Can local initiative keep tiny towns of the Plains from withering away? Marcel LaFlamme sees an array of structural forces at work and concludes that gumption isn't enough.
Downtown in Lucas, Kansas
Photo: Maxime Brouillet
Survival of Rural America: Small Victories and Bitter Harvests
By Richard Wood
223 pp. University Press of Kansas, 2008. $34.95.
The high school in Ada, Kansas, closed back in 1965. In that year, the town’s sons and daughters started riding the bus to the high school in Minneapolis, the county seat. Seven years later their younger siblings followed suit, as Ada’s grade school was consolidated with the middle school in neighboring Delphos.
Stores closed on Main Street, families moved away, and by the time that Denver attorney Richard Wood showed up to take a look around in 2005, Ada was “well on its way to becoming a twenty-first-century ghost town.” In his recently published book Survival of Rural America, Wood describes arriving in Ada to find “no post office. No gas station. No grocery. No library.” All that remained was the grain elevator and an eerie, deserted streetscape, with “few children, few people at all, few cars, other than those rusting on the lawns.”
What makes a small Kansas town shrivel up and die, as Ada has? At what point does the bottom fall out, for good, and what can other towns do to prevent themselves from going down the same path? These are the questions that occupy Wood in Survival, a breezy attempt to present the issue of rural depopulation to a general”“and perhaps even a specifically urban”“readership. A serious survey of current practice in rural community development, this book is not. But Survival succeeds, where it does succeed, by exploring the ways in which particular communities in the state of Kansas are coping with profound cultural and economic dislocation.
Wood brings us to Plainville, where local son Chuck Comeau chose to headquarter his high-end furniture company, DessinFournir, after getting it off the ground in Los Angeles. Wood shows us around Lucas, home of the Garden of Eden, where the otherworldly sculptures of S.P. Dinsmoor lure tourists off the interstate and anchor an unlikely art colony. We even make a stop in Tipton, population 243, where the Christian elementary school recently struck a deal with a nearby district that will allow it to keep its doors open with partial public funding (a faith-based Obama photo-op waiting to happen).
In each case, Wood zeroes in on the actions of an exceptional individual or, at most, a handful of community members, on whose shoulders some signature venture either rises or falls. Rural revitalization is, in this view, an essentially local affair, in which individual communities “accept responsibility for their own future” and manage to keep the tumbleweed at bay through a combination of shrewd leadership and good, old-fashioned gumption.
The central weakness of Wood’s book is that, in point of fact, the decline of small towns on the Plains is not being driven by a crisis of gumption. Certainly, some small towns are more entrepreneurial than others, but the population trends that all of these communities are up against reflect intractable realities like the rise of new regional service centers, changes in transportation systems, cultural attitudes about success promulgated by a largely urban media, and of course the industrialization of American agriculture.
Wood makes mention of all of these things. So how, I found myself wondering, could he continue to think that innovation at the local level (however impressive) could adequately offset the impact of such far-reaching structural changes? In fairness, Wood does spend Part 3 of Survival slogging his way through a series of larger-scale policy proposals, although it’s clear that his heart’s not in it. At the beginning of the section, he cautions that policy initiatives are “slow to be approved or implemented, if indeed they ever are, suggesting that if rural America were to sit back and wait for salvation from a federal or state program or a sweeping plan to change agricultural or ranching practices, time may run out.” In the meantime, Wood suggests, some communities are going to make it and others are not. The best that one can do is to make sure that one’s own community is not on the losing side.
Storefront in Wilson, Kansas: Wood argues that Wilson is ‘well-positioned for the future,’ due to its distinctive Czech heritage and a strong infrastructure of community businesses
Photo: Nancy Baym
I think that this survival-of-the-fittest approach to rural development is dead wrong. The challenges facing rural communities on the Plains today are simply too huge for any one community to solve alone”“a point that Wood finally seems to grasp at the very end of Survival, where he lays out his vision for a twelve-county subregion of rural Kansas that could “brand” itself for greater visibility to the outside world. It’s a promising idea, but one that comes too late to redeem the book from its myopic focus on individual communities pulling themselves up by their rapidly fraying bootstraps.
For my money, the most prophetic voice in Survival does not belong to Wood, but to John Cyr, former executive director of the North Central Regional Planning Commission. In a 2005 interview with Wood, Cyr observed that the survival of towns like Ada and so many others may depend on “a redefinition of what “˜community’ means.” Towns like these, Cyr argued, “need to be thinking in terms of interdependence, not independence, and to define their community more broadly and encompass neighboring towns. Everybody can’t have everything anymore.”
Those sound like words that all of us, urban and rural alike, might learn to live by.