11 March 2014

The slowly-evolving crisis of small towns in America

The StarTribune op-ed piece refers to small towns in Minnesota, which is largely agricultural in rural areas, so these comments may apply to many other states, though perhaps not all of them:
A recent presentation by Brad Finseth, executive director of the Center for Rural Policy and Development, shed light on the magnitude of the crisis with data that focused on Minnesota’s most rural areas...

In fact, what you may notice first in these communities is the number of empty storefronts and blank spaces on Main Street. The hardware store is gone. Maybe one cafe and one bar will still be open. The grocery store is out on the highway now and sells gas. In the smallest cities and towns, don’t expect to find a medical clinic or a dentist’s or a lawyer’s office...

Movie theater? Not a chance. Thrift and secondhand stores are fairly common, and many of the smaller towns have nursing homes and assisted-living facilities that look new or have recent additions spreading from an original building. Housing throughout the city looks a little ragged, and you’ll see empty lots where a house used to stand. Other houses are abandoned and are close to falling down. On the edge of town, a newer home may have been built, but you won’t see a subdivision...

In the last 25 years, the population of Minnesota’s 25 smallest counties has shrunk by nearly 13 percent... If you look deeper into the census data, you will see that the median age of the population in these rural counties is 44 to 49 years old, whereas counties like Hennepin [Mpls] and Ramsey [St. Paul] have median ages of 35...

What you won’t see on your drive, or in the data, are the crumbling water and wastewater systems in most of these cities, all the roads in need of asphalt, or the lists of seniors waiting to move into assisted living and long-term-care facilities. You won’t see the number of miles that children are being bused as school district after school district attempts to assemble the critical mass of pupils necessary to keep the schools functioning. You won’t see the high school graduates who are leaving for new lives in the big city. You won’t be able to attend a Lions Club or Jaycees meeting, as there are just too few people to keep such clubs going. The American Legion halls and VFWs are located in the larger towns, and the Red Cross seldom does a blood drive, since the donor pool has aged too much.
I think it is true that most Americans (and major media sources) tend to equate the U.S. economy with the situation in large urban areas, because that's where most people live.  But many small towns and cities are hurting.


  1. Luckily we live in a small town with a college. That makes all the difference, although we still don't have high-speed internet.

    American small towns are drying up and blowing away. Large agribusiness is replacing the many smaller farms and that way of life is dying off.

  2. What the hardware store closed its doors on main street because folks would rather dribe 15 miles to buy cheap chinese goods at a lower price ? Who'd have thought?

    1. In some cases, not necessarily here in Minnesota, large chain stores (especially Walmart) deliberately undersold the main street businesses in order to gain an advantage.

    2. And customers/residents made the choice that their wallets were far more important, community is unfortunately not a concern for many of us.

      I moved to a small town, small enough people drove past to take a peek at me repairing the old cottage/garage and to wave hello. The wife and I voted in town elections yesterday and one of the ladies at the desk knew our last names.

      Small town only gets to stay small town if people work at it and share a roughly common vision. If pennies (or dolars) in a pocket are more important there never was much of a community just an area a lot of people lived.

  3. Elsewhere in the US (specifically where I'm from in NC), the problems small towns are facing is that they're getting too big too quickly. Sometimes there's a bigger city nearby and people are starting to treat the small town like a suburb- including criminals who make drug and violent crimes skyrocket and the streets not as safe to walk as they used to be. And sometimes they're spreading too quickly as people buy vacation or permanent homes in subdivisions that chip away at the surrounding forest without any thought for more environmentally-friendly layouts.

  4. Are people really just starting to notice this trend? This has been going on for decades with small cities, where suburban shopping malls sucked all the life out of Main Street, and then suburban office parks took away all the businesspeople.

    Small towns are responsible in many ways because they disrupted the urban relationship of population, business, and commerce by trying to cherry-pick the best from the urban communities. They started by building high-end housing (trying to poach the wealthy residents), then building selected retail developments (often malls), then, once the people started moving there, office parks (because the suburban people didn't like driving to the urban centers anymore).

    They left behind social service organizations, hospitals, wastewater treatment facilities, power plants, anything that they didn't want. And especially poor people - no room for them in suburban environments. That is why urban areas have such concentrated poverty these days - it used to be that poverty was associated with rural areas.

  5. Absentee landlords who charge big city rents are a good part of the problem, too. I live in Grand Coulee, a fairly busy area, but there are more and more empty buildings every year, just in the four years since we moved here. We are having hospital problems now and the administration is trying to rob it and sell out, another problem of small areas.


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