Sunday evening, I was driving with Mrs. R. in a town near our farm. We were proceeding down what used to be the main commercial strip, bustling with car dealers, supermarkets, discount stores, specialty shops, restaurants, etc. These days, half of the storefronts are shuttered and much of the space that's occupied is on lease to low-rent tenants (tanning salons, rent-to-own robbers, pizza joints and the like). Where there were once three car dealers, now there's one lone Dodge store that (judging by the front lot) recently lost its franchise.
Sunday evening, I was driving with Mrs. R. in a town near our farm. We were proceeding down what used to be the main commercial strip, bustling with car dealers, supermarkets, discount stores, specialty shops, restaurants, etc. These days, half of the storefronts are shuttered and much of the space that's occupied is on lease to low-rent tenants (tanning salons, rent-to-own robbers, pizza joints and the like). Where there were once three car dealers, now there's one lone Dodge store that (judging by the front lot) recently lost its franchise. Sure, the Walmart SuperCenter (located just outside the town lines, of course) is part of the story, but it's clear that more than that is going on.
See, this town is located more or less halfway between two cities -- something like 20 miles from each. Neither of those cities is particularly big or particularly prosperous, but each of them offers a larger retail market (and so more varied commercial offerings) than the town in question ever could. As a result, people shop more in the cities, less in the town. That Walmart sucks the low end of the market (the portion least likely to travel for shopping purposes) pretty dry, and no one else can survive.
Once that pattern has taken hold, if you want something other than what Walmart carries, you pretty much have to drive the 40-mile round trip. And if you're going to be making that trip anyways, you might as well do your other shopping while you're there. The pattern reinforces itself, and the cycle continues. Four-dollar gasoline (when it returns in 2010 or 2011) won't make much difference. The 40-mile trips might become less frequent, but the main pattern of commercial life will remain.
In a sense, none of this is particularly new. I've lived most of my life in (or near) small towns that used to have thriving commercial districts but often now have no stores at all. Not even a gas station.
Drive through any rural country in the Northeastern or Mid-Atlantic USA, and you may notice a pattern. About every 8 or 10 miles, you'll come to a place with a name. It may not be much of a town now, but 100 years ago -- or a little more -- it was the market village for the surrounding countryside. Goods came in on the train, agricultural produce went out the same way. Farmers would typically drive a horse and wagon into town once a week to deliver produce, shop at the general store, do whatever else needed doing. The spacing between towns or villages, then, was determined by the length of a reasonable round trip for a wagon pulled (most often) by a single horse whose best gain (most often) was a walk. Eight or ten miles between towns meant an 8- or 10-mile round trip for the family which lived almost exactly halfway between. At that distance, you could do what needed doing in the a.m., have the midday meal at home, hitch up the wagon, go to town and be back in time for the evening milking.
With the coming of the automobile, of course, things changed. Not just popular culture and perceived threats to adolescent virtue -- NB: more perceived than real; sex holds few secrets for any kid who grew up around farm animals -- but the practical matter of how far one could live from town. The compelling logic for having a village every 8 miles or so disappeared and, soon, so did the villages themselves.
More recently, with improved roads making the drive shorter in time if not in miles, town/country patterns have changed again. In fact, a lot of places aren't "country" any more, they're "exurbs". Fewer houses. Bigger houses. Acres of gratuitous greenspace and luxuriant landscaping which produces nothing but chemical runoff and lawn care contractors. The last place I lived, I knew it was time to move when I went to the (last remaining) general store to find the parking lot filled with Saabs and Benzes -- nary a pickup to be seen.
If I can picture in my head what a future sustainable USA will look like, this town-vs-country relationship is a big part of it. Absolutely, the grid needs to get cleaner and smarter, cars need to get more fuel efficient, and inter-city trains need to get better. But it's also true that cities need to get city-er and the country needs to get country-er again. More details to follow, but that general store parking lot and all its brethren need to be re-relegated to pickup trucks. Plug-in hybrid pickup trucks, perhaps, but pickup trucks nonetheless.
Read more by
Opinions on Inside Higher Ed
Inside Higher Ed’s Blog U
What Others Are Reading