Death of small-town America is greatly exaggerated


UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa – Amid the onslaught of urban and suburban sprawl, the death of small-town America has been greatly exaggerated, according to a Penn State researcher.

“When people care about each other and their community, the community persists in the face of enormous social, demographic and economic changes,” said A. E. Luloff, professor of rural sociology and agricultural economics.

“Places don’t go away; the sense of community goes away.”

Pride in your home. Basing his conclusions on a study of six small rural towns going back to the 1940s, Luloff notes that a sense of collective pride can be engendered by a variety of community events and celebrations.

These range from Old Home Days in Landaff, N.H., to the yearly limpia event in El Cerrito, N.M., during which residents mix celebration with the traditional clearing and repair of their irrigation ditch.

Changing places. “When first studied in the early 1940s, rural America was in the throes of an extraordinary period of change and upheaval.

“Urban industrial expansion and the initial impacts of the mechanization of agriculture combined to spur major shifts in migration and settlement patterns.

“Large numbers of rural residents moved to urban centers in search of better economic opportunities.

“The Great Depression hastened the pace of economic and demographic destabilization in many parts of rural America,” said Luloff.

Lancaster, Pa. It was at this time that the USDA initiated the three-year (1940-43) rural life study of six diverse rural communities: Landaff; El Cerrito; Sublette, Kansas; the Old Order Amish of Lancaster, Pa.; Irwin, Iowa; and Harmony, Ga.

Luloff and 10 colleagues revisited those six communities in the mid-1990s and reported the changes, good or bad, in the recently published book, Persistence and Change in Rural Communities: A 50-year Follow-up to Six Classic Studies (CABI Publishing), edited by Luloff and other researchers.

“Our restudies revealed a surprising degree of community persistence, and even vibrancy, in all six localities, as evidenced by major social events and celebrations,” Luloff said.

“This was manifested also in a broad range of organized efforts to address shared needs and concerns.”

Traditions. Examples include the traditional barn-raising activities of the Old Order Amish and the collective efforts to repair a flood-damaged dam and diversion ditch in El Cerrito.

Each of the six case studies indicated a strong commitment to sustaining local institutions and cultural ways of life.

Communal solidarity, particularly in the case of the Old Order Amish and El Cerrito, receives a lot of its backbone from cultural traditions and religious belief systems.

Government programs and policies have also helped, as in the case of El Cerrito, where federal and state dollars paid for reconstruction of a water diversion dam necessary for the village’s economic survival.

Benefits of growth. Finally, these communities have frequently benefited from their proximity to growing metropolitan areas.

El Cerrito, for instance, is 65 miles southeast of Santa Fe and 45 miles south of Las Vegas.

This has allowed residents to enjoy the services and job opportunities found in a big city, while being able to return to the slow-paced tranquility and familiarity of their hometowns, according to the book.

Challenges. The six communities in this study, even the most prosperous, must still deal with daunting challenges, however.

“For example, continued land development pressures, coupled to increased government restrictions on farming practices affecting water quality or other environmental concerns, could, in the future, force a substantial displacement of the Old Order Amish community.

“And, government-imposed restrictions on irrigation water withdrawals could severely undermine both social and economic conditions in El Cerrito,” Luloff said.

“Our 50-year re-examination of those six communities highlights the need for sociologists and policy analysts to take longer-term views of those circumstances impacting rural people and communities,” he noted.

Past and present. “A full understanding of current community conditions can only be achieved through consideration of past conditions and the patterns of change and adaptation that occur over extended periods of time.”

“In any event, to paraphrase Mark Twain, the death of small-town of America has been greatly exaggerated.”


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