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THE CENSUS: From the Country & the City

3 minute read

Many a small U.S. farm town—big enough for a post office or a bank branch but too small for a movie house or a department store—is dying. All over the U.S., judging by new census figures last week, little towns with names like What Cheer, St. Elmo, and Honey Grove are slowly withering.

Shannon City, Iowa, for example, has lost 119 of its 288 inhabitants. Ernest L. Edwards, who runs the general store, can remember when three blocks in town had 23 children; now the same houses have only about a dozen widows. Said an oldster: “None of the kids ever comes back here to live after they’ve gone away to school.” Perry Wilson, editor of the town’s newspaper, died, and the paper died with him. John Butt, 82-year-old ex-mayor, lives alone on the edge of town since his wife died. His three sons are working in Detroit.

Up the graveled hill on Main Street, the foundations of the old movie house are overgrown with weeds. Nobody ever builds a house any more. “Every time a house burns down, it’s just gone.” Said Clair Dunlap, president of the school board: “I can remember when almost everybody hired a man to work the farm. Now you pick corn by machine. The men have to go somewhere else for work.” In front of Edwards’ store, four teen-agers complained: “Nothing to do here—just a square dance once a month.”

Rocking Along. Mart, Tex., a cotton and corn town near Waco, has lost 583 of its 2,856 citizens since 1940. “We’ve all grown older and content to be that way,” said one town father. “We have as many heads of families as we ever had, but the families now consist of one or two old people.” Eight out of ten of Mart’s high-school boys go on to college each year; Mart has few jobs for college graduates. For recreation, the youngsters drive 18 miles into Waco. Said J. H. Rogers, local car dealer: “We just rock along. Sometimes we have two, three good days and then it will be quiet. Business isn’t bad, but then it isn’t going to get any better.”

But if the smallest towns are dying, the biggest are none too healthy. Big-city growth has lost momentum. To the chagrin of boosters, city after city is learning that it is not as big as it thought. New York, Washington, Los Angeles and Cleveland have fallen far short of their proud expectations. Lowell, Mass, and Salt Lake City have indignantly demanded recounts.

The 1950 Town. Where are the people? In 1950, it seems that the U.S. wants to live, not in a big city, but near it. All over the nation, people fleeing the city’s crowds and taxes, people fleeing the country’s torpor and low wages, have settled in the suburbs. The growing town of 1950 is the bedroom town.

Kansas City’s suburbs have almost doubled since 1940. Denver has gained 28%, but three surrounding counties have jumped 61% to 80%. Chicago’s suburbs have increased 32% to the city’s 7%. Even burgeoning Los Angeles, with an increase of 27%, is outdistanced by a growth of 100% in outlying towns like Arcadia and Burbank.

Population-wise, the city of the future may be little more than a glorified workroom, railroad station and parking lot—crowded by day, empty and echoing by night. Around the hollow center, circle on concentric circle, would lie the teeming suburbs. Beyond them, only the open farm land and the lonely lights of farmhouses, sprouting television antennas.

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