Save the American Small Town?

A view of North Main Street on a gray Midwestern day in the small town of Hubbard, Ohio.

“Well I was born in a small town, And I can breathe in a small town”

John Mellencamp

“There is only one good thing about small town, You know that you want to get out”

Lou Reed

America is a vast landscape, both in its geographic expanse and its demographic diversity. But if there’s one place in which, culturally speaking, the signifying torch of “America” still burns brightest, it’s in the small town. Not a single small town, of course, but the thousands upon thousands of Mayberrys that dot the American landscape — from the oldest New England settlements, to the Midwestern corn baskets, to the Southern white-picket fence farmsteads, to the West-Coast logging villages.

If you grew up in a heathen-infested big city like New York, Boston, or (gasp!) San Francisco, then you likely can’t appreciate the potent brew of aw-shucks Americanness that supposedly streams in the blood of every red-white-and-blue hayseed. Being from a small town is like being born with microscopic Lee Greenwood midichlorians in your circulatory system; it’s an instant indicator of authentic Americana. In much of the popular imagination, a small-town provenance means you’re from — in the infamous words of a former red-state governor and notorious airhead — the “Real America.”

Or so goes the popular myth. But if small-town America is the “Real America,” then Real America is in serious decline. The American small town ain’t what it used to be, and that’s both a good thing and a bad thing.

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The Death of America in Small-Town Ohio

A pickup truck rolls through the town square in Kinsman, Ohio.

Trumbull County, Ohio is one of those quaint little patches in the American quilt. Located in the Mahoning Valley, on the far northeastern edge of the Buckeye state, Trumbull borders Pennsylvania and serves as a microcosm of Ohio itself, with a mixture of Rust Belt decline, Appalachian culture, small cities, rural hamlets, and lots of corn fields. The county’s combination of redneck charm and economic anxiety have made it a go-to stop for vote-craving politicos, who barnstorm Trumbull’s many barns every election season promising an imminent return to a mystic Mayberrian past of small-town fuzziness and industrial might embodied by the now-defunct Republic Steel blast furnace in the county seat of Warren.

With a rich history of organized labor, Trumbull (along with neighboring Mahoning County, home to the former “Steel City” of Youngstown) has long been a stronghold for the Democratic Party. In fact, the last time Trumbull voted Republican was for Richard Nixon in 1972. That is, until the county balked tradition and supported Donald Trump for president in 2016. Trumbull County is now Trump country thanks to a fear of death — a death brought on by economic stagnation, declining public health, the opiate epidemic, and the impression that America has been lying comatose in an open grave for too long.

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