We spend a lot of time here at Infrastructurist discussing big urban centers. We do that for several reasons, high among them that the majority of people (and readers) live in them, and all trends indicate that in the future they will only grow in size and become the predominant way in which human beings live on this planet.
But we are not blind to the fact that much is happening in small, rural communities, and that their way of life is still a major source of American culture. And that the trends occurring in small towns are affecting, in aggregate, millions of Americans.
Take movie theaters. Towns with a single movie house have long been a symbol for closed-minded intolerance and resistance to change, not to mention the inexorable decline of the small-town lifestyle (think of the dusty, dying Anarene, Texas in The Last Picture Show). But despite the seeming-unstoppable rise of home theaters, cable, and Netflix, the local movie theater is enjoying a revival, maintaining its grasp as a powerful place in rural American communities.
As New York Times reports, these theaters are reclaiming their throwback role as vital community centers — the Saturday night destination for teenagers and couples seeking quality time together, as well as the meeting place where locals can discuss farming practices and watch highlights from the high school football game.
To Tim Kennedy, a professor of landscape architecture who has traveled across the state to survey little theaters for a book, the communal will of rural towns that keep theaters going represents “buildings as social capital,” forged “outside the franchise cinemas and their ubiquitous presence at the malls.”
Of the 31 operating historic theaters identified by Mr. Kennedy, 19 are community-run, little changed from the days when itinerant projectionists packed their automobile trunks with reels of film and hit the road. Many retain the upstairs soundproof “cry rooms” for fussy babies.
While these theaters aren’t tipping Hollywood box office numbers, they are providing focal points for thousands of people who choose to make their homes in small towns. The movie houses are also putting an interesting economic model to the test, relying on town volunteers for maintenance work and other tasks — the town electrician fixing the wiring, for example. Just imagine if such a value-added barter system could be accomplished in a big city — people with special skills donating them to social centers for the good of the community. While those of us in major urban centers may not see much in common with residents in a 2,000-person town, that doesn’t mean that we can’t learn from them.