Monday, February 14, 2011

A Reluctant Rurality?

I’d been to Grand Ledge several times before this weekend but most often as a patron of the Log Jam, a downtown restaurant with excellent breakfast and brunches.  My aunts and uncle live about 12 miles southwest of Grand Ledge, and when my family visited during summer breaks we’d typically indulge in a Log Jam breakfast.  Technically they live in Charlotte, but my aunts and uncle repeatedly assert that they would much rather have their address be Grand Ledge.  They claim that Grand Ledge has more going on than Charlotte, and according to the Grand Ledge citizens we met with today, they are not alone in that sentiment.

It makes sense that the Mayor of Grand Ledge Kalmin Smith and his wife Marcia are enthusiastically pro-Grand Ledge.  They are self-proclaimed Grand Ledge residents “by design,” meaning they intentionally relocated to Grand Ledge after having chosen it as their ideal small town.  A focus group of women from Grand Ledge concur with this image of their town as an ideal—citing the Grand Ledge community as safe, supportive, active, and aesthetically beautiful.  Interestingly, these are exactly the same attributes interviewees in a rural Norwegian town list as reasons they chose to live in their town.  More interestingly, neither of these groups of citizens labels their communities as rural, opting instead to identify themselves as small towns.  In the case of Grand Ledge, the focus group seemed to maintain that this clarification is extremely important. 

Why is this small town label so significant?  Why is it so important for these communities to identify themselves as something besides rural?  The traits catalogued as positive attributes of small town life by the communities are traits that some would classify as benefits to living in a rural setting.  For example, many of the focus group participants praised the beauty of their Grand Ledge community, specifically the beauty of the town’s parks, riverside property, and namesake rock ledges.  To be sure, urban sites may be described as beautiful as well, but the areas indicated by the Grand Ledge citizens are generally those that only a rural community could enjoy as separate from urban structure and context. (I must note here that another similarity should be drawn here between the Grand Ledge focus group and those Norwegian interviewees—the focus group was composed entirely of women, and it was the female interviewees who concentrated on the aesthetic components of their own settings.  It could prove interesting to have a range of citizens rank a series of attributes according to matter of preference and see if aesthetic appeal is considered more important among women than men when deciding where to settle.) 

Both the GL mayor and the focus group repeatedly noted the strong sense of support, how the community is extremely friendly with one another as well as strangers, and how tightly connected the community is.  This is exactly the attitude of community I would apply to rurality, except I’m also aware of how exclusive these communities can be of initial “outsiders” until the “outsiders” prove their right to belong.  (When I was five, my family moved to a rural farmette; although the new house was but a few miles from our old residence, the “neighborhood” had consisted of the same families for generations, and our alien presence was keenly felt and demonstrated through obvious concentrated efforts by our neighbors to avoid acknowledging us when passing on the road.  This continued for several years, until the road gradually became more developed and suddenly we were no longer the newcomers.)  The mayor suggested that perhaps in Grand Ledge this hostility manifested itself in the political arenas between the “good old boys” and the newcomers, but that when it came to civic engagement and neighborly relations Grand Ledge citizens tend to ignore the insider-outsider construction and allow genuine interest to rule community interactions.  

When attaching the descriptor “safe” to their community, the GL focus group repeatedly compared the town to the nearby urban area of Lansing, declaring that the smallness and closeness of Grand Ledge encouraged neighbors to entrust house keys with one another while out of town—a behavior these same citizens wouldn’t dare engage in should they live in a city like Lansing instead.  This smallness and closeness becomes central descriptors, as these same women went on to relate stories of how life today in more isolated, specifically rural communities (in which, again, Grand Ledge did not qualify) does not involve this level of trust and camaraderie.  While a rural resident might consider a household over two miles away her “neighbor,” the spatial isolation restricts her from trusting in this neighbor in the same way a Grand Ledge citizen trusts the neighbors on her street.  This level of proximity changes a community from a rural community to a small town community.  People in Grand Ledge itself choose to live there for the companionship and the social cohesion, whereas people in rural places might choose to live there in order to be left alone.

The “active” descriptor for Grand Ledge is rooted in the town’s affinity for festivals, parades, programs, etc.  These events are inevitably ways to draw the community together but also serve to lure outsiders (non-Grand Ledge residents, whether far or near) to the town for special occasions.  This descriptor alone seems to embody the “small-townness” (as opposed to “ruralness”) the focus group seemed so intent on attaching to Grand Ledge, especially since these festivals, parades, and programs seemed to have just as much to do with boosting the town’s economy as they did with boosting the town’s community spirit. 

It feels as if Grand Ledge serves as an example of the ever-blurring lines between rural and urban.  The town sits outside of the political urban boundaries of Lansing, but its citizens still see the town as more urban than those truly rural areas lying outside of Grand Ledge’s political peri-urban boundaries.  The scale of rurality continues to go undefined, with the descriptor “rural” being attached and reattached to those spaces further along the rural-urban continuum.  In other words, there is always some place more rural, as if “being rural” is admitting to some sense of backwoods, countrified existence.  We came to Grand Ledge this weekend to find out how a rural community defined and identified itself: it turned out that this rural community denied being as such.  It might prove that the rural-urban division is even muddier than expected, or it might prove a certain stigma attached with the term “rural,” but it definitely proves that to understand rurality we will have to examine multiple interpretations and constructs as to what exactly “being rural” means.

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