An Urban's Rural View

Examining the Myth of Main Street

Urban C Lehner
By  Urban C Lehner , Editor Emeritus
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Can the Internet revive small-town America? There's reason to think so -- and we have to hope so, because the mom-and-pop stores and small factories aren't coming back.

That's the thesis of "The Myth of Main Street," a provocative New York Times essay by Cornell University economic historian Louis Hyman, (…).

Hyman rejects the notion that Walmart killed the small-town retail economy. That death, he argues, began eons ago. It started in the 19th century with the growth of national mail-order catalog companies. It accelerated in the 1920s with the rise of chain stores like A & P and Woolworth's. Big conquered little back then for the same reasons it does today, among them economies of scale and ability to buy in bulk.

During the 1930s Depression small retailers were able to convince legislators to pass fair-trade laws limiting price competition. In the 1960s and '70s the legal protection ended. As Hyman puts it, "This world was unsustainable."

Nostalgia for small local businesses is "misplaced and costly," Hyman believes. We can't afford it. The idealized Main Street hangs on in a few boutique college towns or gentrified suburbs, where people have disposable income to spare. For everyone else the prices are too high. Nostalgia, Hyman argues, "raises false hopes, which when dashed fuel anger and despair. President Trump's promises notwithstanding, there is no going back to an economic arrangement whose foundations were so shaky."

Also harmful, he says, is the idea that to reignite small-town economies we must send people back to college or otherwise train them for more modern work, like writing software. This is both impossible and a denial of small-town Americans' existing skills, like speaking English and understanding how to communicate with Americans.

"Many rural Americans, sadly, don't realize how valuable they already are or what opportunities presently exist for them," Hyman says. They can harness the Internet to put these skills to work.

"Through global freelancing platforms like Upwork, for example, rural and small-town Americans can find jobs anywhere in world, using abilities and talents they already have," Hyman writes. "A receptionist can welcome office visitors in San Francisco from her home in New York's Finger Lakes. Through an e-commerce website like Etsy, an Appalachian woodworker can create custom pieces and sell them anywhere in the world."

Is this outlook too rosy? Probably. You have to wonder how much demand there is for telecommuting receptionists and online woodworkers. You have to wonder how much competitive mileage there is in American English. The Internet doesn't just empower Americans. It enables the online woodworker in Bangladesh and the at-home receptionist in India to compete with their counterparts in small-town America.

Still, Hyman has a point about the mom-and-pop stores and small factories. They're not coming back. Hyman may be too optimistic when he says, "Today, for the first time, thanks to the Internet, small-town America can pull back money from Wall Street (and big cities more generally)." But he's right in thinking we have to stop wallowing in nostalgia and look for more creative ways to revive small-town America.



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5/9/2017 | 8:50 PM CDT
Trouble is, the more one makes in small town America, the more miles one will drive to save a penny.
5/8/2017 | 10:43 AM CDT
Thoughtful but true? In this story big is never big enough. Mom and Pop to Sears to Wal-Mart to Amazon to ?? But large housing developments built around fake small towns are all the rage. Starting with Seaside in Fla. Maybe if real small towns creatively market themselves they can compete. Strange how the law of efficiency says we can't afford the real thing but we can't get enough of the new artificial.