Telling stories

Small Town Renaissance

Posted by southwrite on June 17, 2014

Acworth Coke SignThere’s just something about a small town that tugs at your heart and imagination. Perhaps it’s all those episodes of the Andy Griffith Show that made Mayberry a part of the American psyche whether you’ve watched them or not. It’s true that most people live in cities and suburbs, but across American there is an unmistakable trend of people seeking out smaller communities.

I’ve seen it repeatedly as I’ve traveled to one small town after another on assignment for one publication or another. Writing about these communities and in particular the resurgence that is so obvious in many communities is a joy.

Some of the greatest evidence of renewal can be found in the small and often historic downtowns that smart city leaders have focused on developing. In the (now distant) past, these areas were the focus of civic life and commerce. The Saturday trip into town for groceries and other shopping was a regular Saturday ritual when I was growing up outside the small Middle Georgia community of Eastman.

On its wide main street divided by rail tracks was virtually everything we needed. There was the pharmacy where I could  spend a happy hour thumbing through the latest comic books in their rotating carousel. The broad front windows that looked in upon an old fashioned soda counter. It was pleasure and also some pain as I knew that eventually I would have to select just one of the 12 cent treasures to take home with me.

downtown streetNext door was a bakery which produced the most delicious brownies and doughnuts – rare treats for those growing up in rural Georgia.  Within a short walk was clothing shops, a hardware store, barber, one screen movie house, library, post office and of course the main reason for our trip – the Piggy Wiggly, the town’s one real grocery store.

Like many communities across America, its downtown was eviscerated  by the arrival of the strip shopping center and Wal-Mart. Most of these stores closed up. A few like the venerable Coleman Hardware have hung on by adapting. It’s wners realized that selling hammers and nails was not going to cut it. So they added a gift shop and soon expanded to become a JC Penny catalog ordering center, as well as, package shipping via UPS and FedEx. Eastman’s growing Hispanic population led to the establishment of a Western Union office with money wiring services.

Across the tracks the old movie theater [which burned along most of the block when I was a college freshman], reopened and closed again has turned to live shows and theatrical productions.

Small towns no longer feel inferior to their big city rivals. In fact there’s a certain air of contentment in not being the big city. Driving west of Atlanta on Interstate 20 is Douglas County. Not far from Hartsfield Jackson International Airport, this area has become something of a mangent for industry and busness – here you’ll find Google, the American Red Cross and a host of other companies large and small.

You’ll also find the flourishing small city of Douglasville (pop. 31,000). It’s main thoroughfare brings to mind a pre-World War town of single story brick buildings. While their original inhabidents have since fled to mall or the Interstate, many of these structures are now being occupied by new enterprises . Restaurants, service businesses, boutiques and a healthy dose of government offices (and public investments) are the kinds of businesses that do best in a newly revitalized city center. Being outside Atlanta is not a bad thing, according to Douglasville Mayor Harvey Persons, who has lived here almost four decades.

Stephens Co Courthouse_Toccoa“I had a reporter call me to ask me how did we overcome being so far from Atlanta,” he says with some pride. “I told her I would be more than happy to show her the disadvantages that Atlanta was having from being so far from Douglasville.”

In the North Georgia community of Blue Ridge, a number of the shops in the downtown – and businesses – are run by refugees from the big city and corporate life. Here local merchants are also enjoying an upsurge in traffic and sales. This is a very different town than a few years ago when as one local put it “you could throw a ball down Main Street and never hit anybody.”

Where there had just been a few antique stores, nowadays, the city caters to just about any desire and taste. There are a wide variety of new restaurants, boutiques, and coffee shops.

You could make a case that most of this renaissance is being driven by those who have grown tired of the big city grind. Clearly, many of these newcomers are better educated and more affluent than the natives. While that sometimes creates an almost cliché friction, this infusion of new blood and ideas has greatly benefited rural America.

Retirees and corporate refugees have the money to live in small towns, which these days offer little in the way of employment. The younger generation is still moving to the city by all accounts.

Downtown street sceneIt’s not clear how far this resurgence of small town life will actually go. Big cities make more sense from the perspective of jobs and efficiency. It could be that rural living will remain a novelty rather than an important and vibrant condition. Yet, some see small towns as the future of America.

There’s also evidence that the migration to rural areas is widening the division between urban and rural.  Increasingly, researchers are finding  that politics guide people’s decisions when they move — to a significant extent. The data shows that 67 percent of people who are “consistently liberal” want  urban or at least suburban communities, while 76 percent of “consistent conservatives” gravitate  to  more wide open spaces. And there’s a pretty smooth progression as you move along the political continuum between the two.

Author and New Urbanism proponent James Howard Kunstler sees traditional small cities and towns as the savior of life in a Post Peak Oil world. “…when our energy supply problems get worse, there will be wholesale demographic shifts to smaller cities and small towns, especially places that have some relationship with local food production, water power, and water transport. Our smaller cities and towns are intrinsically better scaled for future energy realities.”

Small towns have many attractions beyond the simple charm of a historic street and people who say hello when you pass them. Maybe you live in a small town or you’re a regular visitor. If so, what attractions have you found?



3 Responses to “Small Town Renaissance”

  1. I grew up in New York City (the Bronx) and I was surrounded by local businesses, a library in walking distance, schools in walking distance, parks, playgrounds, and almost everything we could need – except jobs. And, I could hop a subway and, less than an hour’s distance away, were world class museums, Broadway plays, jobs, and more. But that was in the 1960’s. My neighborhood, long ago, became a high crime area. I was never happy with all the daily congestion and the rush-rush lifestyle. And, there wasn’t enough plant green for me, even in areas with parks and trees. There’s still some small town feel to New York City today (I have been gone 40 years, but I have friends/relatives who never left),which people who visit NYC as tourists may never find in midtown Manhattan. But those close knit neighborhoods are out there. Would I be happy in a small town? Not sure. I found your comments about the political divide intriguing, and I think you are right about the widening divide. And yes, the political climate in a place would be a large part of my decision of where to live.

    • southwrite said

      I agree. I think you can find many of the qualities that attract people to a small town within city neighborhoods. The closeness, the convenience of walking to the store or library. Rural areas can also be cold and crime ridden as well. The only time I was a victim of crime was when I lived in rural North Georgia. I’ve never had a problem in the city. Also, being poor in the city can be tough, but there are many services available and, as you noted, its easy to get around if you have a subway system. If you’re poor in the country it can be much more difficult. Not only are there no services available, but if you don’t own a car you pretty much can’t hold a job — even if you’re able to find one.

  2. I moved to the this small, rural town fifteen months ago; small? the population is 2,500, so a village really. There is a larger town 10 kms away and a city, a drive of two hours, the closest beach fifteen minutes away. We have a pharmacy, branch library, newsagent, butchers, greengrocers, doctors, a dentist…I’m an anomaly, having grown up in a very small village close by, but I’m a city girl. Yes, we city people have moved to the country and there’s still the people who have lived here for generations. We’re at a fascinating point of change. Who knows what will emerge, but we newcomers are a revitalizing force.

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