For this former small-town girl, rural renaissance is an oxymoron
I'VE BEEN A CITY GIRL for many years, and I've gathered the necessary accoutrements to prove it: a small house in a rough neighborhood, an expensive clothes habit, even the ability to differentiate maki from nori. But like Gatsby, I've never quite believed that the clothes and the fancy food and the well-lighted delusions make me truly, deeply urbane.
I was born and raised in small-town USA, a mythical place that makes weary urbanites weep with longing for simpler lives, but where -- and I do not intend to break this to you gently -- the reality does not resemble the romance.
Of course, many small towns have a unique charm. Life unfurls slowly in rural America, and it can be intoxicatingly serene. In my Midwestern hamlet, I took for granted a back yard the size of a city block and a breathtaking proximity to wide-open spaces. Mine was a dying agricultural community, but it certainly was beautiful. To this day, nothing is more precious to me than the memory of rolling corn fields, sculpted by John Deere and summer rain, seen from the back of my dad's motorcycle as we drifted down a country road, literally in the middle of nowhere.
Whenever we took the highway into town, though, I derived a different sort of pleasure from reading the hand-painted sign that announced the existence of our lone, crumbling gas station: 'Welcome to Bob's Convince Store.' The word convenience was shortened to convince for, apparently, your reading convenience.
My little town had 716 people and two acceptable hobbies: alcoholism and snowmobiling (the most popular residents combined the two). I enjoyed reading and writing one-act plays, which I performed alone in my bedroom, and to my peers these pursuits made me 'gay' (which was, and still is, rural street slang for 'lame'). I was in sixth grade when my mother, anxious about my preference for solitude, dragged me kicking and screaming to that evening's high school basketball game with a single mandate: 'Talk to some people.' Talk to them about what? Polaris jackets? I went out for cheerleading and I joined the speech team. Neither fostered the close friendships I had hoped for.
This is all to say that my childhood introduced me to the most exquisite loneliness I have known in my lifetime.
Statistically, the rural Midwest of my youth is not much different than it is today. Some issues are worse than before -- rampant alcohol abuse is now augmented by an explosive (sometimes literally) crystal methamphetamine problem. According to the Southern Indiana Drug Task Force, annual methamphetamine lab seizures in that state have skyrocketed from around 200 at the beginning of the decade to over 1,500 in 2004. Meanwhile, alcohol abuse in small Midwestern towns is keeping pace. The 2003 National Survey on Drug Use and Health showed that North Dakota leads the nation in binge drinking.
Economic crises continue to run Midwestern farmers out of business, consolidate land holdings, eliminate jobs, and deplete rural populations. In February of this year, The New York Times noted that Iowa's brain drain -- the mass exodus of creative people who leave for lack of options -- is second only to North Dakota's.
Very small towns also tend to be monocultural; mine, for instance, was older, whiter, and less educated than surrounding urban areas. Lack of diversity fostered intellectual stagnation, and insularity was a way of life. Education was not a top priority for young people in my town, and this put my peers and me in greater proximity to life's more dubious offerings -- drugs, teen pregnancy, continued poverty, and a lifetime's worth of corduroy jumper dresses adorned with appliqu?d geese.
I won't pretend city life is without problems. It's exhausting and loud, and in my neighborhood an active drug trade and related crimes keep me vigilant and always vaguely paranoid. But rural life is not all maple syrup festivals and corn dog eating contests, either. The vandal who preyed on my town's already delapidated old buildings never got arrested (even though everyone knew who he was) because he was related to the town's sole cop. Summers were charming until agricultural spray planes dumped synthetic pesticides indiscriminately on crops and people alike.
For what it's worth, I got a short-lived popularity boost when my stepdad's ex-wife supplied an entire generation of high school graduates with cocaine. But for the most part, difference of any kind was not tolerated in my hometown. I came out in college -- fulfilling my former classmates' belief that I was gay -- and when I returned home for my 10-year high school reunion, my then girlfriend and I were met with wide-eyed stares, polite distance, and absolutely no questions about our relationship or our life together.
I know progressive small towns exist and that it's possible to create a renaissance community of like-minded citizens. But it's as rare as it must be intentional. Keeping a small town thriving is a full-time job for all its residents. And moving to the wrong small town, even if you're buoyed by the spirit of bringing education and change, is a risk: Small-town dwellers, set in their ways, distrust missionaries most of all.
Laine Bergeson, pictured, is assistant editor of Utne.