City Mouse and Country Mouse

In Caught in the Middle, Richard C. Longworth paints a grim picture of the future of the Midwest, what with declining populations, ever-shrinking job markets, and small towns dying on the vine.

As Longworth puts it:

The rural Midwest, in truth, existed for one era, and that era has passed. It responded to the economic demands of a single century, from 1850 to 1950, and has been withering ever since. Globalization only finishes the work of earlier decades. There is no place in a globalized world for the small town and the family farm.

He finds fault with Midwesterners, in particular their nostalgia for the bygone era of the small prairie town. Not the most flattering portrayal but his premise is certainly worth discussion.

How true is this here in Missouri? Are we, too, holding onto a past that’s no longer viable?

According the to the 2000 census, out of the 972 “places” in Missouri, fully 62% or 607 of them had populations less than 1,000. In fact, 103 or 11% had populations below 100. Only 9 cities had populations that top 50,000. That’s a mere .9%. In 2010, the numbers aren’t that much different. Out of 1059 places, 63% or 667 have populations under 1000. 947 or 89% have less than 10,000 residents. While 13 places (1.2%) now boast populations topping 50,000, only 5 places, or .5% have populations over 100,000.

Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas describe this hollowing-out of rural America and the subsequent brain drain in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

In just over two decades, more than 700 rural counties, from the Plains to the Texas Panhandle through to Appalachia, lost 10 percent or more of their population. Nationally, there are more deaths than births in one of two rural counties.

With well over half the towns in our state easily classified as “small,” how is this not tipping the political balance in favor of policies directed at saving areas that Longworth and others would consider unsaveable? And is this resulting in a redirection of limited resources away from growing cities?

While large cities may not be everyone’s cup of tea, cities by their very nature open up more possibilities for the people who live and work there. In Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier, Edward Glaeser argues that “cities magnify humanity’s strengths.” As Diana Silver at the New York Times put it, cities “spur innovation by facilitating face-to-face interaction, they attract talent and sharpen it through competition, they encourage entrepreneurship, and they allow for social and economic mobility.” By setting aside the “big city” for the dream of a pastoral past, we’re not just limited what we can accomplish, we’re flying in the face of major worldwide trends that show significant increases in urban population.

To exacerbate this problem, Missouri has 34 state senators and a dizzying number of state representatives—163, each representing only about 31,000 constituents. (In contrast, California has 80 assembly members, representing about 420,000 people each, one of the largest ratios.) In fact, Missouri has the 4th largest number of house members even though the state only ranks 18th in population.

Perhaps because of this, past initiatives have focused on small communities, often to the detriment of emerging metro areas or established cities such as St. Louis or Kansas City. MODOT’s unrealistic promise to build four-lane highways into small, rural towns. An incomprehensible reluctance to fully support the state’s flagship university in Columbia. State programs to help small towns rebuild without asking the difficult question of whether or not anyone will still live in the town in the coming years.

Whether or not a small town has a viable future is an important distinction to make. Case in point—Cape Girardeau was just awarded the 2015 Great American Main Street Award. Clearly, this is a town that has taken positive action to ensure that it will survive into the coming decades. This isn’t a question of city v. country or urban v. rural. It’s a question of where to turn our focus for the future. In tough economic times, we’re forced to think in terms of what is possible and what can realistically be funded. Here in Missouri, we need to focus on the Cape Girardeaus who are clearly working towards a more prosperous future but we also need to make sure that St. Louis and Kansas City don’t become empty husks that are an economic drag on the state.

Carr and Kefalas think that part of the solution is that “residents of rural America must embrace the fact that to survive, the world they knew and cherished must change.” I’m also convinced this is not an either-or proposition. We need to be thinking about what we want our new future here in the Midwest to look like—and it shouldn’t be a replica of our past. There is a lovely nostalgia surrounding the notion of the small town and the family farm. However, there’s an equally appealing narrative surrounding emerging cities in this new century. Why not replace the family farm with the community garden? The general store with the local coffee shop? The Wells Fargo wagon with the Metrolink? The horse-drawn buggy with the commuter bike?

It’s time we stopped striving for a past that may never have existed and instead fully embrace the exciting future our cities face.