Learning from Carrington

This is an entry by guest author Marcel LaFlamme, a graduate student in the Department of Anthropology at Rice University, who is currently conducting fieldwork in North Dakota.

Those of us who care about rural America must face facts. The economic and technological conditions that gave rise to the small Midwestern town are gone. The distance that a horse can travel in a day or a locomotive can travel without taking on more water is no longer what drives settlement patterns. And our current system of capital-, chemical-, and intellectual property-intensive agriculture does little to support the small communities that grew up around an earlier, more labor-intensive set of farming practices.

Of course, other spatial forms have transcended the circumstances of their origin, and there’s no reason to think that small towns can’t find new niches: as cradles of entrepreneurship, as bedroom, retirement, and resort communities, as anchors of regional food systems and distributed energy production. But doing so will require new structures of governance and new practices of scale-making that decenter the municipality as the locus of belonging. This is about identity as much as economics, about the “we” that rural people understand themselves to be a part of. When you grow up, as I did, believing that the next town over is populated by, well, a different sort of people, then it’s difficult to embrace the idea that your destinies are intertwined.

The other day, I took a ride out to Carrington, North Dakota, a town of about 2500 people halfway between Fargo and Bismarck. In other parts of the world, Carrington would barely qualify as a blip on the radar, but in rural North Dakota it’s a service center; the pasta plant east of town employs some 300 people, and the Chevy dealership on First Street has a lot full of gleaming vehicles. I made the trip to Carrington because a colleague had told me that the town takes an unusual view of its relationship with surrounding communities. Since 2002, Carrington has sent more than $250,000 in sales tax revenue to the even smaller towns around it. Grace City, population 63; McHenry, population 56; Woodworth, population 50; each has received a check from the Carrington Job Development Authority to shore up a local business or to ensure that basic services remain in place.

Unassuming, a little frumpy, Mayor Don Frye could have stepped off the set of NBC’s Parks and Recreation. But Carrington’s mayor is a small-town visionary; after declining to run for a third term, he was re-elected as a write-in candidate with 85% of the vote. In September, he’ll become president of the North Dakota League of Cities. When I asked Frye to explain the rationale behind Carrington’s sales tax scheme, his answer was twofold. “Number one,” he explained, “those people help generate that money, they buy things here, they get services here.” But, he went on, “the other side of it was, if they don’t survive, we don’t survive.”

Frye gave me the example of Bowdon, a town thirty miles west of Carrington in neighboring Wells County. When the owner of Bowdon’s grocery store suddenly died of a heart attack, the community feared that the store would close for good. Even though Carrington is the seat of a different county, it sent $5,000 to purchase new equipment for the store, which today operates as a community-owned cooperative. Frye recalls that, within six months, two farmers from Bowdon had come down to Carrington and bought new tractors at the implement dealers on Highway 281. There’s no sales tax on machinery in North Dakota, but at $250,000 apiece, the indirect impact of those purchases repaid Carrington’s investment in Bowdon and then some.

There’s plenty of talk about regionalism in rural circles; just last year, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs described regional development in the Midwest as a new imperative, while the Rural Policy Research Institute put out a fine white paper on regional collaboration. Still, it’s important to understand that towns like Carrington are still the exception that proves the rule. When I worked at a rural community college in southeast Kansas, I saw prodigious amounts of time and effort spent trying to poach ten or twenty students from other rural campuses. I saw an old rivalry stymie efforts to do cooperative purchasing with another institution in the same county, and I saw the question of consolidation turned into a kind of moral litmus test for candidates interviewing for the college’s presidency.

All of this is what Mayor Frye calls the logic of “mine, mine, mine.” Which isn’t to deny that interdependence comes along with its own set of challenges, or that it’s easy to mesh place-bound rural identities with an intangible, regional “we.” But what Carrington offers is another tool in the regional policy toolkit, as well as an ethic of regional collaboration rooted in the vernacular experience of neighborliness. Plurale tantum, irreducible plurality: there are different ways of structuring regional engagement, just as there are different ways of being neighborly. But what undergirds these efforts is a repudiation of empire-building and a shared commitment to keeping the lights on, to keeping people on the land, to maintaining a way of life.

One final provocation, in the spirit of plurale tantum. You could scale these remarks up, of course, to apply to rural-urban linkages or collaboration within metro regions. But I want to challenge the readers of this blog to engage with the case of Carrington in all its rural particularism. My dear urbanist friends, does your celebration of plurality in spatial practice apply to nonurban forms as well? Is it only urbanism that must be pluralized, or can we speak of plural and hybrid modes of habitation? I don’t write about rural America because I hate cities; I love cities, but so often I feel alienated by the triumphalism of urbanist discourse, the implication that other spatial forms were just speedbumps on the way to the perfection of the dense urban core. That’s not pluralism, that’s provincialism. I am longing for a language to understand and pay tribute to the places that we love without suggesting that those who live otherwise are mistaken.