A Small Town Struggles Amid Crime And Decay

Jun 19, 2012

The busiest spot in Henning, Tennessee, population 945, is probably the Main Street post office. There is no home delivery in the town, so everyone has to come to the post office to collect their mail.

Two people were shot at the post office in late 2010. The motive was robbery. Like many rural areas, Henning is experiencing levels of crime that seem surreal to longtime residents. Murder is still very rare outside of cities, but a study done by Ralph Weisheit of Illinois State University and Joseph Donnermeyer of Ohio State University found that, towards the end of the 20th century, burglary rates doubled in rural America and assault rates nearly tripled.

Down the street from the post office, just past the Coin-Op Laundromat, is the Henning Deli & Grill. The tiny shack has bars on the windows and four security cameras trained on the outside. The owner of the shop, Keith Alston, keeps an eye on that video feed as he works the register. He says he’s wary because he’s been robbed.

“They broke in my store, stole cigarettes, they took my whole register, got beer,” Alston said. "It was kinda sad."

The problems Henning faces today are problems rural communities all across the country face that have lost first farming jobs, then manufacturing jobs. A century ago more than 60 percent of Americans lived in rural areas. Today 16 percent do, and as more and more people flock to cities, that’s taking its toll on small towns like Henning. Alston has seen one business after another pack up and leave. That’s part of the reason he opened up his shop.

“I just felt that, with a lot of people moving on, people not making investment here, that it would be kind of nice to do something, bring something back," Alston said, "and not just let everything die down and disappear.” 

Demographer John Cromartie does economic research at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and he knows all about the struggles many rural towns face. Cromartie has watched the percentage of Americans who live in rural areas decline relative to urban areas, but he says that is going to stop.

“Modernized, westernized, industrialized countries have urbanized and it looks like that trend—demographers expect that to flatten out,” Cromartie said.

Henning has plans for the future. The blueprints are all sketched out and hang on the walls in City Hall. Henning Alderman Marvin Montgomery sees Henning becoming a tourist town, with the buildings along Main Street restored and converted.

Standing outside of City Hall Montgomery points at the structures on the other side of the street. The fronts of the buildings are flat facades. Their roofs, backs, and sides have all fallen in due to lack of use.

“I see those turn into a lot of quaint little shops,” Montgomery said.