Save the American Small Town?

“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.

Small-town America has been experiencing a significant, multi-year population decline in comparison to the growing populations of metropolitan areas. In addition, small towns are, demographically speaking, getting way older. As millennials flee to job-rich cities, small towns are getting increasingly grayer, with fewer and fewer younger residents left to start new businesses and carry on local traditions.

Then there’s the local economies. While rural America’s unemployment rate has declined a bit in recent years, it still lags behind urban America in educational achievement and boasts higher unemployment and poverty rates than bigger cities (not all small towns are rural farming communities themselves, but they’re usually surrounded by rural areas). In fact, as Governing magazine notes, “two out of three rural counties have experienced a net loss in their total number of businesses since 2010, after the recession had technically ended…Urban America recovers from recessions, but rural America no longer seems able to.” Finally, Small-town America’s economic and social problems have birthed a horrendous opiate epidemic that’s become a full-fledged public health crisis. Some small towns have been so ravaged by drugs, hopelessness, and unemployment, that the Wall Street Journal declared rural America “the new inner city.”

The depressed downtown of Coatesville, Pennsylvania, a struggling town of 13,000.

Yet if the America of the future seems to be increasingly embodied by the big cities, small-town America maintains a firm hold on the country’s culture — and its politics. American politics has been split along a rural/urban divide for decades, but the 2016 presidential election put that divide into sharp new focus, as the collective anger of small-town America put a maniacal orange toddler in the White House. “Trump’s victory would likely not have been possible without the influence of rural areas and smaller metropolitan areas,” writes Richard Shearer of the Brookings Institute. Voters in America’s rural counties cast 58 percent of their votes in favor of the boorish Manhattan tycoon, and they comprised 47 percent of the 11.4 million more voters who participated in the 2016 election than did in the 2012 presidential election. Simply put: small-town America is Trump’s America.

Trump’s victory in the sticks was impressive, but not entirely unexpected. After all, rural America tends to be politically conservative overall. The presence of resource extraction economies, higher rates of property ownership, traditional religiosity, patriarchal social structures, and low population density makes most small towns prime territory for the GOP. Moreover, it makes a certain kind of sense that voters from the parts of the U.S. that are in decline would be attracted to a presidential candidate whose only real policy platform was a vague promise to reverse that decline.

Whether it’s a place mired in decline or burgeoning with the pulse of “Real American” values, small-town America still matters, and it’s mattered for quite a while. The nostalgic image of the small town has long been a key element in American myth-making, for both good and bad. From the good end, the small town serves as a calm, traditional, slow-paced, morally virtuous retreat from the fast-paced, crime-ridden, amoral, atheistic hell hole that is the big city. From the bad end, small towns are economically moribund, socially and politically reactionary, and stiflingly provincial.

Thus, the small town is a distinctly dualistic entity. In his book The Death and Life of Main Street, historian Miles Orvell observes that, “the real small town is a place of conflict and difference, of exclusion and social distinction; the idealized small town is a place of harmony, a symbol of democracy, of community, but likewise a place of social [read: “white”] homogeneity.”* The duality inherent in the cultural image of the small town colors the way urban and rural Americans alike view it in relation to politics, the economy, social issues, and the role the United States plays in world affairs. The inherent value of the small town, both as a cultural symbol and as a real place where people live their lives, has always come down to this duality.

A Trump campaign sign in a small-town backyard. It’s no stretch to say that The Donald, as ostentatious a symbol as New York City ever had, nonetheless owns America’s small towns. Photo via Mark Makela/Getty Images.

How you feel about small towns hinges on whether you choose to define them by their petulant provincialism or their communitarian wisdom. Consider, for example, how American popular culture has treated small towns over the years. Among the most famous small-towners is rock legend John Mellencamp. Born in Seymour, Indiana (population, 17,503) Mellencamp is one of those rare artists who hit the pinnacle of rock fame but still chose to stay in the Midwest (specifically, Bloomington, Indiana) from whence he came, and he made his musical bones singing unapologetically — but not simplistically — about the virtues of small-town life.

One of Mellencamp’s most iconic songs is “Small Town,” from his masterful 1985 record Scarecrow. The song has long since burrowed itself into the memories of classic rock listeners everywhere with its anthemic back beat, electric guitar major chords, and lines such as “Well I was born in a small town/And I live in a small town/Probably die in a small town/Oh, those small communities.” Reflecting on this song’s straightforward sentiments, Mellencamp scholar David Masciotra writes, “it is a simple song that tells a simple but profound truth about the lives of millions of people from places like Seymour.”* That truth is, for both better and for worse, small towns have defined the lives (and deaths) of the people who live and die in them. To be stuck in a small town can be a blessing, or it can be a curse, depending on a whole mess of circumstances that are sometimes beyond an individual person’s control.

Mellencamp understands the communitarian value of tight-knit towns — how they build mutual, reinforcing networks of family and neighbors, trust and security, support and faith. Consider the small town where I grew up. Hubbard, Ohio is a Midwestern burg that’s part of the Connecticut Western Reserve. In terms of sleepiness, Hubbard is pretty typical: crime tends to include mostly property damage, vandalism, and the occasional drug bust. Violent crime in Hubbard is mostly non-existent, in fact, you can count the number of murders in Hubbard since 1980 on one hand. That said, the entire town was shocked in 2015 when 26-year old resident Cody Pitts was found shot to death in the early morning hours outside a popular coffee house. Following Pitts’ murder, practically all of Hubbard began a concerted effort to get justice. “Justice for Cody” signs sprouted up on lawns throughout the town, and volunteers held fundraisers to raise reward money to entice potential tipsters to turn in the killer.

On his 1985 masterpiece, Scarecrow, John Mellencamp reminisced about the value of small-town life.

Justice has yet to rain down on whoever murdered Cody Pitts in cold blood, but this tragedy brought out the best in Hubbard residents and showed how one of the stereotypical characteristics of small-town America — the notion that everyone knows everyone — creates an interconnected community support network. Such support networks are a function of the low population density and close-knit connections that often define small-town life. These are the characteristics that John Mellencamp embraced when he wrote “Small Town,” a song which Masciotra contends “represents much of what Mellencamp embraces in his art—micro-patriotism prioritizing love of country with love of community, Christian principles, and the virtues of family bonds, neighborhood ties, and individual freedom.”

But just as crucially, Masciotra notes, Mellencamp also understands that none of the latter qualities are guaranteed bulwarks against the forces of capitalism and its handmaiden, materialism, that have ravaged so many American towns. “He has seen the wreckage that a market-driven, money-obsessed, and materially measured culture has piled up in place of the small communities he cherishes,” Masciotra writes, “Mellencamp’s America is a conflicted country full of beauty and brutality, mercy and cruelty, life and death, and sin and redemption.”

Thus, there’s also an inherent darkness that casts shadows over life in small-town America, but this darkness exists beyond the ravages of capitalism’s wake that has left so many small towns in tatters. It’s a darkness that embraces cruelty, brutality, and sin. There are stubborn cultural elements to be found in the “Real America” — old, underlying prejudices, a persistent narrow-mindedness, and a preference for outmoded traditions like rigidly enforced gender norms — that can stifle the spirit of people unfortunate enough to stand out from the herd-determined “norms.” For these people, small towns aren’t places to embrace, they’re places to leave. Which brings us to Lou Reed.

The late Lou Reed embodied the New York city art-rock aesthetic. As a member of the seminal dark Sixties psychedelic collective The Velvet Underground, Reed croaked out cruel anthems in praise of drug trip outs and the glory of sadomasochism. Following his short-lived stint in Velvet, Reed embarked on a decades long solo career and established himself as a brilliant — if often eccentric — elder statesman of rock.

Lou Reed, New York’s poet of darkness, at a cafe in 1982. Photo via Waring Abbott/Getty Images.

On his 1990 album Songs for Drella, which he recorded with former Velvet band mate John Cale, Reed offered his own song titled “Small Town,” a far more bitter telling than Mellencamp’s rueful nostalgia. “There’s only one good thing about small town/You know that you want to get out/There’s only one good use for a small town/You hate it and you’ll know you have to leave,” Reed sings, accompanied by a jaunty piano romp. Whereas Mellencamp embraces the small town as a comforting setting where “people let me be just what I want to be,” Reed describes small-town life as rife with suspicion of difference. “I hate being odd in a small town,” Reed cracks, “People look at you funny.” And why do people look at you funny? Because you might have “bad skin” or “bad eyes,” or you might be “gay and fatty.” For Reed, the narrow-minded small-town environment isn’t worth saving, it’s only a place to get away from. This was a fitting stance for a Brooklyn-born artist whose career was inextricably linked to New York City, the very antithesis of small-town America.

What Reed hit on were the exclusionary cultures that often fester in small-town environments where low levels of diversity and the persistent influence of tyrannical traditions can make small-town life a living hell. That’s exactly what happened to Dylan Theno. A resident of the rural Kansas town of Tonganoxie (population: 5,000), Dylan endured years of relentless bullying from his male peers in both junior high and high school. Dylan was small. He wore his hair different and had an earring. He practiced Tae Kwon Do. Dylan failed to hew to the unspoken contours of “appropriate” masculine identity that are far-too common in small-town America, and he paid a huge price for being different. Even though he was straight, other boys called him “faggot,” “gay,” “queer,” “pussy,” “flamer,” and a host of other emasculating terms. The other boys also kicked Dylan, taunted him, humiliated him during school events, and threatened him on a daily basis. Dylan’s parents complained to the school authorities over 40 times, but the authorities did nothing to stop Dylan’s bullying.

Finally, after years of enduring constant bullying, Dylan dropped out of school in his junior year. In 2005, he sued the school district under the Title IX statute, insisting that his bullying constituted gender discrimination, specifically, that he ‘failed to satisfy his peers’ stereotyped expectations for his gender.’ Dylan endured incessant gender policing, the enforcement of rigid, binary, “normal” gender expressions upon people who don’t publicly adhere to the “traditional” behavior that’s expected of the gender they were assigned at birth.

Dylan Theno endured cruel gender policing in the town of Tonganoxie, Kansas.

Gender policing is an unacknowledged epidemic in small-town America, where boys like Dylan Theno too often find themselves limited in thought and personal expression by the constrained and violently enforced provisions of redneck “masculinity.” The stereotypical notion of small-town/rural masculinity is defined by ruggedness, manual labor, doing “man” stuff outdoors (like fishing, hunting, shooting), playing “man” sports like football, suppressing any feelings of sensitivity in favor of an absurd stoicism, and, above all, expressing a deep revulsion to any feminine traits in men. Legal scholar Luke Bosso notes that, in contrast to urban areas “where many models of acceptable masculinity coexist, small towns offer few competing visions of normative masculinity.” As a result, “how men should behave is therefore obvious to the citizens in a given rural community, and these men are under high pressure to conform given the ease with which locals can identify deviation.”

Traditional institutions like churches and local economies defined by “men’s” work, such as building trades and resource extraction, contribute to an overall cultural climate that emphasizes patriarchal manhood in small towns. In addition, an obsession with high-school football as a community ritual, as well as an economic juggernaut, helps further define masculinity according to its most competitive, brutish, and violent traits. Every Friday night during the school year in small towns across America, the bodies of young boys are served up like flank steaks on a vast green platter, where they’re beaten and tenderized by other boys’ bodies, then consumed by chop-licking crowds seated in the stands/dining section. But plenty of men and boys like Dylan Theno don’t fit the established paradigm of small-town masculinity, and they pay a steep price for standing out.

Dylan Theno won his lawsuit against the Tonganoxie school district, but is it any wonder that people like him would want to take Lou Reed’s advice and high-tail out of their dystopian Mayberrys? American culture tends to lionize the Mellencampian small town, with its curated flags, its community support, its quiet simplicity in the face of a complex, high-speed modern world. But Theno’s experiences of small-town life — of exclusion, cruelty, narrow-mindedness, and violence — are equally valid, and equally a part of what it means to grow up in “Real America.”

The American small town is neither Heaven nor Hell, and neither beauty nor revulsion can lay claim to its inherent nature. Instead, small towns reflect the diversity of the human experience, warts and all. With that in mind, should the small town be saved? Of course it should, but the small town must emerge from the destruction of Hurricane Capitalism and the limitations of cultural traditionalism with a new openness, and a willingness to truly live up to its storied mythos.

A “Justice for Cody” sign in Hubbard, Ohio. The murder of Cody Pitts brought out the town’s solidarity.

In a rapidly urbanizing world, small towns may seem like relics of a forgotten time, but they shouldn’t be. After all, anyone who’s grown up in a small town can attest to their value. There’s an enhanced quality of life that comes with low population density, open spaces, cleaner air, and a closer proximity to the natural world. Sitting on your porch on a summer’s evening, watching lightning bugs perform their neon dance in your backyard at the edge of a wood line isn’t something that the city easily replicates. The world’s urban centers also can’t compete with the quiet and solitude that small towns can offer. In the city, it’s nearly impossible to escape the ceaseless clamor of traffic and construction, the night-defiling glow of light pollution, and the claustrophobia that comes with millions of human bodies crammed together like toothpicks in a box. Few of the latter ills plague small-town America, and there’s more to quality of life than just getting a job in an urban jungle.

But if small-town America is to offer refuge from the urban deluge, it will first have to stop its own decline. It will have to abandon its loyalty to resource-extraction capitalism. It will have to embrace its penchant for communitarian relief to offer new economies rooted in localism, community ownership, and environmental preservation.

Moreover, small-town America absolutely has to embrace diversity of demographics and diversity of worldview. Today, the population of rural and small-town America is overwhelmingly white and far too traditionalist minded, even if those traditions are damaging to scores of people. New economic incentives should go hand-in-hand with encouraging diversity of experience and people. The best way to break down calcified traditions is to offer new ones in their place that emphasize inclusion, individual freedom, and the right to express your identity without an army of jocks or rednecks raising their fragile little objections. After all, when you live among and interact with different people on a daily basis, you’re far less inclined to only prefer the company of those who look like you.

So yes, by all means, let’s save the American small town. But let’s also remember that while small towns have vital roles to play in American society, they aren’t without their own issues which ought to be addressed, and they ought to be addressed beyond political pandering to the “Real America” or merely dismissing small towns as outposts for reactionary troglodytes. Hopefully, in the near future, those born in a small town can have the choice to die in that small town, not out of hopelessness and despair, but out of pride and choice. After all, ain’t that the American way?

* See Miles Orvell, The Death and Life of Main Street: Small Towns in American Memory, Space, and Community (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012), 240.

* See David Masciotra, Mellencamp: American Troubadour (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2015), 247.

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3 Comments

  1. Voters in America’s rural counties cast 58 percent of their votes in favor of the boorish Manhattan tycoon, and they compromised [sic] 47 percent of the 11.4 million more voters who participated in the 2016 election . . .

    Probably meant “comprised”

  2. Such a fantastic read I am a 40 year old autoworker living in Champion Ohio who did not go on the trump train.. I moved back to this area in 02 and have found myself very fascinated with its quick decline.. I have been collecting stats and pictures.. though I am not a writer I have things to say.. I admire this piece and am working on a large idea myself.. sadly it’s to late for trumbull county the people here had no choice but to believe the lies that things will be better …

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