America's Small Town/Big City Dialectic

Article excerpt

Abstract. The big city and small town have been stereotyped in the American experience as being at opposite ends of an imagined social gradient--the former more a place of cold impersonality in social relations and the latter more a place of warm personalized community. Assumptions about urban-based "mass society" largely blinded Americans through the twentieth century to the existence of, and importance of, locality-based community in big cities. Early in the century, most urban Americans emigrated from rural and small town circumstances, bringing to the nation's cities strong rural and small town proclivities at neighboring. Both central city working-class neighborhoods and affluent suburbs mirrored the small town. The similarities, and not just the differences, between big city and small town life invite renewed analysis. This study argues for a fuller understanding of how small town idealizations impacted metropolitan America.

America's small towns and big cities occupy opposite ends of an urban spectrum. Early in the twentieth century, commentators on American life clearly differentiated towns and cities as socially different--the two kinds of place sustaining very different ways of life. Offered here is exploration of that imagined dichotomy. This study argues that towns and cities shared much in common, the result of one important fact. Most big city residents in America's early twentieth century cities came from small town or rural backgrounds. They brought small town ways to big city life. What follows is reexamination of the rural influence on American urbanization, especially at the metropolitan level. Place images are emphasized, especially those bundles of social stereotypes that have traditionally symbolized small towns and big cities as contrasting place types. A big city/small town dialectic proved remarkably resilient in shaping what American cities became. Americans came to configure cities in ways highly reminiscent of their small town roots--American cities becoming substantially small town-like if not in physical form then in social constitution and function, especially as measured at the neighborhood level.

Donald Meinig (1979), in an exploratory essay; called attention to three "symbolic landscapes"--the New England Village, Main Street of Middle America, and Suburbia--as important to Americans in conceptualizing their nation's geography. He asked a number of questions. To paraphrase: To what landscape realities do such idealizations relate? How might geographers assess the power of such symbols? What do these idealizations tell us about America? Here, the small town is explored not as landscape ideal so much as idealized place, focusing on selected symbolic values useful to better understanding the American City. To what extent were small town ways replicated in the early-twentieth-century metropolis? How did reality compare with the reporting of sociologists and other city observers? In what ways might reality have differed from stereotype? What are the lessons that might be had from looking back at the American City through a small town lens?

Concern is with symbolic place rather than symbolic landscape. The place concept, brought forcefully to the attention of cultural geographers by Yi-Fu Tuan (1977) and Edward Relph (1976), assigns the world of everyday experience. Places are locales defined at various geographical scales to which meaning connects through behavioral intentionality. The most important places, Relph (38) argued, are those to which we feel connected--perhaps even "at home." "The places to which we are attached," he wrote, "are literally fields of care, settings in which we have had a multiplicity of experiences and which call forth an entire complex of affections and responses." "To have roots in a place," he wrote, "is to have a secure point from which to look out on the world, a firm grasp of one's own position in the order of things" (38). Symbolic place, then, involves imagined locales referenced in one's constructing the world as idealized geography. …