Towns - coming and going

FOR growing numbers of American young people, small towns are great places to visit - but they wouldn't want to live there. A recent National League of Cities survey confirms anew that older citizens make up a growing share of the population in cities of under 50,000. Mayors of such cities complain they are hard pressed to attract enough industry and jobs to keep young people from leaving; city officials say they feel the pinch in both the tax base and a rising demand for social services.

Along with cheerleading, complaining about the dearth of funds to support city services is part of any top local official's job these days; like a pitch for fund raising from a college president, we expect to hear it.

And it is true that many small cities face tough economic challenges, especially stemming from recent farm foreclosures and small-business closings. Some small towns have lost schools and post offices.

Yet if small towns were all thumping economic success stories, they wouldn't be small towns anymore. The very absence of the much-discussed urban race to compete and achieve remains a part of their charm. Most city-dwellers feel better just knowing that small towns are there, a permanent ideal in the American psyche. When city life becomes too much, an unhurried walk down a quiet bowered street of a small town where residents still have time to talk with their neighbors can do wonders. Even if residents sometimes know more than they should about each other and get a little too nosy, anyone who grew up in a small town knows the at-home, accepted feeling that can come from knowing everyone around by name and being known.

Indeed, these small clusters of population that dot the American map are far from being on the way out. The 1980 census showed that in the '70s, more people moved away from cities and suburbs than to them. Towns of fewer than 2,500 experienced a strong spurt of growth. The majority of officials queried in the League of Cities survey described their local economies as either unchanged or improving.

Small towns are an important part of America's landscape and heritage. The nation would be poorer without them. In this mobile age it is understandable that any young person growing up in a small town may want to broaden his experience with city living for a while - whether or not enticing local jobs are available.

For large numbers of others, small towns are just where they want to be. As the ring of suburbs around major cities continues to expand, many in once-isolated small towns now find they can live in the country and work in the city. Aside from a sometimes rigorous commute, they can enjoy the best of both worlds.

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