How Small Is A Small Town?
Updated: May 19
“I grew up in a small town of 100,000 people.” That’s what a Chinese co-worker told me as I complained about squeezing onto a crowded airport shuttle.
What does that say about my hometown that boasted about 10,000 people at its peak? Or about the town of 170 people where I lived for a couple of years as an adult? It’s a wonder they didn’t change the sign when we moved there.
When I was in high school, my mother knew every move I made. “No, Mom, I wasn’t skipping school. We stopped at the doughnut shop during Driver’s Education. The teacher was with us.”
For each new boyfriend, she could tell me the guy’s family history. Aunts. Uncles. Grandparents. Nothing takes the fun out of dating like hearing about how he and his cousins decided to keep a skunk as a pet.
I held the same kind of information over my kids’ heads in the small-ish town where I raised them. Before they were old enough to drive, they were free to run around town—as long as they watched out for bears. It was a mountain town. This UPS note that went viral could totally have happened to us (click the picture to the link for more info).
Most of their friends knew where we kept the hide-a-key and were free to stop in for snacks between school activities.
The United States grows more urban with every generation, yet many people romanticize the idea of living in a small town. Watch a Hallmark Christmas movie to see this in action. John Mellencamp captured the sentiment in song.
Romance novels like to capitalize on the nuances of small towns. The guidelines for a company I would like to publish with include the following:
The phrase, close-knit communities, describes what people long for. It’s not the size of the town, but the community connection.
When my daughter married into a big Irish-Catholic family in Omaha, I discovered that it could be a small town, too. No matter that the metro area boasts a million people. Her mother-in-law reached out to her close-knit community to find a venue. The venue manager’s kids played sports with her kids. Other friends, whose children had recently married, gave us the scoop on flowers, cakes, and decorations.
My sister experienced the same thing about her neighborhood in South Minneapolis. The elementary school across the street brings neighbors together, as do kid’s sports and local events. Neighbors meet in homes for book clubs.
Perhaps, “small town” is just a buzzword for our connection to the people around us.
. . . Or not. It’s harder to be anonymous in close-knit communities. When I got my driver’s license, the woman at the desk looked at my address. “Is that the house with the big windows? I love that house.”
I find myself describing this house to everyone I meet. They all have a connection to it. A woman at church used to clean it. Others were friends with people who used to live here (a state representative and a banker). Still, others know the neighbors.
Perhaps that’s why it seems easier for people to connect in a small town. They can’t hide in their cookie-cutter houses and matching cars.
I suppose it doesn’t matter where I live. Any city can be a small town for people who’ve found their sense of community. Even a city of 100,000 in China.