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Newcomers to Old Towns: Suburbanization of the Heartland

Although the death of the small town has been predicted for decades, the population of rural America actually increased by more than three million people, during the 1990s. In Newcomers to Old Towns, Sonya Salamon explores the characteristics of various newcomers who settled in Midwestern small-towns in the 1990s, and the impact they had on the social relationships, public spaces, and community resources of places scattered across the Illinois prairie. Salamon draws on a decade of research, with a team of ethnographic fieldworkers, in six different prairie towns. She weaves a tale of interactions between newcomers and oldtimers in which some of the small towns were transformed by choice, and others not.

Salamon highlights her tales of small- town change by first describing one small close-knit community whose stability and agrarian culture remain intact because few newcomers have settled there. Life in this stable town provides a benchmark against which community change in the other five communities is measured. It is a town whose cohesion and shared values produces rich community commitment, and a particularly supportive environment for youth. The latter because everyone in the town cares about their welfare. The commitment of townspeople, including the local police, is most visibly expressed in a tolerance of normal youthful behavior such as noise and car cruising, while the town’s youth in turn demonstrate respect for community rules.

The other five communities were altered by differing sorts of newcomers. In one former farm town, upscale subdivisions built by a local developer attracted wealthy professionals in white flight from a nearby small city. Residents in these upscale subdivisions, built on the town’s periphery were attracted by its small town character, and the excellent schools oldtimers had maintained with great effort.

A second, more working-class town, had a surplus of quality existing housing stock made vacant due to outmigration. Its housing was used as a growth machine by the local business community, with the aim of assuring the town’s economic vitality. Its newcomers, blue-collar and lower middle-class families, were similarly attracted by the small town ambience, fine old homes and good schools along with an easy commute for employment in nearby cities. Tensions emerged, however, between those advocating suburbanization and oldtimers and newcomers who long for its idealized, agrarian small-town ambience.

Two towns with robust agribusinesses drew working-class Mexicano families mainly from Texas, who settled-out of the annual migrant worker stream. Migrants first left the annual stream to work full-time in local food processing and manufacturing plants that paid better than their previous farm work of de-tasseling corn. In one town oldtimers and the settled out migrants managed an accommodation. Mexican stores dot the main street serving the migrant newcomers who have bought homes in town. Longer established Mexicanos are proud of their achievements and see themselves as superior to those still working in the migrant stream, and more recently settled-out newcomers. In the other town Mexicanos, who came via chain migration, are not as well accepted, despite their accounting for over one-third of the population, and the town’s stability. White oldtimers, who resent what they see as a rapid invasion of Mexicanos, are leaving because they worry about a threat of gangs among other things. Their concerns are strong despite the youth actually only being “wannabe” gang members, according to other Mexicanos. This town exemplifies the effects of what is viewed as a sizeable new ethnic population. Compared to the previous town, which is larger, the second smaller-town oldtimers perceive the newcomers’ as a greater threat to the majority white population.

Finally, the sixth small town is dying, having experienced many losses that defined it: a nearby coal mine that was a major local employer; its tavern that was a town meeting place; its school, and the village hall. Youth have fled this shabby town and the population is aging. A few working-poor newcomers bought the available cheap housing stock. They are engaged in a struggle with the working class oldtimers about the town and its culture, particularly about the upkeep of property. At times interactions between oldtimers and newcomers resemble a social civil war in which oldtimers resist the integration of these lower-income newcomers as equals.

Agrarian small towns, like the benchmark stable community, were places where people both worked and lived. Newcomers’ arrivals triggered differing reverberations in the small Illinois communities Salamon describes. The original town’s size, its economic base, its local culture, and the type of newcomer arriving are critical indicators of how a particular agrarian community is altered by a newcomer influx. And if a real estate developer uses the town’s potential as a growth machine the local community may lose control of its identity as well as its economic base. Regardless of the class or ethnicity of the newcomers, Salamon finds, even when their social status differs relative to that of the oldtimers, if a town is used as a growth machine the newcomers’ effect was the same: suburbanization that erodes the close-knit small town community, with especially severe consequences for small-town youth. Salamon argues for the maintenance of cultural values that were historically held by those small towns in which a strong sense of community existed. These values were expressed by a shared belief that the town’s children belonged to everyone, and their lives and well-being were a responsibility of all citizens.

Rural places retain a powerful lure for Americans and the reverse migration-- the movement of people into small towns rather than out of them -- is likely to continue unabated, says Salamon. Local business entrepreneurs employing a town as a growth machine result in what were originally diverse towns by class and economic activity, become homogenized as only residential places, when resources are used for place rather than people. We are learning for small towns, just as for big cities, it is important to preserve the conditions for a diversity of uses – work, shopping, public spaces, and sidewalks. The original combination of commercial and residential activities made a small town, like a city, resilient because it provided a textured, vital life for residents. To successfully combat the homogenization of the heartland through suburbanization in a postagrarian transformation, Salamon argues, newcomers must work with oldtimers so together they sustain the vital aspects of community life and identity that first drew newcomers to settle in a small, old town.