Mark Franke: The draw of small towns is reversing trends

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“Counterurbanization,” a term new to me, is the phenomenon that Americans increasingly are moving from large cities to rural areas. This reverses a trend in the other direction, one that began with the Industrial Revolution and continued until just recently.

So why the change? And more importantly, what will its effect be 20 years down the road?

The first question is obvious; one need only peruse an Internet news feed to see what is going on in our large cities. Unchecked crime, homelessness and the plight of urban schools all paint a rather apocalyptic picture of city life. And now we must indulge squatters, property thieves who for some unknown reason are protected by local laws. I wouldn’t want to live there.

But then I am a small-town boy at heart. I grew up around Waynedale, back then an independent town south of Fort Wayne. Eventually we were annexed by Fort Wayne but the small-town environment survived, at least while I lived there.

What brought my thinking back to my childhood was this topic at a monthly Socratic discussion group to which I belong: Do small towns matter?

Of course they do, we quickly agreed. What’s not to like, especially compared with Chicago or Seattle? Our group has its own history with small towns in northeast Indiana, specifically Roanoke, Hoagland and my now dated memory of Waynedale.

The DNA of a small town is quite different from that of the big cities. Just stroll down Main Street — all small towns have a main street by whatever name — and it will be obvious. You will see a local bank, businesses like a hardware store or funeral home that are still family-owned and operated, and a lot of churches. And there will be a barbershop, with a barber who probably cut your father’s hair when he was a boy.

Locals will be congregated at the coffee shop or just sitting on public benches, talking about the town’s current affairs or the good old days. The houses on the residential streets have front porches, always occupied on pleasant evenings. Neighbors matter.

Disney used to make movies about towns and people like this.

So why has this idyllic lifestyle become suddenly popular with urbanites? There are no night clubs, no ethnic restaurants, no all-night bars, no major entertainment venues, nothing that conventional wisdom instructs us urbanites must have to be content.

So what do small towns offer ex-urbanites? Are they merely trying to escape unlivable living conditions or do they see something worth fleeing to? The answer to this question is critical as it will inform what happens to these newly popular small towns.

To ask the question another way, are these relocators progressives who hope to transplant progressive ideology on conservative towns or are they attracted to a place that is a safe harbor from extreme progressivism and its culturally destructive effect?

It will take years or decades to confidently answer this question. For now we have only anecdotal evidence, inconsistent as is all anecdotal evidence. One always has plenty of one-off examples to prove one’s point … as does one’s opposite in any debate.

Many would intuit that counterurbanization represents a potential threat to small town America, but I don’t see it as an existential one. My sense, and it is only that in light of my anecdote mentioned above, is that people move to where they want to live. Something attracts them there, an environment which makes the cost of moving worthwhile, be it employment, housing, schools or overall lifestyle. If this migration is gradual, its effect will be insignificant for the foreseeable future. Perhaps all we will see is that the red on the political map will get redder and the blue bluer.

Change happens; how we introduce it and control its effects is what matters. My faith is unabated in small towns like Roanoke and Hoagland and other Hoosier towns. They are beacons for those who want a simpler, saner and safer community of neighbors.

Mark Franke, an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review and its book reviewer, is formerly an associate vice-chancellor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.