Now that small towns are disappearing from America, we visit Disney theme parks designed to remind us of them. Or we crowd into the first small town we can find and set about changing it into the suburb we came from.
This is the
last of a three-part series on the Hidden West that is mostly about
small towns. But not Disney's idealized small town. The places
described here are on the edge.
They are losing
their pasts - cultural and economic - but have not yet found a
route to the future. In the last issue, dated June 21, we described
wheat-growing towns in North Dakota, where farmers pin their
economic hopes on pasta-making cooperatives. In the June 7 issue,
we examined Butte, Mont. - a town whose mining past is so dazzling
its residents have been unable to get beyond that history to take
their place in the modern world.
Except at the
scene of a fire or other disaster, people do not usually spill
their guts to a journalist. Still, it is possible to read into
these articles some of the middle-of-the-night terror that must
exist in the North Dakota prairie towns or the Lakota reservation
community profiled in our last issue. These people experience a
sense of intertwined peril: for themselves and for their place.
They are on edge not just because of their individual struggles,
but because the larger system is crumbling around
It is a fear not experienced by those who
are less rooted in a place. Those with shallow roots can pick up
their economic shells and go where the dollars flow more freely.
Perhaps that is why traditional towns are so famous for a desperate
willingness to sell out the hometown for a few jobs. It is why this
paper gets to write so often about towns and counties that support,
from the grass roots up, a proposed mine or subdivision that
everyone knows will damage the surrounding land or air, or the
But the articles in these
three issues are not about blind boosterism. The communities
examined here are attempting to understand where they have come
from, and, from that, where they can go. In vulnerable places such
as Caldwell, Idaho, and Leeds, N.D., people are attempting to adapt
in ways that will allow them to survive without giving up their
In the process, they are determining what
kind of West we will have.