Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Will rural attachment to place in the midwest stick in the face of Iowa's changing demographic?

A story in yesterday's New York Times is a fine illustration of rural attachment to place, even at the household level. Journalist Susan Saulny writes about Chelsea, Iowa, which considered moving the town to higher ground following the 1993 flood. In the end, just a few homeowners took advantage of the federal aid offered for relocation and buyouts.

Here's an excerpt from Saulny's story:

Now here is Chelsea again, under about six feet of water at the lowest point, second-guessing everything but also staunchly defending its right to exist exactly where it wants to.

“There were comments made at the time, ‘Why would anybody want to live there?’ ” Mayor Roger Ochs said of the last flood. “ ‘Why would anybody stay there?’ Well, this town is safe and quiet. Many had lived in their houses for years. Most people in town preferred to stay where they were.”

* * *

“Most of the time in ’93, you could walk anywhere in hip boots,” Mr. Ochs said. “The water, it’s not life threatening here. That’s what I can’t get across to people in the news. Right now, fewer than 10 houses have water in their living quarters. Last night, I mowed my lawn.”

After explaining some details of government programs to assist the residents following the 1993 flood, the story explains that the owners of more than 40 Chelsea homes left, but most stayed, saying "they could not bear another flood, but many more said they would not sacrifice the rich history of their community for the certainty of staying dry in a new, generic place." Residents also noted the confusing information from various agencies regarding what assistance was available.

Saulney does not make this point, but if 40 homeowners moved, that was significant in the context of so small a town, which had only 113 housing units as of the 2000 census. If 40 left after 1993, that represented a quarter of the town.

A bit farther down in the story are details of the neighborly assistance that Chelsea residents got from adjacent communities who "opened their houses and kitchens." Saulny suggests that this generosity obviated the need for the Red Cross shelter and meal station that were on offer. I suppose Saulny is offering this information as a manifestation of the gemeinschaft associated with the rural Midwest. Indeed, such generosity from neighbors surely helps explain residents' attachment to place.

But wait, my visit to the U.S. Census Bureau's American Fact Finder page revealed that almost one third of Chelsea's residents were Hispanic as of the 2000 census. No mention of this is made in Saulny's story, so I guess she doesn't see it as relevant or doesn't know about it. Maybe many of the Hispanics moved to Chelsea in the mid-1990s, following the departure of those 40 households, to fill voids in the local workforce. Indeed, a quick check of Chelsea's population in the 1990 census shows just 12 Hispanics then, a small fraction of the 90 counted in the 2000 Census.

It makes me wonder whether the Hispanic residents of Chelsea experience the gemeinschaft in a way that reflects their integration with the non-Hispanic whites. In other words, are the Hispanics and the non-Hispanic whites part of the same Chelsea "community." I also wonder whether many of the Hispanics are home owners and whether they feel the same attachment to place that long-time residents described in Saulny's story. In other words, will they stay after the 2008 flood?

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