Plumb Lines

September 18, 2009

Finding the Exit

Filed under: Uncategorized — Matthew Schmitz @ 6:00 am


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.

-Matthew Schmitz



  1. I’d like to point out that I meant not only exit from the community but exit from institutions and circles within the community – exit from a bad school for instance, or from a local monopoly. Similarly exit from a bad group of friends can be more difficult because there are fewer other friends to choose from, and perhaps once a young person realizes it’s time to move on they’ve already been pigeon-holed or stigmatized by the close-knit community. This can be hard for children.

    On the flipside, of course, the “shame culture” can be beneficial to kids – keeping them in line to some degree. I only wonder whether the benefits are overblown and mythologized a bit, and the downsides are glossed over – simply because those who write about small towns in favorable lights are very rarely the kids from these more downtrodden social circles – rarely the troublemakers…

    Good post though, and thanks for the book recommendation. Sounds interesting…

    Comment by E.D. Kain — September 18, 2009 @ 12:56 pm

  2. To connect our two points, one might say that the lack of freedom to exit from social groups, circles, schools, etc is a contributing factor to the eventual exodus from the town itself.

    Alexander’s book is a favorite of mine. Its immensely detailed vision of how we can build communities, workplaces and homes in a way that makes people most health and happy is both deeply intuitive and quite eccentric.

    Comment by Matthew Schmitz — September 18, 2009 @ 1:49 pm

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