New York…Paris…London…Venice…Greece…the Colosseum…Times Square…Big Ben…Notre Dame. These are all big names and big places! Ask anyone anywhere across the globe about any of these sites and they’ll know immediately what you’re talking about. But ask them about a small town, and the odds they’ll be familiar with the name will immediately and exponentially plummet.
There are nearly 20,000 incorporated towns, cities, and villages across the United States. Open Google Maps. Pick a state…any state, and then pick a random municipality within it—Monroe, Iowa (for example). Never been there. It’s probably a wonderful place with wonderful people, but it isn’t likely that a random villager in, say, Zimbabwe or Azerbaijan would know the name. Ask them about Manhattan or the Washington Monument, however, and their answer will likely be much different. This is not a pejorative statement/assessment of Monroe, Iowa, or any other small town/village, for that matter. It’s just an objective social reality.
The “small town” certainly has its significance, though. After all, every major metropolitan city once started out as a small town. If one were, for instance, to travel back in time to the early days of New York City, they’d find a settlement that resembled a farming establishment much more than it resembled a concrete jungle. And therein lies the beauty of the small town. Every small town can pursue as much or as little notoriety/fame as it wishes to. Today, I’ll review a few small towns that have been critical to me throughout my lifetime.
Let’s begin with Alexandria, Virginia. Alexandria is the small city I both currently reside and grew up in. Alexandria began as a small Scottish settlement and port city in 1749. Numerous famous figures- including Durmot Mulroney, Jim Morrison, David Grohl, and POTUS #1, George Washington- have resided in Alexandria. The “venerated Virginia veteran” (to quote Lin-Manuel Miranda) thrived at Mount Vernon, his home estate on the Potomac River.
When the District of Columbia was founded in 1791, they incorporated Alexandria, but the city then retroceded in 1845. Alexandria is home to the Torpedo Factory, the Masonic Temple, the Carlyle House, and Gadsby’s Tavern Museum. It is also home to T.C. Williams High School (currently- Alexandria City High School- as of 2022), the school whose football team won the 1971 state championship and inspired the film Remember the Titans (2000) with Denzel Washington. Alexandria, located several miles from Washington, D.C., is quite a renowned city, but, at times, it does have the feeling of a small town.
I spent many summers in a small town known as Deltaville (located between the Piankatank and Rappahannock Rivers, about 50 miles east of Richmond, Virginia). Its name to fame- Captain John Smith allegedly named the tip of the peninsula “Stingray Point” on July 17, 1608, after a stingray stung him. Smith ordered his men to dig a grave, thinking he was going to die. One of his men, though (a medic named Walter Russell) gave him a “precious oil” that saved his life. That night, he and the men ate the stingray. There is an apocryphal legend that Native Americans supplied him with a life-saving ointment.
Deltaville is your standard small village. It has a few outdoor pools, a community center, one or two restaurants, a yacht club, a maritime museum, and some tennis courts. Its appeal though is far more subtle. Deltaville is where my grandmother lives and where she has lived (or at least spent many summers) for the past 60 years. Her cottage and the few other neighboring ones that myself and my large immediate and extended family used to visit every July are simple and rustic.
Sometimes there was no air conditioning. Sometimes the (outdoor) shower heads were rusty or moss-covered. Many nights all eleven of us (siblings and cousins) would each ravenously scarf down our two or three hotdog pieces and a spoonful of macaroni. We are all older millennials, and so, being in that grey area between analog life and the internet explosion, we pursued Nickelodeon, Red Rover, and card games as suitable forms of entertainment.
In the daytime, we’d occasionally visit the European-themed amusement park, Busch Gardens (or its aquatic counterpart, Water Country USA) in Williamsburg, Virginia. Then there were the outdoor cookouts, sailboat and motorboat rides, and water-skiing excursions. But mainly, we swam. We swam and we swam, and we swam. Day in…day out, we’d linger for hours on end in the warm, low-lying, brackish bay-water (encountering the occasional crab, jellyfish, or even stingray). Years later, many cousins held their weddings in Deltaville. Today, I’ll make the occasional day trip. When the air cools and the night falls, I’d lie down on one of the piers (on my back) and gaze up at the sea of stars above. Listening to the lapping waves is a supremely simple and joyful pastime. One of those “times stands still/anywhere in the world” types of experiences.
Now take the above slice-of-life (many cousins and siblings, long/lazy Huck-Finn-style summers) and transplant it to one of America’s northernmost states (outside Alaska). Goose Rocks Beach, Maine is approximately fifteen miles south of Portland, Maine and five miles northeast of Kennebunkport. The town has a candy shop (general store), various lobster restaurants, and vast stretches of marshland. Did we swim for hours on end? Absolutely. But if you’ve ever seen Titanic (1997), the water was basically that cold, so we’d stagger our dips into the ocean. We’d also ride bikes a lot! Occasionally, the community center would put on a Bingo night.
And then there was Amsterdam…not far from Albany, New York. The Mohawks of the Iroquois Confederacy once occupied the land. In the 1660s Dutch settlers began settling the area (founding Schenectady in 1664 and Amsterdam c. 1710). The town developed as a mill and factory town…one that various European immigrants- Irish, Italian, Polish, and Lithuanian- flocked to. My grandmother on my father’s side used to live there. Her Victorian home would host the same beach-going crowd from the summer for long, sumptuous Christmas gatherings. Big trees and mountains of presents! Tunnels through carpeted corridors and up/down grand stairwells! Sadly, she passed away in 2003 from a rapidly spreading form of cancer. But I’ll never forget her or all the holidays we used to spend there.
The small town frequently has qualities of familiarity and connectiveness that big, anonymity-inspiring cities do not. In a small town, “everyone knows everyone.” Country singer Jason Aldean recently stirred up controversy with his newest hit- “Try that in a Small Town”- which touches upon that theme. In the song, he dares anyone to attempt a violent crime in a small town (e.g., “carjack an old lady,” “rob a liquor store,” “spit in a cop’s face”), and “see how far down the road [they] get.” Many listeners believe that the song dog-whistles a racist, “lynch mob” type of message. Aldean responded:
“‘Try That in A Small Town’, for me, refers to the feeling of a community that I had growing up, where we took care of our neighbors, regardless of differences of background or belief.”
On the flip side, the close-knit “everyone knows everyone” phenomenon may not always be a great thing. Anonymity can have its redeeming qualities if/when you’ve done something inane or regrettable. Maybe you made a drunken fool of yourself or lost your temper at a public event. Sam Hunt, another country singer, dwells upon the sorrow and awkwardness he experienced after “breaking up in a small town.”
So- which type of lifestyle is better? That obviously varies from person to person. One is usually cheaper, and your community is more close-knit, while the other tends to provide more opportunities- economic, romantic, or otherwise. However, it’s usually more expensive and potentially more alienating. One frequent archetype in modern American mythology is the “small town girl” (“living in a lonely world,” according to the band Journey).
The “small town girl” is young, beautiful, and naïve. Frequently, her father is a very conservative pastor or a farmer. She departs for the big city (usually Manhattan) and all sorts of new adventures ensue. Hollywood loves to paint the “small town girl” as a magazine writer who rents a two-bedroom apartment in the Upper West Side. She falls in love with a man from her hometown (who she runs into while living it up in NYC).
Erik Larson pointed out a darker side to the “small town girl” phenomenon, though, in his nonfiction book The Devil in the White City (2003). Chicago hosted the World’s Columbian Exposition (1893). Many famous figures- including Hellen Keller and Alexander Graham Belle- attended. It was a bright, beautiful, and splendorous spectacle. But it occurred at a period when a lot of young women were moving away from small towns to big cities (usually for factory jobs).
One sadistic criminal—serial killer Dr. H.H. Holmes– exploited their newfound anonymity. He built a “murder hotel” that went unnoticed throughout the Columbian Exposition and dispatched his victims within it. Many other infamous serial killers (including Jeffrey Dahmer and David Berkowitz) used the cover of “big city anonymity” to commit their vile crimes. They often selected victims they thought no one would miss. As a side note, Chicago’s “white city” moniker refers to the color of the exposition’s building materials and is not associated with race.
The inspiring corollary to the “small town girl” is the “celebrity from simple roots.” Taylor Swift is from West Reading, Pennsylvania. John Mayer is from Bridgeport, Connecticut. Carrie Underwood is from Muskogee, Oklahoma. Oprah Winfrey is from Kosciusko, Mississippi. Bill Murray is from Evanston, Illinois, and Tom Hanks is from Concord, California. Then we have all our famous political figures—Jimmy Carter (Plains, Georgia), Dwight D. Eisenhower (Denison, Texas), and Bill Clinton (Hope, Arkansas), just to name a few.
There are hundreds—if not thousands—of other examples. But if we had to zero in on one celebrity, Taylor Swift would be a suitable option. Taylor Swift is very much the poster-girl for the modern, 21st century era. She is, after all, a musician, and music commonly has that effect (for better or worse). Swift—a crossover pop star and country artist– also straddles the lines between big city and small town (sometimes implicitly and sometimes explicitly).
But, alas, not everyone can be Taylor Swift…or Oprah Winfrey…or Jimmy Carter…or whoever else. For every one-in-however many-million who rises to superstardom, someone’s got to tend to the peanut farm or the local library or the town coffee shop. An economic idea known as the “Pareto (Distribution) Principle” illustrates the uncomfortable rarity of various success stories. In most settings (regardless of industry), “80% of the results will come from 20% of the efforts.” This is not to say that most people are lazy or unmotivated. But…well, there only can be a few A-list celebrities, chart-topping musicians, or New York Times bestselling authors. Does that mean people should stop trying? No. But it is advisable that they find equanimity wherever along that path they find themselves.
The small-town person may not always make it to the “big stage.” But if they can survive and thrive and be known and loved and appreciated and feel accomplished wherever they reside (literally and experientially), then sometimes, that’s good enough. Throw me back to my days as a child in Alexandria. Place me in the Chesapeake Bay at Deltaville, on the beaches of Goose Rocks, or at my grandmother’s house in Amsterdam (at Christmastime), and I would feel on top of the world!