Saturday, July 4, 2015

Is it attachment to land or place that sets rurality apart? or is it grit and determination?

I think that is what Kirk Johnson is suggesting in his "Assignment America" piece on Sandpoint, Idaho, population 7,577.  Johnson contrasts what is happening in Sandpoint--surviving--with the loss of small towns throughout the West.  Indeed, the population growth in Bonner County, Idaho (population 41,585 in 2014 according to Census Bureau estimates) may be the reason Johnson chose to feature it.  Johnson writes:
In the all-important sweepstakes of the West — where are people going, and staying — Bonner County, population 41,000, beat out Denver, Seattle, Silicon Valley and other booming urban hot spots, according to census figures. Only 13 other counties in the West did better last year in the net measure of drawing newcomers and holding on to the ones it had.
Johnson notes that the West has become the most urban part of the nation, in terms of where people live, even as "drought, climate change, and economic instability are all bearing down on rural western life."

As the headline for this blog post suggests something else that grabbed me about Johnson's story  was his analysis of what causes people to stay in Sandpoint--even those who didn't grow up in the area.  He suggests that it is attachment to the land, or perhaps more broadly to "place," and he links that to grit and determination.

Johnson shares several anecdotes--from the 1800s to the present day--of folks who have migrated West and stayed.  After sharing one story of a woman from suburban Connecticut who followed a man to  Kodiak Island, Alaska.  The man was long gone, but the woman had stayed:
[T]he land had grabbed her, and so she stayed — held fast by fate and something still more mysterious. 
The common thread over and over? A bold act of risk. If movement was the tidal surge that filled the West with hopefuls, then the laying down of a wager after that — trying something new rather than moving again — was the illusive force that kept them. And then they kept betting, through losses and long odds that chased others off.
Migration, for some at least, was just a prelude to the grit that really defined them. 
Clearly, this is the story that Johnson wants to tell, and I admit it is an appealing one.  But he also doesn't ignore rural poverty.  
And even among the more isolated or poor, risk-taking endures. Deep in the woods outside Sandpoint, I found the Jennings family in a small house with the bumptious chaos that only small children and loose-running dogs can create. 
He quotes Denise Jennings who, along with her husband Silas, grew up in the area.  They have four children.  They have seen  many relatives move away in search of higher wages, and though both work, together the Jennings earn just about $27K.  Jennings comments:  
Things have gotten tougher.  ... But we’re still here, still trying.
Economists have observed this pattern in small communities: Individual decisions make a difference--and "the smaller the town, the bigger the potential impact."

But Johnson also gives due to the other side of the coin, the forces against the rural West.  He quotes Charles Wilkinson, a law professor at the University of Colorado who observes:   
More water will be going to the cities, [but] People still want the rural West.  That’s what you’re seeing at Sandpoint — they’ll fight to keep it.

1 comment:

Taylor Call said...

I have been to Sandpoint on several occasions and understand the appeal of living there. For many of the residents, it seems that it is only their determination and ingenuity that has allowed them to stay afloat. However, Sandpoint is not a typical rural community. The town is home to Litehouse Dressing and Coldwater Creek as well as a thriving tourism economy. The beauty of Sandpoint has also attracted many newcomers to move there because of the town's beauty and location near ski resorts and Lake Pend Oreille. If the population continues to grow and more money comes into town, the residents that have struggled to survive there might not be able to afford to live there anymore. Additionally, the town could transform into a place that is not as desirable to the residents and the little things that make Sandpoint unique might disappear.

Here is the town's website for anyone who is curious about Sandpoint.