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Jewish World Review July 10, 2001/ 19 Tamuz, 5761


Jonathan Yardley

American Towns: An Interpretive History by David J. Russo



http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- THE small town occupies an ambivalent place in American legend and mythology. On the one hand it is idealized and sentimentalized, all the more so as the landscape becomes ever more dominated by immense cities and endlessly sprawling cookie-cutter suburbs; we look back in longing to what we imagine was a simpler and better time when we lived in small places with "a sense of community" and "traditional values." On the other hand the small town has long been ridiculed, especially among the intelligentsia, for what is imagined to be narrow-mindedness, conformity, insularity and prejudice; from Sherwood Anderson and Sinclair Lewis onward, writers have made great sport at the small town's expense, and have had a powerful effect on how we perceive it.

Given these conflicting interpretations of the small town, it can come as no surprise that little of the literature devoted to it can be described as objective; it seems to inspire writers -- novelists, poets, historians, sociologists -- to grind axes. So David J. Russo's overview of the small town's development and its place in American life is a useful march down the middle of the road. His prose is utterly lifeless, and he deliberately eschews "a continuous, all-embracing narrative," with the perhaps unintentional result that the book reads as if it were a college textbook, but he largely succeeds in his effort to focus "on the patterns of life among those who have lived in American towns -- what connects them rather than what separates them."

Thus Russo divides his study into six broad areas: the founding of towns, their sites, and their economic, political, social and cultural lives. Though he finds differences among the towns established by the English Puritans in New England, the Quakers of William Penn in the Mid-Atlantic, the planters of the South and the Spanish in the West, he finds even stronger common characteristics. The most immediate of these is that though it was not uncommon for towns to spring up unbidden and grow in haphazard ways -- which probably is how most of us imagine them to have been formed -- the more common experience was that they were deliberately located in specific places and that their development was planned, at least in the beginning, along the lines of "basic features of town and city planning that stretched back to the ancient world: street patterns that were either a grid or linear (that is, with one basic 'spine' street) in form, either of which enclosed some sort of public space, usually rectangular in outline."

Towns usually were established to serve "special purposes." These could be religious or utopian or ethnic or racial or military or unabashedly commercial -- the railroad town, the mining town, the mill town, the company town -- but though the "spine" street was often called Main Street, it was to the ambitions of Wall Street that town builders invariably looked:


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"Over the course of four centuries, what linked Puritan land corporations, Quaker 'First Purchasers,' Southern town planners, Midwestern land jobbers, railway subsidiary townsite companies, company town originators, and a variety of colonized town groups that founded towns is that they performed essentially a real estate transaction -- part of a general speculation in land, whether for agricultural, extractive, industrial, or commercial purposes. The founding of towns was meant to be a profitable enterprise, like any other real estate venture. And like the sale of any kind of 'product,' towns needed to be promoted, publicized, and sold. Their founders always tried to locate them in advantageous sites, places where they could enjoy a secure economic future. . . . All towns that were planned, whether for a special purpose or for a variety of purposes, had to have a basis for economic durability. Even those that grew unplanned from a mill site or a crossroads or a docking facility, or from the site of a single service (a store, a post office, a tavern, a church, a courthouse) needed economic viability."

The carefully planned towns established in the 17th or 18th century came somewhat unglued in the 19th and 20th centuries as development occurred outside their original centers in the form of "unplanned, unplatted grid or linear layouts . . . with stores, shops, offices, government facilities, academies, churches, and houses," which is another way of saying that sprawl is a far older phenomenon than we usually realize. But there were certain constants, among them Main Street, the village square (or common or green) and of course the courthouse square. In one of the few passages in this book that might pass for levity, Russo quotes a traveler of a century ago: "I've been in Missouri for six weeks now and every town I've struck had a square until I got sick of the sight of them. If you ask where the hotel is, 'It's on the east side of the square.' The bank is on the 'corner of the square,' and such and such a fellow lives a block or so from the 'square.' Everything is calculated from the 'square.' "

This suggests a certain monotony to small-town life, a characteristic that eventually was fixed upon by satirists and other critics. They also pounced on "boosting" -- the eponymous George Babbitt of Sinclair Lewis's novel Babbitt being the most famous, or notorious, practitioner of same -- by which towns competed with each other in the endless pursuit of growth. One of the ironies of small-town culture in the United States is that though the towns are treasured in nostalgia for their smallness -- "perhaps the greatest legacy of the town . . . was that urbanized Americans continued to define community in terms of 'smallness' " -- towns with the rarest of exceptions have yearned to be bigger, i.e., to be cities. Precious few have succeeded, indeed over the centuries innumerable towns have shriveled away and died, the victims of bad location or bad weather or bad transportation or just plain bad luck.

But whether they grow or stagnate, towns in many respects are just cities in miniature. Their residents may have "a deeply schizophrenic attitude toward the city" -- admiring its wealth, energy and prominence yet deriding it as "a huge, impersonal community filled with strangers and festering social problems" -- yet their lives often mirror city lives in miniature. This is especially true of class:

"Over four centuries from 1600 to 2000, town society was always hierarchical. Hierarchy has never been a function of size. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, elites dominated that society, as others depended upon them, deferred to them, or sought to emulate them, even though the richest and poorest town dwellers were comparatively few in number in comparison to the many who were typically of middling status. During the nineteenth century this large middling element usually dominated town society and defined its values, punishing miscreants. In the twentieth century this task continued, with even greater awareness of class and even more reliance on social conformity, with an added division between those who accepted the domination of translocal institutions and those who clung to older, local ways."

The graceless phrase "translocal institutions" refers to the basic change in small towns, which is -- to use the buzzword of the hour -- globalization. During the last half of the 20th century, "one's local community [became] of less consequence than one's place in a mass society that had become organized along national, continental and global lines." Small towns may still be, for those thus inclined, wonderful places to live, but they no longer are the dominant influence upon their residents' lives. Precisely what this will mean in the century upon which we not long ago embarked is impossible to predict.


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