I believe that small towns are better. Not just better for kids, or better for old people, and not just different in a value-neutral sort of way from urban or suburban areas. Better.
I grew up in Sterling, Kansas, population 2500. I lived 8 years in Kansas City, and now I am back in Sterling. I believe in the interdependence of the people in my town. I believe in lifelong friendships, which are a true specialty of small towns.
To live in Sterling and to pursue happiness requires that I confer respect and dignity on other people because I depend on them and they depend on me, with no degrees of separation.
For example, life could suddenly get very hard for me if I treat another Sterling person rudely today, because it’s quite likely that I will cross paths with that person several more times this week. He may be my daughter’s softball coach. He may be seated next to the only open booth in the non-smoking section of the local café. He may be the HVAC repairman that I call on Saturday morning when the A/C fails the night before. So, hey, I will think twice before being mean to him.
I believe that the familiarity of small towns more often breeds understanding than contempt. Don’t get me wrong, we can have hellacious spats when we disagree. But to illustrate the value of familiarity, the peeling paint and broken fence at my neighbor’s house don’t trouble me, because I am familiar with the fact that he spends a lot of his spare time leading the local Boy Scout troop. Good for him. The house doesn’t look great but I don’t make a big deal about it—that wouldn’t be right.
What is right is that I care about the elderly person in hospice care three doors down, because she used to buy me ice cream cones on my birthday back when I was a kid. For now, I will comfort her and later, I will miss her. In the suburbs, I might have never known she was there.
When I was 14, I had a bad time, an adolescent crisis. To this day, I have a cardboard box with all the cards and letters I got from townspeople wishing me well, boosting my spirit and willing me through it with their collective support. The social fabric of my small town was my safety net that year. Wonderful small town people—the kind who would write cards and letters to a mixed up kid like me–are, I believe, a great cure for a mixed up world. Given that experience, it’s no wonder I believe that everyone should live in a small town. I believe a few more people living in Sterling, Kansas, would be good start.
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