The Rural Roots of America’s Cities of Knowledge

Since Alex has provided a detailed and insightful review of Margaret Pugh O’Mara’s Cities of Knowledge: Cold War Science and the Search for the Next Silicon Valley (2004), I will forgo a lengthy discussion of the book’s primary arguments. Rather, I would like to examine the emergence of “cities of knowledge” in relation to America’s declining rural sector. As O’Mara argues, the transformation of high-tech knowledge-based industries into the premier sector within the American economy was part and parcel of the same processes that enabled the suburbs to become the dominant form of national spatial organization. The marriage of high-tech companies to suburban settings that defined the modern “research park” formalized the postwar synthesis that capital, power, and privilege would move out of industrial cities and into their formerly rural peripheries. While O’Mara gives substantial consideration to the devastating effects these developments had on urban areas, she pays much less attention to the equally important, but less well-known, impact that suburbanization had upon rural places. Indeed, the ascendance of America’s “cities of knowledge” cannot be explained without the historical processes that divorced rural places from agricultural practices.

In the quarter century following the end of World War II, American agriculture achieved remarkable levels of productivity. Fueled by scientific advances and New Deal dollars that allowed for greater capital investments with fewer acres in production, American farms went from small commercial units still primarily reliant on family labor to heavily mechanized large landholdings capable of achieving economies of scale for national and international markets. Postwar trading policies pitted farmers throughout the globe against one another in the world market, driving down crop prices and creating a highly competitive atmosphere where only the largest and most efficient producers could survive. These economic forces pushed smaller farm units out of production and created a crisis within rural zones as displaced farmers were forced to look for new economic opportunities outside of the agricultural sector. Concomitantly, the loss of resources from the farm sector robbed local businesses of customers and placed rural institutions—schools, hospitals, local governments, etc—under stress from declining tax bases.[1]

The decline of family farming within America laid the groundwork for the emergence of research parks located in suburban communities. With declining crop prices, farmers looked for more profitable ways of utilizing their non-productive land. Real estate developers, offering returns greater than if the land was under agricultural production, capitalized upon the distress of American farmers by snatching up cheap land for new suburban installations. This cheap land became the primary enticement for the location of research parks outside of centralized cities. The space required to create aesthetically pleasing environments and luxurious housing options capable of luring scientific talent could only be achieved once agricultural production was no longer economically viable. The decision by Stanford administrators to develop their landholdings was no doubt influenced by the declining rents commanded for extractive industries.

The relocation of American industry—both manufacturing and knowledge-based—to the suburbs served as a magnet for impoverished ruralites in search of jobs. This outmigration placed rural areas in even more dire straits as population loss, especially of young ambitious individuals, resulted in a smaller labor force and aging citizenry. During the 1960s and 1970s, many rural areas attempted to stem the flow of its people outward by attracting knowledge-based industries, especially biotech, to their local communities.[2] Hoping to entice companies with cheap labor and land, rural Americans saw high-tech companies as a possible economic savior. However, as Bruce Schulman has argued, in the case of the Sunbelt South, the new knowledge-based economy offered little to displaced ruralites who lacked the educational requirements and skills to find work in high-tech industries. The inability of the southern educational system, due to decades of underfunding, to provide the labor force required for high-tech industries resulted in what Schulman refers to as the development of “place over people.”[3] While the South (as a geographic unit) prospered, the Sunbelt’s growth created jobs that could only be filled by transplants from other regions. The failure of integrating rural Southerners into the booming economy highlights the variety of ways in which rural decline mirrored that of America’s inner cities.

The conditions of rural America presented inhabitants with painful choices. Ruralites could either leave their homes, towns, and regions in search of greener pastures in the growing suburban economies, or face deprivation, poverty, limited social services, and declining economic opportunities as the price for staying rooted in rural places. In the case of the Sunbelt South, the term “rural poverty” seemed redundant to many, as poverty became the defining characteristic of rural life. Due to its structural nature, rural poverty knew no racial boundaries[4]. White Southerners suffered along with their black co-inhabitants, although the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow meant that rural African Americans remained poorer and less likely to gain a foothold in the new suburban Sunbelt economy.[5] These examples shed light on the darker side of the Sunbelt success story as the very high-growth ideology that gave birth to the region’s renaissance was predicated upon the simultaneous decay of the rural economy.

Attempting to deal with the crippling void left by the decline of occupational farming, rural Americans came to fill many of the low-wage jobs meant to service the needs of suburban consumerism. Recent historical scholarship has shown how rural areas (most famously the Ozark Mountains as the birthplace of Wal-Mart) provided the fertile ground for the growth of mass retailing institutions that offered impoverished former farmers cheap consumer goods (low prices) and low wage jobs. Companies, like Wal-Mart, made massive profits by monopolizing rural markets, undercutting local competitors, and achieving huge turnover.[6]  Similarly, Shane Hamilton has shown how the trucking industry offered an outlet for displaced farm laborers who then helped to connect corporate agricultural with the new mass consumption institutions of suburban American—such as super markets and shopping malls.[7] All of these works highlight that the suburban good life that defined the new “cities of knowledge” was based on post-agricultural rural labor and would not have been possible without the declining circumstances of the traditional agricultural sector.

Despite the obvious interrelationship between rural, urban, and suburban spatial developments, the postwar historical record for rural America still remains shockingly under investigated. While rural anthropologists and sociologists have done an excellent job of documenting the major economic trends within rural America, these studies have been noticeably deficient in their coverage of rural politics. We still do not have a clear idea of how the death of the farming economy affected rural politics (in both local and national arenas). While historians, including Robert O. Self, Matthew Lassiter, Lizabeth Cohen, Kenneth Jackson, and Kevin Kruse, have thoroughly documented the contours of postwar suburban politics, we have almost no comparable studies of rural America. This gap in our scholarly knowledge provides new research opportunities that will hopefully be taken up by historians of modern America.


This post is part of a series on the “post-industrial society” and the role of high-technology industries and universities in recent American history.  Past posts include Looking for the City of Knowledge and FIRE and ICE: The Realities of 21st Century Urban Development.


[1] John Fraser Hart, “‘Rural’ and ‘Farm’ No Longer Mean the Same,” in The Changing American Countryside: Rural People and Places, ed., Emery N. Castle (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1996), 63-76.

[2] See Osha Gray Davidson, Broken Heartland: The Rise of America’s Rural Ghetto, 139-141.

[3] Bruce Schulman, From Cotton Belt to Sunbelt: Federal Policy, Economic Development, and the Transformation of the South, 1938-1980 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991).

[4] Charles S. Aiken, “The Rural South: A Historical View,” in The Changing American Countryside: Rural People and Places, ed., Emery N. Castle (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1996), 318-339.

[5] Bruce B. Williams and Bonnie Thornton Dill, “African Americans in the Rural South: The Persistence of Racism and Poverty,” in The Changing American Countryside: Rural People and Places, ed., Emery N. Castle (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1996), 339-352.

[6] Bethany Moreton, To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009); Nelson Lichtenstein, The Retail Revolution: How Wal-Mart Created a Brave New World of Business (New York: Picador, 2009).

[7] Shane Hamilton, Trucking Country: The Road to America’s Wal-Mart Economy(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008).