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What I've learned by living in a small town
By Phil Soreide
Some people are born to small town life, some choose it, and some have it thrust upon them, but regardless of how you come to it, there are lessons to be learned there.
We just passed our seventh anniversary of living in Holdrege, Nebraska. Holdrege is one of those “blue highways” towns, well off the Interstate and situated in the middle of miles and miles of corn and soybean fields. It’s like many towns that dot the West and Midwest, where the main intersections are paved with brick, the trees are old and big, and there are more churches than restaurants. The downtown buildings are likewise mostly brick, many with arched windows and filigree that suggest an earlier, perhaps more prosperous time. You can ride a bike from one corner of town to the other in twenty minutes and hardly break a sweat.
Life anywhere has its ups and downs, but the pace is relaxed here, the air is clear, the roads are uncongested and the children are — mostly — polite. The people are friendly, certainly, and we both agree we have a much wider circle of friends here than anyplace we lived in the city.
Advantages of community
Having done research on small town dynamics, our friend, sociologist John Anderson, tried to explain the concept of social capital and what it means to small towns. Social capital, he said, is expressed in the form of trusting networks of people, such as those you find in small towns. One aspect of it is found when people who know each other cooperate to complete a task, such as harvesting a crop for an ailing farm friend. Another is when groups of people get together to put up new playground equipment at the park, saving the community the cost of hiring someone to do that task. Lastly, he said we know from research that rural towns with more networks of trust (such as those found in civic organizations) also have higher levels of income. Small town trust facilitates the development of actual capital as well as social capital.
But social capital is just one expression of community. There’s also a sense of “we” in a small town that I never experienced in any of the cities where I lived. Perhaps it’s this feeling of cohesiveness that makes me reach for my wallet whenever any kid asking for donation comes to the door. I am a particular sucker for scrubbed, earnest children selling popcorn or cookie dough, and I would have practically cleaned out the bank account for one adorable little girl selling Butter Braids — a kind of coffee cake which she pronounced as “Butta Bwaids” —when she came to the door. I don’t even like Butter Braids all that well, but if a kid is from my town, somehow they become my kid, too.
I don’t follow sports, as a rule, and since I no longer have children in the local schools, why should I feel a little swell of pride and even become a bit misty-eyed when one of our high school teams does well at state competition? No reason, except that this is somehow “our” kids doing well, and it’s a pride I’m invited to share in.
A double-edged sword
Shortly after we arrived seven years ago, our town began to integrate us into the community. As the director of the library, my wife was fairly conspicuous, but it wasn’t long before we were both being asked to attend meetings, sit on committees, and join the boards of organizations. We had come from places where we were accustomed to being fairly anonymous; fairly quickly we could hardly go to the grocery store or out to dinner without running into people we knew.
This awareness of one another in a small town simultaneously cuts down on your privacy and improves your security. We heard multiple stories from teenagers of our acquaintance of the, shall we say, ”inconvenience” of being recognizable to some fairly large segment of the population. News of some youthful indiscretion is likely as not to precede you home via the mom-to-mom network. Few are foolish enough to start an affair with someone else in town, for surely your sins will find you out here as nowhere else. You have to understand that people in a small town notice your smallest comings and goings. They notice if you have a light on late at night or a visitor from out of state. It’s what they do. They would call it just being aware.
Of course that impulse to mind other people’s business also comes into play when spaghetti feeds or soup suppers are held — and there are many — to help some family cope with a financial crisis. People check on their neighbors after a blizzard or power outage to make sure everyone’s okay. And in our town, there are several developmentally disabled adults who get along just fine in part because so much of the town knows who they are and accepts them.
Communities and individuals
I’ve been thinking about the current cultural and political struggle in the country in terms of the concept of the individual and all that embodies being pitted against the concept of community writ large. Small towns are often comprised of hard working, self-sufficient individualists; indeed, in many cases, it’s their individualism that drives them to a rural lifestyle. But in order to live where they do, they still have to be able to band together and form a community, make decisions and take action for the common good, and take care of their own.
Not to say we always agree because we assuredly do not, but if the politics that matter to us are always local, we generally find ways to reach accommodations as a community. You and your neighbor may not vote the same way on a bond issue, but he’s still your neighbor, so you can agree it’s going to be a good year for the tomatoes and move on. Just because we disagree with our neighbors on one issue doesn’t mean we won’t feed their dog while they’re on vacation.
A lot of the country still has small town roots, even though 84 percent of U.S. inhabitants now live in suburban and urban areas of the country. What I fear may be lost in this migration to cities is the sense of community and connectedness to one another that allows us to get along and work together in other contexts even when we disagree on specific points.
It seems to me that it’s something small towns have that the rest of the country — and especially Congress — could use.
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