The U.S population is about 80 percent urban, and the world has recently passed a milestone: more than half of all people live in cities (a shift that took place in the United States about 1920). Rural residents are obviously in the minority. So why, now, do we need rural community development?
Reading Bill Bishop’s recent Daily Yonder piece “Boomers Migrating to Rural America,” I find out that my generation (yes, I’m “talkin’ ‘bout my generation”) is interested in moving to rural areas for retirement. Doesn’t this suggest one pressing new reason why rural community development will become important?
I’d say it’s about time. My personal and professional experiences say that rural places matter; they always have. Unlike my high school and college classmates who ended up in the “Greater Chicago area” or the “Greater Portland area” or the “Greater Atlanta area,” I deliberately chose a life and career path that have kept me in rural places, small communities like New Geneva along the Monongahela River and Butler Township outside of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania; Morgantown and Scott Depot in West Virginia; Livingston, Kentucky; and now “greater” Macomb, Illinois.
It is, I guess, a notable feature of my life that I chose to live up and down the Appalachian Mountains and now have returned to my native Midwest to live in a small town. (I am originally from Ohio, growing up in the city and sprawling suburbs during the 1960s). The pay wasn’t that great in a few of the rural places where I chose to live, but I did fulfill a childhood dream of living in a rural area. Besides, how many people can say they’ve been a small-town librarian, extension agent, professional student, consultant, writer, photographer, and researcher in the same life?
With Bill’s article, something bounced in my little mental ping-pong game about the necessity of rural community development. Demographers have been documenting rural retirement destinations for some time now. College and resort towns, for example, have benefited from an influx of retirees who bring their pension checks and other wealth with them, creating more demand for things college towns and resorts already have – amenities. Do a Google Search of “retirement destinations” and you’ll find all sorts of advice about top retirement spots, the places that are loaded with these amenities.
Remember when Garrison Keillor used to talk about children as the biggest export of rural towns? In reality, small towns have been retirement spots for a long time, with treasure troves of wonderful memories held by elderly folk, even as their hometowns declined. I just happened to be lucky enough to be able to enjoy a few of these people and places before the idea of rural and small town living got trendy.
Over the years I’ve been fortunate to meet some remarkable people —
• Ray, a World War I veteran who lived well into his 90s and was full of wonderful reminiscences about his life as a stone mason in the low-coal mines and his conversion as a born-again Christian;
• Becky and Harry, who spent 63 years together, living in the 1790s stone house where she was born. He was a retired county school superintendent and a genuine, vocal New Deal liberal. She took care of her mother, who suffered from dementia, raised the family, and laughingly knew her marriage to Harry would not have lasted so long had he spent more time at home;
• Oscar, an immigrant from Belgium who retired from the glass factory in 1945 and lived to be 109. He wrote a book of poetry that I still treasure and clobbered me at pool when he was 103;
• Maria, an immigrant from Italy, who graciously allowed a group of us to use her deceased husband’s garden spot to grow fresh vegetables for the homeless.
There have been so many others, older and younger, and they have taught me so much.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture map that accompanied Bill’s article, I’ve tended to live in low-amenity areas. The amenities really weren’t that important to me. In fact, living 15 or 20 miles from a traffic light or fast food restaurant isn’t such a bad thing. And, it’s always fairly easy to drive 150 miles round trip to go shopping or take in a big-name act. Besides, the cost of living is relatively low.
Amenities are just that. They are not necessities. It’s the place and the people that matter. These are the core values of rural community development, and these values will become the new necessities if the influx of retirees continues to flow as predicted.
I have a request for my generation, you remember, the “back to the landers” in the 1960s and 1970s? If, after all these years in the city and suburbs, you “have to get yourself back to the garden” a la Woodstock, you are welcome. But please treat the land and people gently, with the dignity that they deserve. Don’t ask too much. Instead, give much of yourselves to build the community. You will love the people and the place all the more if you do.
Timothy Collins is assistant director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.