Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Cities Big and Small

I tend to be interested in things Springfield (Mass), because my in-laws live there, and also in things New Haven, because I went to college there. So I found this article by Mark Oppenheimer, "Medium Town: On Living in A City Smaller than New York" interesting. (I got to it via this post at the Pittsburgh blog, Antirust.)

Oppenheimer basically argues that there are pleasures in living in small cities--like New Haven or Springfield--rather than in New York or other very large cities. Oppenheim writes well even if his arguments are not startlingly original: the quality of life is better; the cost of living is lower; people are more normal and life is more well-balanced, etc. In the second part of the essay, he turns to an argument that not all writers need to live in New York in order to be successful. I suppose this is necessary because he is writing in the New Haven Review of Books (a new journal that he founded; I guess the New Haven Register Literary Supplement just didn't sound right).

Anyway, the thought struck me that the piece is particularly New England-centric. Although he does mention Des Moines, his frame of reference is clearly the industrial (or post-industrial rather) New England small city or big town: New Haven, Springfield, Worcester, Hartford, Providence, etc. Although there are other sorts of places where one can have a nice quality of life outside of the really big metropolitan areas (college towns, medium-sized metro areas--e.g. Pittsburgh) and although there are some metro areas/small cities in other parts of the country that have similar demographics to a New Haven or a Springfield, those cities offer a particular advantage. Due to the short distances in New England from one metro area to the next (indeed, is there any part of southern New England not included in an MSA or a CMSA?), these cities are not free-standing entities in the middle of nowhere. Rather, they are part of a kind megalopolis that stretches from Boston to New York and have close connections--in both a figurative (cultural and economic) and a literal (train lines, highways) to both. So it's a little disengenous to pose New Haven as an alternative to New York when in many ways it functions as a kind of urban exurb in the mega New York.

But the evocations of his neighborhoods, past and present--Forest Park in Springfield and Westville in New Haven--are worth the price of admission.

It's also interesting how one's perspective changes:

When I lived in Philadelphia (the 6th largest metro area in the United States), I got tired of explaining to friends in New York (the largest metro area) that Philadelphia was, in fact, a pretty big city with a lot of culture and big-city amenities (restaurants, public transit, etc.) But I would get irritated with Philadelphia's provincialism and wonder why the residents of the nation's 6th largest metro area weren't more assertive about their big-city-ness.

Now that I live in Pittsburgh (the 22nd largest metro area), I am more willing to accept my status as a provincial, but I still tend to boast to non-Pittsburgh about all the wonderful aspects of Pittsburgh.

But I can now recognize that my civic boosting is actually a form of provincialism. And I can now see that my boasting/pushing Philadelphia was also a form of provincialism. (So in a sense Oppenheimer's piece can be read as a kind of praise for civic modesty--taking pride in one's town or city but with a proper perspective on it.)

In between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, I lived in Boston. Boston is my own counter-example that nonetheless somehow proves the rule. I never liked Boston as much as Bostonians thought I should like it. And when I lived in Boston, I was constantly annoyed by the "Hub of the Universe" and "Athens of America" mentality. Didn't Bostonians realize that Boston is only the 7th largest metro area? (Then I read E. Digby Baltzell's Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia and it all made sense.)

So the constant collective need to see Boston as part of a holy triumvirate of the East Coast (money in NY, politics in DC, and culture and science in Boston) is perhaps the greatest provincialism of all.

1 comment:

JSE said...

Yeah, I thought this was pretty weak tea. And I feel authorized to say this, having recently moved from a small city near New York to a medium-sized city far away from New York. A person who could, with a straight face, describe New Haven as "far from New York, far not just geographically but spiritually" is much more firmly fixed in the orbit of NYC than he cares to admit.