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It was one of the most exciting weekends of the year during my small-town youth: the Land of the Loon arts and crafts festival, held each June in my northern Minnesota hometown. When I was a child, Dad drove in the namesake parade, my friends and I riding along in floats he designed. The local park bustled with vendor tents, food carts, musicians, and more. As I reached adolescence, a “street dance” on the main drag offered an introduction to a slice of night life, an until-then inconceivable, unattainable concept. This quiet place I called home in these moments became alive with activity.
As I’ve entered adulthood, Land of the Loon weekends have retained many of these charms. Yet they now come paired with some lamentations, concerns about potential luster lost, exchanged amongst the friends and family who shared these formative experiences with me.
This isn’t unwarranted, wistful whining. It comes in response to real, immediately felt trends. Fewer parade floats, fewer vendor tents, less activity and less bustle. More questions, such as whether the Land of the Loon, now in its 43rd year, will reach 50, or even 45 for that matter.
This year brought a most direct blow. No Land of the Loon could pass without my dad purchasing an Italian sausage sandwich from the Sons of Italy, our town’s Italian-American club. It was a ritual rooted in familial, community connection, as much as or more than any culinary craving. This year, for the first time ever, there were no Italian sausage sandwiches, for my dad or any other like-minded attendees to the festival. The members of the Italian-American club had all grown too old to staff the booth, and there were no newly adopted Sons of Italy to fill the void.
It’s a case study in what’s happening in communities across America, but particularly in many small- and mid-sized towns. Populations getting smaller, and older. Social and civic infrastructure declining in turn. I joined my dad for church on the Sunday of this Land of the Loon weekend, and, as so often happens on these visits now, I can count myself as the second or third youngest member of the day’s modest congregation. It’s not an entirely unpleasant moment for a newly christened 30-something, but it’s a deeply challenging one for this place where I once attended Sunday school and learned so much about living in community.
At my childhood home, the local newspaper on my dad’s kitchen counter is thinner than ever, and much of its contents are copied from larger regional papers an hour or three down the interstate. A thin paper on the counter isn’t the worst of it, as my dad complains of an increasing number of days with missed deliveries, a symptom of the struggle to find and keep newspaper carriers in the area. Most profoundly, as my dad and I later walk through the park, he says to me, “Did you see [so and so’s] Land of the Loon photo in the paper, er, I mean on Facebook.”
A Freudian slip straight from the mouth of our modern body politic.
The community I was raised into, the social and civic infrastructure it supported — all of it manifested in these Land of the Loon weekends — it has been disrupted, tested, and supplanted by social and technological change and new kinds of global, virtual community. As the latest proof point, you can look to Capitol Hill, where local news publishers recently wrapped up a week lobbying Congress, desperate for some kind of leverage to confront the unyielding dominance of Facebook and Google, and eager to preserve the fate of local democracy, along with their own.
New-age communities empowered by Big Tech are not without promise or virtue, just as old-school, small-town communities are not completely pure and faultless. But there are crucial differences that require reflection, and again, a weekend at an event like Land of the Loon, no matter the state it’s in, can prove instructive. It can remind us why these traditional forms of community and the civic rituals they support are worth preserving, or at least emulating in the world to come.
As I peruse the festival, I note that the products on offer in vendor tents are of varying quality. All are hand-crafted, and while most on the lower end don’t exceed a minor offense in mom kitsch or tired folksiness, a few do go beyond the pale in their tone deafness or zest to appeal to more base impulses. Take for example, a piece of yard art shaped like a gun reading, “Here we don’t call 9-1-1.”
But the most striking image comes not while shopping vendors but during the people watching in between. I cross paths with a woman wearing a shirt that reads, “Never underestimate a woman who listens to Tim McGraw and was born in the month of May” (As if that was the kind of thing anyone anywhere was fixing to estimate at any level).
There’s only one plausible explanation: this is a product that only a Facebook algorithm and the expansive, hyper-targeted advertising mechanism that underlies it could ever produce.
Here it’s served up a timely, important reminder. For all that Facebook and its Big Tech peers like to talk about community and connection in glossy corporate videos, their priority is and always will be digital advertising. These are powerful marketplaces, spaces optimized to monetize in myriad ways your attention and your personal data — such as your birthdate and your enthusiasm for Tim McGraw. To make it all work, the model is premised on scale and reach first and foremost. Community and connection are secondary. As it happens, that hierarchy has given a big boost to the power of the odd appeal to base impulse and our most extreme instincts. We can deny no longer that it has major consequences.
Now, Big Tech is an easy punching bag, a recurring villain-of-the-week choice many times running since the fallout of the 2016 election. So it’s worth being explicit: Facebook and its peers are not solely at fault for these dynamics. They’re part of a bigger picture. But I elevate them here to put forth this theory: in a world increasingly premised on scale and reach, and obsessed with maximizing opportunities for monetization, communities like the one I grew up in will never have a fair shot. And the value of community institutions like summer festivals, churches, and local newspapers will be overlooked, and ever more at risk of being lost.
A summer festival like the Land of the Loon is a place of commerce itself, but importantly, it’s one in which community and connection are the top priority. The members of the Italian-American club didn’t start selling sandwiches in the park in pursuit of some vast market potential. They did it to connect with fellow residents whose families immigrated to the region carrying similar histories and circumstances. They did it to build a rich community inspired by those shared histories. That story extends to countless others I see on these weekends. The next-door neighbor making homemade kettle corn, the childhood friends playing music in the gazebo, the family friends on organizing committees, and so many more. They’re all united and activated by values of community and connection.
We tell ourselves that our local churches, our local newspapers, and the like had their priorities ordered this way too. Community first, and then commerce. Even if we were wrong, the least we could say is that they shared our home, and an equal stake in it, thriving and suffering the good times and the bad right alongside us.
When community comes first, places like my hometown bring something distinct and valuable to the table. With those priorities and values at the forefront, they have an important role to play, and it becomes much easier to imagine a sustainable future for them, along with their summer festivals and their many social and civic institutions.
More urgently, when community comes first, it seems there may yet be time for us to reorient the social, technological infrastructure that underpins and dominates our modern lives to better support these time-honored parts of our lives.
Despite the challenges and narratives that loom over small towns and rural areas, I know it’s this spirit that is alive and well, animating so many of the people who live there. They are showing up to do the hard work. They are practicing these values while living in community. They are carrying on despite all the headwinds coming from on high.
Here in northern Minnesota, our Land of the Loon festival overlaps with Father’s Day. To mark the holiday this year, I cooked homemade Italian sausage sandwiches to share with my dad, that his festival streak could continue unbroken. I really put my heart into it, channeling to the best of my ability those Sons of Italy from the local Italian-American club. Regardless of the relative quality of my recipe, it was a powerful moment, because rather than focus on lamenting something we had lost, my dad and I created a new opportunity to celebrate our relationship with our history, our community, and one another. In that regard, in 2019 the Land of the Loon festival was as great as ever, another exciting weekend for this small-town kid turned adult.
I may not yet have the confidence or authority to cook sandwiches for a few hundred or thousand more people, but who knows, there’s always next year.
Adam B. Giorgi works in business planning and digital strategy at the Center for Rural Strategies, which publishes the Daily Yonder. He previously worked in political reporting at NBC News and strategic communications for the administration of former Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton. He holds a master’s degree in public policy from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.