Newcomers to Old Towns: Suburbanization of the Heartland

Newcomers to Old Towns: Suburbanization of the Heartland

by Sonya Salamon

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2004 winner of the Robert E. Park Book Award from the Community and Urban Sociology Section (CUSS) of the American Sociological Association

Although the death of the small town has been predicted for decades, during the 1990s the population of rural America actually increased by more than three million people. In this book, Sonya Salamon explores


2004 winner of the Robert E. Park Book Award from the Community and Urban Sociology Section (CUSS) of the American Sociological Association

Although the death of the small town has been predicted for decades, during the 1990s the population of rural America actually increased by more than three million people. In this book, Sonya Salamon explores these rural newcomers and the impact they have on the social relationships, public spaces, and community resources of small town America.

Salamon draws on richly detailed ethnographic studies of six small towns in central Illinois, including a town with upscale subdivisions that lured wealthy professionals as well as towns whose agribusinesses drew working-class Mexicano migrants and immigrants. She finds that regardless of the class or ethnicity of the newcomers, if their social status differs relative to that of oldtimers, their effect on a town has been the same: suburbanization that erodes the close-knit small town community, with especially severe consequences for small town youth. To successfully combat the homogenization of the heartland, Salamon argues, newcomers must work with oldtimers so that together they sustain the vital aspects of community life and identity that first drew them to small towns.

An illustration of the recent revitalization of interest in the small town, Salamon's work provides a significant addition to the growing literature on the subject. Social scientists, sociologists, policymakers, and urban planners will appreciate this important contribution to the ongoing discussion of social capital and the transformation in the study and definition of communities.

Editorial Reviews

Journal of Planning History
This book convincingly demonstrates that salvation through suburban sprawl is a devil’s bargain for small-town America.”

— Matthew D. Lassiter

Journal of Planning History - Matthew D. Lassiter
“This book convincingly demonstrates that salvation through suburban sprawl is a devil’s bargain for small-town America.”

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Newcomers to Old Towns: Suburbanization of the Heartland

By Sonya Salamon

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2003 Sonya Salamon
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0226734129


Life in a small midwestern town does not evoke, in an outsider, an image of arcadian perfection. Yet for twenty-five years, rural midwesterners have told me proudly about their beloved communities and their preference for life there over life anywhere else. It is not local ambience that binds them, for if the truth be told, most Illinois small towns are not distinguished by scenic locale or fine architecture. Rather, the rural residents equate people--fellow community members--with their sense of a good place to live. Small-town people need not yearn for community, as do many in the United States, because they have it; they know everyone and everyone knows them. Community members have a sense of place, shaped by a shared history and a shared culture derived from continuity of generations. These deep roots give them an awareness of who they are as people. As a citizen of a special place, albeit one with acknowledged warts, a member of a small community is considered a good person--virtuous, loyal, trustworthy, and altruistic. Community serves as a metaphor for their intimately connected lives. Small-town people recognize that they must be committed to shouldering the work required of citizens toproduce and sustain an authentic community. They have learned over time that community exists in the doing and redoing.

Now, as the twenty-first century begins, towns in rural Illinois are drifting from their deep-rooted heritage and losing the vestiges of community that connect them with the golden age of small towns at the turn of the twentieth century. Under an onslaught of suburbanization, residents are struggling to preserve what is best about the insular but supportive towns they love. This book explores an unheralded social and physical transformation that is under way in the countryside among agrarian communities. Regional suburbanization processes are reconfiguring the rural Midwest and, in all likelihood, much of rural America (see Bloom 2000; Herbers 1986). Because rural America accounts for most of the geographic area of the United States, it is important to shed light on this transformation process.

Writing this book was a labor of love for this urban transplant to the rural Midwest, who learned after the passage of years to appreciate the workaday charm of its cohesive small communities nestled on the flatlands. My admiration was spurred by observing various communities over twenty-five years of research but also by learning from small-town students in my classes and by regularly combing a regional newspaper. My attraction to the Midwest was sealed by watching Illinoisans deal with the disastrous 1993 flood. Even cynical reporters were motivated to write glowingly about rural communities along the surging Mississippi. Journalists from the New Yorker (Stewart 1993) and the New York Times (Rimer 1993) contrasted the generosity, selflessness, egalitarianism, and cooperation of Iowans, Missourians, and Illinoisans with the gouging, exploitation, and class-biased reactions observed in Florida after Hurricane Andrew in 1992. These national reporters witnessed the distinctive social fabric of the midwestern agrarian community at its best: a communal response to crisis, woven from customs of cooperation, trust, watchfulness, and volunteerism. They are customs that were honed on the prairie frontier by current midwesterners' ancestors, who learned that the best way to protect their families was to sustain their fledgling communities.

Negative stereotypes abound for midwestern agrarian communities, perhaps rooted in high school reading assignments of such authors as Edgar Lee Masters, Sherwood Anderson, and Sinclair Lewis or in television sitcoms. Puritanical, provincial, nosy, materialistic characters suffocate creative and individualistic heroes and heroines in early-twentieth-century novels about the small towns that then typified much of America. Classical anthropological and sociological midwestern community studies similarly document coercive conformity in which local gossip, criticism, and actions aggressively maintain an egalitarian and homogeneous facade (see Atherton 1954; Billington 1966; Blumenthal 1932; Lynd and Lynd 1929, 1937; Varenne 1977; Vidich and Bensman 1958). Yet midwesterners working the great flood were extolled as the epitome of unselfish cooperation and altruism. Each image contains truths. As we will see, what seemed to early novelists an impervious, rigid social structure appears more fragile and fluid as transformation processes move diverse people into, not out of, small rural towns.

My exploration of rural community change focuses on the meanings people attach to community and how commitment to place is shaped by these meanings. I define a rural place where a sense of community is strongly felt as an agrarian community to highlight its origin as a farming community. This definition is forged from ethnographic study of twenty-one Illinois small towns (all under 6,000 population and most under 2,500) since 1975. In agrarian communities families can trace a shared background through multiple generations, since the mid-and late nineteenth century. In many places people also have an ethnic origin in common (Salamon 1992). Such stability means that over generations, community members have shared a history, an identity, and norms associated with the land in a particular place. Thus, I see agrarian communities as cultural systems densely connected by social networks that link families in functional and emotional ways. Outside the Midwest such towns similarly have been defined as having cultures emphasizing place, space, rurality, and a sense of community (Bell 1994).

In midwestern communities functioning according to agrarian norms, the homes are clustered and the streets are narrow enough to promote neighborliness (Kunstler 1993). The communities' ideal is a tight-knit integration of all residents; in reality, differences exist, but they are downplayed by egalitarian norms. Cooperation, trust, and consensus-building lie behind the ideals of self-reliance, continuity, and respectful support for dependent members (Freudenberg 1986; Salamon 1992; Smith 1966). The current social transformation therefore must be gauged against agrarian norms that have altered since frontier days but are still salient to community meaning. A critical point is that agriculture is no longer synonymous with life in a rural small town (Castle 1995). Agrarian communities, once proud, self-contained, insular worlds, are being transformed into places where people only live; they work, shop, and obtain services elsewhere.

The rural transformation is spurred by a combination of economic, social, and technological forces that have reversed a twentieth-century pattern of rural exodus. Between 1990 and 1996, rural America grew by nearly 3 million people (Johnson and Beale 1998). Despite the long-term decline in the numbers of farms and farm families, rural areas experienced a faster rate of job growth than did metropolitan areas in the early 1990s (Beale 1989; Beale and Kalbacher 1989; Johnson and Beale 1998). Even while rural townspeople were relishing these economic benefits, state governments were pressuring rural school districts to consolidate and federal policies forced the centralization of health care delivery systems. A regional concentration of jobs, shopping, and services into nearby small cities was encouraged by these trends, by improved state highway systems, and by the preference of rural people for regional malls and urban services. Together these factors now diminish the likelihood that a small town will maintain a local school or a vibrant main street--institutions that provided a midwestern small town's heart and character. Such regionalization also eroded the relative insularity that helped maintain the unique identity of a small town and create loyalty based on exclusiveness.

The restructuring of rural America is driven by a robust national preference for the safe, friendly, close-to-nature, agreeably scaled, family-focused, peaceful life associated with old, agrarian, small rural towns (Hummon 1990; Kunstler 1993). It has been a preference strong enough to produce a population "deconcentration" (Johnson and Beale 1998). The romanticized appeal of small towns fostered an influx of new residents into rural America in response to specific issues in urban areas. For example, big-city crime produced white flight (Turner 1998). Despite the events of September 11, 2001, and the downturn of the economy, national prosperity remains at a level that ensures that rural places will retain a strong allure for people whose roots are not there but who can afford to live there and work elsewhere. Therein lies my story of how our enduring national vision of Arcadia--a small-town way of life in a rural landscape--has newcomers refashioning agrarian communities into suburban enclaves for nearby small cities.

Clarification of a few critical terms is needed here. Throughout the book I make an artificial distinction by using the term town for the physical dimensions of a place that make it a spatial territory-- an entity on a map with visible boundaries, a street plan, and public spaces (Gieryn 2000). Town is distinguished from community, which I use to emphasize the social relationships attached to a place. Clearly the town and community aspects of a place overlap and interact. These components--physical setting and social relationships-- together produce over time a town and community greater than the sum of its parts. An organic community is identified by a distinctive culture and identity that provide meaning and a place identity to its members.

In a previous book I described community culture as being ethnically derived; I focused on the culturally conservative family-based beliefs and practices related to intergenerational land transfers, kin relations, and farm succession (Salamon 1992). Each of the ethnic farming communities I described in that book, however, also had a distinctive personality (even if the same ethnicity) that developed from its settlement pattern, stratification, environment, religious leadership, and a history of weathering events together--tornadoes, fires, the Great Depression, or floods. That is, even a community culture that is dominated by ethnicity is also shaped by history, geography (soils and topography), demography, conflicts, and citizenship. Together these dimensions create a unique story line of place that accounts for how and why a particular group does things the way they do. In addition, uniqueness is constantly reinforced by the way a place defines we as differing from they--the people from neighboring places (Barth 1969). Typically, we in one midwestern town are closer-knit, nicer, and better than those folks over there, even if they look just like us.

A community that works as an organic whole is defined by a distinct culture with a sense of permanence, an interconnectedness created by strong connections built from repeated interactions based on shared norms; there is a sense of trust that enables members of the community to mobilize and act in the group's behalf (Coleman 1990; Kunstler 1993; Putnam 1993a; Tilly 1973; Williams 1988). Sharing a sense of community means that residents transcend simple proximity because they act in ways that identify their interests as being connected to the interests of their neighbors (Fowler 1991; Kemmis 1995; Lavenda 1997; Putnam 1993b).

Today, Illinois towns (or towns throughout the rural Midwest) in outward respects are indistinguishable from the suburbs that ring Chicago. A visitor finds in both small town and Chicago suburb the same fast-food restaurants, gas stations, motel chains, and supermarkets. Disk-jockey patter on rural radio stations is identical to the packaged routine that one hears on the city stations. Only when a visitor gets out of the car and interacts with shop owners, supermarket checkers, or motel desk clerks are the distinctive cultural features of a small town clearly discernible.

I found small-town people more open, friendly, and curious about me than those back home in Urbana, not a large place by Chicago standards. Watching as townsfolk joked among themselves in a cafe´, shopping at the local drugstore, and participating in ordinary street and shop interactions provided a window into what is taken for granted about daily small-town life. Rural midwesterners greet strangers with a nod or a hello, strike up a conversation readily, include them in a joke, and in general are eager to be neighborly. Oldtimers (lifelong residents typically born in the place) like where they live and feel confident that others will, too. Newcomers to such towns are different. For example, when my students carried out research in a town where upscale subdivisions have mushroomed (see chapter 4), oldtimers always invited them inside, but newcomers kept them on the front step. Oldtimers observe that customary forms of community hospitality, such as the friendly wave when passing on rural roads or the leisurely chat when getting mail at the post office, are not practiced readily by most newcomers. Newcomers find the neighborly ways of small-town oldtimers quaint, amusing, and inefficient. Mutual respect is not inevitably generated.

Since the 1980s, diverse groups of newcomers, attracted by the authenticity and peacefulness of small towns, have settled in and thereby profoundly changed such places physically and socially. In some cases this influx started as early as the 1960s, before the rural rebound was officially noted (Beale 1990; Johnson and Beale 1998). Some towns recruited newcomers, and others experienced their arrival almost as a hostile takeover. In the latter case, there were newcomers who saw small towns as interchangeable; for these people residences and land are commodities bought, sold, or invested in unsentimentally. Other newcomers respect the special sense of place where they take up residence and value a town's uniqueness. The shift from the oldtimer's concept of community as social relationships to the concept of property and place as commodities is altering the storied agrarian social fabric of the rural Midwest (Davis 1991; Urry 1995). The new communities and the altered rural countryside form what I call a postagrarian social fabric. Postagrarian towns are those formed by surbanization; they are located in what remains a productive agricultural landscape but are not socially or economically connected to it. This is a suburban phenomenon that differs from the one that forms rings of suburbs around larger cities, for the focal points are smaller cities and the towns are widely scattered. I describe how this gradually suburbanizing social fabric is being woven in six distinct community transformation case studies that make up the core of this book.

In the six central Illinois town case studies, newcomer and old-timer encounters illustrate the impact of exurban sprawl (the settling of places outside a suburban ring by urbanites), which is engulfing agrarian communities nationwide (Herbers 1986; Johnson and Beale 1998; Lewis 1995; Luloff and Swanson 1990; Palen 1995). A variety of push and pull factors have lured particular newcomers to particular sleepy small towns that had long suffered deterioration of their main streets and which had surplus housing because of the continual exodus of the young and energetic. Several of the case study towns are being exploited for financial gain by real estate developers for their amenities or ambience. One town has seen rural working-poor families pushed there by the gentrification of other towns in the region. The transformation of rural America mirrors national residential trends--suburbanization, urban sprawl, and uneven development--that generate upscale conditions in some places while leaving other places behind (Bradshaw 1993; Falk and Lyson 1993; Logan and Molotch 1987).

As residents from transformed postagrarian communities commute between small towns and the regional center for work, leisure, and services, their daily routines knit together the countryside and the city. Thus, distinctions between rural and urban places have become fuzzier in the regional commuting zone emerging from postagrarian suburbanization trends. The term commuting zone was coined to explain rural labor markets. A commuting zone is one or more counties that make up commuting flows (Killian and Parker 1991). A midwestern rural regional commuting zone may be visualized metaphorically as an archipelago: towns are connected to a small city as an archipelago is linked to the mainland (Alonso 1993). Each postagrarian town lies in the broad expanse of soybean and cornfield landscape as islands dot the sea.

Calvin Beale (personal communication, 1996) has suggested another metaphor for the emerging postagrarian social fabric of this earthbound archipelago. From a regional perspective, the small towns represented by the case studies, as a consequence of the postagrarian transformation, are emerging as neighborhoods for a nearby metro area that is the central magnet for work, shopping, services, and entertainment within the commuting zone. Four of the eleven counties that form a single commuting zone are represented by the six community case studies.

Neighborhood is thus another key term that I employ. Usually neighborhoods are distinctive residential areas within a town or city among which people are sorted by class, lifestyle, and profession through residential choice (or lack of it). Neighborhood enclaves include residents with a common culture or way of life whose ties are more instrumental than primary and intimate (Warren 1978). Ideally, the people living in a neighborhood are marked by a loyalty developed from frequent, regular involvement with one another (Fischer 1982, 1991). Inspired by Beale's suggestion, my argument is that former agrarian towns are being transformed into neighborhood places within a regional commuting zone, for differing categories of newcomers sharing a preference for small-town life. Homogeneous places emerge as newcomers sort themselves among postagrarian towns whose residents most resemble them, particularly by class. Because the newcomers remain attached to the city that anchors the commuting zone for all household functions except residence, these postagrarian towns are essentially urban neighborhoods, but they are distinguished by the rural hallmark of being spatially dispersed. Commuting drives suburbanization and is reinforced by the tendency for newcomer segregation in new subdivisions. Thus, a post-agrarian town, in contrast to an agrarian town, is defined more by geographical than social boundaries.


Excerpted from Newcomers to Old Towns: Suburbanization of the Heartland by Sonya Salamon Copyright © 2003 by Sonya Salamon. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Sonya Salamon is  professor emeritus at the University of Illinois and research professor at the University of Texas at Dallas. She is the author of Prairie Patrimony: Family, Farming, and Community in the Midwest.

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