Our Towns looks back at ten years of changes across the United States and looks ahead to our new role.
I recently completed a 4400-mile trip by auto from Phoenix, where I live, to my home town, Dubuque, Iowa (where extensive downtown redevelopment has taken place and continues, as well as several local environmental remediation efforts). I stayed off the interstates as much as I could and drove across New Mexico, the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, and southern Wisconsin. On my return trip I added the breadth of Iowa via US 20 and US 30, and Nebraska, Kansas (again), and Colorado.
I passed through many towns and small cities. I should add that after my family moved from Iowa to Phoenix in 1958, we made car trips throughout the 1960s, prior to the completion of the interstates, from Arizona to visit family in Iowa.
I have sharp memories of those trips and can remark on what has changed: The replacement of family farms with large-scale, industrial agricultural operations; the concomitant decline of the small towns that once supported the rural population; the expansion of medium-sized and large cities, especially those which host institutions of higher education; the elimination of not only branch railroad lines but even of some mainlines, as the rail industry has consolidated.
Despite rural depopulation, my home state of Iowa has held its overall population of about 2.9 million steady by growing its cities, especially the ones hosting the state universities: Ames, Iowa City, and Cedar Falls are much larger than they were during my childhood. Metro areas with colleges have grown — the Quad Cities and Des Moines, although the latter is helped by the presence of state government. Even my home town, Dubuque, a small city of 57,000 with four small, four-year colleges, has held its ground and seen its outlying areas beyond the city limits grow.
In short, fifty years have seen the population of Iowa shift from the countryside and small towns to its cities.
The most profound change is the presence of the interstate highways. Railroad connections are rendered unnecessary; car culture and commuting are encouraged — indeed, even smallish Iowa cities now have sprawl. Even Liberal and Great Bend, Kansas, have homogenized fringes with the usual panoply of nationally branded fast food joints and retail outlets. The fringe of Liberal looks just like the fringe of Phoenix, sans palms and cacti.
Probably from way too much supping at the table of the national media since 2016, I had formed an image of a profoundly polarized America, one in which its rural areas were filled with culture warriors and were in deep economic distress. (The danger of lapsing into black-and-white thinking does not arise solely on the political Right.)
I expected to see hundreds, if not thousands, of anti-Biden and pro-Trump yard signs, banners, and bumper stickers.
I saw exactly four during my entire 4400-mile drive.
I also expected to see a rural heartland uniformly in deep economic and social distress.
This did not turn out to be the case.
Any number of small cities looked lively, with attractive, rehabbed downtowns and the glow of economic vitality. Listing a few that come to my mind: Dalhart, Texas, Minneola and Ottawa, Kansas, Ottawa and Sycamore, Illinois (yes, I passed through two Ottawas), Shullsburg, Wisconsin, Boone, Iowa, and McCook, Nebraska.
I did pass through some small cities in distress, the case of Streator, Illinois, once a major stop on the Santa Fe Railroad’s Chicago-to-California mainline, being one that sticks. Streator is at least making an effort, with a partially rehabbed downtown and a pretty downtown park; but its church buildings and houses near the city center tell a story of decline.
It is the smallest towns, those with fewer than a 1000 residents, that are the most uniformly in distress: Old brick storefronts either boarded up, converted into thrift stores, or just crumbling; weed-covered railroad tracks or, more likely, just a ghost railbed.
A columnist for the Des Moines Register once quoted a small-town resident, and it went something like this: “First the train station closes, then the high school, then the downtown stores, then the post office, then the churches, until all that is left is the nursing home.” I cannot imagine anything in these grim little places that would hold a young person. I passed through many.
But my trip mostly belied my black-and-white thinking. The rural Midwest I experienced is neither monolithic in political orientation nor economic condition. I am sure I met nice people who, for their own reasons, voted for Trump. Who are perhaps persuadable. Who would perhaps try to persuade me rather than scream in my face. And there are numerous economic bright spots to be found, especially among the mid-sized cities.
In short, my trip taught me to remove my polarized lenses. The situation is nuanced.