In these lost places we find the holes in our economy

The recent news that the United States Postal Service would be closing scads of post offices around the country, mostly in rural, small towns, has opened a lot of eyes about the true existential danger facing rural America. I’ve just read a couple of great Minnesota entries in the discussion, an Aug. 12, 2011 article (“A rural reckoning“) by David Peterson in the Star Tribune and a wonderful post with photographs (“Take time to stop and appreciate small towns“) by Audrey Kletscher Helbling for her Minnesota Prairie Roots blog.

I was struck by this quote from the Peterson story:

“Since I’ve moved here,” Schuerman said, “we’ve lost the grocery store. We’ve lost the café.” Standing alongside beautifully crafted post office boxes whose dials have been turned by leathery farm fingers for generations, she softly added: “This is one of the last things we had.”

The sun is slowly setting on parts of rural Minnesota.

That’s very much the theme inspiring one of my upcoming radio projects, only in regard to the Iron Range. Though these pieces focus on the dwindling population of farm country, population loss and demographic change are big themes here on the Range and in other post-industrial places, including some big cities.

Fundamentally, so many of our problems are related to this sense of “placelessness.” Where do we belong? What is the true “cost” of living there? What should we do for these places? Why do they matter? Our economic system is not making this primal urge of civilized people easy to resolve, and that’s why we’re all so uneasy.

Those who lack a place are uneasy because they might not find one. Those who have a place, whether it’s a nice house in the suburbs or – as with myself – a little plot in the country, we fear that it will all come crumbling down. For these small town residents losing their post offices that’s what is happening.

So it is all over the nation.

And so we must take back our homes, not from any particular people as might be suggested by some, but from the machinery of our world that informs us, though human minions, that such places and people like us have no value. Scratch the angriest liberal or conservative in rural Minnesota and you would find similar fears. Let’s not dwell on differences. Let us unite behind the last things we share. Our places and our cultures. Our hopes that a child born here can make good someday.


  1. The angriest liberals and conservatives of Minnesota may have similar fears, but they would have very different reactions to your incisive observation about our economic system being detrimental (my word) to small town community. Conservatives seem to believe that unregulated free-market capitalism will save America, but liberals are more likely to believe we are building a geography of nowhere (to borrow a phrase). We have failed to learn the lessons of history that other, more socialized democracies have tried to teach us.

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