Small towns, full lives

All may not be well in this part of Missouri, but some folks who call it home are finding what they really need.
Sunday, May 30, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:57 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

Trace a 200-mile long loop around Columbia. You’ll find your finger running through a lot of small towns.

Moberly: The pharmacy’s been serving Coke floats and ham sandwiches for 93 years. Centralia: The state-championship football team boosts not just student pride but that of an entire community. Mexico: The local general practitioner has moved from downtown to the medical park, but after 40 years, the same patients keep coming. Fulton: The Civil War, the Cold War and the current war come together here, with men from Churchill to Cheney, Clinton to Kerry making worldwide news in the same county that dared to secede from the Union. California: On any given Sunday, Oak Street’s churches – big churches, one after another – are packed. Boonville: High Street’s neighbors have left this beautiful street overlooking the Missouri River, traveled from Denver to the Deutschland, and come home again. Fayette: Neither a microburst, a fire or a building collapse, all coming within a few years, has killed downtown’s spirit or regeneration.

But let the patina of nostalgia slide off small-town Missouri, and you sense all is not well: You can see the sun gleaming off the long-vacated grain elevator. You can smell the decay near the abandoned docks on the river. You can hear the locals gossiping about the latest meth bust.

Not exactly well. But not dead either.

You’ll find 54,167 people out there in those seven towns, give or take a few. Whip out the U.S. Census and a calculator and you’ll find that’s about 6 percent more than lived there in 1990. That’s nowhere near Columbia’s 22.3 percent growth rate during the same period, but it sure isn’t dead.

Like most people living in this country, small-towners must meet their physiological needs like air, water, food and sleep, even when a windstorm tears the roof off the local bar.

But while human needs can be satisfied in other places, it’s possible there’s no place quite as great as a small town to do it in. Maybe, just maybe, underneath all those clichés lie the foundations of real truths.

Abraham Maslow, a psychologist who studied why successful people like Albert Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt and Frederick Douglass achieved such lofty heights, created what he called a hierarchy of needs. Maslow believed that at the end of the day, people are motivated by various needs. Only when a lower need is met can people start to focus on higher needs.

These people do feel safe — someone’s watching when the porch light’s on. They feel loved. Just going to school every day — or even to the lumberyard — is a chance to connect with people who care about them. They have self-esteem. That restored post office downtown didn’t just materialize; someone had to build it. They even reach self-actualization; ask any longtime resident who has donated thousands of volunteer hours to help their town endure.

There are 2.5 billion reasons to think there might be more to this than just a forced marriage of Maslow and Missouri.

The Walt Disney Co. spent $2.5 billion on the creation of the town of Celebration, Fla., just outside the gates of Disney World. Its small downtown has quaint little shops, and you can walk almost anywhere. They call it a New Urbanist community.

That’s not even in the dictionary.

The concept is based on what the builders of Celebration call “environmental determinism,” the idea that the very design of a community determines how it will behave. And since 50 years ago — as everybody knows — life was better in America, if we just start building towns like these again, it follows that life in that small town will be better.

They built a small town that really isn’t one. Oh sure, on the surface it looks just right. On a Saturday night in Celebration the streets are packed, and all the storefronts are filled. But it’s fake; no small town on earth was ever this perfect, not even the ones in mid-Missouri.

But you’ve been driving the 200-mile mid-Missouri loop. You know that what makes a small town special is more than just buildings and design. It’s about people, the people you’ve talked to, the people who know how things really were and are.

Of course, the authors of “A Place Called Home: Writings on the Midwestern Small Town,” see things differently. They talk on and on about declining status of the American small town. They quote writers saying the small town is doomed or that its mere existence is a miracle that perplexes even the inhabitants.

Though the book was published last year, the comments aren’t new. They were written in 1935 and 1952, respectively.

The first wave of critics looked at demographic changes in the late 1800s when railroads began to ignore the towns they had helped create. By the 1920s, the critics said, the country had gone from a nation where 60 percent of the population lived in or near small towns to one where a small majority lived in urban areas. From 1940 to 1945, rural and small towns lost another 17 percent of the nation’s population. In the early 1980s the cynics were briefly quieted when a small wave of rural growth hit as people looked to get away from big-city problems. But the decade ended disastrously when the farm crisis bankrupted thousands of farmers and small-town banks. By the dawn of the millennium, fewer than 10 percent of the U.S. population lived in small towns and only about 1 percent of the population was engaged in agriculture. When you hear the small town is dead, this may be why.

When small town residents weren’t being consigned to elimination, they were at least being relegated to irrelevance. Authors such as Edgar Lee Masters, Sherwood Anderson and Sinclair Lewis depicted small-town residents as class-conscious and complacent, petty and parsimonious. This was, as “A Place Called Home” put it, when they weren’t being sexually-repressed, middle- class middlebrows incapable of real culture or even significant cultural aspirations.

Heck, bashing these places has always been a national sport. Mark Twain once wrote, “Go, and reform — or, mark my words — some day, for your sins, you will die and go to hell or Hadleyburg – TRY AND MAKE IT THE FORMER.” And this was a guy who liked small towns. With friends like that . . . well, you know how it goes.

But wait! There’s something in Hadleyburg — or at least Hartsburg.

A lot of those national trends don’t seem to apply to mid-Missouri. Analysts talk about how towns like St. Charles and Harry Truman’s own Independence are now just bedroom communities overrun by St. Louis and Kansas City. But here in mid-Missouri, Columbia hasn’t overrun anything, with the exception of the I-70/U.S. 63 interchange.

Another trend is the loss of senior citizens. Out in the rest of small-town reality, retirees and their higher incomes are packing up and moving to Florida and Arizona. But in mid-Missouri, the seniors pretty much stay put, with each of the seven towns’ senior citizen population exceeding the national average.

Columbia, far from being the curse so many bigger cities are to their smaller neighbors, may actually be a good place to have nearby. Along with world-class medical care, it offers other amenities: cultural attractions, jobs and killer margaritas. Centralia teacher Nancy Buie calls it “the best of both worlds,” especially when she’s hanging out down at Chili’s.

These mid-Missouri residents seem to be able to accept big changes, like the Isle of Capri Casino in Boonville. They’re also dealing with the slow and steady changes that come in places like California where Hispanic immigrants work for low wages at the meat packing plant. In Fayette, they’ve accepted that half the workers have to head out of town to make a living.

When Maslow talks about safety, love, self-esteem and self-actualization, they know what he means.

When Garrison Keillor, the great storyteller of the American Midwest, says small towns are a way “to celebrate what remains rather than mourn what is lost ... as a means of reclaiming direction for the future,” they understand that, too.

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