The Myth of the “Small Town”

Individuals and societies tend to construct narratives where small towns are superior to cities. This rhetoric is not new. While definitions in the United States confine “[small] towns” to population centers with less than ten thousand people, the functional, everyday definition is not so clear-cut. Images associated with small towns often conger up notions of communities with people who live free of the problems found in larger areas – free of crime, drugs, “strangers.”

Growing up, I had the idea that cities were dangerous, scary places, where you could never know anybody. This idea was (and is) reinforced by the news and perpetuated by the culture of fear. Despite the “ever present danger,” I have never seen, nor experienced any of these big-city horrors. I have been going to doctor’s appointments in Houston my entire life, and for the past seven plus years, I have been driving to Houston several times a week for school and work.

During this time, I have learned that a “small town” is possible in large cities. For example, I have lunch and supper at Panera several times every week up in Houston. I see familiar faces each time, the same as when I eat at a restaurant in a small town. Additionally, the degree to which I know my colleagues, students, and other friends in Houston is the same as it would be anywhere, really. In addition, cities offer so many more opportunities for cultural and political engagement than small towns.

There is an important element of Whiteness in the “small town” construct held so dear (this is by no means to say this also does not exist in the city – because it does). Historically, small towns (or suburbia) were legally and financially limited to individuals racialized as White due to deeply ingrained feelings of superiority and prejudice directed toward non-White individuals. De facto practices keep things much the same. We know from research that White people as an institutionalized group associate and use their Whiteness to experience feelings of familiarity and comfort. Familiarity and comfort that takes money. Money that has historically only been available to White people. Simply put, when we celebrate the “small town,” we are celebrating communities built on perpetuating discrimination.

With the “McDonaldization” (a term first fully articulated in George Ritzer’s 1993 book of the same name – one of those powerful prophesying books that is ultimately ahead of its time – on the same level of Brave New World) and “Walmartization” of society, every town becomes an “Anytown, USA.” Towns of every shape and size lose many of the unique business and architecture. Towns and cities are now wall-to-wall with restaurants, hotels, clothing stores, and car dealerships that could be anywhere, in any city, on virtually any street corner. No longer can a picture easily reveal information about the geopolitical location represented.

Despite popular opinion, statistics show again and again that gang activity is worse in small towns, that children in small towns are more likely to experiment with drugs, become pregnant sooner than hoped, or get into legal trouble. Statistics also show that just by virtue of living in a large city a person is automatically more accepting and willing to embrace and celebrate diversity. Additionally, large cities are much more likely to have diverse and successful small businesses because there is a population base to support them.

So, in sum, historical memory and contemporary memory conceives the “small town” to be a safe, comfortable place free of the crime and anonymity and chain stores of the city, but it is actually the city that holds truer to this ideal. Small towns, in ways, become the place with the highest degree of anonymity because with the implicitly-required conformity no one really knows anyone and freedoms of expression are frowned upon. The “small town” narrative remains true, however, for those who believe in it and for many of those who live or long to live in a small town because it provides reassurance and stability to deeply-held world views. 


The “small town” is perpetuated in any number of cultural artifacts. See this video for one example. 


Today's "Small Town"

Today’s “Small Town”

Categories: Thoughts and Perspectives

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4 replies

  1. As someone who has lived in the big city (Houston) and its suburbs and who currently lives in a small town (population ca. 3,000), I prefer the small town. Here, if you commit a crime (ranging from DUI to trying to swipe something from the Wal Mart outside of the borough), your name appears in the local weekly newspaper–kind of like public shaming for your crime. Crime does increase while the college is in session, but during winter break, summer, etc., it is quieter. Downtown businesses (the ones at the traffic light) close at 5:00 p.m. during the week, noon on Saturday, and are not open on Sunday, with the exception of the coffee shop and restaurants (and some of the restaurants only serve breakfast and lunch). Because this is a college town, it is more ethnically/racially diverse than the county seat twelve miles away, But, at the same time, you don’t have the anonymity; people do greet me by name when I enter the local bank, drug store, coffee shop, etc.–and it’s seldom because they are my students working a part-time job.

    It all depends on how you define small town–is it the geographic area of the downtown, or does it include the surrounding area around the town’s geographic limits? Either way, Mansfield is a bit different because it’s also a college town, one in which the university serves as its own small community within the small town (different police force, for instance) where the crime rate is higher than in the borough because of greater ethnic diversity (yes, I know that sounds racist, but the crime rate did increase over 100% after they started admitting students from the inner cities).


    • Thanks for the comment. Sorry for the late reply.

      They print the name of people who have been arrested or charged with various things where I live too. It’s also on available online by looking at the police reports. I think at least some big cities have this, too. I’ve heard of a few others for sure. I always have a problem with how governments tend to define “crime.” Notions of a “crime” are far too often biased to punish those who are racialized as something other than White.

      For sure, the definition of “small town” is tricky. As population centers grow and grow, I think it’s much more of a subjective dream than any kind of objective reality per se. For example, the town I live in has a population of around 30K people, but if you add the population numbers of all of the “small towns” that make up the area, it’s probably 150K or so. But people consider the entire area a “small town.”



  1. Inescapable Problems: Everyday Life, the Unseen, and the Shopping Mall – Andrew Joseph Pegoda, A.B.D.
  2. Small Towns, “Knowing Everybody,” and Erasure – Hidden Power of Words Series, #25 – Without Ritual, Autonomous Negotiations
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