Is There Hope for Small Towns Anywhere?


By Jack Cashill


Inevitable change wrought by technology, demographics and consumer preferences is reshaping small communities globally.

I recently found myself in the town of Selcuk, population 36,000. Upon arriving, I took a walk and noticed without trying that a high percentage of storefronts were vacant. This should not have surprised me, but it did.

Selcuk is not in the Midwest, where empty storefronts are as common in small towns as lawn gnomes and pickup trucks. No, Selcuk is in the Mideast—Turkey to be precise—where pickup trucks are rare and lawn gnomes, happily, unheard of.

If you’re thinking President Trump sent me to Turkey to adjudicate the border crisis, then you obviously don’t know Jack. I have a known preference for all things First World. I was in Turkey on a more benign project and wide-eyed all the time. Life gets a little weird when you cross the Bosporus.

But, as I learned, not that weird.  On a visit to a local rug merchant, apparently as common in a Mideast small town as a John Deere distributor is in a Midwest one, I got the lowdown on the urban brain drain, Turkish style.

The rugs at the establishment I visited are all hand-crafted. I got to watch one worker spin a promised mile of thread from a single silkworm. I watched as other workers, all women, sat on the floor and worked their weaving magic on wall-mounted looms.

The final products are genuine folk art. Watching the rugs get woven is fascinating—for at least 10 or 15 minutes. I gave up on the little silkworm-that-could at about the 200-yard mark and wearied of watching the women weave long before they wearied of weaving.

Other than the few women who work at the shop to amuse tourists, the rest of the weavers work at home. The merchant does not expect them to work more than a few hours a day. The work is hard and tedious, and the women have families to tend to. As you might expect, they get paid by the piece, not by the hour.

Not surprisingly, the merchant was having trouble finding young workers. “They all want to go to the big city,” he told me. “They are not interested in hard work.” Welcome to the modern world, Sadat!

Young Americans have been fleeing hard work and rural areas for the last 200 or so years. In 1820, an estimated 72 percent of all Americans worked on or around farms. By 2020 that figure will be down to 2 percent. For the most part, this is a welcome transition. Technology has made farming hugely more productive over time. Tractors alone rendered half of all farm workers redundant.

For small towns, modernity is a mixed blessing. These towns used to serve as centers of the surrounding agricultural areas, but tractors and combines don’t go shopping. People do.

As my Turkish experience reminded me, this is an international phenomenon. Driving through the south of France last fall, I found fewer empty storefronts than in American small towns but more than I expected to see. Give a Frenchman a car, I surmised, and you will never again see him biking down la rue with a baguette under his arm. The French like supermarkets and—shhh!— are learning to like fast food, too.

Speaking of turkey, there is one small American town I have come to know halfway well. In years past on Thanksgiving my family and I would drive 60 or so miles south through the woods to Grandma’s house in Garnett, Kansas. Each year, after dinner, a little coalition of the willing would cap the meal with a walk around Garnett’s slowly dwindling town center.

Garnett is the county seat of Anderson County. Although the population of Garnett has held its population steady in the 3,000-range over the past century, the same cannot be said for Anderson County. Its population peaked in 1890. Today, it has only half as many people as it did then.

Early in the 20th century, small-town merchants struggled to fend off the threat posed by the Sears & Roebuck catalogue, and many succeeded. I have seen home movies shot 70 years ago of a Friday night in Garnett, and you’d think you were watching a small slice of Times Square on New Year’s Eve.

Not any more. Good highways have made it easy for Internet-based entities like Amazon to find their way to Garnett and for the locals to find their way to Kansas City or the nearest Walmart. Those damnable cars also put fast food within easy reach of the locals on the highways leading into and out of town.

In short, comfort and convenience are killing the commercial centers in small towns like Garnett. For us cosmopolitans, this is a problem. We like to see small towns flourish in much the same way we like to see Turkish women weave rugs. It all seems so quaint and charming. Then again, we’re not breaking our backs doing the weaving or walking around town looking in vain for a widget easily found at Walmart.

To be sure, small towns will always have a place, if not in our daily lives, at least in our hearts. But barring a prohibition on driving or a Zombie apocalypse, their days as commercial hubs are over.

Harrisonville, Missouri, has learned this lesson the hard way.

About 10 years ago, Ingram’s co-hosted a development meeting in a newly opened restaurant on Harrisonville’s picturesque town square. Town boosters were keen on revitalizing the area surrounding the courthouse. They did not succeed. Even the restaurant where we met is
now shuttered, as is just about every storefront on the square.

Each town, here or abroad, will have to solve its own problems its own way. There is no blanket solution.

I do, however, have one recommendation for all of them: when planning the future, don’t get too nostalgic about the past. Those times were a whole lot tougher. No one will want them back.

About the author

Jack Cashill is Ingram's Senior Editor and has been affiliated with the magazine for more than 30 years. He can be reached at jackcashill@yahoo.com. The views expressed in this column are the writer's own and do not necessarily reflect those of Ingram's Magazine.

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