Small towns in the US are hoping nostalgic tourists will keep them from fading into the urban sprawl

Small towns need your help, memories, and money.
Small towns need your help, memories, and money.
Image: AP Photo/David Goldman
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The streets of Woodstock, Vermont felt like a movie set when I stepped out of my car. It looked as if any minute someone would shout “action!” and actors would appear in the windows of the ornate brick buildings to sing a jubilant theme song.

It was lunchtime in July. People were popping in and out of F.H. Gillingham & Sons General Store, strolling along and stopping at storefronts. Patrons flocked to Bentleys restaurant, and outside Norman Williams Public Library, readers searched for bargains at the annual book sale. Down the road under leafy trees, farmers set up stalls and welcomed clients. On a notice board I saw an invitation to a Front Porch Forum. The agenda: find a lost puppy, give away desk and chairs, and share moose sightings.

Founded in 1761, Woodstock was one of the stops on my travels through New England when I was doing research for my book Planning Small and Mid-Sized Towns; Designing and Retrofitting for Sustainability. Like many communities of its kind, Woodstock’s prosperity was mainly tied to transportation. A route to the north passes through it, and in 1877 it became the terminus of the Woodstock Railway company. Resiliency, hard work, scenic views, and lots of good fortune made the place what it has now become.

Walking down small-town streets, dining in local eateries, and stopping at farmers markets, I noticed and spoke with many out-of-towners. Licence plates indicated that some had driven a long distance to get there. I wondered what had made them visit. Was it a mere stop on a summer road trip, or the town’s unique sense of place that drew them? A search for authenticity, perhaps?

Nostalgia, I now believe, was the reason—our constant desire to witness yesterday and experience it, even for a brief moment.

Small towns put us in touch with a vanishing lifestyle; we crave a reminder and presence of simpler, bygone times. Perhaps it is our subconscious desire to live in a Norman Rockwell painting, where a shopkeeper knows your name, the waitress who serves you at the diner was your brother’s date to the prom, and where you may run into your third-grade teacher on Main Street.

And then there is that fabled slow life. Quaint architecture bunches together along narrow streets that house a church, school, bank, and town hall with a requisite flagpole or statue in the square in front. Tourists attempt to cast aside social-media black holes and trade the big city’s hectic pace for a welcomed sense of calm. It is this intimacy endowed with serene order that keeps us city slickers coming back.

But while Woodstock has been able to attract homeowners and weekend warriors alike, other small towns around America are being threatened by slow economic and population growth and an uncertain future.

The growth of small towns

How did small towns come to be in the first place? In The Economy of Cities, writer Jane Jacobs suggests that, historically, people chose easy-to-defend spots that supported their livelihood. For example, people often settled in areas with fertile land for agriculture, waterways for fishing, or, much like Woodstock, transit routes for service and trade. In North America, many small towns therefore sprang up where rail lines were laid or ended.

In the early 1800s, North America was not an urban continent. In Crabgrass Frontier, Kenneth Jackson writes that in 1820, only 7% of the US population lived in cities (with the majority either in New York or Philadelphia), and only 10 cities in the entire country could boast more than 10,000 inhabitants. But as the Industrial Revolution spread from England to America, urban populations skyrocketed. Towns that embraced newer technologies that attracted investors saw their population swell while others remained small.

The aftermath of World War II saw the mushrooming of newly built suburban enclaves like Levittown, Pennsylvania. With wide roads, low-density residences, and a repetitive architectural style, these new towns lacked the charm of old places. The edges of some established towns also expanded to include neighborhoods made up of single-family homes. Instead of using a traditional grid-street pattern, these homes were arranged along meandering streets and cul-de-sacs.

Urban expansion has continued into the 21st century. According to an article by Sarah Gibb and Rodger Johnson for the United States Census Bureau, “Places with populations smaller than 10,000 constituted about 9% of the nation’s population as of 2010, and this has held steady for every year between 2010 and 2014.” Gibb and Johnson also suggest that, contrary to popular belief, small towns are growing—but at a rate of 1%, compared to the 3% growth experienced by big cities.

Meanwhile, land developers realized that having easy access to a private cars and comfortable highways created a profit-making opportunity. So, unlike the pre-industrial towns of the past where all amenities were located in the city center, these developers built commercial and office spaces on the periphery, where land was cheaper. Shopping outlets, malls, and later “big box” retail outlets offered plenty of parking spots, heated and air-conditioned interiors, and lower-cost products that owners of mom-and-pop stores could not compete with.

In The New Way That Walmart Is Ruining America’s Small Towns, Ethan Wolff-Mann explains how giant retailers negatively impact surrounding communities. A single large retailer could sell merchandise similar to several smaller stores, which eventually would be forced to close because they’ve been priced out. On occasions, after the closing of mom-and-pop stores the large retailer folded as well, leaving a community without a pharmacy or grocery store.

Making small towns big again (but not too big)

Can a small town that experiences a decline of its historical economic income reverse its fortune and regain a sustainable economic footing? It is certainly possible, but it’s a challenge that will require innovation, tenacity, and, of course, some monetary investment.

As demonstrated in some of the more prosperous towns I visited during my New England tour, a key feature of such efforts has been making these places walkable, livable, and convivial in order to attract live-in families and tourists to power the town’s economic engines. Learning from the errors of others, some towns like Ashland, Oregon (population 21,000) have barred giant retailers from setting up shop within their municipal boundary altogether.

History is also a big draw. By preserving old buildings and enhancing its sense of place, towns like Norfolk, Virginia remain a favorite of tourists. Recognizing the importance and value of urban heritage, small towns across the country have enacted strict preservation bylaws that oversee the alteration of old buildings, creating an outdoor urban museum of sorts.

A case in point is North Adams, Massachusetts (population 14,000). Across America, a decades-long process of factory closings, such as the textile industry in North Adams, has lead to stagnation in communities whose livelihoods were tied to a small number of employers. To counteract this, North Adams has turned its downtown into a giant open-air museum, international artists are invited to paint murals on the bare walls of buildings and overpasses, and the vast former Arnold Printworks factory is now the home of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA), one of the largest centers for contemporary visual art and performing arts in the United States.

America’s accelerated urbanization has put the future of many small towns in jeopardy: Will they have a lasting notable spot in America’s urban quilt, or be a relic of the past in constant survival mode?

The answers to these questions hinge on hard-to-make predictions. Global and local economic shifts, future commercial and buying trends, and the nation’s changing demographics are all unknown factors that are bound to affect small towns. But something can be said with certainty: Their uniqueness and potential is hard to ignore.

Successful new urban endeavors are commonly built on the foundations of the past. Small towns are a reminder of sense of place and human values that we seem to have forgotten and are desperately try to hang on to. It is imperative that they thrive.