A time for small towns

A nation of small towns. This is what the United States will become by the end of the century -- for the first time since the War Between the States -- if current projections are correct. The challenge in such a development is at least double:

To renew the "small town virtues" needed for an age demanding increased individual self-sufficiency and moral regeneration;

To maintain the cosmopolitan outlook for supporting policies of international cooperation in a shrinking world.

The challenge, indeed, exists right now, whether or not the migration from cities and suburbs goes a step further. Wherem Americans live is not so important as the qualities of thought they express whereverm they live. Travel is broadening, says the cliche. but when Thoreau simply said, "I have travelled a good deal in concord," he reminded us that the body does not have to move all over the place for the mind to be expansive. With the extraordinary availability of communications since his day, there is even less reason for the person away from the beaten path to feel cut off from what is happening elsewhere.

Such communications facilitate the present move of companies from the city to the country. It is partly to follow the flow of jobs that Americans are going along.

But the migrating Americans' motives also include a component of yearning for the simplicity, serenity, and general environment ideally associated with small towns. Many towns, of course, sadly break this mold. You don't necessarily find escape, says one recent transplant, who finds his agreeable new community confronted with crime, drugs, and other "city problems." But others say they still can leave their doors unlocked, and they cite such advantages as stability , friendliness, getting more for your money, more control over schools and government.

The town, after all, was the original exemplar of autonomy in American government, and for some it seemed an ironic step away from freedom when the War of Independence opened the way to powerful state and national government. As indicated in the current election campaign, many americans are newly concerned about bringing as much authority and control as possible back to the lower levels of government. Usually linked with "conservatives," this tendency now coincides with "liberal" or "countercultural" efforts to bring not only political decisionmaking but energy and food production, for example, closer to grass-roots citizens and consumers.

Thoug world projections say the rush to the cities will continue, with the number of enormous ones increasing dramaticaly, a return to small towns seems in tune with the times in America. And specialists argue that this does not mean a flood of small towns suddenly turning into cities: Even if the typical small town were to double in size it would still be a small town. Many towns, indeed, have room for expansion in that they have still not sprung back up to the populations they had more than 150 years ago.

At any rate the migration is going on. Between 1970 and 1978, the population of nonmetropolitan counties went up by 10.5 percent, close to twice the 6.1 percent growth rate of metropolitan counties. President Carter has been among those seeing the '70s as actually reversing the previous trend from the rural areas to the cities. The 1980 census figures give further clues in the low percentages of population growth in industrialized states compared to high percentages in less developed ones such as Utah, Wyoming, and New Hampshire. According to the Department of Agriculture, the rate of growth in manufacturing and other nonagricultural jobs in rural and small-town areas is almost equal to that in metropolitan areas.

So times have changed from the days when so many small towns might have echoed Pilgrim leader William Bradford as he saw people leaving his old Plymouth community, which to him became an "ancient mother" forsaken by her children -- and thus "she that had made many rich became herself poor." Americans left their small towns, and a wave of writers ratified such defections by exposing the pettiness, backbiting, and smugness that can be a part of small-town life along with the pleasures recorded by nostalgia.

The promise now is that today's Americans, familiar with their country's leadership in the world, will bring something of the world to the small towns where they are putting down new roots -- or nourishing old ones. The wholesome qualities can be retained without a latter-day provincialism taking over. There can be a wider horizon's view of that sense of community John Winthrop noted on shipboard approaching the New World: "We must delight in each other, make others' conditions our own, rejoice together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, our community as members of the same bond."

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