In a probing reflection on small-town life, E.D. talks about why small towns don’t always make the best communities and makes the further claim that they can be hard to escape.
In 1990 my county in rural Nebraska had a population of 11,551 spread over a vast 2,412 sq. miles. By 2008 the population had fallen off to only 10,233, for a total population decline of 11%. I am one of the people who left.
This kind of crisis-level population decline is widespread in much of the nation’s interior. 71 of Nebraska’s 93 counties reached their population peaks in the 1940s or earlier. Today, 28 have a population density below six people per square mile, which is the historical definition of “frontier.” If we were to take that definition literally, many of these counties were “settled” for no more than a few decades.
I say all this to point up the fact that despite these statistics, Nebraska’s population has actually grown from 1.6 to 1.8 million over the past eight years. Nearly all this growth occurs in a few counties around Omaha where small-town kids of all educational achievement levels have gone to find opportunity and start families. I think E.D. is right to stay that the poorer you are, the harder it is to leave. That said, a great many of the poorest do leave. So it went among my high-school class. Of course, there are lots of problems with small towns. But one of the biggest is not that its hard to leave, it’s that it’s so difficult to stay. That, at least, is how things seem from my perch in Princeton, New Jersey.
None of this detracts from E.D.’s central point that strong communities might not be the most self-enclosed communities. Christopher Alexander tries to get at this in A Pattern Language (a book well worth reading) when he says that cities should be a “mosaic of subcultures,” which would mean (roughly) that they would consist of distinct communities existing in close proximity with definite but porous boundaries. That way identities are preserved, along with the opportunity for individuals to hop from one to another.