Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Locals Verses The Newcomers

March 20, 1995

Do Californians make good neighbors? Many people are finding out.

A significant number of California middle and upper-middle class families have moved to Nevada, the Pacific Northwest and Rocky Mountain states. Families are also leaving Phoenix and Seattle for the hinterlands.

Tired of urban crime, pollution, congestion and a hectic pace of life, they sell their high equity home and buy homes and land in communities that are high in scenic, recreational and "down home" values. They commute either physically or electronically to their employment. If our urban environments continue to deteriorate, smaller communities will have an opportunity to benefit from this unexpected influx of people looking for roots, a sense of place and good environment.

Cornelia and Jan Flora, sociologists at Iowa State University, have described the impact of newcomers on small towns. Newcomers are a potential community resource - a Godsend to the local economy - but only if newcomers and oldtimers do their part overcome the clash of values and social distance.

Newcomers usually bring an urban confrontational style and organizational skills honed in their professions. They put pressure on local officials to resolve their concerns expeditiously. They want their roads plowed, foreign languages in the schools, service conveniences and a clean, pure environment. Since they are already in paradise, they aren’t interested in economic or development growth that would attract more newcomers. They often put environmental concerns above economic development.

Busy watching their cholesterol count and doing their own thing, they have little time for neighbors. They are into their own schedules, leisure and exercise to the exclusion of reaching out and joining in. They are used to going their separate ways to shop, worship and socialize. They don't extend themselves to develop relationships built on trust and interdependence.

Local people see newcomers as pushy, elitist and constantly complaining. They watch with dismay as land values skyrocket.

Guidelines for newcomers. The biggest mistake and affront to locals is an attitude that newcomers may feel they are better because of higher incomes, education or urban experience. Newcomers need to learn that social life in small towns is based on cooperation.

The Floras' note, "Each member of the community is expected to give, and gains status and pleasure from doing so. On other occasions, each is expected to receive as well. Each person in the community is seen as capable of providing something of value to any other member of the community."

Here are some tips for newcomers who want to become part of a small community:

  • Learn the political etiquette of small town politics, the interdependence and connections among people, and the importance of nurturing relationships.
  • Give money to local causes.
  • Support taxes that go for community improvement.
  • Participate in local activities, volunteer time and participate in activities to celebrate culture and place.
  • Focus on the process and show concern and respect for those who may be in opposition.
  • Get to know and appreciate your neighbors. Let them get to know and appreciate you.

Guidelines for locals. The chief faults of locals are complacency and intolerance. They put up a wall of hostility and use their passive-aggressive tactics and political connections to frustrate newcomers. They exclude newcomers from community leadership participation and take few pains to be hospitable.

The Floras' feel opportunities are being missed to incorporate potential human resources - skills, experience, training and education - offered by newcomers as assets to community life. Newcomers can belong and be part of a community even if their great-grandfather wasn't born there.

The biggest mistake and affront to newcomers is an attitude of being better because of their heritage, kinship bonds and understanding of local culture. Being different is OK. "Different from" doesn't mean "better than." People can be different from each other and still respect each other. There is no need to take a superior attitude or be threatened by newcomers.

Here are some tips for locals if they want to work together with new community members:

  • Accept how controversy and dialogue can be beneficial.
  • Separate problems from particular solutions. Don't confuse a person's stand on an issue with their moral worth or identity.
  • Keep personalities and personal attacks out of the problem-solving process.
  • Involve newcomers in the leadership and decision-making process. Take advantage of their new ideas and connections to outside resources.
  • Get to know and appreciate your new neighbors. Let them get to know and appreciate you.

Communities benefit by having a broad base of participation. Adding more people can mean a larger community pie, not a pie cut into smaller pieces. Californians and other "outsiders" can be good neighbors - if they are given a chance.