[Paleopsych] NYT Op-Ed: Empty House on the Prairie

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Fri Apr 15 14:00:32 UTC 2005

Empty House on the Prairie



     IF you and your family would like to move to Crosby, N.D., not only
     will the town give you a free plot of land on which to build your
     house, they'll also throw in a free membership to the Crosby Country

     If you and your family would like to move to Ellsworth, Kan., not only
     will the town give you free land, they'll also give you thousands of
     dollars toward a down payment on the house you build if you have
     children who will attend the public school.

     If you and your family would like to move to Plainville, Kan., not
     only will the town give you free land, they will also drastically
     reduce the property tax on your house for 10 years, and the first-year
     tax rate will be zero percent.

     The logical question, upon hearing all of this, is the one I presented
     to Plainville's mayor, Glenn Sears:

     What's the catch?

     Mr. Sears paused for a good seven seconds before answering, as if the
     question itself did not make sense. Then he said, "There is no catch."

     But there is a requirement: that you pack up your life as you now know
     it, and start again in Crosby (population 1,100) or Ellsworth
     (population 2,500) or Plainville (population 2,000). The free-land
     offer is the result of one of the most significant American stories of
     the last century, one that has received sporadic attention because it
     has unfolded so gradually: the inexorable population flow out of rural
     areas, toward larger cities.

     The tiny towns in the Great Plains and upper Midwest don't want to
     die. They are trying to keep their young people from departing, to
     beckon home those who have left, and - more and more - to think of
     ways to entice outsiders to come and build and stay. Thus, proposed
     tax breaks in Iowa; loans in Nebraska; land giveaways in Kansas and

     And although word of these lures is getting out, no one truly knows
     whether any of it will work. In northwestern North Dakota, they think
     there is no option but to try: Steve Slocum, of the area's development
     alliance, said, "You don't get any pheasants if you don't shoot your

     There may be an inherent problem in the approach: when something is
     free, it appears to have no value. Playing hard to get has long been
     more effective than throwing yourself at someone. The jaded big-city
     negotiating line is: "Desperation is the worst cologne."

     They're not buying that in the towns giving away the land. When I
     suggested that the towns might do better by taking the opposite
     psychological direction - charging hefty initiation fees for the
     pleasure of living in a quiet, safe, low-stress environment - Anita
     Hoffhines, head of the effort in Ellsworth County, said, "We've tried
     coy long enough."

     Yet there does seem to be a danger that, by all but begging outsiders
     to come, the rural communities will send a false and counterproductive
     message: that small-town life is so undesirable that the only way to
     keep people is to chain them down (or bribe them). It might be better
     to explain to the world exactly why a placid way of life is preferable
     to urban cacophony and chaos - and inform the outsiders that this kind
     of living is so valuable, they're going to have to pay a little extra
     for the privilege of moving in. Make what's inside the tent seem
     irresistible - a lesson that should have been learned on the midways
     of every county fair there ever was.

     Not that the small towns aren't trying to spell out their qualities.
     They're doing it earnestly (Lincoln, Kan.: "The Size of a Dime With
     the Heart of a Dollar"); with a wink (northwestern North Dakota: "We
     have four distinct seasons - three are absolutely beautiful, one is
     very distinct"); with exuberant punctuation (Atwood, Kan.: "Where else
     can you enjoy a cup of coffee at the local cafe, and everyone there is
     your friend?!!!!!").

     In some of these towns, a commute to work is four minutes; crime is
     all but nonexistent; at night you half-believe you can look toward the
     soundless sky and see the outskirts of heaven. And isolation, in our
     age of 500 channels, of easy Internet access and e-mail, does not mean
     the same thing it did to generations past.

     So if the giveaway programs fail to bring about a new land rush, maybe
     it will be no one's fault. The United States is no longer quite so
     young a country; we've been here a while, and nations, like people,
     get set in their ways. If the great urban-rural population divide
     stays the way it is, it may be because we all have chosen to live this
     way, and are not about to change.

     With that in mind, I asked Nita Basgall, the city clerk of Plainville,
     to consider what she would do if the invitation was reversed: if, say,
     New York City were to offer free plots of land in Midtown Manhattan.
     Her response was courteous and it was instant: "No, thank you."

     Bob Greene is the author of "Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the
     North Platte Canteen" and, most recently, "Fraternity: A Journey in
     Search of Five Presidents."

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