Our Little Town
Listen to “Our Little Town” by Fred Smith
When we moved from New York to a small town in rural East Texas thirty-five years ago small towns were not trending. That has changed. Today, there is a surge of books, articles and even documentaries celebrating the values and lifestyle of small towns. Local is in and, at least for now, global is in decline. In “The Road to Somewhere,” David Goodhart distinguishes between those who are more comfortable with being citizens of the world but not any particular locale and those who identify with a particular people and place. “Mobility and experience of higher education tend to change people’s worldview – making them more open to change, less connected to particular places..and motivated by individual self-realization.” He labels these Anywheres. Somewheres, on the other hand, value community, loyalty, tradition, and belonging. People who choose towns are definitely Somewheres.
Ironically, many of those lauding the connectedness and vitality of small towns are writing from major metropolitan centers. Robert Putnam, the originator of the term “social capital” that is acquired primarily by building trust through repeated experience with people is a professor at Harvard. David Brooks, Yuval Levin, Charles Murray, and Arthur Brooks are all located in coastal cities – not flyover America. Even Steve Case who has done so much to support and encourage the economic and entrepreneurial growth of middle America is settled in a suburb of Washington, DC. Other than Rod Dreher who moved from Washington to Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Wendell Berry, who has written and farmed in Port Royal, Kentucky all his life, much of the promotion of small-town life and the benefits of residing there are being done from a distance. We are studied more than we are experienced. There seems to be a yearning for how we live but I wonder if it is not idealized by people reading Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow on the train to work in mid-town Manhattan. Others are reading the poetry of the recluse Annie Dillard or Mary Oliver who lived in her preferred isolation for so many years. We have romanticized the ordinary and common and assumed that small really is beautiful. It is a rustic world of porches, congregations, clubs, and a sense of belonging that spans generations. As people in Seattle long for sunshine, the city dwellers in the canyons and corridors of New York and Washington daydream about a slower pace, solid values, connection, and a higher purpose than self-realization.
Well, in so many ways, it is beautiful. I was reminded of this last week when our local city planning group met to review the work of a task force that was formed years ago to respond to the growth and change our city and region has experienced. Fifty of us were convened to get an update on the goals we had set and to make more suggestions for consideration. Some of the faces were “new” which meant they had been here less than ten years. Others had been on this committee or others like it for decades. We sat at tables of eight and were assigned our topics. Across from and next to me were a county commissioner, the president of the public school board, a city councilman, the chief of police, a business leader, a retired federal judge, and the director of our leadership development non-profit. While we all knew well our differences and areas in which we disagreed, there was no talk of left or right, progressive or conservative, Republican or Democrat. We didn’t need a consultant to lead us in an exercise on civility or to guide us around the land mines of partisan divisions. We knew each other not for the positions we had taken on sometimes volatile issues but as citizens more interested in working on the future of our community – our little town that was growing. We talked about the effects of demographic changes as we are attracting more retirement people interested in quality of life, low crime, and the availability of health care. We are at the same time seeing the increase in diversity – and diversity is a challenge for many. We rejoiced over the addition of a new airline making more flights in and out possible. We bemoaned the increase in traffic congestion and the need for new infrastructure. Our priorities were different but we did not hold each other in contempt or roll our eyes. We are definitely Somewheres and over time are finding our way to change, flex, and, in the words of David Brooks, “weave” the fabric of a community.
I love the words of G.K. Chesterton: “The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world…. The reason is obvious. In a large community, we can choose our companions. In a small community, our companions are chosen for us.”
It is true and ours is a larger world after all.
*Artwork is by Robin Moline