"Newcomers to Old Towns: Suburbanization of the Heartland," by Sonya Salamon (University of Chicago Press/2003)
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Suburbanization of small towns is reversing the exodus of the best and brightest that led sociologist E.A. Ross to declare in 1915 that Midwestern towns “remind one of fished-out ponds populated chiefly by bullheads and suckers.”
In the book “Newcomers to Old Towns: Suburbanization of the Heartland” (University of Chicago Press), Sonya Salamon explores migration to small-town America and the impact that newcomers have on social relationships, public spaces and community resources. Salamon, professor of community studies in the department of human and community development, conducted richly detailed ethnographic studies of six small towns in Central Illinois over a decade. Salamon’s study included a town with upscale subdivisions that lured wealthy professionals as well as towns whose agribusinesses drew working-class Mexican immigrants and one town that marketed itself to lower-middle-class home buyers to combat a housing surplus caused by the closing of a military base. Although the demise of the small town has been predicted for decades, during the 1990s the population of rural America actually increased by more than 3 million people. Salamon contends that small towns hold a strong allure for Americans. “This enduring national vision of arcadia – a simpler way of life amidst a rustic landscape – is reweaving our rural social fabric,” Salamon said. Salamon found that regardless of the relative wealth or ethnicity of the newcomers if they differed in class from oldtimers their effect on a town was the same: suburbanization that eroded the close-knit small town community with especially severe consequences for small- town youth.
“A sense of community derives from how a town differs rather than is the same as other places,” Salamon said. “The suburbanization challenge is for towns to resist homogenization of the vital aspects of community life they cherish most.” To successfully combat this homogenization, Salamon argues, newcomers must work with oldtimers to sustain the vital aspects of community life that first drew them to small towns.