The Changing Face of Small Towns

For the majority of my life, I grew up in a small town in southeastern Nebraska. Our town had about 5,000 people; it's home to a small, liberal arts college, and before Wal-Mart set up shop, it had a thriving downtown typical of most small towns: a video store, restaurants, sports bars, a pharmacy, a library, a few clothing stores, a consignment shop, a hardware store, etc. It had all we needed. My family lived a block from the city pool where my brother and I spent our summers. We were close enough to walk to our small Catholic elementary school, but far enough for us to complain that we had to walk so far. Our neighborhood was peppered with kids our age, and evening baseball games took place in our backyard and were played often times into the glow of lightening bugs. When our neighbor's house started on fire in the dead of winter, they came to stay with us; it's what neighbors did for one another in that small town. My brother and I couldn't get away with much in that small town. Once I found myself sitting on the curb at recess, the typical punishment for telling a classmate his mom was so fat that we could use her bra for a slingshot. My teacher didn't bother to call home to report the incident; she probably figured my parents would find out somehow. And they did...I think a family friend drove by and saw me, dejected, alone, and banished to the curb. Naturally, my parents asked why I, a sociable child, was sitting on the curb during recess. I don't remember if I told them the truth right away; it's likely I didn't since I was a creative child who regularly came up with my own stories. But somehow they found out about my "yo momma" joke. That's what happens in small towns...word travels fast. And though this can be a thorn in the sides of some, I can see how it would be helpful in child rearing.

Some of my best childhood memories are from that small, southeastern Nebraska town. Now I find myself back in a small town similar to the one I grew up in, but on the opposite end of the state. And maybe it's because I'm older and have the ability to be more critical, but I've noticed that small towns are changing. The town I grew up in has experienced major changes in the last fifteen years: many downtown businesses have either closed or have been converted to Mexican grocery markets due in part to the changing industry and the introduction of a Wal-Mart and the presence of gangs has increased. At one point I looked at applying for a teaching job in that community and was interested in moving back but was discouraged by several colleagues and adults due to the "problems" in the town and the local high school. Similarly, when my husband and I moved to a small town four years ago, I had these romantic visions of teaching kids who valued hard work and whose parents valued education. And while I have been blessed to have many hard-working students whose families really do care about education, it seems that each year the number of these students decline along with our enrollment. In my small town teaching job, I deal with big city issues: drug use, poverty, homelessness, abusive parents, early run-ins with the law...I could go on and on. My job as a small town teacher is not at all what I expected. It's undeniable that small towns are changing.

Many of these once-valued small towns across the Heartland are shrinking at a rapid pace and are experiencing a "hollowing out"--a brain drain due to what seems like a mass exodus of youth (Carr and Kefalas). Urban dwellers might ask, so why does it matter if small towns die off? Not only can small towns provide a way of life and a quality of life that simply can't be replicated in metropolitan areas, this dilemma matters because "[...] the Heartland is the place where our food comes from, it is the place that helps elect our presidents [...] and it is the place that sends more than its fair share of young men and women to fight for this country. The future of the many towns that give the Heartland its shape and its sinews is of vital importance, and we believe that ignoring their hollowing out will be detrimental in the short and long terms" (Carr and Kefalas ix). Without small towns, the face of America would change greatly and not for the better.

1 comment:

Kristin said...

I loved reading this, Danielle! By the way, you ARE a great writer and I can't wait to read what you've written that is published!
As a new comer to small town Nebraska but a small town girl nonetheless, I worry sometimes to about this little town. I work at a small shop downtown, my husband works at the top employer of the county but is seeing decline. I worry what will happen if we have to move to a city someday and how unfortunate that would be...