In slightly more than a year, Indiana will celebrate its bicentennial with fireworks, parades and plenty of speeches in small towns across the state that are quickly emptying and nearly forgotten as a generation or two rushes to fill up larger cities and their adjacent suburbs.
While Indianapolis, Fort Wayne, Evansville and South Bend continue to expand with the refugees from rural life, I’ve witnessed a more simple way of life in small towns during a project to photograph each county courthouse and courthouse square, as well as important historic buildings that may soon be lost to history.
During these trips on quiet county roads, it has become apparent that Indiana’s network of hamlets, villages and small towns are among the state’s greatest assets. It doesn’t take many visits to a mom-and-pop store, touring a small manufacturing company or spending time on a family’s front porch drinking a cold ice tea on a warm summer night to realize the potential future of our state’s economic strength may be hidden — far away from the big cities, suburbs and interstates.
That potential lies deep in the small and rural communities that dot the Hoosier landscape. While it might appear as though the “small Midwestern town” way of life is dying, as many economists, politicians and writers have suggested, it only takes a short visit to these communities to discover they offer the seeds for renewal — both personal and economic.
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In fact, “Regional Cities, Small Towns and Rural Places: Policy Issues for Indiana,” a recent study by Ball State’s Center for Business and Economic Research, found that Indiana would boost economic growth by crafting policies to strengthen key regional cities and nearby suburban communities — often a driving distance of less than one hour — attracting new businesses and households. But consider that just down the road from the outlying suburbs and communities are the smaller hamlets, offering a quiet way of life far.
Every time I visit one of these idyllic Midwestern small towns, I come upon what I believe to be the very future of our state. Residents within these communities, locations often consisting of less than 2,500 people, live within walking distances to each other, the grocery store and other services. These communities have tremendous pride in good roads, clean sidewalks and high academic achievements by students in local schools. Each community is filled with a workforce eager for new opportunities.
One hundred years ago, Col. Richard Lieber convinced state officials to create a park system as a birthday gift for Indiana’s centennial, in part to honor the rich natural heritage of our forests, lakes and streams, while providing access for the public. The horrors of the urban industrial revolution spurred a nationwide commitment to protecting natural habitats in local, state and national parks.
Next year marks Indiana’s bicentennial, and it may be time to embrace small-town life. Perhaps we should use this as a chance to pause and reflect on how we live in America. We should look at alternative living arrangements that better fit within the limitations of the environment, energy and our pocket books. If not, we can always look back at my photos of life as it was once — quieter, slower and more peaceful — but still lost to history.
Chris Flook, a telecommunications professor at Ball State University, is traveling across the Indiana to create The Soul of Indiana’s Communities — Small Towns, is a comprehensive photographic survey of the historic neighborhoods and ‘downtown districts’ of Indiana’s crossroads, hamlets, villages and small towns photographic survey. The Indiana Humanities, the National Endowment for the Humanities and Ball State are funding the project.