One is a town in Kansas. A small town. In the last ten years, its population has halved. In 2010, it had less than half the homes it had ten years earlier. It was hit by a devastating tornado in 2007, but that only accelerated the downward slide already under way.
The other is an even smaller town in Mississippi. In the last fifteen years, it has lost a third of its residents. Those remaining are among the poorest in the poorest state in the nation. Over the last few decades, its decline has matched the decline of cotton as a cash crop.
Two towns, struggling for existence, each facing their own private disasters; for communities, disasters begin and end alone.
The Kansas town was torn apart in many ways by the tornado. Many buildings destroyed. Many in the town deciding not to rebuild. Others, among them the mayor, using the tornado as a wakeup call – an opportunity to reinvent themselves. The remaining leaders of the community deciding to aim to become the hub of the Green Revolution. They built a new City Hall to the strictest “green” standards; they formed a foundation to reinvent themselves as a “Model Green Community.” They envisioned Eco-tourism as their new foundation. Big Media hailed them; the press hounds came sniffing for their stories and wrote their praises and then left them, once again alone.
The Mississippi town experienced no sudden shock – just a slow acid drip eating away at their economy and their vitality. And they knew it was happening. They watched with pride as their favorite son went off to Ole Miss to become the best football player in the state. But like so many other young and not-so-young, he didn’t come back home. Every year, the cotton gin – one of the main reasons for the town’s existence – got less and less business as the Delta’s deep loam was converted from cotton to corn and soy. The press never came around. The slow death of yet another sleepy cotton town isn’t really news to anyone, least of all the people living there. They knew they needed to find another reason for being, and persistently searched for it. But they never could find it, alone.
The people in the Kansas town and the people in the Mississippi town have each proved their resilience many times over. Though they have seen their towns contracting around them, they have refused to give up, and continued to look for reasons for their towns to be reborn. They yearn for their towns to return to the vitality they all remember, or think they remember, or want to remember. But they can’t make it happen alone.
In Mississippi, the townspeople know they live in one of the poorest towns in one of the poorest counties in the poorest state in the nation. The incomes of the people in the Kansas town are generally well below the national average. Even after the tornado, the fraction of vacant housing is greater than the national average. There’s not much need for an advanced education in either town. Neither town is rich in resources, but both have a quiet pride in their heritage. And so they go on, alone.
These are two real towns in our nation. The townspeople are good and decent people with a dogged resilience that all of us can admire and seek to emulate. But there are tens of thousands of towns like these across rural America. Contracting towns surrounded by contracting counties, losing those they can least afford to lose to cities with greater opportunities.
This is a somber tale. Two towns – one still hoping, though the tide seems to be against them; and another whose hope is almost gone. Both searching for a reason to be reborn, but searching alone.
If we are to realize our dream of recapturing the resilience we remember, the first step I think is clear: we must reach out both to the towns torn by tornadoes and those whose lifeblood is slowly dripping away. We must help them find new purposes, new reasons for being. We must be midwives to their rebirth, or they will die – alone.