The Small-Town Community: Its Character and Survival, 1986

*Address to the Third Biennial GITAP Interdisciplinary Conference, "Down to Earth: People on the Land - Questions of Food, Work, People, and Land," November 16-21, 1986, Grand Forks, North Dakota, sponsored by the Group for Interdisciplinary Theory and Praxis (GITAP), University of North Dakota.


  In the early 1970s, I participated in a conference in Brookings, South Dakota, on the growing gap in well-being between rural and urban America. A presidential commission in 1967 had reported on The People Left Behind in the countryside of an urban, affluent society, and the Brookings conference considered rural "Communities Left Behind" (Whiting, 1974). Now, after a War on Poverty and a brief nonmetropolitan "turnaround" the rural-urban gap is still great, and the trends of the 1980s force us to consider the "Communities Left Behind - Again" (Wilkinson, 1986a) in rural America. The rural problems identified by Carl Kraenzel (1980) as the "social cost of space" are painfully evident today in small towns and their hinterlands in the American countryside. Frustrating as it is to reflect on how little progress we have made toward understanding and solving the problems of the small-town, community conferences and commentaries on these problems have helped to bring three important facts into focus. One is that we, as a society, place a considerable value, in rhetoric at least, on the well-being of the community. The community, after all, is where we live and move and have our being in everyday life, and we have an implicit appreciation of its role in our well-being. A second fact is that the community, by virtually all accounts, is in trouble, and the trouble appears to be severe in the small towns and rural areas where many of our most cherished ideas about the importance of the community have been nourished in the past. The third fact is that rural advocates have been searching for many years, but with little success, for effective policies and strategies to encourage rural development and revitalization of small communities (Wilkinson et al., 1983). The search has intensified recently in the face of escalating rural problems. As part of what now, at long last, might be an incipient movement toward actually facing rural problems and promoting effective actions in national, state, and local arenas, my comments, drawn largely from an academic base of theory and research, will elaborate some ideas and issues concerning these three central facts - that is, concerning: (1) the importance of the community in social well-being; (2) the problems of small communities in rural America; and (3) the search for ways of bringing about rural revitalization. Hopefully, an academic analysis of these topics can contribute to policy and practice in the cause of revitalizing small communities in rural America.