Kevin Williamson’s hometown is dead—and he doesn’t really care. He wrote for National Review,
The town where my parents grew up and where my grandparents lived no longer exists. Phillips, Texas, is a ghost town. Before that it was a company town, a more or less wholly owned subsidiary of the Phillips Petroleum Company. … Phillips, Inc., in the end decided it had no need for Phillips, Texas, and the town was scrubbed right off the map. … It was the right thing to do. Some towns are better off dead.
… My own experience in Appalachia and the South Bronx suggests that the best thing that people trapped in poverty in these undercapitalized and dysfunctional communities could do is — move. Get the hell out of Dodge, or Eastern Kentucky, or the Bronx. Cheap moralizing of the sort that Theroux engages in, or the cheap sentimentalism that informs the Trump-Buchanan-Sanders view of globalization — “globalization” being another way of saying “human cooperation” — helps exactly no one. We spend a great deal of money trying to help poor people in backwards communities go to college; we’d probably get better results if we spent 20 percent of that helping them go to Midland, Texas, or Williamsport, Pa., or San Jose, Calif. …
First, I think it’s important to look at the truths in what Williamson writes here. Nostalgia shouldn’t keep us from facing the inevitable: if a place is falling apart economically, at an economic dead-end, it is sometimes alright to move on. It has to be—we want our children to be able to make a living. Additionally, we shouldn’t hold our children back from pursuing their vocation or dreams. Using negative measures like guilt-tripping to hold them in place will only make them more discontent. While we can hope that they eventually find their way home (if home is still there), sometimes we have to first let them go. Some of the biggest advocates for place such as Wendell Berry had to leave their homeland first, before they were able to return and cultivate an ethos and dream around the idea of “staying put.”
But it is important to note that many people leave their hometowns for non-economic reasons: to pursue a promising new job, a more culturally exciting area, etc. As Jim Russell noted in a Pacific Standard piece, a lot of people migrate out of their home areas not because they’re economic ghost towns, but because they’re actually growing more prosperous. The towns that are slowly improving often build in their inhabitants a desire for more: “An improving economy (a place gets better) exacerbates out-migration,” he writes. “More accurately, an education makes potential migrants more aware of pull factors. … Prosperity makes one more likely to leave home.”
I’ve talked to a lot of farmers lately—bright, interesting, educated people who were actively discouraged from “staying put” by their teachers, mentors, and peers. Why? Because they were “too smart,” “too talented” for a rural or agrarian existence. They were told that blue-collar work in the middle of nowhere was below them, that it would be a waste of their potential. They were encouraged to move somewhere urban, somewhere “important.”
Yet this mobility can often take a long-term toll on family and community life—while staying “close to home” can offer a safety net, support group, and a community. Small-town living is less glamorous, but it does offer a good deal of security, comfort, and community.
Abandoning place, however, doesn’t have to involve a migration from your home town—it can happen anytime you begin to view your place as a passive consumer or bystander, outside the actual fabric of community life, without responsibility for its long-term good or wellbeing. When you care little for the growth or cultivation of your town, you are more likely to begin living in an economic and social world apart from it—a world that slowly but surely eats away at the cultural fabric necessary to keep that town alive.
Diana Butler Bass considers this in a thoughtful article she wrote for The Atlantic. She describes it as the difference between living above place, versus living in it:
A recent book, The New Parish, asserts that one of the primary shortcomings of contemporary society is “living above place,” which is the tendency to develop structures that keep cause-and-effect relationships far apart in space and time where we cannot have firsthand experience of them. For example, you have probably experienced buying groceries without any idea where the food originated or who was involved in the production and delivery process. Living above place describes the process where this type of separation happens so frequently that we become disoriented to reality.
The result is “a cocooned way of life,” with people “unaware of how their lives really affect each other and the world.” The farmers’ market is about living in place, not above it.
… One of the most successful is St. Stephen’s Market at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia. Gary Jones, the senior minister at St. Stephen’s, refers to the market as the “Saturday congregation.” Every week, vendors bring their wares to the market, where the church also invites musicians to play, provides an onsite café, hosts food trucks, and offers activities for children. St. Stephen’s opened the market as an act of hospitality. Kate Ruby, the market manager says, “Everyone is welcome, the church, the neighborhood at large. Everyone is welcome at the market. Bring your dog. Bring your kids.” The purpose of the market is “connection,” a spiritual principle that the organizers trust makes the world better through care for the environment, building community, and teaching people how place and food are related.
… Farmers’ markets are only one indication of a larger trend: the desire for meaningful local community and to locate in a place appears to be an ever-growing reality for vast numbers of people. A recent study of American adults showed that three-quarters of the population believe the nation’s economic future is dependent on the health and quality of local communities. Both the youngest and oldest American workers would rather choose a desirable place to live than a company to work for.
These poll results don’t seem to match up with Williamson’s article—he believes that we should move where the economic opportunities are, without letting small-town sentiments bind us. That this will bring us the most happiness in the long run.
But if Bass is right, you need a lot more than a steady job to cultivate human flourishing and happiness. There’s a cultural and social fabric, a deep and rich local community, that Americans are also searching for—and that they’re increasingly willing to work for, perhaps even stay for. This is the other half of the story that we can’t neglect.
This piece was originally published by The American Conservative, and it is re-published here with permission.