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Shrinking Cities Part One: Chetopa, Kansas - KOAM TV 7

Shrinking Cities Part One: Chetopa, Kansas

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Krista Warstler spent her early years in Chetopa, before moving away in the mid-70's.  

She said the town used to be alive.  

'You'd see people on the street," she said. "The businesses were just thick though town. You'd walk by, we had a shoe store here, we had a jewelry store."

"There were probably at least five grocery stores," said life-long resident George Davis. "A theater. A number of taverns."

Those are gone.  

"The businesses were just kind of folding and I didn't know why."

Chetopa, like other rural communities in southeast Kansas, has changed. Buildings that once lined the streets are no longer there. Shops once filled with merchandise abandoned.  

And according to the Census Bureau, the amount of vacant houses has increased, from 91 in 2000 to 154 in 2010.

"Why do these small towns exist and how can they continue to exist? What's happened to them is the entire culture has changed and they couldn't change with the culture," said Dr. Conrad Gubera, professor of sociology and international studies at MSSU. He says the chief industries that made many southeast Kansas communities thrive, such as mining or farming, dried up or were taken over by larger companies.  

"As a result those old family farms got bought and put into land holdings of 500 to 100 acres with big farms. The ability to go further distance as far as highways are concerned. You'd bypass the small towns. And so, the barber left, the shoe repairman left, the watchmaker left, the dime store, which was owned locally, left. And who's there now, well, older people for the most part."

The Census Bureau reports in 1990, 43 percent of Chetopa's population was older than 45. This increased to 46 percent in 2000 and 53 percent in 2010.

The trend has been for younger residents to move where the jobs are, which is what warstler did after college.

"The things that they had the opportunity for, sometimes it's a 100 miles away, 40 miles away," said Warstler.

Dr. Gubera says one thing that keeps a town going, is a sense of identity.

"Why are they there? Well, someone chooses to live there I guess, or otherwise they would fall into disrepair and be bulldozed out."

"As far as living here, I wouldn't want to live anyplace else, said Davis. I just like to stay here because my kids went to school here and that's what i wanted. So, i stayed here. A lot of my friends went to wichita and some went into service. So i just stayed here and struggled along."

"The town may be dying out, but these people's spirits are not dying" said Warstler. "They have that glowing ember. They want their community to keep going. That's why they're here."

"Warstler says she has mixed feelings about seeing her hometown today.

"Maybe all it would take would be that one store to come in and get it to thrive and bring something back, some commerce back, to Chetopa."

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