It really does take a village, not a suburb

It really does take a village, not a suburb


Rural Midwestern towns grew by leaps and bounds in the 1990s as urban professionals decided that small towns were great places to raise families. But as many of these towns grew, they lost their small-town character, said Sonya Salamon, anthropologist and professor of community studies at the University of Illinois.

And those characteristics were valuable. “Small-town communities have a culture worth nurturing and protecting. The resources, connections, and commitment to young people found in Midwestern small towns contribute a great deal to the successful development of youth,” Salamon said.

In her new book Newcomers to Old Towns: The Suburbanization of the Heartland, Salamon describes six small towns in Illinois, renamed for the sake of anonymity and located in the commuting zone of “Central City.” She discusses the circumstances that made these towns resilient or led to their decline as they faced pressure to change.

In Salamon’s study, one town grew dramatically in the past three decades because it had easy access to a mid-sized city via the interstate, interesting terrain with wooded areas, developers who created new subdivisions with grand houses, and good school systems. “Prairieview” began to look and feel more and more like a Chicago suburb.

But, said Salamon, its growth occurred at the expense of “Splitsville,” another town in the commuting zone that was populated increasingly by rural families who couldn’t afford the price of housing in newly fashionable Prairieview. Neglected housing in Splitsville was bought for back taxes and sold or rented to low-income people. Long-time residents didn’t welcome the newcomers, who kept old cars in their yards and couldn’t afford to have garbage collected weekly. When one member of the “Old Guard” turned off the water at a newcomer’s home for nonpayment, the newcomer reacted by vandalizing the home of the water commissioner.

The homes are built for privacy. People come home from work, drive into their attached garage, and they never see each other casually.

Other towns, called Corntown and Arbordale, found different ways of handling the diversity created when Mexican-American migrant workers decided to live in these communities permanently.

Such challenges are relatively recent in Midwestern farm towns, long rumored to be dying. In fact, the population of rural America increased in the 1990s by more than 3 million people. Some small towns courted such growth with inducements, such as $10,000 grants to families who bought land and built a new home.

“People have long denigrated small towns, calling them fished-out ponds, with the best and brightest kids leaving. But those farm towns didn’t decline because they’re greater than the sum of their parts. These fished-out ponds do amazing childrearing. They just kept producing more of the best and the brightest—which says to me that the best and brightest are not those who have more abililty than others, but that having an entire village involved in the upbringing of its youth makes a dramatic difference,” Salamon said.

In rural small towns, families often have a shared background over many generations, and community members share a social network that links families in functional and emotional ways. Homes have porches that face the street to promote neighborliness. These towns have public places, a central square, a café, or a bowling alley, where people gather. Families know and watch out for their neighbors’ children, generations interact with each other, and if teenagers drag Main Street or hang out downtown, adults are tolerant because they know “they’re good kids and there’s not a lot to do here.”

New subdivisions are usually not located near the town center, and they are not designed with communal spaces for recreation. “Newcomers have a consumption mentality. They buy a house in a new subdivision and consume the countryside for its natural setting, its good schools, and its low crime rate, but few of them put anything back into the places they call home,” Salamon said.

“Kids in these suburban settings have a peer-structured youth culture. They don’t interact as frequently with older adults in the community. The homes are built for privacy. People come home from work, drive into their attached garage, and they never see each other casually. There’s very little ‘neighboring,’ and that’s important in building a sense of community.”

“Glen Elder, a prominent sociologist, says that these cultural dynamics produced Columbine. At about that time, the New York Times published the floor plan for the most commonly built suburban home—which has a children’s wing with a private entrance. If the house is professionally cleaned, and the kids have their own TV and computer, they don’t even need to interact with their parents very much,” Salamon said.

Salamon was struck by the number of small-town newcomers who didn’t go to church in their home community, either driving into a small city for church or joining one of the huge new churches built by the interstates. “The older churches helped a lot with small-town festivals and put a lot back into the community. These mega-churches aren’t nearly as concerned with building community in their towns. They’re concerned about the church community. They’re entrepreneurial about souls,” she said.

“Families in places like Prairieview often plan to stay only until their children are out

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of school, and there is no expectation that children will come back to that town when they are grown,” she said.

In contrast, Salamon quoted one man who had been raised in a place like “Smallville,” which lies in a remote corner of a sparsely settled western Illinois county, and has retained many of the strengths of the best agrarian towns.

“When I got out of high school, the sight of that town in my rear-view mirror was the best thing I’d ever seen,” the man said wistfully, “and I’ve been trying to get back there ever since.”

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