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I'd like you to do me a this little piece that was on the Chronicle news show on Boston's WCVB TV the other day.  It's not long, probably about 5 or 6 minutes.  Go ahead, check it out:

Chronicle: Glory Days and Challenging Times--a visit to Central Massachusetts

So why did I ask you to watch?

Because its main focus, the small town of Athol, Massachusetts, is where I was born and raised, and lived until 2005.  And it absolutely kills me that the town I knew growing up is becoming a ghost town, just like many other small towns in New England, and maybe even other states in this country.  Let me tell you why.

My father, Dick Chaisson, was a well-known reporter for the Worcester Telegram and Gazette, and worked out of an office on downtown Main Street, working there since at least the 1960s after a brief stint at the local paper and a short run in the US Air Force.  His office was in a great spot--sharing the same building as a local insurance company, and right next door to the Credit Union, and across the street from the large hardware store and the clothing boutique.  Right up the street was the local YMCA, the local library, and town hall.  

I remember this well, because the front of his office had a raised platform and a large glass window--sort of like the ones you see in older stores, where they'd have mannequins or furniture in the window to advertise their wares--and he used it to great effect.  He had a few large bulletin boards in those windows, in which he'd post pictures he'd taken and clippings of local news and happenings that he'd written about, and he'd always have people stopping by to read, and maybe even step in and say hi, or give him more things to write about.  

He's Athol's town historian--not something he was elected to be, but something he did on his own.  Just this past summer, Athol celebrated its 250th anniversary, and he was appointed Grand Marshall of the parade, and it was well earned.

The youngest son of a French Canadian who came to Athol at the turn of the century, he loved his hometown--and loved writing--enough that his life's project was to find out as much as he could about this small town.  I grew up in a house where the basement has always been filled with filing cabinets, books, and notebooks about the North Quabbin Area, and especially Athol.  

Did you know that Busby Berkeley briefly taught dance there?  Or that Candy Cummings, inventor of the curve ball, retired there?  Or that H.P. Lovecraft's editor lived there, and the town was partial inspiration for Dunwich?  Or that one of the Starrett kids that didn't get into toolmaking became known as The Durango Kid back in the early days of cinema?  It's fascinating what you can find about a small town, if you look hard enough.  To this day, at 77 years old, my dad still gets calls from friends and even strangers, asking if he could help them do some research on that local history.  He's retired now (and has been for awhile), and has started turning away some of these requests, as he wants to spend more time working on his own project that he's been working on for...well, forever, really--a definitive history of Athol.

I was born in Athol in 1971 as the youngest of four kids.  I remember the days when my age was in the single digits, and the boundary of my world was my cousin's house up the way.  While I didn't get into reporting like my father did--I just don't have the investigative chops, nor do I have the inclination for it--I did however get the writing bug from him.  I write science fiction, as well as an ongoing blog about my obsession with music (focusing on alternative rock, and specifically the "college rock" years of the mid-to-late 80s, which I'm writing a book can find it here if you're so inclined).  I live in San Francisco now, but most of my family still lives at home in Athol, so I still have ties there.

I bring all this up, because, over the course of the last 7 years when I've traveled back to Massachusetts to visit family and friends, I can't help but shake the fact that downtown...once vibrant and full of people, noisy from kids getting out of school and trucks making their deliveries, locals stopping by to say hello, people stopping in to pick up the local's slowly, painfully, heartbreakingly, fading away.

My dad's office in a primo location closed a year or two before he retired--first moving him to a much smaller, out of the way office that rarely got foot traffic, and later out of town so he had to commute to Gardner on that last year.  The insurance company moved up the street.  The hardware store closed ages ago, was boarded up for awhile, and became a storefront church.  The clothing boutique closed up soon after, got partitioned up, and became random offices including a WiC office.  The pharmacy up the street closed up.  The stationery store where he used to buy all his supplies closed up when the owners retired.  The other hardware store closed, was empty for awhile, became a Goodwill Store, and closed up again.  The Twist Drill company closed up in the mid-80s after a failed union strike, and has been mostly empty for years.  The old casket company is empty.  The Cass toy company, which was a mainstay for years, but had been closed for some time, had its main building burn down last winter.  Mind you, it's not that the town is blighted or run's just...empty.

There are many nice houses in town that are empty as well.  Not all of them are foreclosed due to bad or unpaid loans; some of them are simply empty because the owners could not find anyone to buy them.

This past spring when we visited, my wife and I walked downtown for coffee.  What I saw depressed the hell out of me--closed storefronts, empty houses...empty streets.  We walked through around two in the afternoon, when I'm sure I'd have seen at least someone walking the streets.  We maybe saw two or three people.

Where the hell is everyone?

I came to the conclusion that there are two reasons for this:

The older generation has either moved away or passed on.
It's sad to say, but it's true.  Back in the early 20th century, it was thought of as a grand idea to move out of the dirty insanity of the Big City and live in a small town, where one could make a name for oneself, get a job at the local factory or store, and be a part of a small but tight community.  Athol was very much like this post-WWII.  Downtown really was bustling, with two theaters, a handful of restaurants and diners, and quite a few stores (not to mention law, dentistry and accounting offices on the second floors of these buildings).  That went away a few decades later, but there was still a lot going on well until the mid-80s.  Then, due to the economy, the Twist Drill closing, and other events, it started to quiet down even more.  By the mid 90s we had a WalMart built between Orange and Athol, and even more stores started closing.  

Despite all of this, the older generations were still there.  Age, however, has a nasty habit of cutting things short.  Some have passed on, others moving to assisted living or down to their Florida condos.

The younger generation, unlike the older generation, have moved back to the cities.

I'll be brutally honest--when I was a junior in high school, all my closest friends were a year ahead of me and I couldn't wait to get the hell out of this dump.  It was 1988, I was seriously into college radio, and I couldn't wait to head off to college.  I had a few ideas of where I'd want to go--UMass Amherst was on my short list--but when I was introduced to Emerson College in Boston?  A private college that focused on the communications field, where I could get into filmmaking and writing?  Oh HELL YES!  I bugged the hell out of my parents that I wanted to go to there...I filled out the applications, applied for all kinds of student loans [For the record: I just finished paying it off two years ago!!], and I made all kinds of plans to get the hell out of Inkspot and move into the Real World where THINGS HAPPENED.

Mind 1995, that exciting bubble burst, and I had to move back home to Athol, where I lived with my family until 2005, due to financial issues.  But that's another post entirely.  My point here is that the younger generations, like mine and those younger than me, don't have any reason to stay in a small town.  We know that it makes more sense to live frugally, to rent a decent apartment in a nice neighborhood instead of living in a so-so house with a so-so car out in the sticks.  Sure, it's quieter and probably safer, but especially in this it worth it anymore?  Why live in Nowheresville with spotty cell phone service when you could live in a city where you can rely on public transportation or an easy commute, and better internet connection?  

Despite all this...

What, then, can we do about these small towns that were once a comforting community with its own interesting history?  What can we do to help these communities not just survive, but to update themselves into the twenty-first century?

I sometimes wish I had the love of my hometown that my Dad does.  I have his obsessiveness for information, which has helped me with my own writing, but I haven't had the excitement of the town for some time.  A mixture of reminiscence and saudade, really.  I enjoy remembering things about my youth, the trouble I got in and the events I went to, but I've moved on.  I live in a big city on the opposite coast now.

I do, however, have the compassion he has, and I can't help but feel saddened and frustrated by the stagnation that I see in so many small towns that haven't moved on.  But I understand that there are those who DO want to remain there, in those small towns like Athol, who consider it home, who love the community despite its problems and hardships.  And to those people, I say, "God Bless You."  You are truly strong of heart and compassion.

I know that it's a lot to ask, and a hope beyond hope, but I wish that someone, somewhere, would do what Starrett's Tools did so long ago, by creating a new startup company in town...some company that could enjoy the fruits of its labors, could hire the town's citizens.  Who knows what this startup could be--an internet company?  A creative hub?  Or another factory, this one even stronger and more profitable?

I wish I knew.

I really don't know what's going to happen to these small towns in America...but I sincerely hope that President Obama and those in Congress truly understand what I've said here.  These small communities, they're the ones who are always forgotten when it comes to towns needing help.  They're the ones who are last on the list because other towns are always considered "more important".  They're the ones who have to fend for themselves and rely on their own meager civic pride.

Because, most of the time, it's all they have left.

Sat Sep 22, 2012 at 1:49 PM PT: Hi!  I didn't expect so many comments or the getting put in the spotlight!  Thanks for stopping by and commenting!  I've been busy the last few days but will most likely respond to some of these comments either later today or tomorrow.  Y'all are great! :)

Originally posted to joncwriter on Thu Sep 20, 2012 at 09:04 PM PDT.

Also republished by Personal Storytellers and Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Every place changes. (10+ / 0-)

    You can never return to the same place. And it's hard to  see the places we once thought permanent become unfamiliar.

    Plus things change faster now. We're more mobile, less anchored. That's just the way things are.

    "I was a big supporter of waterboarding" - Dick Cheney 2/14/10

    by Bob Love on Thu Sep 20, 2012 at 09:31:06 PM PDT

    •  As the old Zen koan goes... (5+ / 0-)

      "You can't step twice on the same piece of water."

      Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory, tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat. Sun Tzu The Art of War

      by Stwriley on Fri Sep 21, 2012 at 11:06:33 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  I thought that expression was from Heraclitus (6+ / 0-)
        Panta chōrei kai ouden menei kai dis es ton auton potamon ouk an embaies

        "Everything changes and nothing remains still ... and ... you cannot step twice into the same stream"

        Cratylus Paragraph 402 section a line 8.

        "There are many truths of which the full meaning cannot be realized until personal experience has brought it home." John Stuart Mill

        by kuvasz on Fri Sep 21, 2012 at 01:19:23 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Both, actually. (3+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          kuvasz, Nulwee, Larsstephens

          It's not exactly an unusual philosophical concept. The Upanishads say much the same thing, for instance, and I don't doubt there are other examples that I can't think of off the top of my head.

          Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory, tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat. Sun Tzu The Art of War

          by Stwriley on Fri Sep 21, 2012 at 05:45:05 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

    •  "You can go home again, (9+ / 0-)

      so long as you understand that home is a place you have never been."
      - Ursula K. Le Guin

      Things do change, but having said that, appreciation for small town living ebbs and flows. Sometimes the amenities of a big city win out among young families, sometimes the safety and cohesiveness of small towns do.
      The emptiness of the Main Street is a function of economic as well as demographic change. When Wal-Mart is cheaper than the local hardware store, Wal-Mart is where everyone goes.

      "There's a crack in everything; that's how the light gets in". Leonard Cohen

      by northsylvania on Fri Sep 21, 2012 at 01:23:19 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  I moved from Boston to a smaller city (8+ / 0-)

        ...and from there to a really small town, pop. 3300.

        I love it here. It has its problems, but a person can really make a difference provided they don't just commute to their city job and then veg out in front of the TV the rest of the time.

        We have a LOT of small farms, dairies, and homesteading types in addition to the usual tract housing. We have a major harvest fair that draws twice the town's population every fall. Our regional school is very good and improving all the time, and there is a 75-name school choice waiting list for getting into our elementary school.

        Volunteers and activists are what make small towns hum. Good thing, too, because most of them are grappling with the kind of problems listed in the diary, and no money--or problems that just throwing money at won't solve.

        We have an organic grocery store on the main street of our town. It became so successful that they had to cannibalize the cafe in the back to make room for more merchandise. The owners run a mini-farmers' market in the empty lot next door that they also own. Elsewhere in the building is a fair trade gift shop and an acupuncturist, and a natural products beauty and hair salon. All these businesses are thriving.

        The same couple started the cable access TV station that I now run, and the husband is just finishing his second three-year term as a selectman. He and his wife run a translation service, with international clients, from the top floor of their building.

        One couple did all this. They're not wealthy--just hardworking, farsighted, personable, cheerful, and believe deeply in the town. They have inspired me and many others. I could name other examples as well.

        All it takes is vision, hard work, and the willingness to deal with many setbacks as well as the usual interpersonal and municipal politics and small-time detractors. The work is hard, in some cases thankless, but even incremental changes, if built on, add up and make a big difference in a way they almost never do in a huge city.

        "The truth will set you free...but first it'll piss you off." - Gloria Steinem

        by Sharoney on Fri Sep 21, 2012 at 01:59:03 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  That's the kind of thing (3+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Nulwee, AuroraDawn, Larsstephens

          I see here as well: a humming primary school, some kind of festive occasion every few weeks, two churches, two pubs, and a lot of volunteering. This in a village of around 700, a long way from anywhere. The internet and cell phone reception sucks though :D

          "There's a crack in everything; that's how the light gets in". Leonard Cohen

          by northsylvania on Fri Sep 21, 2012 at 02:21:44 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  That video was fascinating (11+ / 0-)

    Sad but fascinating. I'm a transplant to Massachusetts -- native of California but I fell in love with Massachusetts a few years ago and I expect I'll live here for the rest of my life. I've driven all over the state, or so I thought, but I wasn't familiar with these towns. Now taking a day trip out to see these small towns is very high on my To Do list. Doesn't matter if there "isn't much to see"; I had no idea I had missed an important piece of Massachusetts and its history in my explorations of the state, so I want to go out there. Thanks for pointing this out.

    Please visit:

    by Noisy Democrat on Thu Sep 20, 2012 at 09:33:59 PM PDT

  •  I'm always a bit conflicted when I read stories (8+ / 0-)

    like this.  I think most of us have a positive visceral reaction regarding small towns, but I've never lived in one and haven't really given consideration to moving to one.  People are leaving them for some of the reasons you've given, looking for the things that I value as well.

    It is similar to the feeling I get when I read a piece bemoaning the loss of indigenous cultures, and I picture the author, with his Masters degree, typing away on a MacBook Air in a Starbucks.  It seems odd to wish something for others that we don't wish for ourselves.

    I hope I don't come across as a dick here.  I found the diary very moving.  I didn't miss the point that it would be ideal if some of the things that draw people away were available in small towns, but that might be what makes them distinctive in the first place.

    Your request has bad syntax or is inherently impossible to satisfy. --httpd_err400form

    by Bob Novak Douchebag of Liberty on Thu Sep 20, 2012 at 09:38:49 PM PDT

    •  Actually, I would like to live in a small town (5+ / 0-)

      if it were connected by public transportation to a larger area. Some smaller towns in Massachusetts are on train lines so it's easy to get into Boston. I think that could be the best of both worlds. It sounds like what's happened to Athol and the other towns around there is that instead of being connected with larger areas, they were cut off.

      Please visit:

      by Noisy Democrat on Thu Sep 20, 2012 at 09:44:08 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  p.s. I guess I have that reaction (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        worldlotus, Nulwee

        because I have lived in smaller towns that were in easy reach of more metropolitan areas -- small towns in the Santa Cruz mountains, for instance, or in the desert outside of San Diego. I don't think it's great for people to be dependent on cars, but as I was saying, if the train service that connects a lot of Eastern Massachusetts reached as far as little places like these, I can imagine they'd become a lot more attractive. Own a house for cheap and take the train into work in Boston -- why not?

        Please visit:

        by Noisy Democrat on Thu Sep 20, 2012 at 09:47:19 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  train to Athol (5+ / 0-)

          According to the wikipedia page on Athol, the construction of the Quabbin reservoir resulted in several towns being flooded out. The railroad connection to Athol ran through these towns, so Athol lost its' railroad so that Boston could have water.

        •  Actually, that's why these places die. (4+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          worldlotus, ColoTim, Nulwee, Larsstephens

          People go to the big city for entertainment, for shopping, and for jobs.  And the little downtowns get boarded up, because there is no reason for their existence.

          I've lived in Boulder Creek, in the Santa Cruz mountains, and have lived in San Diego satellites , with very long family ties to Julian, Ranchita, Warner Springs, and even Agua Caliente.  I live in Bisbee, now.  I don't know how long it can hold out, in light of climate change (and the attendant drought), but we have a vibrant downtown, great restaurants, lots of live music, art, monthly crazy events on the street, a Farmer's Market, baseball games.  It's because we are too far from the big cities...people invest in their community here.

          When banjos are outlawed, only outlaws will have banjos.

          by Bisbonian on Fri Sep 21, 2012 at 01:29:09 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  Boulder Creek is one of the towns I had in mind (3+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            ColoTim, Bisbonian, Larsstephens

            Last I saw, earlier this year, it was still doing fine, at least as far as I could see. I don't know anything about employment statistics there but the downtown seemed as vibrant as ever.

            Please visit:

            by Noisy Democrat on Fri Sep 21, 2012 at 02:29:57 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

            •  Yep, art on the street (they lost support for the (1+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:

              wine tasting festival, but kept the art), live music, Bluegrass & Oldtime Festival...our grand-daughter goes to school there, and it is a very nice school in a pretty neighborhood.  Junction Park is being renovated.  Boulder Creek does okay because people from Santa Cruz and the area go there to do stuff...Big Basin, Castle Rock, wineries in the hills.

              When banjos are outlawed, only outlaws will have banjos.

              by Bisbonian on Fri Sep 21, 2012 at 05:17:07 PM PDT

              [ Parent ]

      •  It's so much nicer to roll out of my suburban (5+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        MGross, nextstep, worldlotus, ColoTim, nhDave

        home and drive 10 minutes to my suburban office park then it is to take the public transportation into the city.  It's not even in the same universe of close; most people will pick the suburban office park over the commute into the city any day hands down.

        •  But what do you do when your (0+ / 0-)

          car elevator breaks down?

        •  What if the office park was in a small town? (0+ / 0-)

          Could that be the answer?  What exactly are we interested in preserving here?  Or would we be destroying the town in order to save it?

          Maybe there's some sort of critical mass of population after which people aren't as inclined to move out and go to the Big City.  Would it be worth it to find out what that was?  Rather than letting our big cities get bigger and bigger, could we spread out the urbanity across a larger number of cities and "micropolises"?  What might America look like by now if we'd thought of that fifty years ago?

          The '60s were simply an attempt to get the 21st Century started early....Well, what are we waiting for? There's no deadline on a dream!

          by Panurge on Fri Sep 21, 2012 at 10:09:18 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

      •  you are correct (0+ / 0-)

        the lack of reliable connection to the outside world, whether it be roads, FEDX, cell phone service or internet is a BIG problem for Athol, MA.

    •  I suspect that some day we'll come back around. (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      worldlotus, ColoTim, Panurge

      When I look around at people building intentional communities, and at the same time looking at these older towns dying, I don't feel the loss of the small town as much as I feel the painful disconnect between the people trying to start their new towns and the people holding so dearly onto their old ones.

      I haven't finished thinking the matter through yet, as I expect that will take many years to consider on my own, but while I could see it being called pride that people (especially gen x'ers) want to make their own place in the world and not pick up the remains of a previous generation's work, I think there is more to it than that and it's a much more subtle matter.

      Other people may well understand better.  Though I am in my mid-late thirties I don't have any children to pass property on to, and am unlikely to face the disappointment of children leaving and not wanting anything to do with my property or home.  Also I live in a college town which I think is straight up awesome because it has the population of a small town and the accoutrements of a city - good cell service, relatively sophisticated conversation, etc.

      It may be possible, with a bit of focus and communication, to bridge the gap between small dying towns and young people trying to forge new communities.  It may also be possible that the best thing to do is let the old cities die, and clear the land for new houses to be built from scratch, I don't know.

      In any case, the point is in the subject - I think someday we'll come back around to small towns through want or need, and it will be that way for a while until our children or grandchildren decide we're a bunch of old flakes and move to repopulate the big cities again.

      “In the Soviet Union, capitalism triumphed over communism. In this country, capitalism triumphed over democracy.” - Fran Lebowitz

      by Aramis Wyler on Fri Sep 21, 2012 at 12:25:11 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Could describe the place I lived. (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Pluto, Missys Brother, worldlotus

    It's changed so much - shrunken away by big box stores in towns 40 miles away - that it barely resembles a town, let alone itself.

    All the little downtown shops which used to house retail, insurance, a bank, a doctor?  Now they are used as residences!  Doesn't seem very comfortable in the condition they are in, but that's what they are.

    I was shocked at how much it had changed.  

    "The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer." -- James Baldwin. July 11, 1966.

    by YucatanMan on Thu Sep 20, 2012 at 09:47:59 PM PDT

  •  For what its worth Emerson and Thoreau (9+ / 0-)

    lamented the death of the small towns in their time, young people fleeing the honest work on the farm for factory jobs in the city. I think this was to some degree the impetus behind Emerson's Nature essay.

    Sadly it seems small towns are getting it from both ends these days. Many of them suffer from neglect and attrition, others get flooded with white flight refugees and lose their charm with each franchise diner and big box store. You read the detective novels of John D. McDonald (author of the Travis McGee series) and there's no mistaking the author's wistfulness for the sleepy Florida beach communities that were under attack by the condo and golf developers sprouting resort communities  like mushrooms. God Bless Generica.

    There are two types of republicans, the rich and the stupid. The rich ones strive to keep the stupid ones stupid and the stupid ones strive to keep the rich ones rich.

    by frankzappatista on Thu Sep 20, 2012 at 10:00:52 PM PDT

  •  I'm from nearby (9+ / 0-)

    two towns north, and a bit younger, and now I live in a different part of the country too.  I really tried to make a go of living in small town New England but here's what was frustrating:

    1. poor transportation connections: dependency on cars.  I had to use a car every day to get to work.  I wasted two hours a day on busing to high school growing up and this turned me off of commutes for ages.  Now I can walk or bike to work within 5 minutes.  

    2. Difficult single life.  Meeting and dating is already challenging given the work demands of American society.  It's even more difficult with the distances imposed by rural life, and even more so if you don't happen to be straight.

    3. Communications: Internet connections were only fast in some village centers.  Visiting my parents place is still a disaster for trying to connect to the information economy.  There's a wimax network but it's completely clogged by traffic and practically unusable any more.  Furthermore, the local phone service itself has been passed around like a hot potato since verizon decided it wasn't interested in local phone service.  Cell phone service is unreliable due to hilly geography.

    Dealing with these factors could help small towns and cities thrive better.

    "The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself." -FDR

    by jbro on Thu Sep 20, 2012 at 11:37:38 PM PDT

  •  A Lot of the Small Manufacturers (7+ / 0-)

    Especially in New England, many of the small manufacturers that had successfully remained in business for decades, through multiple depressions, financial panics, etc., thanks to conservative financial management, turned out to be no match for the corporate asset-strippers, at which point it became cheaper for the new debt-laden corporate entity to have the actual manufacturing occur in the southern US, Mexico, or China, or someplace else...the movie Other People's Money describes the process well...

  •  One word answer: Wal-Mart (11+ / 0-)

    Wal-Mart is what has happened to the American small town. Seriously, you can look it up.

    Wal-Mart dropped a neutron bomb on all the main street business strips in small towns across America, by destroying the livelihoods of all those small business owners and their employees. Those low, low prices wipe out very small shop up & down main street. And those low prices are possible because production gets shipped to China, destroying all the jobs at the factory on the edge of town, too.

    And because all those lost jobs and businesses nuke the town's tax base, public services are also wiped out.

    Meanwhile, the Brinks armored trucks keep showing up every week to ship millions of dollars back to the Walton family of Bentonville, Arkansas.

    •  All true, but so what? (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      johnny wurster, nextstep, Nulwee

      More-efficient nukes less-efficient all the time, so I'm not sure on what basis we should single this out.

      Romney '12: Berlusconi without the sex and alcohol!

      by Rich in PA on Fri Sep 21, 2012 at 04:33:47 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Wal-Mart's "efficiency" is an artifact. (9+ / 0-)

        Wal-Mart's colossal 'efficiency' advantage is in fact an artifact of its massive political influence rather than legitimate economics.

        For example: cheap Chinese goods are cheap because U.S. trade policy has resolutely averted its eyes from China's currency manipulations, grotesque environmental abuses, and near-slave labor enviroment, compounded by artificially cheap transportation costs. The U.S. does this because it's good for Wal-Mart and Apple, even though it's catastrophic for U.S. workers. That's because labor has no voice in Washington compared to the cash-driven megaphones used by our Galtian overlords.

        Wal-Mart's per-store costs are rock bottom because they extort tax give-aways from towns desperate for any economic activity. Even more importantly, decades of relentless corporate union-busting together with a brilliant program of labor exploitation, from paying women less to extorting off-the-clock work from employees, keeps their labor costs in the basement. Not coincidentally, many Wal-Mart employees need food stamps to avoid starvation.

        And Wal-Mart exploits their massive market size by extorting huge discounts from their suppliers, which in turn forces manufacturers to move production to China.

        Most of Wal-Mart's 'efficiency' is illusory, and would evaporate in a genuinely competitive true-cost marketplace.

        •  food stamps and medicaid (9+ / 0-)

          have become subsidies for wal-mart in many cases. I'd personally rather just jack up the minimum wage and have universal health care. Aren't we silly for thinking that...

          The tax breaks are drying up, though. My city is now "blessed" with two new wal-marts under construction (for a population of 55,000). But they didn't get any tax breaks (the city council didn't even know they were coming because they don't require a business license...)

          I think in the future fewer towns and cities will offer such giveaways.

          I would say, though, that a while back I saw a comparison of Costco's labor costs vs sam's club, and they were roughly the same. You can make the same amount of money treating employees well or poorly. The choice to do one or the other mainly comes from malice, or lack of it.

    •  ^^THIS^^ (5+ / 0-)

      I'm maybe twenty minutes away in Greenfield. We lost our toolmaking industry too. Our postWW population has aged too. Our kids get seduced by the bright lights, too.

      The big differance- We didn't let Walmart set up.

      I'm not gonna say we're thriving- but downtown occupancy is pretty good, there's a lot of foot traffic. Investors from out of town just spent a LOT of cash putting in a performance venue.

      Really, it's Walmart.

      •  yep (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        fuzzyguy, worldlotus, PapaChach

        big box stores and national franchising. That is what has killed small local towns.

        Used to be that anyone with a work ethic a few saved bucks could try their hand in retail.  Small mom and pop shops all a little unique and quirky WERE america.

        Now they have been replaced with cookie cutter crap franchises and large box stores.

        but soon these will be gone as well, replaced by the web.  Big box stores days and all that overhead will soon be gone , replaced by amazon and the web.

        The call this progress, I call it something different.

        But hey its our fault, I mean when america can be brain washed into thinking dogfood like Subway sandwiches and other chain restuarants are worth money, where craptastic walmart junk is worthy of a place in  your home, well I guess the consumer has spoken, and it shows us to be idiots.

        Bad is never good until worse happens

        by dark daze on Fri Sep 21, 2012 at 11:00:13 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

      •  What makes Walmart possible? (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        Thanks for sharing that. It's an interesting example.

        It seems to me that Walmart is not a stand-alone phenomenon.

        There's a saying to the effect that we have to ask "Why?" an average of five times to really good a full explanation of something.

        You mention some aspects of Walmart that I would connect with other aspects of culture. I'd say that's a fine direction to look.

        I dislike Walmart as a company, and I think it's good that your town refused to cooperate. It seems to me that "Walmart" as an answer raises other questions.

        What is it about Walmart that seems to encapsulate everything we might know about the death of small towns?

        Why does Walmart seem to work so well as a first-pass answer to the question of why small towns are dying?

      •  greetings from beautiful shelburne falls (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        etbnc, Larsstephens

        Also wouldn't say thriving (10 minutes from greenfield), but SF at least held on to it's main st (actually bridge street in this case). Big boxes do screw things up, but the area has so far avoided the plihjt except for Home Despot, which drove out the lumber yards and the really great hardware store in greenfield.

        "I took a walk around the world, To ease my troubled mind. I left my body laying somewhere In the sands of time" Kryptonite 3 doors Down

        by farmerchuck on Fri Sep 21, 2012 at 11:12:55 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

    •  Actually not - not in Athol (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Parthenia, Nulwee, nhDave

      The Walmart in Athol is mostly empty, no one to buy anything there. There are no jobs for people to buy stuff. Athol has strip mall stores, they are just as empty as anything else.

      Dissing Walmart is simple snobbishness. An import tarrif would be great but us poor people don't enjoy shopping at little boutique shops, we don't have time, we work all the time.

      Stuff is made in China, wether you buy it in Patagonia or Walmart.

      How big is your personal carbon footprint?

      by ban nock on Fri Sep 21, 2012 at 01:10:46 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Not really. I've seen exactly the same thing in (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      other countries where there is no Walmart.

  •  It's like many things whose passing we lament... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    johnny wurster, Nulwee

    ...but we imagine other people living that life rather than us.  Personally I like visiting small New England towns but it's probably too much for me to expect people to make their whole lives there so I have something to visit.

    Romney '12: Berlusconi without the sex and alcohol!

    by Rich in PA on Fri Sep 21, 2012 at 04:32:15 AM PDT

  •  We can watch them decay (0+ / 0-)
    What, then, can we do about these small towns that were once a comforting community with its own interesting history?
    Nothing, I don't think.  And, as you note, people are moving away because they want to be elsewhere, so I don't see how or why we would disrupt that.  I was raised in Ohio and recently moved back to Ohio, so I know dead towns as well as anyone; the only course of action, I think, is to sit back and enjoy the peculiar beauty of the half-life / decay of the towns around us.
    •  they dont want to be elsewhere (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      ban nock, Sharoney

      there are just fewer and fewer opportunities there

      Bad is never good until worse happens

      by dark daze on Fri Sep 21, 2012 at 11:02:46 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  and continue to contribute to their death (0+ / 0-)

      by subsidizing big oil over public trasport. cities are great (to visit, in my case) but you need a distributed node network to support any kind of stability, and you need the remote center of socialization and energy , unless you want to give over to corporate ag and sustainable energy completely.

      "I took a walk around the world, To ease my troubled mind. I left my body laying somewhere In the sands of time" Kryptonite 3 doors Down

      by farmerchuck on Fri Sep 21, 2012 at 11:19:42 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  if you look at Europe (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    MGross, worldlotus, FG, Nulwee

    you can see this evolution a few generations ahead of us. Britain is a good example. Yes, they have many lovely small towns. But the population is overhwelmingly centered in about 5 major cities. On the plus side, this is why England still has some nice countryside. On the down side, many of the small towns are basically museum pieces.

    the farm belt is seeing this much more strongly than the northeast or the west coast, though. In Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa, the mechanization of farming has simply reduced the number of people required to farm. The only population trend that is preventing some towns from vanishing completely is immigration, but with immigration slowed to a trickle it's likely more towns will fold.

    I also don't think the anti-tax fervor helps, either. without subsidies from the more robust economies of big cities, small towns in most states would struggle even more than they do.

  •  All things die. (4+ / 0-)

    Small town's time has passed... the increasing mechanization of farming will probably finish most of them off.

    Some of them will probably live and grow into larger towns, or live on as tourist attractions, but that'll be a small percentage.

    I'm sure people missed village waterwheels and grist mills as well; some people a good half-century from now will probably miss refineries, pumpjacks, and the tanks of the oil and gas industries.

    •  Yes (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Aramis Wyler

      There has to be a reason for a town to exist.  Everything changes all the time.  Every town, city, mega city is growing or shrinking, or doing both in some parts.  Some small farm towns have no current reason to remain.  Ditto for small former industrial towns.  Small towns that get flooded or blown away by a tornado should be removed.  Birth, growth, decline, death, rebirth is how things work.  We can fight it, but we can't beat it.  Go with the flow.  Honor the memories.  Reinvent the town if that will work.  Otherwise, let it die.

  •  consequence of our culture's values (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    I do think the phenomenon indicates a problem. We could reverse it by adjusting our national attitude about some of the contributing factors: jobs, economy, buying stuff, etc. Adjusting our national attitude would be a big job, of course.

    We could also examine some of the contributing factors to see if things may change again for other reasons. Transportation, it seems to me, is one of them. For quite a while, our transportation methods favored local manufacturing and local food production.

    When our transportation began to favor longer distance travel (to the point of "globalization") small towns became less compatible with
    our attitudes and values about desirable lifestyles.

    Is "globalization" sustainable, long term? What factors might change transportation again? If practical transportation changes again, what else might change as a consequence?

  •  I always find it ironic small towns (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    fuzzyguy, FishOutofWater, Nulwee

    are considered to be quintisenssial Americana.

    I live in one now, after years of saying "I'd love to live in a small town where everyone knows each other" and absolutely loathe it. Fakest place I've ever lived. If I could move, I would.

    And it too is dying. Walmart in the small town up the road is why there are hardly any stores. Nearest book store is 35 miles away. If I had funds, I'd open one. But then the local Walmart would add a book section (it currently doesn't really sell any).

    pseudoscience can kill

    by terrypinder on Fri Sep 21, 2012 at 10:09:23 AM PDT

    •  (basically i'm saying i'd rather live in the city (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      again. Grew up in the suburbs and loathed those too.  Basically, if I have to drive beyond moving house, it's a 100% fail for me.)

      pseudoscience can kill

      by terrypinder on Fri Sep 21, 2012 at 10:13:19 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  cities are hell holes IMHO (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        ban nock, Nulwee, nhDave

        Bad is never good until worse happens

        by dark daze on Fri Sep 21, 2012 at 11:05:09 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  maybe (0+ / 0-)

          but there's more to do, no need for a car (we spend 35 minutes in the car to get to civilization), and people i'd actually want to be around (another thing we spend 35 minutes to get to).

          now if there were things to do in town other than eating fried food, if the library had books in it, if the people here actually seemed to care about their community (it's semi-ok in our town but it isn't the further up the valley you go), and so on I guess it'd be ok. But Wal-mart killed it (it has a main street with a bunch of empty shop), and pointing that out in our small town gets you screamed down because nuance isn't really allowed. Also, everyone who could moved away. Especially most of the gay people.

          now it has its good points. It's scenic. it's quiet, and there are deer and turkey and rabbits and the occasional fox in my yard, and i have a gigantic vegetable garden, and I occasionally get rare song birds at my feeder, and we might just elect a gay state representative this November (although the suburbs near the city will probably be where he gets most of his votes from, despite being a local guy). There's still locally owned manufacturing that likely won't go anywhere. (screen doors and windows, medical equipment, embroidery). But, that's about it. Still has petty crime, drug problems, bar fights, even homelessness.

          if I could move, as I said, I would. Only small town I'd put up with at this point is one with a university attached to it, or one directly on a train line where I could escape to the city.

          pseudoscience can kill

          by terrypinder on Fri Sep 21, 2012 at 12:55:45 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

        •  most medium-sized cities aren't "hell holes" (0+ / 0-)

          And they have live theatre, live music, brewpubs, lectures, libraries, probably some kind of institution of higher learning, decent hospitals, almost enough doctors...the list goes on.

          Small town or rural area? Not so much. Meth labs, signs with shotgun holes and angry people on porches who yell at you if you turn around in their driveways.

          I mean, I like the idea of country living - but this never was a nation of villages. The town my parents grew up in was 500 law-abiding citzens 6 days a week and 2,000 drunk field hands and tenant farmers Saturday night. Not so lovely. Not very "Norman Rockwell."

    •  Athol has great Indie Bookstore! (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Athol has a great independent "lefty" book store, called Bruce's Browser at   It is also a community center with programs about GLBT issues, racism, women's rights, etc.

    •  Athol has a bookstore (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Believe it or not, Athol has a great indie bookstore with community programs on GLBT too.

  •  We need to reverse the tendency toward (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Domestic Elf

    big box stores and globalization that we are being herded to for the profit of Big Everything(Oil, Ins, Drugs but most of all... BANKS)  .  

     Big Box stores don't add anything good to the local economy....but take away much.  

    Where the profits travel far off shore
    And all that's left is we the poor.

    "I think it is much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers that might be wrong." Richard Feynman

    by leema on Fri Sep 21, 2012 at 10:19:02 AM PDT

    •  People don't want to live in small towns. It has (0+ / 0-)

      nothing to do with big box stores.

      •  i disagree: think the egress is definitely (0+ / 0-)

        connected to the loss of jobs in Littletown USA...which in turn is directly connected to the advent big box stores...usually in a strip mall on the outskirts of Littletown.    The family owned stores in town can't compete....lose customers...close up...and are compelled to move out of town to someplace where they can earn a living again.   It is a downward domino effect...just like austerity programs that are being put forth as "solutions".

        That we are being converted into a nation of "consumers" rather than neighbors, innovators and citizens also plays a role....but I think it too is connected to the Big Box story.    In point of fact as another diary on the community list points out...we are teaching other nations like India to be consumers too...  Those little towns that go for the boutique/hand made/built here small stores seem to retain their populations they offer items and flavors the Big Boxes can't handle.  

        What is so ironic is that we are on our little life ship Earth and our supplies are now rapidly decreasing as our population is gaining at a prodigious rate.      

        "I think it is much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers that might be wrong." Richard Feynman

        by leema on Sat Sep 22, 2012 at 12:48:54 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  There is a small town near here Wakarusa, IN (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    And when the plant owned by Monaco Coach Corporation shuttered the town looked like it was going to lose 1400 jobs. In a town with a population of 1700 people it would have wiped the town off the face of the map.

    Thanks to the Auto Bailout secondary and tertiary industries were saved as well and Navistar purchase the plant and reopened it as Monaco RV. They employ around 400 people and expect to ramp up to full production next year and employ around 700.

    So the town took a blow, but driving through it, it's obvious the toll this economy has taken on the town.

    --Enlighten the people, generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like spirits at the dawn of day. - Thomas Jefferson--

    by idbecrazyif on Fri Sep 21, 2012 at 10:31:10 AM PDT

  •  As long as people keep leaving for greener pasture (0+ / 0-)

    or the perception of greener pastures, there's not much to be done about this trend.

    My hometown is the same way.  And do I still live there?  No...I don't.  If I could make a living writing, I would go back there.

    Oregon:'s cold. But it's a damp cold.

    by Keith930 on Fri Sep 21, 2012 at 11:49:15 AM PDT

  •  The Hinterlands are economic wastelands (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Paul Ferguson

    As a young person, I live in a rural part of California. Out in the Sierra Nevada foothills the "gold country," as its called. I wouldn't call these small towns a dying place but they are places rough on the young with few opportunities to do anything. If your young and in a small more rural town life is tough and jobs are scarce and don't pay very well. Of course the small towns in California like the one I live in is helped by us young people often being to financially weak to actually go anywhere.

    I think the lack of non-automobile transportation is a big factor. No rail lines connect a lot of these rural areas up, which hurts them and keeps them isolated somewhat. You need a car and gas to get anywhere, but in the bay area you can go all over on the cheap. Imagine if rail lines linked these places to the major hubs? For example if I could board a rail line and be in San Francisco from say Angels Camp or Sonora on the cheap? Suddenly young people would not be in these dire straits of either staying and rotting or fleeing and never looking back.

    So I'm definitely a "end the oil subsidies" and get mass transit going.

  •  I'll bet you never figured to get a comment from (0+ / 0-)

    someone from Warwick.

    We've actual increased in population mostly from people commuting via the internet, or doing the long long drive to Amherst, B-boro, or other places.

    I don't live there now and haven't for most of my adult life but I still have 17 acres on Hastingspond that my kids can figure out what to do with.

    I'd love to live there if I could support my family. I don't need most of what a city has to offer.

    How big is your personal carbon footprint?

    by ban nock on Fri Sep 21, 2012 at 12:41:22 PM PDT

    •  Just finished watching the vid (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      I have an adjustable angle ruler as well as a couple of 18" rulers from Starret that are in 64ths and 50ths on different sides. Nice tools.

      Dad grew up in Orange. All his folks both sides of the family lost all their good bottom land in New Salem because of the Quabin. I have the original land grant from the Continental Congress awarding them the acreage for fighting in the Revolution, it's on my wall.

      I've only been there a few times, mostly to bury my folks. Those are the woods I grew up in, I miss it terribly.

      How big is your personal carbon footprint?

      by ban nock on Fri Sep 21, 2012 at 12:55:28 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Its happening everywhere. (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    worldlotus, etbnc, Panurge

    Back in the Eighties and Ninties, I used to call on Southern textile companies from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River and traveled every nook and crany between, and now the entire region is full of ghost towns.

    Funny, it was the people who most preached about God, family, and country whose actions were the prime impetus for the destruction of that industry and way of life... all gone now.

    "Now Main Street's whitewashed windows and vacant stores
    Seems like there ain't nobody wants to come down here no more
    They're closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks
    Foreman says these jobs are going boys and they ain't coming back to your hometown
    Your hometown
    Your hometown
    Your hometown"

    Bruce Springsteen, My Hometown

    "There are many truths of which the full meaning cannot be realized until personal experience has brought it home." John Stuart Mill

    by kuvasz on Fri Sep 21, 2012 at 01:14:39 PM PDT

    •  As long as the *tableau* gets saved... (0+ / 0-)

      ...and hippies lose, I guess it's OK with the modern conservative movement.

      The '60s were simply an attempt to get the 21st Century started early....Well, what are we waiting for? There's no deadline on a dream!

      by Panurge on Fri Sep 21, 2012 at 11:18:16 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  You could save them. (0+ / 0-)

    It would take decent public transportation, and probably high-speed rail.  That isn't going to happen because republicans have always stood in the way of it.

  •  transportation (5+ / 0-)

    and telecommunications are a big part of it. We also need to stop giving subsidies to corporate biz and restaurants, so that small businesses don't have the deck stacked against them.

    I live in NH, in a small town. I moved to northern NH in 1984, from a city. I've lived in small towns ever since. For about 10 years I lived in a really small town - population 835. We always had at least an 80% voter turnout.

    I've learned that I'm a small town girl. In order to help small towns (and the whole country!) we need to put some energy into renewable energy, into local agriculture, and we need to stop taxpayer subsidies to the big businesses. Small biz can't compete with that. We also need to dramatically improve our telecommunications infrastructure - we're so far behind other countries it's pathetic.

    “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” ~ John Steinbeck

    by susanthe on Fri Sep 21, 2012 at 04:38:03 PM PDT

    •  I think those are the two biggies. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Telecom and transportation.

      But the weirdest thing about transportation is that you can't even get around on a bicycle in a small town. The infrastructure just won't permit it. I for one am not going to cycle on a two-lane county road with cars and trucks going 50 MPH. So it's not just transportation in and out, but also around. No one is going to drive their car to a train.

      You must be better able to bite your tongue than I am NH is about as "red" as Tennessee, isn't it?

  •  There's some of this in VA too (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Oh Mary Oh

    Here, it's mainly driven by a lack of jobs in many small towns, which in turn drives all who can afford it into the larger towns, some of which have become very different places as a result.  Small being a somewhat relative word, I've noticed that some towns I would consider somewhat small (50,000 population or so) sometimes become the magnets for growth, while others falter.

    To take just a few contrasting examples, Harrisonburg and Staunton in the Shenandoah Valley region of VA are both attracting a lot of people away from the smaller towns in the region.  Further south, Blacksburg and Roanoke have grown at the expense of the southwestern panhandle, which is losing a lot of population as coal winds down.

    There are some places, in fairness, where the small towns are hanging on, but in many of these the town is highly dependent on another nearby population center (the small towns of Albemarle, Nelson, and Buckingham counties, for instance are heavily dependent on interaction with nearby Charlottesville, and Hopewell and Petersburg in the James River basin are both very dependent on Richmond and it's suburbs).

    It's been a bit of a mixed bag here.  Cities like Richmond and Norfolk that were doing very badly in the 80s have a lot more tax revenue now, but more rural areas are definitely struggling.

    All your vote are belong to us.

    by Harkov311 on Fri Sep 21, 2012 at 08:00:56 PM PDT

  •  My home town... More is less (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Larsstephens, etbnc, Oh Mary Oh

    There used to be some major factories in my home town, major that is in the terms of the early 20th century. Farm equipment, televisions, heavy construction equipment, shoes... The main line of the New York Central used to run right through the middle of the town, not to mention the Erie, the Lehigh Valley.

    And agriculture; lots of good land, lots of family farms in the surrounding county.

    But things changed. The companies that ran the factories merged with other companies; manufacturing got consolidated or just moved elsewhere. Television making got moved south, then overseas. Does anyone even remember Sylvania any more? Trojan loaders? Massey-Harris?

    Farms that used to support entire families and put kids through college in the days of horsepower began to be too small as tractors and other power equipment came in. As they got bigger and farmers could do more with them...farms were too small to support the expensive machinery, not large enough to make full use of them. And fewer kids wanted to spend their lives in back-breaking work as the profit margins got squeezed down. Farmers either had to take on more land, or sell off land for subdivisions. For a lot of them, that turned out to be their retirement plan - and a lot of good farm land is gone.

    When the railroads shifted from steam to diesel, that killed a lot of jobs right there. It took fewer people to run the trains, fewer shops to keep them in repair - then the cars, the trucks and interstates killed both passenger and freight business.

    Cheap gasoline also caused the town to sprawl. People wanted big lots, and houses to match - not the small homes cheek by jowl in the town on the small lots.

    The center of my town destroyed itself in the 1960s, when 'urban renewal' said tear down all the old stores, shops (and apartments above them), leave lots of empty space for parking, and put up an enclosed mall in the middle of the wasteland. A lot of businesses never made the transition.

    Today the big box stores sit just outside the city limits, denying the city tax revenue, and kill off the few remaining businesses downtown. The local hospital - what remains from the merger of two - has trouble recruiting enough doctors to operate profitably. They can make more money in the larger cities an hour away to the east and the west.

    The kids go away to school, and there are no jobs for them to come back to; and if there were, all the other things the cities have would draw them away.

    The consolidation of corporations into ever bigger behemoths makes them far to large to care about the little towns that used to support multiple factories on a much smaller scale. The ruthless elimination of jobs and the assault on wages means there's not as much money as there used to be in the town.

    The shift from a manufacturing economy to a Walmart economy is killing small towns everywhere. And until we figure out something better, that's only going to continue.

    "No special skill, no standard attitude, no technology, and no organization - no matter how valuable - can safely replace thought itself."

    by xaxnar on Fri Sep 21, 2012 at 09:01:50 PM PDT

  •  Starrett Corp is an international treasure, (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Larsstephens, Oh Mary Oh

    not to mention a strategic asset for the US, generally.

    Ask anyone who does metal-work.

    The hungry judges soon the sentence sign, And wretches hang, that jurymen may dine.

    by magnetics on Fri Sep 21, 2012 at 09:29:59 PM PDT

  •  I'm not sure we should revive them. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    For a number of the reasons you indicated, it's simply better for everyone to have more density (and build infrastructure that way).

    Of course the problem is that the process itself hurts real people and we shouldn't abandon them either.

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