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Years away offer a fresh perspective on what rural towns have to offer -- and what they don't

Living simply doesn’t have to mean quiet or boring. It can mean quite the opposite, actually: rich and interesting.
ci.willmar.mn.us
Living simply doesn’t have to mean quiet or boring. It can mean quite the opposite, actually: rich and interesting.

WILLMAR – Through its series on rural youth, MinnPost is chronicling the lives and prospects of young people and exploring an important decision they face: whether to leave the small towns where they grew up for the Twin Cities or other metropolitan areas.
     
For many young people, the decision is easy. Some simply prefer the pace and cultural amenities of city life. Small towns aren’t for everyone, after all.

     
But for others, as this series suggests, it’s not such an easy call. Rural life offers something valuable – roots, family ties, perhaps open spaces – that they would rather not give up.
     
I can relate.

Three years ago, my wife and I, along with our young son, left our city jobs and returned to my rural hometown so that I could teach at a small college and she could work as a pastor at a Lutheran church.
     
I had lived in the Twin Cities for a decade-and-a-half, so the time away gave me a fresh perspective on what small towns have to offer in the 21st century – and what they don’t.

Here’s how it looks from my view:
     
A sense of place
The late Paul Gruchow, one of rural Minnesota’s finest writers, had a lot to say about the lost centrality of place – what we might think of generally as community – in American lives.
     
“We could teach our children rural history and rural culture,” he once wrote in offering ideas for reversing the decline of small towns. “We could introduce them to the artists of the countryside. …We could celebrate and practice the distinctiveness of rural culture rather than settling for the mass culture of the TV screen and Wal-Mart.”
     
I have always valued a sense of place. For me, the churches scattered throughout town, the local newspaper, the college, the cafes and barber shops, the old neighborhoods, the amateur sports and the people – white collar and blue, natives and new immigrants – represent a tangible place with its own character.
     
Sure, modern life has made the world smaller (think email, Twitter and Facebook) and more alike (think Perkins Restaurant and, yes, Wal-Mart), chipping away at those things that make small towns unique. But enough of that local flavor exists to separate small towns from suburban conformity or big-city anonymity.
     
In many ways, the idea of place – in a world of constant change, mobility and striving – is an important element of identity.
     
Keeping it simple
When I moved from the Twin Cities back to rural Minnesota, the daily commute to my job on most days dropped from about 30 minutes (one way) to roughly six minutes (which includes the walk from my car to my office). So, unless I am teaching a class in another town, I spend about 10 minutes each day in my car getting to and from work. Not bad.
     
Getting to and from the barber shop or the grocery store or the baseball stadium can all be done within a similar time frame. Ditto for a trip to my brother’s cabin to enjoy an afternoon at the lake.
     
Yes, when it comes to small-town life, there’s no doubt about this: The ease of getting around and the freedom it affords can rarely be matched in a large city.
     
Family and civic life
That simplicity translates into time: time for my wife and son; time for running errands; time for getting together with friends or extended family; time for – well, anything but sitting in traffic or traveling far distances for everyday tasks.
     
It also can encourage civic involvement (though leaving journalism hours behind for the regular hours of a teacher have helped in that regard, too). In my case, that has meant volunteering at church, attending high-school and college sporting events, working on a political campaign and reporting and writing about rural life for this publication.
     
In other words, living simply doesn’t have to mean quiet or boring. It can mean quite the opposite, actually: rich and interesting.
     
And yet...
It would be easy to romanticize small-town life. The novelist Sinclair Lewis – who grew up 40 miles up the road from here – refused to do so, noting that the nice and tidy Minnesota hamlet of his youth could also be a bit dull and isolating.
     
It’s a fair critique even today.
     
One major factor is the lack of choice – in restaurants, movies, bars, bookstores, clothing stores, etc. That’s a drawback in a world increasingly driven by advertising, pop culture and the exalted status of the consumer.
     
It also means that social networks are more important than ever for filling in those gaps in “things to do” – especially during the long and cold winter months. That’s not a problem for people who have lived in small towns for years and have the benefit of old friendships or family ties; it can be a challenge for new residents or transplants from other towns.
     
Jobs, jobs, jobs
That scarcity of choice can be true of jobs, too. While a lot of professionals thrive in our small towns – they all need doctors, lawyers, accountants and teachers, after all – the trades, food processing and agricultural work still dominate the landscape.  
     
Not that there aren’t other opportunities. In Willmar, for instance, the MinnWest Technology Campus is now home to several high-tech businesses, as well as a new University of Minnesota research branch. There are other such examples in rural areas.
     
On the other hand, slow Internet access has been cited as a reason that some small regions, such as Lac qui Parle County west of here, continue to lose jobs and population. So there is a lot of work to be done.
    
It’s all enough to make a young person think twice about whether to stick around.
     
Stuart Lourey, 17, a student at East Central High School in Finlayson who plans to attend a liberal arts college, summed up that ambivalence in an interview with MinnPost:
     
“To be honest, I’m not sure if I’ll return when college is over,” he said. “In a way I can’t imagine living anywhere else. Maybe this is because I haven’t lived anywhere else. I plan to travel and live many different places and eventually learn that my hometown is in fact the best place on earth.”
     
I hope Stuart will return. Minnesota’s small towns need people like him. As for those who decide to leave for good: more power to them. I just hope they do so because they want to – not because they feel they must.
    
Gregg Aamot is a former newsman for The Associated Press and the author of "The New Minnesotans: Stories of Immigrants and Refugees." He is a journalism and English instructor at Ridgewater College and Southwest Minnesota State University, and a freelance contributor to MinnPost.

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Comments (3)

Gregg - I find it interesting that I would consider my community in South Minneapolis (Near 48th/Chicago) to have many parallels with the benefits of a small town. My wife and I bought this house and subsequently worked to find jobs in Minneapolis as well. Although my commute is longer, that is because I am biking (30 minutes/6-8 miles depending upon route). I have my barber, pet clinic, dentist, bike shop, favorite restaurants within 10 minutes by foot, or 5 minutes by car with parking. I have lived there for a year and have already met most of my neighbors and have been engaging in mutually beneficial community building activities to create the sense of place. The family piece even comes into play, since my sister/brother-in-law live in the same neighborhood.

I have the small town perspective as well, growing up in rural Chisago City, before it became an exurb. My point is, the size and location of the CITY are not the determining factor an many of the points raised in this article. However, it is really the size of the community. When you are in a small town, you are a small community by geographical isolation. In the inner city, you are a community by neighborhood or commercial boundaries. This sense of belonging seems entirely lost to me by people who live in suburban communities. From my experience, it's the lack of a walkable, community center, like you mentioned above. Neighborhoods like mine, and small towns, have community squares that were built before people started spreading out and trying to build all the amenities they ever needed into their own private yard. These walls and barriers are what keep people in rural Minnesota. However, if you come to the very center, you might find it's not so different, after all.

David,

Thanks for that thoughtful response. I once lived in southwest Minneapolis and recognized (and enjoyed) the parallels with smalltown life that you point out. And you put it nicely; it's not necessarily the location of a city or where one lives, it's the ability for communities to form in that environment.

Gregg

Gregg,

Very interesting column. I grew up in Duluth and lived in various communities in the Twin Cities after college for four years before moving to Dallas for another four years and then back to Duluth. While Duluth might not be considered "rural" Minnesota, it's still a small city facing many of the same issues as Willmar, New Ulm, or just about any other community not within commuting distance of the Twin Cities.

While there are some drawbacks (jobs obviously being the main one) to living here, the benefits definitely outweigh the costs in my mind. While I might not make as much as I did when I lived in Dallas, I have a five minute commute to work every morning. And if one happens to be an engineer or doctor, you can probably make close to as much in Duluth as you could in the Twin Cities in most cases. And while I might not be able to go to Manny's, Murphy's or Fogo de Chao up here, I wouldn't be able to afford them if I lived in the Twin Cities either. I do however, have the opportunity to go to Fitger's Brewhouse, Pizza Luce, or one of many other reasonably priced great restaurants whenever I want. Plus, I can go for a walk through Chester Creek or on the Duluth Lakewalk whenever I feel like it and they're only five minutes away as well.

While Duluth's politicians neglected its infrastructure (i.e. roads) for a long time and ignored a ticking time bomb with city employee retiree health care costs, those issues seem to be at least headed in the right direction now.

While I certainly could go back to a more urban lifestyle, I much prefer the small city lifestyle if given the choice.