The rural built-environment is fast disappearing. Meanwhile, small communities are losing more than window panes and rafters.
Rural America, at least in the Midwest, has lost what made the built landscape of its towns and farmlands special. That’s what 1900 miles of mostly backroads driving last fall through Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Missouri, and Ohio told me.
I suspect relatively few people recognize what has disappeared building by building over the past two or three generations — a large piece of rural history and culture. The loss is disheartening, certainly a sign of changes in agriculture and small-town manufacturing that have quietly sapped our nation’s rural communities.
Anyone who follows rural America recognizes the importance of out-migration, the movement of so many people to cities. Perhaps out-migration is testimony that life on farms and in rural towns wasn’t all that great. If so, it challenges as nostalgic — or even mythological — our shared ideas of agrarianism and the goodness of small communities. Then again, maybe people had to leave, pushed and pulled to urban areas by economic, social, and political forces, large and small.
The great rural outmigration is primarily the loss of human souls whose talents and energy went someplace else. But it’s more than that. While some rural areas may have done all right economically in the wake of population decline, they – and the nation – have lost part of their cultural soul. This spirit was expressed in vernacular architecture, the homes and buildings of men and women and their families who worked the land and built rural villages and towns. Change has taken that part of our history.
Some would say there’s nothing to mourn here. After all, museums have preserved buildings, documents, and pictures of people and the places they made. Besides, many who moved to the city ended up better off, at least financially. What’s the point of maintaining a house or a barn or a downtown store if it’s unoccupied, is made obsolete by modern farming, or can’t support enough trade?
Here’s a reality that’s hard to swallow for proponents of preserving America’s endangered rural heritage: This country, in its relatively short history, has been so steeped in extracting its natural resources, so preoccupied with its geographic and upward mobility, and so focused on developing the art and science of making money by constantly increasing farm and factory productivity – looking to the future and creating urbanized change – that its past, the roots of its cultural soul and memory, really don’t matter. Looking backward is futile.
I wonder. Since the early 1800s – when the country’s leaders turned toward a nationwide economy based first on agriculture and commerce and later on industry and services – we have been a continuing experiment in using and producing material abundance based on a peculiar belief in unlimited natural resources, labor, and technology. Over time, we gradually, but not without significant resistance, recognized that our abundant resource base was somewhat fragile and certainly limited.This recognition has not halted all abuses of our resources, but it has mitigated some of the worst practices. Unfortunately, we have continued to squander our nation’s human and cultural resources, parts of our nation’s soul, in the name of material progress.
Is this what the American Dream is all about? If so, what’s a dream with a mangled soul?
Rural community decline is depressing. No one wants to live in a slum. As Kurt Mantonya of the Heartland Institute for Leadership Development in Lincoln, Nebraska, told me recently, deteriorating places are clearly negative for youth. They feed feelings of boredom and the urge to live somewhere else, especially if the new place is far more attractive in terms of its surroundings as well as its job opportunities. Here’s the dynamic of push and pull.
Irrevocable changes in rural America also represent a loss of stories about the buildings and the people who lived and worked in them, according to Debra Kollock of Washington State University’s extension office in Spokane. As I see it, these stories are more than local color. They are an essential ingredient in the shared experiences of a place; they connect generations. Young people want to hear these stories. Older people want to share them.
Conventional wisdom would argue that preservation of vernacular architecture is a nice amenity: soft, fluffy stuff. But let’s go to the bottom line. Has anyone ever tallied the actual cost of the loss of these buildings, viewing them as natural resources and labor buried in dumps, as revenue lost through abandonment? Has anyone considered the value of these structures had they been preserved and used?
Many economists would reject this idea because of sunk costs — money over the dam, so to speak. I reject that argument, based on the continuing impacts of misallocated natural resources, the lost buildings themselves, and the stifled human potential caused by rural geographic inequality. There’s enough economist in me to understand that these losses are costly. I haven’t a clue how to build the model, but the costs, systematically calculated, might represent a noticeable drag on accepted measures of historic growth.
The loss of vernacular architecture is only partly a loss of buildings. It’s also a symptom of the larger human and environmental waste and the lost opportunities that have afflicted rural areas over the past century or more.
If your town and its surrounding areas are fortunate enough to have their old buildings in good or restorable condition, cherish them. They are assets. For other places, what has been lost is gone for good, residing only in memories of people and in historic records. In either case, there is only one way to go: forward. What’s left of rural America now faces a real challenge: that wider communities build and rebuild themselves for sustainability, places that are good for the natural environment, that provide people with meaningful work and adequate income, and that create safe, healthy, and comfortable surroundings.
Given our historic restlessness, perhaps America’s rural areas – or what’s left of them – can become places to build something new, something different, that restores the soul and meets new and continuing realities of a turbulent global arena.
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.