Sunday, August 31, 2008

Small Southern Towns

I love small towns. I grew up in small towns. I lived in a big town and couldn’t wait to come back to a small town. (Everyone break into a John Mellencamp or Alan Jackson song here.)

I thought I had come back to a small town, but in the last five years where I live has exploded in size. I fear small towns are becoming obsolete.

I lived in Northern Alabama when I was in elementary and middle school and back then it was definitely country. Our house was off of a two lane road and there was nothing but cows, tall grass, giant ant hills and small houses. I once got lost behind my house for 4 hours in the woods. The woods that are now Target and Starbucks, by the way. Mom and I had to drive down somewhere near the Square to get groceries. On the way there we’d stop at the only gas station on the way where an elderly gentleman would come out and check everything but your heartbeat while waiting for the gas to pump. Mom adored the fussin’ over.

The Square itself was nothing but little rundown mom and pop places. The diner, laundry, hardware store, and a "wannabe" 5 and dime. Going to The Mall was “An Excursion”!

I moved away to another small town in another state and finished school there. Then I moved to the big city in Washington - what a change! I missed so many things about small town life: knowing everyone (and their business!), leaving your car unlocked, feeling safe and surrounded by friends and neighbors, the feeling of support for each other. Oh, and let’s not forget cow tipping and pig wrasslin’! All part of country/small town life. Of course there’s downsides, but that’s with anything. I felt lonely in the big city. Couldn’t wait to move back to a small town one day.

A few years ago I somehow talked my husband into coming back South. He’d never lived in the South, never visited, only knew about it from movies like “Heat of the Night” and “Deliverance”. Not good propaganda there! The first thing he said when we visited to look at houses was that he couldn’t believe how “real” and “friendly” the people in the small Southern towns were. No pretensions, airs, just good ol’ “How ya'll doing and what can I help you with?”

Slowly though, in the years we’ve been living here in the South, we’re seeing more and more small business leave and all the giant stores move in. The small town feeling is leaving and so is the friendliness and relaxed air that goes with it. People are starting to be “in a hurry” all the time. Whereas standing in line to check out used to be a great time to catch up with neighbors and chat a little, now it’s become a bunch of strangers giving each other dirty looks for taking too long to pay. Sunday drivers get nearly bumped off the road by people that have to “get somewhere.” People don’t make friends in the produce section anymore.

All the lovely little stores that we used to shop at are going the way of the dinosaur. Wal-mart, Target, Staples, all the big boxes are moving in and taking over. But, on the other hand, we’re all shopping there aren’t we? I personally love the big stores because I have three kids, two still in car seats, and being able to drag them out to just ONE store and ONE stop instead of 3 saves me so much time and energy. So I’m as guilty as the next person of getting rid of small town America.

A few years ago we went to Michigan, and got off the freeway a few times to drive through towns and cities. You know what, I could not tell the difference between a little town in Indiana or one in Alabama.

I don’t have any answers to this. I’m not even sure I should call it a problem. It appears to be the evolution of community. But I mourn the loss deeply of small towns and the industrious people who ran their own business and knew their customer's likes and dislikes. People who were always willing to extend a little credit if a neighbor had a tough time. People who realized that commerce and business still involved “People”.

There's definitely progress in this new world - everything's faster, cheaper and easier to get at then ever before. So why are we always so frazzled?

I would like to go back a bit in time - back to where you knew that old man at the gas station wasn't gonna let you go in any time less than 10 minutes. You accepted it and took that chance to notice how pretty the Spring wildflowers on the side of the road were. Then you went to town to shop and hopefully catch up on all the gossip in the produce aisle.