Building small town economy with new attitude

dupont.jpgI’ll point your attention to a fascinating post by Brian Gumm, who lives in rural Iowa and is the author of an Christian blog called Restorative Theology. In “Small town vitality: No community without economy” Gumm reviews the writings of several thinkers on the topic of restoring small towns — not just economically, but their very spirit of community. Though he’s talking about small agricultural towns, I see relevant parallels to the industrial small towns of northern Minnesota’s Iron Range.

Gumm begins his discussion with Wendell Berry’s lecture on the concept of “stickers” and “boomers.” Stickers are the people who stay in small towns and boomers are the ones who chase opportunity elsewhere. Exploration of this idea leads one to a simplistic conclusion that we need more “stickers” and fewer “boomers” to grow the community and economy of small towns. But the psychology of stickers and boomers is more important than whether they *are* stickers or boomers. He reviews comparisons of the term “community” with the term “economy,” summarizing Berry’s argument and adding:

People, land, and work – community and economy – that’s what makes for good “stickerhood.” But part of the trouble with even Small Town America these days is that we’re all boomers now.

People are raised to think that staying and building a community is a Plan B, something to do if the bigger, better plan falls through. I’d add, the late Minnesota writer Paul Gruchow talked about this in his essay “What We Teach Our Rural Children.” Skipping ahead to one of Gumm’s observations from his town:

Families of means and relatively good character raise their children, they go off to college, and usually don’t come back (like we almost did). We’ve even seen some in our parents’ generation leave town with a sense that there’s nothing left to stick around for. Those families that do stick around tend to be ones that have severe challenges on a number of fronts: economically, educationally, morally – and exhibit patterns of generation-spanning dysfunction. So the “stickers” in struggling communities often aren’t exactly the moral paragons that Meador and Dreher are looking for, and they are in desperate need.

Here in northern Minnesota, you see a similar phenomenon. Yes, young people do stay on the Iron Range, but the ones who do are increasingly the ones who can’t afford to leave, or who are entangled in family situations that require or strongly suggest their presence. No, this is not exclusively true (again, I’m here and I know others who are here by total choice, but I see seeds of this). I’m not willing to cast moral judgement on my friends and neighbors, but there is certainly a strong element of generational, enduring poverty — which, having experienced it, is indeed a sort of “soul sickness,” a sadness or resignation to an inferior standard of life that welcomes other problems. People I know struggle mightily to pay the bills and so when people say “you need to give back to your community to make it better” they find themselves out of the loop, walled off from the conversation with bricks forged by both themselves and the community itself. (Let the battle between “this town sucks” and “the kids these days” begin).

I enjoy Gumm’s recapturing of the idea of a ‘small town economy,’ less driven by specific monetary figures and more on the qualitative sense of function and flexibility — a tending of our shared responsibility to unite the generations that came before us with the ones that come next. It is this “economy” that is sorely lacking in northern Minnesota, and should be the focus of our future efforts. Gumm ends with a hopeful note, the idea that some churches in town would use a shared community garden as a way to reinvigorate their congregations, focus their ministry on real things, and provide something of value to their community.

A community garden? So simple. So inexpensive. But it doesn’t create jobs or require consulting fees, so how could it be a good idea?

So simple are our problems. So hard is the work we must do, for it requires us to actually believe that simple things can do good. And they can.

Read: “Small town viability: No community without economy

And stay tuned for my Sunday column, which I wrote before I read Gumm’s post but explores a similar concept from another angle.

(h/t reader Michael)

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