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Tuesday, April 20, 2021

A borderland miracle: How small towns have changed Americans

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Someplace like Calliope or Chartres, or even a town like Roscoe or Croix Rouge, you could spend a great deal of time and think a great deal and never achieve any goals in this life. I’m not serious. But I think that being in a medieval city where people work as hard as each other — where you still run into old buddies you met in high school — and where civic life is respected, would have some fairly substantial effects on political thinking.

New York City seems to me to have a certain tolerance for all of this. And you could say the same for Washington and I could still like it even better. But people in large metropolises have to get rid of these things, for a variety of selfish and security reasons.

Take America’s infrastructure. Can we be amenable to paying higher taxes in order to pay back those borrowed dollars for the infrastructure of tomorrow? Is it really even necessary to spend trillions of dollars in the face of trillion-dollar deficits?

In smaller cities, you might spend a lot of time talking about those big projects and about finding new ways to grow. In my old neighborhood, you might find a kind of militancy in your den: “Bring us back some snow or bring us back clean water.”

And, probably, you could discuss the consequences of all that.

Maybe the answer is that bigger cities lead to more smart growth, more freedom. Maybe urban dwellers tend to have less of the older sort of elite commie attitudes that also lend themselves to political correctness. (For instance, people in big cities do not say things like, “Don’t take it out on the little man.”)

Of course, in the small towns I remember, there were townsfolk who complained about everything and everything. But in smaller places — very small places, but in the 1970s for sure — you didn’t hear anyone saying that all is well and it’s time to slide in a nuclear bomb.

But I should not discount the possibility that little towns can be changed. Remember when Arlen Specter famously said that communities were units of government and not community? A lot of what we think of as the Internet did not exist back then.

There are lots of things small towns could do — turning trash into compost, turning compost into electricity, doing a better job of filling out online forms.

I remember my father having a policy that he would never move unless he got a new library. I think maybe some small town is finally thinking about libraries and other services that were neglected. My neighborhood is undergoing some kind of revolution: the establishment of a shopping center on a corner, even though the one close by has been around for decades. The people who own the building may have decided it’s time to move on, but the fact that someone is willing to do it tells you something.

But the issue with small towns is not that they are atrophying. The issue is that the capital they do have is so tied up in manufacturing. What can a small town do to make itself relevant and better organized?

Admittedly, there are lots of things a big city could do: defund public higher education, foster downtown redevelopment, provide public infrastructure with public investment, etc. But these initiatives would be scarce and limited.

At the same time, many of the forces that lead to this one-sidedness seem to reverse themselves with the passage of time. As cities become centers of commerce, professional entertainment and—god forbid—niceness, then it becomes harder to ask the city to behave badly. Maybe the deep-frying plant that gets built will generate a lot of business and make it easier to have some from newcomers.

I wonder if cities can survive without a sense of duty. All I know is that as a result of a city’s love affair with the Mets and, for better or worse, a Soho loft, I got an Ivy League education and a respectable job.

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