Small Business Decline Over Generations

Drive across America, through small towns. Some are ghost towns, others barely hanging by a thread. You will drive past factories, mills, silos, trains, rails rusting and homes abandoned, vandalized, collapsing. They make for great photos as I like to do. Haunted, melancholy images of times gone by, simpler lives of communities and families once closely bonded and privacy we no longer dream of.

Lots of Americans are proud that they “come from” small towns. “Came from” is the operative here. There’s a reason that so many people come from small towns.

We have watched the decline of small towns not over the past few years but over generations. It may not be you that came from a small town but your parents or grandparents.

Most of that decline can be directly attributed to two things. The rise of corporations and NAFTA.

In the 60’s, your grandparents may have lived in a small town. Your grandfather may have frequented a local diner where he could walk in and the waitress knew him by name, along with what he always ordered. He could sit by himself at the table by the kitchen door where the owner would wander out and talk to the customers, catch up on how their lives were going. Your grandfather may have met his neighbors like the farmer down the road as they read the paper and talked about the news and the community.

The diner was your first job, busing tables. Your friends from school would come by and order a soda or milkshake. The owner turned his back for a while as you talked to your friends before gruffly telling you to do your work. Not because there was that much work but to instill a work ethic in you. Then turn around and grumble with a half smile about “Damn kids nowadays” with the old man who would nod and agree.

In the 80’s, the local diner was gone, replaced by a national breakfast chain. Walk in the door not to your name but, “Just one? You’ll have to sit at the counter.” At least you have a waitress. The local farmer had his farm taken by the bank. You used to meet with a friend from the plant until the plant downsized. He moved to the city because there was no work in town for a living wage. You read your paper and drink coffee a while. Then the manger talks quietly to the waitress for a moment. Your coffee is cold, cup is not being refilled. Powdered creamer costs money. She was instructed to clear her counter customers so the next nameless customer could sit down. Your son works at the diner busing tables. He isn’t allowed to visit with friends at work.

In a flash it’s 2007. The breakfast place is gone, driven under by a fast food place. You stand in line, handed a number for your order. The few tables are dirty, you don’t want to sit. Your son moved away years ago. Your grandson works at a fast food place in the city to help pay the bills for the family. The plant closed down around 1990. The shops on the main drag are vacant. The town consists of a couple of fast food joints, a skeleton of a high school and a gas station. You’ve had your house up for sale to move closer to your children. No offers in two years. The real estate boom never made it to your town. Your pension was gone when the company raided the fund, then declared bankruptcy. You can afford a small place on the outskirts of the city if your stocks continue to hold.

It’s 2019. The gas station went bust. One fast food place pulled out, the other barely survives on people driving through to other places. Most of the old buildings are gone, main street is a flat expanse of old foundations. The plant rusts on the edge of town, overgrown with weeds. Your retirement account went dry in the 2008 crash, followed by your savings. The house never sold. At least the property taxes are low, since there’s no town council remaining and property values barely exist. Your grandson is grown but has to live at home with your son, too deep in debt from student loans and no job prospects for his degree. Your son is thankful, it helps pay the bills. No chance you can afford rent in the city on a fixed income. You look down the street and think back on the friends who moved away so very long ago. You stand in line at the remaining fast food place. The kid behind the counter gives you a vacant look as they take your order from the value menu. They can’t see a future, let alone a present. You half smile and grumble to an old man you don’t recognize, “Damn kids nowadays.” He nods and agrees.

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