If you have been following our travels, you may already realize that we managed to visit America's "five corners" (Southwest California, Northwest Washington State, Northeast Maine, Key West and the Brownsville/Padre Islands area of Texas, the latter of which we are currently enjoying. I think since leaving Colorado two years ago and living full-time in our fifth wheel, we have visited 32 states. But this is not a travel post, nor is it one of my "Reasons to be Happy."
One underlying theme across every state we've seen the past two years is the obvious distress or demise of America's small towns. At one time, soon after the Interstate Highway System was built over 50 years ago, there was a migration to the suburbs from the many urban jungles. Now there's a great migration away from small towns for a variety of reasons.
Nadyne has lived in a few tiny villages, mostly in Arizona. I grew up in the Los Angeles area but spent many years in Eastern Washington State, where I used to enjoy outings to hamlets throughout the Cascade mountains. Enjoying regional museums and cute Main Street storefronts has always been an enjoyable diversion for both of us.
Most successful small towns have one of two advantages. First would be a natural feature that feeds a large tourism economy, such as Yellowstone or Arches National Parks. The other would be a major employer that keeps the bulk of its citizens working. In each case, the dependent town often has all their eggs in one basket. If a natural phenomenon stops enthralling the public or is lost due to a catastrophe, the small town's workforce must find other sources of income. Likewise, purely out of the control of a nearby town, a corporation can close down or move a facility, leaving workers scrambling. These towns cannot sustain their basket disappearing and a blight replaces the thriving business they once enjoyed.
In town after town we've seen Main Streets with 50%-90% of the shops closed and boarded up. Towns often don't have the legal right or the financial ability to keep their primary storefront avenues looking presentable, so they are usually shabby and unseemly. Just outside of town, one can witness nature reclaiming large warehouses, factories, farmhouses, barns and smaller box stores. It's a snowball of major proportion rolling down from the economic hilltop.
Worse, the neighborhoods in and around these towns can be extraordinarily poor. Often we are amazed when what looked like an abandoned or even condemned house with overgrown hedges and grass sported a satellite dish, a late model car and sometimes newer plastic toys strewn about in the back yard. In one section of Louisiana, these were the majority of neighborhoods.
When we lived in Western New York a couple of decades ago, one of our weekend pastimes was driving to and strolling through quaint bergs scattered throughout the state. "Main Street USA" funding had helped rebuild and enhance old downtowns and they were a pleasure to visit. After moving to Kansas, our jaunts through the countryside regularly brought us to villages obviously in the beginning stages of financial struggle. It wasn't until the past two years of travel, however, that we saw the almost incomprehensible scope of the problem.
The scourge doesn't have to continue. Major funding or tax incentives are awarded to large corporations and mid-size businesses all the time. At some point a governor may see to it some are spent to support their declining towns. Circumstances may be be cyclical and a rush back out of crowded cities might be the next large population migration. Retired communities, which do not need active jobs to survive, might sprout where dilapidated towns used to sit.
We can only hope that the unique style of living that small towns can provide will draw residents and be thriving communities once more.
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