TOP STORIES What Tiny Towns in Rural America Can Teach Cities...

What Tiny Towns in Rural America Can Teach Cities to Adapt

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Jack & Jill Foods, Hebron, North Dakota

Zach Huelsing and John Lehman / Rural Indexing Project


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Zach Huelsing and John Lehman / Rural Indexing Project

Jack & Jill Foods, Hebron, North Dakota

Zach Huelsing and John Lehman / Rural Indexing Project

When Zach Helsing and John Lehman began dating long distance in 2007, the lonely highway trips to see each other soon became exhausting.

So they started to drive on secondary roads, winding between Chicago and Illinois, and photographing towns in which you do not notice them.

“Just to show what we have seen in these travels,” says John.

Over the years, they had amassed a decent collection of images of buildings, signs, and symbols in the cities they passed through, and decided to create a catalog. So that, Rural Indexing Project was created.

Fast forward another decade and the pastime that became a passion has grown to include over 50,000 photographs from nearly 1,500 municipalities in 28 states.

Fowler Theatre, Fowler, Indiana

Zach Huelsing and John Lehman / Rural Indexing Project


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Zach Huelsing and John Lehman / Rural Indexing Project

Fowler Theatre, Fowler, Indiana

Zach Huelsing and John Lehman / Rural Indexing Project

Kona Theatre, Kona, Hawaii

Zach Huelsing and John Lehman / Rural Indexing Project


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Zach Huelsing and John Lehman / Rural Indexing Project

Kona Theatre, Kona, Hawaii

Zach Huelsing and John Lehman / Rural Indexing Project

“We spent 10-11 hours in the car all day and drove from city to city. And I think we started to notice patterns,” says John.

These models are a central part of the Rural Indexing Project.

Because when they upload each photo to the catalog, they don’t just list it as “grocery store, North Dakota” – they assign keywords such as the materials used, type of establishment, architectural elements, and words on the buildings. Basically, any social marker they deem appropriate.

This careful indexing allows them to then compare images across time and location; for example, what does a post office in, say, Douglas, Nebraska, compare to Ophir, Colorado.

(L) Post Office, Douglas, Nebraska; (R) Post Office, Ophir, Colorado

Zach Huelsing and John Lehman / Rural Indexing Project


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Zach Huelsing and John Lehman / Rural Indexing Project

It also allowed them to bust several myths and perhaps even their own misconceptions about contemporary rural America.

“It’s been interesting to work on this project during… for example, so many politically divergent presidential administrations,” John said. “We started in the Obama years, kind of with the idea that this was going to be the last hurrah of rural America? And it’s clearly not proven.”

Nonetheless, data shows that rural America is slowly shrinking. People are leaving small towns and cities are expanding with new homes and shops to accommodate the growing population.

In the face of this, John and Zach’s project has caught on to a trend: there aren’t many new buildings in the smallest towns. Instead, the old find a new purpose.

Rob’s Locker and Catering, Gary, South Dakota

Zach Huelsing and John Lehman / Rural Indexing Project


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Zach Huelsing and John Lehman / Rural Indexing Project

Rob’s Locker and Catering, Gary, South Dakota

Zach Huelsing and John Lehman / Rural Indexing Project

Take Rob’s locker and catering to Gary, South Dakota – population 297 (give or take). This, according to John, is a sign that rural America can teach cities.

“A lot of the images that are circulating from rural parts of the country focus on decay, destruction or abandonment, and we are very interested in how buildings in particular continue to serve and continue to adapt in a way that meets the needs of the population,” he said.

“I think we can really learn some lessons… the stories our photographs tell are adaptive reuse stories.”

(L) Steaming burger and foamy beer, New Auburn, Minnesota; (R) Steaming burger and foamy beer, New Berlin, Illinois.

Zach Huelsing and John Lehman / Rural Indexing Project


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Zach Huelsing and John Lehman / Rural Indexing Project

It is no coincidence that they find these topics fascinating. Zach is trained as an architect and has a background in anthropology. John has a background in urban planning.

They stop, believing that their photos can be interpreted as nostalgic. This is not their intention, and they do not engage in myth-making.

Instead, they do their best to present a neutral image by waiting for pedestrians and vehicles to leave the frame and taking photos from the front and at eye level. This is an exercise in documentation, not an artistic effort.

Public Library, White Hall, Alabama

Zach Huelsing and John Lehman / Rural Indexing Project


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Zach Huelsing and John Lehman / Rural Indexing Project

Public Library, White Hall, Alabama

Zach Huelsing and John Lehman / Rural Indexing Project

Okonto Lanes, Okonto, Wisconsin

Zach Huelsing and John Lehman / Rural Indexing Project


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Zach Huelsing and John Lehman / Rural Indexing Project

Okonto Lanes, Okonto, Wisconsin

Zach Huelsing and John Lehman / Rural Indexing Project

John and Zach say they’ve had to talk to some skeptical locals over the years, but for the most part, they’ve been welcomed.

“People are protecting their communities and wondering who these strangers are that have rolled into town and are showing interest in their community,” Zak said. “Because I think it’s a little crazy these days, to be honest.”

“There’s this skepticism… but then most people, once we explain what we’re doing, they’re interested or really want to tell us about historical places they know nearby.”

Bar Gumby, Mondovi, Wisconsin

Zach Huelsing and John Lehman / Rural Indexing Project


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Zach Huelsing and John Lehman / Rural Indexing Project

As the project grows, John and Zach become more preoccupied with another thought. Zach tries to give it some emotion for a while, but eventually settles for “anxiety”.

“We believe that this project is being carried out on stolen land,” Zak says. “The vast area that we are documenting was until recently inhabited exclusively by indigenous peoples who were victims of forced displacement and genocide, which allowed the construction of the settlements that we photograph.”

“It’s amazing to document how architectural and cultural trends are unfolding across the country, but we’ve seen widespread investment cuts and patterns of renewal and repurposing add to an already tangible sense of impermanence.”

What the future of these cities looks like is a question. But as the Rural Indexing Project expands, Zach and John may have unique answers to this question.


You can follow the Rural Indexing Project on its Web siteon the Twitter and beyond Instagram.



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