Small-town America is vanishing -- or not, depending on circumstances peculiar to certain places and more complex than one might think. While towns in the Great Plains continue to shrink or even disappear, elsewhere the death knell may be premature.
In Georgia, the state transportation department decided to drop 519 hamlets from official state maps because they were too cluttered for a traveler to read. Yet one of those "disappeared" places has just bought six new street signs, and others' complaints have prodded the state to reconsider wiping them off the map.
In Arizona, one of this country's fastest-growing states, developers are poised to break ground in a now-empty area west of Phoenix, envisioning a population of 1 million people within a generation.
And in a small Kansas town whose population has roughly halved from a peak of 800, a young couple have converted an abandoned gas station into a corner grocery, sparing residents the need to drive 20 miles to buy food or almost anything else. Whether the store will survive is not clear.
What's going on here? As always, Americans are adapting to demographic and economic change in ways that defy easy prediction. Young people still flee remote small towns for the city, often never to return except for occasional visits. Yet retirees are moving to some of those places in search of fresh air and affordable housing.
On the fringe of major metropolitan regions, by contrast, onetime country villages have mushroomed into suburbs. Been to Elk Grove lately? And some remote places have been given a boost -- not without conflict in some cases -- by the arrival of wealthy urbanites in search of space and beauty. Montanans could tell you about that.
Another trend, described by New York Times columnist David Brooks, is the gradual transformation of some forlorn suburbs into urban villages with most urban amenities -- pointing, one must hope, to at least some relief for commuters. And in Stapleton, Colo., near Denver, Brooks notes, there are $120,000 homes on the same block as $1 million mansions, a trend he calls "not anti-suburbia" but "go-go surprise growing up."
Conversion of suburbs into cities is a hopeful sign that, unfortunately, doesn't solve the problems of bypassed places such as Poetry Tulip, Ga., or White City, Kan. But the revolution in communications technology and the ingenuity of Americans ever in search of opportunity keep alive the hope that, if you don't mind the hard weather, even the remotest places can be made livable and lived-in.