Matt Lewis

Are small towns weirder than cities?

My parents lied to me. Okay, lie is a strong word. Let’s just say the worldview they painted was no longer entirely accurate by the time I came along.

When I was a boy in western Maryland, one of the things strongly implied (I say implied because I can’t remember it ever being taught) was that rural communities and small towns were somehow superior to cities. This, of course, is a common trope. The tendency to revere country living has long been with us, and recently sparked controversy when Sarah Palin talked about the “real America” in 2008.

But small town America, by the 1970s, was a place of extremes and sharp dichotomies. To be sure, there were plenty of people with traditional values. … But sometimes their kids cooked meth. The problem was that, by the time I was old enough to notice, a lot of the working class folks in small towns and rural communities — mainly the children of my parent’s generation — seemed to have lost hope.

Meanwhile, the urban areas where I’ve lived and worked often consisted of energetic and ambitious people hoping to forge a better life.

Some of this, no doubt, has to do with the economy. But it also goes deeper than that, and I suspect the 1960s are at least partly to blame. In that regard, July’s Vanity Fair includes an interesting article about the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco in 1967 — “The Summer of Love.”

This section, I think, speaks to the change:

Nicholas von Hoffman, of The Washington Post, who covered the Haight in a suit and tie, was, he says [by 1967], “appalled” by what he saw.

The overnight change in the attitude toward drugs was what alarmed von Hoffman. “A generation and a half before, you could back a dump truck full of cocaine into a Jesuit schoolyard and none of those boys would get near it.” Now, suddenly, he continues, “middle- and working-class kids were doing ‘vice tours,’ like American businessmen in Thailand: coming to the Haight for a few weeks, then, when the dirt between their toes got too encrusted, going home. This was when American blue-collar and middle-class kids became drug users. This was the beginning of the Rust Belt rusting.”

(Emphasis mine.)

This, I suppose, is about as good an argument for the “no guardrails” theory as could be made. The theory essentially argues that the rich and elite can afford to live a bacchanalian existence. After all, they have the money and resources to survive an unplanned pregnancy, absence from work, etc. But it is the middle class — who take their cultural cues from the elites — who cannot afford such a lifestyle. At the micro level, this can be tragic. At the macro level, it perhaps explains why small towns and rural areas are now arguably more dangerous — and just plain weirder — than modern cities.

There is nothing terribly original in saying this. Charles Murray’s “Coming Apart: The State of White America” deals with how working-class whites (many of whom, live in these rural areas and small towns) have lost their moorings. As he notes, today’s upper class whites are more likely to be found in church on Sunday morning. If a rural community or small town is nothing more than a collection of people, then it stands to reason that, as its people slowly metastasize, so too will the area.

My parent’s weltanschauung was perhaps correct … prior to 1968, at least. Back then, people were fleeing for the suburbs, leaving the cities to ruin. As late as the 1980s — before Rudy Giuliani — New York was crime-ridden and ungovernable. Today, a bit of a reverse phenomenon seems to be taking place. Many small communities experience an “out-migration” of ambitious young people, fleeing rural America for a new life in the city. If we’re not careful, we could end up with two Americas.

Sometimes art imitates life. Maybe Patrick Somerville’s “This Bright Rivergets it right?: “It’s darker and stranger in small towns than almost anywhere.”