evergreen vermont via heavy.com

Hallmark Urbanism and the Future of Small Town America

There is only one road in and out of Evergreen, Vermont. The surrounding geography of the town is tenuous and avalanche-prone, but its downtown is pleasant, walkable, and thriving. Evergreen was once a noteworthy manufacturing town, known as a maker of hats. The factory and warehouse have long since shuttered, and yet somehow, to this day, Evergreen is a continuing success story, an anomaly among dozens of other small American towns that became destitute and depopulated in the post-industrial era. This could be due in part to its unique location and historical charm. Or to the Evergreen Express, a direct-route regional rail line that connects the town to Boston. And it almost certainly has to do with the fact that the town of Evergreen does not exist.

The fictional town of Evergreen is the setting for the Hallmark Channel’s “Christmas in Evergreen” trilogy. Hallmark’s lineup of Christmas movies, which number in the hundreds and have become ubiquitous in American living rooms in recent years (it’s the #1 cable network among women aged 25–54), often showcase people and towns that seem better suited to a snow globe than a census form. “In Hallmark films,” wrote Sarah Larson in The New Yorker, “townspeople care for one another, run viable small businesses, and compete in gingerbread bake-offs—America as we might wish it were, and as some believe it once was.” 

Evergreen is something of a template for other towns in the Hallmark universe: off-the-beaten-path hamlets that are not suburbs or even exurbs, appear not to rely heavily on tourism or any hospitality industry of note, and, most important, are self-sustaining, closed systems supported by a racially diverse and demographically varied tax base. In fact, the sheer economics of making a profit don’t appear to be of concern to anyone. Things like industry, maintenance, population, zoning, cost of living, system of government, and other critical facets of a town’s infrastructure are all kept deliberately vague. Granted, it’s foolish to think such considerations would ever be taken into account. And why would they?

Suppose for a moment that Hallmark opted to base one of these towns on something closer to home. If one were to step back and take in a broader look, they would discover FOR RENT and CLOSED signs adorning more than a few padlocked doors, the sun-bleached ghosts of old letters above an empty storefront, maybe a Dollar General, and a greasy spoon clinging to life as evidenced by the weathered “Like Us on Facebook” sign in the window. That, to a large extent, is what Main Streets in small town America have become in the last three decades. For Hallmark’s dream-makers, though, the mere façade of Main Street dynamism suffices as a backdrop to these (sometimes) enjoyable but otherwise shallow depictions of small town life.

There was a time, of course, when small towns and cities forged their success and growth on a specialized skill set and niche products. (Think Edison Electric in Schenectady, New York, or the Pullman Car Company on Chicago’s South Side.) Sometimes geographic (and geologic) conditions were a contributing factor, but more often than not it was happenstance, the result of being the right place at the right time. The once-bustling small towns of yore functioned, as Paul Krugman wrote, “as central places serving a mainly rural population engaged in agriculture and other natural resource-based activities.” In other words, small towns were enabled to thrive in abundance because resources were spread out, distribution was localized, and larger cities had yet to become megalopolises. 

As de-industrialization took hold in the 1970s and ’80s, and the gradual decline of U.S. manufacturing eventually kneecapped many prominent small cities in the form of plant closings (Bethlehem Steel in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and Chrysler in Kenosha, Wisconsin, being just two cautionary tales), those towns quickly lost their economic luster. And when New Deal policies were largely discarded in the 1990s and, consequently, agricultural production became consolidated and devalued, the industry at large could no longer support sizable rural populations. 

Some of those towns have managed to pivot and evolve (Rochester, New York); others have leaned heavily on regional colleges (Kalamazoo, Michigan, and Pikeville, Kentucky); and a few outliers of note got lucky and leveraged the energy boom of the 2010s, for better or worse, to make industry once more a driving economic force in nonmetropolitan areas. But those exceptions don’t provide adequate counterweight to this simple fact: nonmetropolitan areas in the U.S. are whiter, older, and shrinking.

Suspension of disbelief notwithstanding, I’ve seen no evidence that the fictional towns like Grandon Falls or Angel Falls or Homestead or Santaville are “central places” for agriculture, manufacturing, distribution, energy, STEM or otherwise. So what are they, exactly? College towns? Probably not. Destinations for displaced immigrant groups? Definitely not. But they are isolated and small, and the only niche function they appear to serve is the perpetuation of Christmas spirit, I guess. So what happens to Evergreen come January? Do the townsfolk resume their routines of commuting long distances to the nearest hinterland where some mill or plant or distribution center can actually support a workforce larger than five? Or does the whole thing just recede into the fog like Brigadoon?

It’s easy to be dismissive of this kind of fantastical storytelling, but interestingly enough, Hallmark might be inadvertently on to something. The Covid-19 pandemic might be the catalyst for the kind of coastal flight, if you will, that demographers and climate experts have been predicting for years. While the alleged broader shift of people leaving cities in droves was attributed to the pandemic as early as last May, there is compelling data indicating most of those departures were temporary, and, thus, rumors of the death of cities were premature. 

The pandemic is indeed a sea change event, but Covid-19 alone did not and will not trigger an exodus from cities and, consequently, a renaissance for small town America. But go ahead and complicate that with the increasing frequency of extreme climate events striking coastal, densely populated areas, and then, yes, displacement and projected migration patterns brought on by climate change could very well spur such a renaissance.

If the synergistic nightmare that is climate change and Covid-19 can in fact help rewrite the future of small town America for the better, the burden of adaptability will be on local officials. Such leaders will be obliged to ensure that zoning and housing policies are equitable, that density and walkability are prioritized, and that local credit unions are engaging in fair practices. But then, not every small town with delusions of revival can be a draw; there needs to be some basic infrastructure in place. As former North Dakota State Senator Tyler Axness wrote in an article on the decline of small town Main Street, “What good is ‘walkability’ if you don’t have a grocery store or other business to walk to?”

So what kind of chance do small towns have to thrive in a post-Covid world when so many have been unable to stay viable in the post-industrial world? Having a specialized labor pool is no longer a prerequisite for relevance because we are now living in the work-from-anywhere age. Long after the arrival of a vaccine, millions of professionals will continue to connect virtually and perform key job functions from wherever they please, whether that’s the kitchen table, a rented office in town, or something in between. All of this in no way comprises a recipe for small town success; historical contingency still applies, and small towns will always have to wage uphill battles to stay relevant, not to mention commercially viable. But now, the digital nomad class is growing at an exponential rate because businesses are wising up and taking a “Talent First, Geography Second” approach to hiring and staffing. 

It would thus seem there is enormous potential for a few visionary and (let’s face it) lucky small towns to write their own script and—perhaps for the first time ever—build out distinct communities that are modest, prosperous, regenerative, diverse, and self-sustaining, all without relying on a singular industry or manufacturing base to prop them up and attract taxpayers. It is a strange brew of prognosticating to imagine that from such chaos some version of Hallmark’s Evergreen could become an actual functioning town somewhere, but the ingredients are all there. Through the convergence of a global health pandemic, a global climate crisis, and a global marketplace gone virtual, the prospect of community rebuilding on a smaller, in-land scale seems inevitable.

Featured image of “Evergreen, Vermont” via Heavy.com.



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