On a long drive to the Gulf Coast a few weeks ago I happened to drive right past Leakesville, Mississippi. This would be of no interest to me or anyone else ordinarily, but Leakesville is the final resting place of Bill Hicks. Now, Mr. Hicks was an important figure in my life even though I never met him. My respect for him goes a bit beyond Fandom or "He's a comedian I really like." So I considered it obvious that I should stop to pay my respects.

Briefly, Leakesville, MS is a goddamn dump.

In my travels through 49 of the 50 states (I'll get you, Alaska) I've been through hundreds of Leakesvilles and so have you. The rusted-out farm implements / hardware store announces the beginning of the town and its end is marked by the combination gas station / Subway. Between those navigational aids you find a handful of churches, one or two dilapidated bars, and mostly deserted houses of the pre-WWII vintage. Despite having only a few hundred or thousand residents there are three or four pharmacies in town to tend to the elderly and a not-incidental number of prescription opiate addicts. If anything else is open for business – and that is a big If – it is a rehabilitation center to help old people move their withered limbs and wheeze through their Winston-stained lungs for another year or two. The only thing in the town that looks like it could withstand a stiff breeze is the Post Office (or on the Plains, the USDA office). The population consists of people under 18 waiting to escape and old people waiting to die.

Census after census we see that small towns are dying all over the country. Very few Americans live in them anymore. Once the current cohort of elderly stragglers dies, they will be abandoned for all intents and purposes. From that perspective I can never figure out why we venerate these places. They are, by nearly any criteria, terrible. And more importantly, they're already shells of their former selves. It is as if we have some kind of collective hysteria in which we pretend that Small Town America is a thing even though it is about as real as the Wild West at this point.

Even in so-called rural states, the majority of the population now lives in urban settings (including suburbs). The election year pandering to "hard working Americans" and good ol' salt of the Earth types (read: white and white, respectively) is indicative of nothing more than lazy, Beltway-centric media coverage that relies on tired tropes and is aimed at an intended audience with an average age of about 70. Even those elderly news viewers are increasingly urbanized, unless anyone out there considers southern retirement meccas to be small towns.

Every election year – and more accurately, every time I take a long drive through the back roads – I am baffled by our obsession with the idea of small towns. We might as well be holding tight to the idea of Conestoga wagons. If it's anything other than a yearning for the idealized version of the 1950s Norman Rockwell America that never was and actually kinda sucked if you weren't white and male, I don't know what it could be.

43 thoughts on “GHOSTS”

  • The romantic ideal of Jeffersonian gentleman yeoman-farmers has been a part of our national mythology since forever, and I think a lot of the warm fuzzies directed towards small towns come from people who moved to the cities reaching old age and reminiscing about their (idealized) childhoods in Mayberry RFD or wherever (and their kids clinging to that vision from their parents). And the lionization of rural small towns makes sense when you consider what their contrasted against – cities, with their immigrants and negroes and crime and bookstores and loose morals, opposition to which forms the core of the cultural appeal of one of our two major political parties.

    But you're right, I think the cultural worship of small-town life peaked a while back. I can't imagine anyone under 30 getting all misty-eyed about the good ol' days back in Fritters, Alabama. The passing of Tom Brokaw and his ilk was accelerate the process. Shit, as you pointed out, even National Review had a piece up recently about what a blasted hellscape life in white rural America has become.

  • FMguru, I disagree that the cultural worship of small-town life peaked awhile back. As you pointed out, it's the cornerstone of one of our politicial parties–so much so that in 2008, a particularly deranged and unfit-for-anything candidate put on a fake Fargo accent to try to appeal to what her party considers its base (and heck, based on the landslide votes AGAINST that party, maybe she was right). That same deranged individual is now sporting a southern accent, even though she spent the first 48 years of her life as far away as you can get from the south.

    The mainstream media in the USA also pushes the small-town worship. This past year's season of American Idol, for example, simply would NOT shut up about how one of the main contenders was from a town of 200 in Alabama, and also had lots to say about how many of the others were from southern towns that were barely bigger. A common theme in movies-where-things-don't-blow-up is how the hero discovers small town America and finds it ever-so-much-more superior to the rest of America.

    FMguru, I do agree with you that cities offer bookstores and diversity of opinions and more than one radio station and other things that terrify the hair off conservatives. I also remember when any mall in any town had at least one bookstore, but now that's destination travel.

  • No surprise, the enormous money wanted centralization, with stars & stripes slapped over the hammer & sickle, and the resulting huge operations could not support small towns. One wonders what we're in the process of becoming, but already it's no pretty…

  • My father, who will turn 75 this year, has never waxed poetic about growing up in the 1950s.

    As an ethnic white, they were only one or two notches above blacks in the pecking order back then. They certainly weren't considered fully "white" (and entitled to the privilege associated with it).

    Even as late as the 1970s he can recall being called a "Jew Boy" in Houston while on a business trip. Funny since he's Lebanese/Catholic, not Jewish.

  • As someone who's been a "city boy" all his life and recently moved to a town* that ~1000 souls in it, being sent to Shitsville Nowhere is a lot more nuanced than you'd imagine. In fact, you'll find that most are far more open minded and less busy bodied in the country than in the 'Burbs.

    You're also demonstrating as ignorant a bias as the people you're calling "dumb hicks".

    You'd be surprised at how open and welcoming people can be out here—of course rural Australia can be different than the US, but I don't think too much so.

    A major difference between a small town and a city is that the lack of people means that there's little to no "buffers". You *will* have to hang out and associate with people different to yourself. You don't get as much "choice", so you've got to make do with what you've got. That person you think who's beneath you for whatever reason might just be the person who shows up to help you when your barn has burnt down and you're left with nothing.

    Ask yourself, with *ALL* of that choice you have in an urban environment, are you really that better off? Or does it foster wants that lead to your being miserable? Sure, it takes me 1+hrs to get some place for shopping. But it probably takes you the same amount of time to travel 1/5 the distance, using the same amount of petrol and be far more stressed. For the majority of that hour I'm at 65mph, I can easily find a park at my destination, and I'm not stressed. Often times I'm blessed with seeing: eagles, 'roos, emus, wombats… what do you have?

    Yes, there's huge job/population loss—machines replacing people and small family farms have tight margins—but that shouldn't preclude certain types of industry from forming. One of the most telling parts of the stupidity of the current government is its attitude towards high speed broadband for rural areas. There are a number of jobs that can be moved to a virtual environment as they do not require heavy infrastructure or continuous contact with the client. Just a reliable fast connection. Even the production of wind turbines could be to correct regional town.

    The majority of the romanticism of the family farm is alive and well in the 'burbs. So too with the bias that they're nothing but a bunch of uneducated rubes. If you take the time to lift the lid on the problem you'll find that it's because huge amounts of resources are poured wastefully into cities—eg private cars v forcing people onto public trans—that the country schools are underfunded, which leads to those with the resources to send their kids to boarding schools. Which in turn means fewer of the best and brightest return… and down it goes.

  • Rothbard Scissorbill says:

    One of the few remaining sources of employment in the
    only non-urban area with which I am familiar (SE Kansas)
    is the huge Amazon 'order fulfillment center', with all that
    that implies. I see it as further evidence in favor of the
    'enormous money want[ing] centralization' theory.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    The Walmart that opened two towns away, means that all of Mayberry's small shops and businesses closed.
    Floyd and Otis are rooming together, and they're both drunk all of the time.
    Goober's working for minimum wage at the Walmart, changing tires.

    Aunt Bee's pimping teenage prostitutes.
    Andy suspects Opie of tweaking meth.
    And Barney carries around more than one bullet, because the lab owners have AK's.

  • Anonymouse – Yeah, and that candidate lost by a large amount, particularly among young people. American Idol's ratings have been in freefall lately, and "city slicker learns an important lesson about down-home life" movies are pretty thin on the ground these days, and are greatly outnumbered by movies about giant robots and superheroes. It's a strain that runs through our cultural DNA, but it's fading, and like Ed says it will soon be a part of the historical background noise, like the Homestead Act and Conestoga Wagons.

  • It seems like every time someone critiques some horrible Shithole region of America, somebody pops up to cry bigotry: you don't have a right to criticize, you don't know what you're talking about, you never lived here, blah blah blah.

    Well, I grew up in a small town in the Bible Belt, and I hated it even as a child. If anything, I feel like people like Ed seriously understate the situation.

  • It's all good!

    I used to be defensive about the South and the country (as opposed to city.)

    About 20 years ago I shifted gears. When I encounter someone like Ed (or sometimes more aggressive) I defer and say "You're absolutely right…the schools suck and the weather is terrible. If it ain't 99 then we got tornadoes and hurricanes. There is no opera or ballet and the symphony orchestra does a good job, (Bless their hearts!) but they're not as good as y'all have Up North. Near everything is fried and we don't like quiche. You and your family would likely not be happy here and you would really miss your friends."

    I hope I am on to something because I think that I help reduce the misery load in my little part of the universe.


  • I grew up in a small town in Maine, and while it was very pretty, it was also poor and benighted. People glorifying small towns while living in and around cities is not limited to the south.

  • @FMguru; Idol is still pulling in around 100,000 hopefuls per city, so it's still attracting voters, and there was just a spate since last winter of "small-town-wisdom-trumps-big-city" movies. They're out there. Turn on a country music station and you get a whole lot of "hate them big-city folks" songs. The sentiment is very much alive, and particularly so in politics.

    @Andrew; my spouse grew up in a small town (about 3,000) in the north. It's a nice place to visit for a few days, but there are practically no jobs (most people commute an hour or more to a city) and there's a lot of poverty, meaning there's not much to do for entertainment. The people are nice, but they don't have sole possession of "nice" or "wisdom"; they just people, like anywhere else.

  • I don't know. I think I get the appeal. I grew up in a major city, I now live in a sprawling megalopolis, and frankly I have come to find large cities shitty and exhausting. That doesn't mean I don't recognize all their benefits: critical mass for racial and political minorities, cosmopolitan living, fancy cheese shops. But the big ones, at least, are preposterously expensive, gripped by vast and impenetrable bureaucracy (which shields mismanagement), and uncomfortably dense.

    You're never alone in a city. I am sitting in my apartment right now—the very best apartment I can afford, by a long shot—and I can hear workmen in the hall and kids screaming outside and traffic on the major traffic artery right outside my door. I will literally never be able to afford a house in this city, so I am permanently resigned to living with the suffocating welter of humanity.

    At the same time, cities are completely anonymous. So you spend your days having thousands of interactions with people you don't know, whose reactions you can't hope to predict, and who have little incentive to play fair or be polite, given that they'll probably never see you again. So many people live in apartments that turnover among neighbors is rapid, and so there's little reason to get to know the people around you on more than a very superficial level.

    Why don't I move? Well, like everyone else, I am subject to the economic forces around me, and right now the economic forces are pushing everyone toward cities. Agriculture, which used to sustain those small towns, isn't even a year-round job anymore, and it employs hardly anyone. So of course there's been economic collapse in a lot of the "heartland" towns, as Ed describes. But the cities, though better, aren't really MUCH better—in many cities, following the collapse of the industrial base, there's a sharp divide between the wealthy and their technocratic managers, on the one hand, and everyone else on the other. And "everyone else" is mostly living on credit and reduced expectations.

    I guess what I'm saying is, things are shit all over. Small towns were probably never ideal, full of small-minded busybodies at the best of times, and today lacking almost entirely in any economic reason for existing. But cities were never really paradises of integration and freedom. There were lynchings in St. Louis in 1917, e.g., and there was vigorous hippie-punching in Chicago in '68, and the cops used to beat the shit out of gay men in Los Angeles, which is why they all moved to West Hollywood. And today America's great cities feature out-of control police departments running blatantly anti-Muslim surveillance programs and blatantly racist drug wars.

    In short, as a city dweller, I would hesitate to look down on the small towns, which I suspect are just the canary in the coal mine of ruthless capitalism. And cities are crummy in lots of ways, too. If I could someday arrange to live in an economically-stable small town—say, a university town—I'd definitely consider it.

  • Country music sales and broadcast ratings have collapsed even harder than the rest of the shambolic music industry, so I'm not sure what your point is. Idol getting 100000 tryouts indicates that people want to be famous not that they pine for the ol' five-and-dime and grandpa's Studebaker. It's a dying cultural force.

  • FMguru, I think you're really missing the point. My point was that a popular (and it is still popular, else it wouldn't be on the air) television program proudly trumpets the fact that several of the contestants are from small towns, including one from a town of 200-some. You can deny country music is popular if it makes you happy, but turn on the radio in any state in the USA and you'll find at least one country station, and hey, someone's going to those concerts (not me, but plenty of others are). Or are you just trying to argue?

  • Other than all that, how was Bill Hicks's grave? I just watched him lose his shit over the JFK assassination investigation. He sold it. The crowd loved it. I was left a little sad. He missed some epic goings on like the NSA revelations, the Iraq War, and what the hell would he have made of the teabaggers, militias, and Clive Bundy? That would have been fun to watch.

  • To Ed's point about dying small towns-
    I grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska, and my mom grew up on a farm in NE Nebraska. Of her 4 siblings, only one lives on a farm, and she lives in Iowa. And is a teacher at the local school district. Of her children, 1 lives nearby- out in the country, but she, too, works "in town" as a teacher and her husband works in town as well. The other two children of my aunt and uncle live in Chicago and small town Iowa. All of my other aunts, uncle, and cousins live in cities- my cousins in Omaha.
    I have spent most of my life in either the rust belt or the farm belt of the midwest- these towns are slowly dying away, as the myth of the family farmer is slowly whittled away- because of the gains in productivity and low prices, the amount of land needed to be an independent farmer has gotten larger and larger every year for a couple of generations, so much so that anyone who wanted to start farming would be hard pressed to buy enough land and equipment to make the capital investment worthwhile without being wealthy enough to not have to work.
    The idea of "rural America" has something to do with the density of America- pretty much north of Texas, west of the Missouri river and east of Pacific Ocean coastal cities, it's pretty much empty. More people live in Metro Detroit than in the states of Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana, North and South Dakota combined. The population of the state of Minnesota is equal to those 5 states as well. We have huge swaths of land in this country that is pretty much empty, and it's getting emptier as jobs migrate to the cities. At least urban poor have access to some jobs near by- most rural poor have to move to the cities to find work- we're like Mexico, only with more choices than Mexico City.
    Rural America has always been a "idealized" dream since Jefferson. Most of the current celebration of "salt of the earth" types of people, to borrow a phrase from a U2 song- "You glorify the past when the future dries up". We glorify small towns because the future is messy. And we've done it for years. We have always fondly remembered the "good ole days". Springsteen sang of "Glory Days" of youth- that is how our collective memories always are- the past was better! When of course, it certainly was not better.

  • anotherbozo says:

    I, as well as some good friends I made here in NYC, come from small towns. My own had a lot of virtues, thanks to its one industry, booming at the time, and the real estate tax receipts spent on a great school system.
    But as with a lot of small towns, that one industry went kerblooie. It could have been one factory, as with many others, but it was an industry that dealt in a finite resource: oil. As the huge reserve underground moved from Exploit to Maintain, Standard Oil moved its state engineering department and their spouses to San Francisco, the town's collective I.Q. was cut in half, and its middle class decimated. Now the major industry is Incarceration, housing officers and families of inmates in the nearby penitentiary. The Main St. furniture store is now a used clothing store, the hospital closed years ago, my last home is still standing but shabby and garishly repainted. The town's most recent claim to fame is an attempted shooting at the high school, with a boy being talked out of using his shotgun on a classmate.
    It's hard to be sentimental in the U.S. of A., though the snake-oil types still try to keep up the mythology. Thomas Wolfe had it right: you can't go home again.

  • The other characteristic of small towns (where applicable) not mentioned: the shell of an abandoned factory or distribution center, which at one time, actually employed people.

    Oh, and perhaps the shabbily and hastily constructed buildings that are now falling apart as fast as they can. Private enterprise is really good at burning through things – resources, habitats, people…

  • Granted, the idyllic small town is myth, mostly Norman Rockwell's fault. But I've seen the seeds of the myth and I get why people make a story out of it. It's a good story.

    You won't find the physical backdrop in the South or West, at least what I've seen of it. But northeast rural Iowa is full of Norman Rockwell towns. Really. Picture postcard perfect.

    As for the mythical ambience, I'm a city slicker through and through. Grew up in Harvard Square. What can I say. But I have a relative in a microscopic burg in the north woods. His out-of-town daughter got worried because he wasn't answering his phone. Finally Sunday night she calls us, out in greater Los Angeles, rather distraught. Yes, we could have called 911, but it wasn't clear that there really was an emergency. Everything, including the gas station near him, was closed. We look up the phone number for the one bar in town (the Goog is useful that way) and call the number. Sure thing, says the barkeeper, Joe over there will go right over and check on him. And he did. (Our relative's phone had conked. He was fine.)

    And that's why people make stories about small towns. We all want people who'll look out for us. We just don't always remember that they'll also look at all the rest of our business.

  • Duke of Clay says:

    A few years ago much was made on American Idol of a contestant from the "small town" of Brandon, MS. Downtown Brandon is 14 miles from downtown Jackson. When I had to catch an early flight out of Jackson, the most convenient hotel to the airport was in Brandon. But we love to pretend.

  • Not arguing with anyone's opinion, just mentioning: it's never quiet in L.A. and you're never alone. I hate that.

    Also, when I visited Creston, IA in 2001, people said hello if they passed you on the street, instead of averting their eyes. That's something.

  • anotherbozo says:

    Just to throw this into the mix: I'm in Manhattan, NYC and it IS quiet. The magic? Thermal-pane windows and living in the Village in a building with only one other couple.

    Don't believe the stereotypes.

  • My town is getting too big. The other day I had to wait at a stop sign for three cars to pass. That kind of traffic ruins my commute.

  • Threads like this also tend to assume that there are only two possible alternatives – Mayberry RFD or Midtown Manhattan.

    I live in a suburb of a medium-sized city, Columbus OH. Not that there's anything magical about Columbus but it has most big-city amenities and you can still get from one end of town to the other in under 30 minutes. Driving to the grocery store takes 8 minutes (I timed it). Housing isn't too terribly expensive. Sure, it's not San Francisco but I get a lot of bang for the buck.

    If I want to be in the country it's a very short drive away without having to put up with the inconvenience of living in the country – like spending half my weekend sitting on a tractor mowing a 5-acre lot (just for example).

  • I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area (East Bay), and have never lived more than thirty miles from where I was born. Don't feel like I've missed anything. My standard joke about being from here is that California is to the rest of the country what the USA is to the rest of the world – we meet so many people who have moved here from somewhere else, it's hard to remember that most people from There don't actually want to.

    Random memory – a housemate in college who was astonished that I'd been to Disneyland but not Disneyworld. The idea of someone *growing up* in California was entirely foreign to her – all her young life, it had been someplace people moved to.

  • Interesting thread. I've had the good fortune to live in several parts of southern California — a suburb/university town, a cool beach city, the grittier city next to the cool beach city, a little canyon with dirt roads, and for the past 14 years the big city of Long Beach. I've really enjoyed all of them, by and large. The little canyon place became problematic, though, due to feuds among neighbors that I ultimately got dragged into despite my best efforts to not pick sides. For me, the most important things in a neighborhood are proximity to work, a low crime rate, quietude, and being close enough to a big city to sneak in for a cultural fix now and then. My family and I are very happy in Long Beach!

  • Bitter Scribe says:

    My sister lived for a long time near the Roanoke Mountains in Virginia. The people there were friendly and pleasant, but some were…interesting.

    Like the guy who refused to speak with a woman or girl, any female, ever, at any time, about anything.

    Or the woman who, when my sister showed her a jar of homemade pickles and offered her one, instantly ran from the kitchen. When my sis caught up with her and asked what was wrong, the woman said she was having her period and would make the pickles go bad if she stood near them.

    My sis wrote a sitcom pilot based on the people she knew over there, but no one bought it. Probably thought it was too unbelievable.

  • I've only been to Roanoke once. I try to avoid it because it's a very challenging airport to fly into and the hotel is pretty much out by its lonesome.

    I do recall the people there being "interesting".

  • alexis de tokeville says:

    The population consists of people under 18 waiting to escape and old people waiting to die.

    And don't forget the middle-aged people waiting for windfalls from personal injury lawsuits and lotto tickets so they can retire from their jobs as "pickers" at the dollar store distribution center and feed their meth habits 24/7.

    Greetings from the Hoosier state, by the way.

  • Roanoke and Blacksburg ( Virginia Tech) are ok, but once you get out in the country, God help you. That pickle story is spot on.

    Ten years here makes me appreciate the sophistication of Central Illinois

  • I grew up in a farming community about 80 miles south of Chicago. Nice place. Green, Illinois farming prosperous. Life centered around the church – Methodist – and Catholics were the exotic creatures. (Never met a Jewish person until I was in college, and while the city we shopped in 15 miles away had black people, they weren't in our community. I don't think they have any even now.) My grade school was in the town of 200 and my high school was in a neighboring town of about 1500. Last time I was there (about 10 years ago) everything was humming right along. No rusting machinery in sight. Norman Rockwell all the way.

    I couldn't wait to get out of there! Sure, people know you and are willing to help, but they never forget. (Yes, I locked myself out of the house on a snow-filled winter day and had to walk a mile to the neighbors WHEN I WAS 11! I still hear about that every time I go back. I'll be 60 in a few months.) And old grievances never die! A shirttail cousin is STILL mad that her erstwhile best friend had the nerve to get married a couple of months before she did and – and here's the real sin – had the nerve to PICK PINK for her bridesmaid dresses! She's been married now for nearly 50 years (while the former bf has had several marriages) but still….the pain! Oh how it rankles!

    I guess it's a nice life for a certain mindset. Same routine year after year after year. Church potlucks once a month. Swimming in the quarry in the summer. (To be fair, that WAS really great!) But still, small towns, small minds.

    As for quiet….I think you just have to know where to go. I currently live in Nanjing, China. Without a doubt, China has way too many people, and sometimes out on the street I just want to scream "ALL OF YOU NEED TO JUST DIE AND GET OUT OF MY FUCKING WAY!" But here in my apartment it's so quiet I can hear my fridge run. And just a 20 minute bike ride away is purple mountain and all the quiet forest anyone could ask for, and 20 minutes the other way is parkland for miles along the Yangtze river.

    Growing up and staying in a small town reminds me of the quote "A boat is safe in a harbor. But that is not what boats are built for."

    Chacun a son gout. (No accent marks…sorry.)

    (Another saying I like about small towns…"You don't need your turn signal. We already know where you're going….and why." Evil laugh and mustache twirling.)

  • @Quixote; it's popular for people to have a hate on for big cities, particularly NYC, and contrast it to small-town life. When I was working in England and my spouse was deployed, there was a death in my family that caused me to fly back home with a toddler and an infant for the funeral. I flew into JFK, but because of crazy flight delays, there was nobody to meet me at the airport. With the friendly (I'm not being sarcastic) help of a cab driver, I was able to get into the city. I also found people to be very helpful that trip and the others I've made since. I think some of the backlash from small-towners is that they don't realize NYC isn't Disneyland, and the people around them are just regular people trying to live their lives, not underpaid serfs whose only requirement is to cater to the tourists and make their every moment delightful.

  • I live in an area most people can't even find on a map; give me a choice of being locked in the basement for a week or spending any time in the city and I'm heading for the basement. It ain't all bad out here.

  • We definitely screwed up our small towns in this country, no question. 70+ years of failing to think ahead bludgeoned many of them into wrecks. Things don't have to be this way, though.

    There are a lot of aspects to "small town life" that have a strong appeal to many people – knowing your neighbors, for example. I think it all amounts to the appeal of living in a community that functions on a human scale, instead of a gigantic corporate scale.

    If we could get high-speed internet out all over the place, make it possible to live in New Bethlehem, PA or Grayling, MI, and still hold a relatively high-income job, I think that would go a long way towards luring people back into those towns.

    As it stands, though, increasing numbers of people Gen-X and younger are fleeing the small towns and the suburbs for the cities – especially "rising" cities like Pittsburgh – and pretty soon we're going to have to figure out what to do about that.

  • I grew up in rural Iowa and raced away at my first chance. April said exactly what I have experienced. You think people in small towns have to put up with "different?" That they accept it? Then you are experiencing "Iowa nice" (or equivalent of any state). Just listen to the side conversations or dinner conversations where they judge and never forget and belittle anyone who doesn't do things the 'regular' way. Small towns, small people.

  • You can talk about me all you want when I've left the room as long as you're nice to my face. There are small people everywhere. They're generally convinced they are right, know the future with certainty, and can do a better job of living than everyone else. Fuck them and the horse they rode in on.

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  • I live in south-central Pennsylvania, which is fairly suburban, and while it's not perfect, I'll take it over rural western Pennsylvania any day. I spent several years regularly traveling through the dying towns of rural PA, and they were riddled with poverty, scarce job opportunities, fundamentalism, ignorance, insularity, and a lack of recreation and culture.

    I'll take life with "city folks", complete with job opportunities, book stores, and pride festivals any day. I have no desire to visit rural western PA again. If that makes me classist, so be it.

    Oh, and if you think rural living is clean and closer to nature, think again. Logging is slowly devouring western Pennsylvania's forests, and mining has devastated the regional environment. I knew people who had enormous, hellish gorges on their properties from strip mining companies digging into the earth. Don't get me started on the environmental impact of fracking! Corporations are devastating those rural communities, and it can't be easy for the people living there.

  • In 1790, the US was 95% rural. In 1870, the US was 3/4 rural. In 1920, it was over 1/2 urban. Now it's 80% urban. There was a huge change in the way we lived between the 1870s and 1920s, and it shows up in our culture. The whole Norman Rockwell, Disneyland Main Street, Anne of Green Gables idealization of small town life was a reflection of the change from a rural agricultural life with steam railroads and animal power to an urban industrial life with automobiles and motor power. Henry Ford built a great museum of the very rural life his automobile was destroying. (This was also the era of the Wild West shows and a real boom in westerns as movies and novels, just as the real Wild West was evaporating.)

    My parents had a soft spot for Sholom Aleichem which meant they were nostalgic for the pre-Holocaust European apartheid, before European Jews were emancipated, and then murdered. Is anyone in Soweto getting all misty eyed? This is a common pattern. One friend of mine pointed out that Jane Austen was sort of Sholom Aleichem for the pre-industrial English ruling class. All those entailments that drove her novels were getting thrown out of court by the early 1800s, and byt the late 1800s, the ruling class was full of industrialist blood.

    In some ways this is hopeful. People get nostalgic for things that have vanished. Rural America doesn't really exist the way it is usually remembered. Neither is industrial America. I suppose, some day, folks will be sitting around remembering big box stores and fast food restaurants with true affection. (Try reading the essay, When Walmart Makes us Weepy.)

  • Another Holocene Human (now with new computer) says:

    I'm not so big on small town life … look what happened to my grandmother and her siblings. Incestuous rape, exploitation, domestic violence, sexual harassment by clergy and medical care professionals. Oh yeah, a really safe place where everyone looks out for their neighbors–not.

    It's isolation exacerbated by factors like lack of education, poverty and deprivation, lack of social services and policing (due to distances involved and of course poverty and policy of malign neglect by the moneyed, banking class), and language isolation. It was a community of immigrants from Saxony. Many people spoke Plattdeutsch as their first language. I wonder if things were so depraved in the home country or if things got bad in the anything-goes 19th century US frontier.

    This shit fed anti-Semitism and racism in the descendant generations. Resentment, victimhood, blame.

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