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One alternative is to take a lesson from Disney and an army of developers, who are betting fortunes on the idea that everyone from young families to retirees wants to eat in a theme restaurant and live in a Frank Capra set, where the paint never peels and families gather after dinner to play Parcheesi. And so contractors are carving a 430-acre town out of cornfields north of Washington, replete with sidewalks and gazebos and town squares and the transplanted totems of an easier age. The deep American nostalgia for rural life may owe more to fantasy than memory, but it is a theme that has grown more powerful as the pace of change picks up. At a time when the search for Real Life is becoming a marketing tool, when Coors promotes itself as the Last Real Beer and cotton is the Fabric of Our Lives, a lot of towns are realizing themselves, deciding it is easier to restore an evocative Main Street than to build one from scratch.
Eight years ago, Peabody, Kans., had a 30% vacancy rate downtown. Young people fled after high school in search of jobs, the tax base shrank, businesses left, and people had to drive to the next town to buy shoes. An entire building on Main Street sold in 1985 for $425. So town leaders put window shades in the upper stories of all the buildings on Main Street to make it look as if someone lived there, and began marketing the town to tourists and entrepreneurs and a wave of urban refugees.
Now Main Street looks authentically cute, attracting house hunters from Wichita fleeing traffic and gangs and drive-by shootings. At the senior center, the ladies are sewing a memorial quilt made of a late father's old dress shirts. "People from large cities find it charming," says Pam Lamborn, owner of the Jackrabbit Hollow Bookstore, gazing up at a pretty frieze of stylized Kansas sunflowers running across the top of the bowling alley. "But you know what's going to happen? The small towns are going to become the big cities all over again." Already nostalgia may have been oversold in some places. Says a resident of Sedalia, Mo.: "We had so many people putting on a cantata for Easter that we didn't have people to listen to it."
It is worth noting that all this creative energy--people re-engineering their careers, towns rebuilding their Main Streets, churches rethinking their missions--occurs well out of earshot of the nation's capital. Rarely does a town council think that Washington will provide any protection from or solution for its problems, a feeling confirmed by the spectacle of politicians bickering over flood relief and subpoena power. Even if they could get federal or state aid, Americans are wary of the baggage that would inevitably come with it. If you can't help us, goes the message to government, at least stay out of the way.