By James M. Decker
Last week, I wrote about swimming pools as unifying public spaces. Our rural communities don’t have a large number of spaces that are truly public — open to anyone and everyone — and truly unifying, placing everyone on the same level. But why does that matter?
Whether we like to admit it or not, our communities have divisions and fissures. Sometimes, these divisions are very apparent and raw. They might stem from issues like racial tensions, political decisions by local leaders, controversy at the school, or a significant criminal incident. One community becomes multiple communities, living separately within the same city. Those divisions might heal, but it might take years. Maybe the division was decades ago, but it has never fully healed.
Other times, these divisions are more latent, but still present. There are haves and have nots in our communities. There are cliques who hang out socially and don’t necessarily look down on the rest of the town, but they sure aren’t inviting those other people to their parties. There are ethnic divisions, church denominations, and the list goes on. When you interact socially with people, are they always people from “your“ group? These are the divisions that we all experience but probably don’t consider very often. They probably get awkward to think about. Maybe you feel awkward right now. Good, because I do.
I don’t write this to make anyone feel bad. I write this so we can ALL improve. My passion in life is revitalizing Stamford and seeing other rural communities have the same experience. But we should be honest about these latent divisions, so that when our community DOES take off, people don’t get left behind. If Stamford prospers and the population grows, but only part of the town benefits, have we really succeeded as a community?
There have been several news stories written about this very thing in Marfa, Texas. Over the last few decades, Marfa has boomed as a tourist town and artist haven in Far West Texas. A town smaller than Stamford has a downtown full of art galleries. It hosts fun and interesting cultural events. It receives tourists from all over the world. It has several famous hotels that are destinations in themselves. And the population has....declined.
As Marfa has turned into a world renowned destination, out of towners have scooped up houses for second homes. Affordable housing is nonexistent. Property values have skyrocketed and as a consequence, so have property taxes. The native Marfans are suddenly being hammered by property taxes because their place is more popular. County judge Paul Hunt told the San Antonio Express News, “the people with relatives in the cemetery are getting squeezed.” To make matters worse, school enrollment is dropping too. Lower-class families have moved out, due to the cost of living, and the new property owners from out of town? They just visit and vacation, they don’t move their families to town.
Marfa is a rather extreme example of the perils of “growth,” but I see this in suburban sprawl all around DFW. Formerly quaint rural towns are now booming suburbs. I wonder, is everyone better off? How many in the community are struggling with cost of living increases? How many are faring the same, but aren’t any better off, when others in the community are prospering?
A rising tide lifts all boats. But as rural leaders strive for growth, they should make sure the rising tide doesn’t drown some of the bystanders.
How often do you think about the latent divisions in your community? What community tools can we use to unify our people? As you strive for growth and community improvement, will it help the have nots, as well as the haves? If we revitalize our communities but don’t improve the lives of everyone in town, what have we really accomplished?
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James Decker is a lawyer, farmer, and mayor in Stamford, Texas, and the creator of the forthcoming “West of 98” podcast and website. He may be contacted through Facebook at facebook.com/james.decker. Listen to our podcast interview with James here.