Elevate Difference

Habits of the Heartland: Small-Town Life in Modern America

I am really worried about Viroqua, Wisconsin. Not because Lyn C. Macgregor made it the subject of a two-year community study, which she writes about in Habits of the Heartland, but because in a footnote on page forty-eight she mentions that the Utne Reader had an article about the town as a good place to live. In the age of the Internet, attractive places to live do not stay secret long. Combined with the commodification of lifestyle, the publicity can change the character of a locality. I date the demise of my own Williamsburg neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, to gentrification from a recommendation of that same publication that it was a hip place to live. Good luck, Viroqua!

Like the majority of United States residents, I do not live in the country or a small rural town—and my experience with small towns was the romance of “going to town” while vacationing on my grandparents' farm in Jasper County, Illinois. The names of nearby towns—Oblong, Robinson, Paris—recall adventure and mysteries of the beyond—that famous cities do not conjure up.

In Habits of the Heartland, Macgregor jumps right in to address a common claim about small town life, that everyone knows your business. Well, she says, it's true. The clerk at the optician's knew that she had been pulled over for not having a current registration ticket on her plate. It turned out that the clerk was also a member of the ambulance squad and had heard about the incident on the police scanner.

Macgregor reveals her sociological findings right away. She sees not just one but three social groups in Viroqua: the Alternatives, anchored by a Waldorf school; the Main Streeters, active in preservation of the buildings on Main Street and in mitigating the effects of a Wal-Mart on its businesses; and the Regulars, who just want to live there. She introduces these subgroups by recounting how each of them celebrate Halloween, a vibrant explication of their different folkways and values. She then devotes a chapter to each of these groups and concludes Part I with her view of their interactions. In Part II, she slices her research a different way, in terms of civic engagement, retailing, and consumption. Esoteric but still readable comments about her methodology and the place of her study in the sociology of small towns are relegated to an appendix at the end of the book.

Why does an ordinary reader crack open a sociology book? For me, sociology casts a cool eye on one's life lived with others. Macgregor's glance is kind and her accounts gleam with lived experience. She refers to Herbert Gans's Urban Villagers in her appendix. Reading Gans as a young woman, I discovered some of my Italian-American father's quirks were not unique to him but were common in the immigrant Italian communities who settled in the United States.

Macgregor's work, too, gave me an insight about my own counterculture politics. Her argument that people think very differently about community and whether and how it can be made. The vulnerability in this alternative, outside-the-system politics is the potential for isolation from the larger society. Active in a community-supported agriculture group—Viroqua, like Brooklyn, has a lot of them—I bristle when people call this foods movement elitist. Macgregor’s comment, “The Alternatives were proud of all they had accomplished in Viroqua, and this pride made them feel that their deliberately made community was distinctly superior to other organizations and people in town,” stopped me cold. Even alternative communities become just another “gated community” unless they are open to the outside world. Not bad for a book about one small town.

Written by: Frances Chapman, July 17th 2010