Not long ago many of us lived in small towns.
Or we came from the farms around those towns.
We are one or maybe two generations removed from that small-town life. It is the same small town life popularized in the early 20th Century by Sinclair Lewis, in novels such as Main Street and Babbit. His stories portrayed people trapped by small-town life and small minds, some, but also exhibited the humanity in those who lived their lives in towns that today would be about the geographical size of four-to-six Wal-Mart superstores at the smallest and the footprint of O’Hare Airport at the largest.
Each town had its own circle of life and society. Most had its own newspaper and the news mostly covered was local. When distances were harder to travel, due to lack of good roads, what happened in town was usually the most important event to somebody living there. Often the news was what we today would consider trivial: a grease fire, a building dedication, a birth, a death. Those things mattered because it affected those who lived close-by, neighbors. Sure, there were “wire” reports by the Associated Press, United Press International, and others, but they reported on things going on way far away, sometimes on the other side of the plane, places the ordinary person then never thought they could visit.
Entertainment was local, too, early on. If you travel the highways and byways of the Midwest you will still see small towns that built opera houses. Many are still standing, but used for other things — or abandoned. This was before movies became popular. Sometimes these opera houses would entertain the great names of the day, such as Enrico Caruso In the summer the circus might come to town. Later came radio, and entertainment became more personal.
The way life went in many of these towns was that you could see the end of town, the edge of town. Often, you could walk to it in a few minutes. A grain elevator and the railroad were often near the edge of town, or at least the rail spur to work the grain elevator. More often, the sidewalk or the bricks or the paving ran out at a field of corn or wheat.
This was an agricultural-based America. The cycle of towns revolved around the earth thrived and suffered with it. Heat, cold, rain, hail, snow: they were all more than a mere inconvenience or the subject of hysteria on television news like today. The lack of one, or too much of the other, spelled either good fortune or disaster.
In the 21 Century, the majority of the population in the United States lives in cities. The connection to the earth is something that most see on a screen but seldom experience anymore. The authentic earth we walk on is covered by asphalt or cement or brick. The green spaces are carefully planned and spaced out and never random unless you go to areas of the city where houses and factories and are abandoned and nature is taking back what was hers. Life is disconnected from the ground, from the earth.
Life in the big city is more isolated today than when most of us lived in small towns. We get more news — from every corner of the world– and we can hop on a jet and go to those corners of the world and entertainment is even broadcast to us at gas pumps, but the isolation of many in the cities grows, and it is a weakness of the West. In a small town everybody knew your name and your business, and sometimes that was horrible, as Sinclair Lewis describes. In the city, you live feet away from somebody for decades who never knows your name. Which is worse?
There seems no end to the city and its metro area. It’s a sprawl, city limit to city limit; and beyond, one suburb looks like another, with its strip malls and fast food restaurants. There is no concept for many that the covered earth they walk and drive over is vital to their survival. It’s just something they tread over in high heels, in polished shoes and in expensive sport shoes, in tires or with rails. There is no concept of the natural land but only man-made land. We float over it on man-made surfaces and never touch it anymore.
Chicago was once a small town, but to find natural patches of ground never touched by the developer is quite a challenge.