small towns, and will last longer than anything of which I can conceive, is this: small-town life is not very private. Someone once noted that in a small town a car with the wrong directional signal blinking endangers no one because everybody knows where the driver is really going.
When everyone you meet smiles and greets you, when the bank employees all address you by your name, when your neighbors put out your trash cans because you forgot, it is not because these are members of a superior species living on a higher plane than mere humans. It is at least partly because everyone knows that the least slight, the most minimal of neighborly indiscretions will become instantly known by everybody in town and remembered for at least three generations. “Why yes, my dear, don’t you know—he’s the grandson of Robert Booboo—you remember, he’s the one who didn’t even notice poor, old Mr. Wretched struggling with his stuck gate that bad winter of ought-seven, and poor old Mr. Wretched like to have had a heart attack. Mmm, yes, that was his grandfather.”So live that you wouldn’t be ashamed to sell
In many ways our county (about 9,000 population) functions rather like a small town. A friend of ours once appeared on a national television show featuring his wood carvings. A few weeks later he received a letter from a viewer in Arizona addressed to “The wood carver” at the wrong post office—but in our county. That was enough information for the postal clerks.
We live 14 miles from our nearest town. We do our banking there and buy as many things as we can, considering selection and prices. I get to that town on average about twice each month. I know few people there. Yet I have been stopped on the sidewalk and addressed by name by total strangers. The ensuing conversations left no doubt that the strangers knew much more about me than my name.
I can’t say that I mind living in a place with these conditions. Now if I lived right in town, I might. Think about it. If you cherish anonymity for your virtues or your vices, you may not be comfortable in a small town.
Suburbs in disguise—“towns” to avoidEverybody when they come to the suburbs
Caution: New Towns are designed to seduce you. The face is pretty but superficial. The concept is ancient; the dream of creating a perfect human environment in a natural setting has persisted throughout history. The most famous recent attempts began with Reston, Virginia, in 1962, continued with Columbia, Maryland, in 1967, and include Jonathan, Minnesota, and Irvine, California—a town fast becoming a city. The idea of planned cities goes back at least to Miletus, Greece, which was planned during the fourth century B.C. During the Middle Ages, over 400 new towns were built in England, Wales and Gascony, as well as about a dozen in Switzerland and Germany.
The current craze in urban planning is the effort to “villagize” the suburbs. San Francisco architect Peter Calthorpe is impressing his Transit-Oriented Development design on Laguna West, an Apple computer facility near Sacramento. Calthorpe advocates dense communities where cars are pasé. He envisions linking workers to their jobs with light rail transportation. A noble plan. But the number of riders a light-rail system needs per day to be cost effective is seven thousand and the probable number of car commuters who will change to rail has been determined to be 12 percent. So to make light rail cost-effective requires fourteen and a half million square feet of office space—more than downtown St. Louis or Cincinnati.
Miami architects Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, of Seaside, Florida, fame, promote their Traditional Neighborhood Development, codes that any jurisdiction might adopt. TND mandates mixed-use developments designed as small towns. On paper the effort is laudable: de-emphasize the auto; build paths so people can walk to work and shopping; create small parks where inhabitants can talk and play chess. To ensure atmosphere, the codes require white picket fences and ornamented front porches. The imagery is beguiling, a developer’s dream. Nostalgia sells, and big investment money is betting that the concept will reap profits.
These are designer towns, suburbs with psychology, homes with chutzpah, nouveau nostalgia, yuppie high camp. The purported goal is to de-emphasize the automobile and encourage a village atmosphere. The result is artificial villages—the product of a “you can have a brand new ‘grandma’s town’ and we’re prepared to give it to you for a price” marketing strategy.
The homes are expensive. And there part of the absurdity is found. These counterfeit communities are being built for those who yearn so strongly for the qualities of small towns that they are willing to enslave themselves to large monthly mortgage payments to fake it in a suburb. To parody an old song—I owe, I owe, so off to work I go. How can there be high-quality life with employment slavery? There cannot be. And the “quality” is a veneer.
Developers and bureaucrats say New Towns are grand attempts to create quality environment. However clever the words, the primary goal is profit. The analogy with agribusiness is compelling—give consumers what they have been conditioned to want: a colorful, blemish-free product—and to hell with nutrition. In New Towns: Another Way to Live, Carlos C. Campbell states: “Planning commissions and zoning boards are nothing more than smoke screens for the real decision makers—bankers, politicians, and bureaucrats.” Reflecting their fathers, New Towns tend to be heavy on control. They often embody numerous associations, councils and institutions to control social conditions. In the view of New Town progenitors, the ideal town has ideal control of its less-than-ideal citizens.
Main Street is another consumer hot button—witness the success of Main Street at Disneyland. Duany and Plater-Zyberk transformed Mashpee Commons, a Cape Cod shopping mall, into an old-fashioned Main Street. In Kentland, Maryland, they redesigned a regional shopping center to emulate the nature of a traditional town square.
The allure of small town ambience is irresistible. Millions of tourists travel to small towns each year to absorb the atmosphere. Quick quiz question: how many artificial villages will become tourist destinations? Joel Garreau suggests some guiding questions: “Will we ever be proud of this place . . . will we ever feel—for this generation and the ones that follow—that it’s a good place to be young? To be old? To fall in love? To have a Fourth of July parade? Will it ever be the place we want to call home?”
New Towns and Edge Cities, like suburbs of any name, exacerbate the serious issues of habitat destruction, water scarcity, sewage treatment, social tension. They are the yuppie hot spots of today, the slums of tomorrow. Inner-city sickness spreads outward in expanding concentric shock waves; suburban sprawl is the leading edge of city cancer; artificial villages are simply compacted suburbs more prettily packaged.
With regard to suburban development, Jack Lessinger is clear: “In our vast inventory of land, suburban real estate is the one type least suited to the emerging consensus. . . . Suburbia will go down with the ship—along with the entire system of the Little King’s consumption economy. . . . we will see miles of 2,500-square-foot behemoths, their wide windows broken and patched, their many rooms divided and subdivided into nondescript apartments, and, betraying the indignities of poverty, the former proud front lawns will be littered by junk automobiles and broken furniture.”
Another example of an inspired effort to build perfect-town is Arcosanti. Visionary architect Paolo Soleri has designed and with the labor of student workers is building a self-contained community in the desert north of Phoenix. An apse-shaped foundry, housing, restaurant, gift shop, swimming pool, gardens. A “town” as a sprawling concrete monolith. I have visited Arcosanti four times over the last twenty-five years. It doesn’t seem to be happening very fast. The main source of funds appears to be tour admissions, student-worker fees and the beautiful bronze wind chimes the workers cast. It takes a lot of chimes to build future-town.
The Disney Company doesn’t sell chimes, yet, but it has the do-re-mi to build about anything it wants. A cattle pasture near Orlando has become the new town of Celebration. The lucky winners of a drawing were allowed to write checks for their choice of housing: Estate, Village, Cottage, Townhomes, Apartments. All commercial buildings vill be owned by Disney. The population of Celebration vill be 20,000. The houses vill be painted approved colors. There vill be no clothes on lines in der yards. Achtung!
Avoid fast change
Change is irresistible and small towns are susceptible. If you desire an old-fashioned small-town atmosphere that will persevere, then research population trends and growth plans before committing to any place. Ask the mayor, county clerk, newspaper editor, bank president if they know of any companies considering a move to your chosen hamlet. If large companies move in they will cause rapid change. It is a matter of percentages. If your target town has a present population of two or three thousand and a big company builds a factory or headquarters there that will employ several hundred, the odds are great that the essence of that place will quickly change. Talking to key people in town will help you gauge local inclination toward fast growth, especially company headquarters, factories, and shopping malls—developments that can change and dominate the atmosphere of a small place.
Prosperity begets change. L.L. Bean brought excessive success to little (6,905) Freeport, Maine. The mail-order giant’s 90,000-square-foot store first only attracted shoppers and tourists. But the crowds attracted what locals call “Bean sprouts,” over 100 new stores hawking everything from perfume to furniture. Today, more than 2.5 million shoppers per year produce traffic jams, thick exhaust, escalating real estate prices.
Where to look for a small town
The North Central region has more small towns than any other U.S. area. Glenn Fuguitt of the University of Wisconsin has compiled data on nearly 5,600 incorporated towns of fewer than 2,500 population located in nonmetropolitan counties in this region. That is 30 percent of all incorporated places of all sizes nationwide.
Away from “megalopoli” (my perception of megalopolis after megalopolis ad nauseum), the Northeast is composed of hundreds of small towns, each separated from the next by woods and farms. The South and the Midwest have numerous towns that once served as commercial hubs for farms in their area. In many cases their role has changed but those that have survived often have great character. In the mountainous West, many old mining towns have survived the depletion of the minerals that created them.
There are still small towns with traditional values, strong community and a warm atmosphere created by nature, design and the character of good people. The best choices are insulated from fast growth by distance, inferior roads or topography—for instance, by being in a small valley with hills impossible to develop (but note Aspen and Vail, Colorado), or backed up to a river or lake with steep hills on the other side. Those that have very limited space for growth and a real reluctance for growth by influential citizens are most likely to retain their present qualities.
Change is less likely in towns where the economic base is one of long-term commitment. Some of the nicest small towns are college towns. They have stable economies based on the college, allied “intellectual” enterprises, service businesses. The country immediately surrounding these towns is often an excellent place to live. Population ebbs and flows with the scholastic year. The intellectual climate of the college generally sets the tone for the community. It’s a great place to rear children.
State capitals, county seats
Small state capitals tend to be conservative and stable. An employment base exists from the multiple state departments and with the various service industries that support them. To a lesser degree, the same is true of county seats.
LookingThere are towns
A super way to discover small towns and villages is to spend time driving the roads of your preferred area. Take your time. Once you find a town that appears ideal, talk to everyone you see. Have lunch. Use your criteria list and rate the town on how well it meets your needs. If it looks good, subscribe to the local paper. Drive the surrounding area. Get lost; ask for help. Keep talking to people—beyond the natural beauty and architecture, the essence of a place is found in its people. If there is a library, read back issues of the newspaper; nothing will more quickly give you a picture of the social character of a place.
If you are unable to go to an area but would like to begin your search, write to the state chamber of commerce or board of tourism and tell them you may be interested in moving to their state. They will send you an information packet which will include a map. You can also contact real estate people in your areas of interest. Real estate agents will send you brochures on available properties. If you would like to know more about a specific town, order a newspaper subscription. It will probably be a weekly. The local news, letters to the editor, social calendar and political campaigns will give you instant insight into the values of that place.
Resources and recommended reading
Chambers of commerce
Find local chambers through the phone company, or through the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, 1615 H Street NW, Washington, DC 20062. Phone: 202-659-6000. Most chambers will send you packets of information including maps and real estate company listings. Some rural chambers are so small they can’t afford to mail information packages—perhaps an indication of a superior place to live.
Subscribe to the local newspaper and you will be able to quickly check the pulse of the area. The best source for subscription information about each of the U.S.’s 1,651 daily newspapers is Editor & Publisher’s International Yearbook. For information on the nearly 7,000 weekly papers, check out the IMS Directory of Publications or Gale’s Directory of Publications.
Placing an ad in the Personals section of the classifieds requesting contact with others who have moved there from the city is a way to get information and maybe make friends—possibly a place to stay when you visit. Expect to hear from every real estate agent in the area.
• Campbell, Carlos C. New Towns: another way to live. Reston, Virginia: Reston Publishing Company, 1976.
• Crampton, Norman. The 100 Best Small Towns in America. New York: Macmillan General Reference, 1995.
• Fuguitt, Glenn V. and David L. Brown and Calvin L. Beale. Rural and Small Town America. New York: The Russell Sage Foundation, 1989.
• Garreau, Joel. Edge City: Life on the New Frontier. New York: Doubleday, 1991.
• Ringholz, Raye C. Little Town Blues: Voices From the Changing West. Layton, Utah, Gibbs Smith, 1992.