Greenport NY abstracted
Abstract expressionist painting of Greenport, NY, plan view. 2014. artist: Karen Freeman

Why do we love visiting small towns?

Whether it’s here in America or elsewhere, there’s something about small towns that draws us in and makes us feel…at home, right?

As I write this, I’m not sure how I’ll answer my question at the top, but I’m a restless wanderer, as maybe you are, and home is what I seek. In the end.

Small Town, Big City

I’m from New York City, and when anyone outside the city hears that, they immediately think of Times Square.

“How could you live there?!” they think or say. Meaning the city, but thinking of Times Square.

They’re not wrong. Nobody really lives in Times Square. New Yorkers themselves don’t even go there! Unless they have to.

We New Yorkers live in neighborhoods, just as you do who hail from small towns. I believe this is part of the answer.

Neighborhoods, Not Cities

I was born and raised on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

The Upper East Side is pretty much where “all the rich” live. Seriously. From our living room window on the sixth floor of our

Looking east at buildings along Fifth Avenue from a Central Park perspective.

pre-war building on 96th and Madison, I would watch as different U.S. presidents — Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama — went to a particular building across the street and halfway to Fifth Avenue to do fundraisers. That one building. My family even has a photo of FDR driving below our building to the same destination.

Historically, 96th Street was considered such a line of demarcation between the rich and the poor — the rich lived to the south of it and the poor to the north — that in the 1970s a friend of mine bought a penthouse duplex apartment on Fifth Avenue and 97th Street for $70,000. Fifth Avenue was where the rich among the rich lived. Down the street from this apartment, on 97th between Madison and Park Avenues, two adolescents had been kidnapped and held hostage for two days before police rescued them. It made the front page of newspapers. But a couple years ago, my friend sold his penthouse to a famous “Shark Tank” star for nearly $10 million.

My point here is that neighborhoods were clearly marked, and northeastern residents were stereotypically known to associate with people of different races and social classes, but they lived separately. Apparently the stereotype of the South was the opposite.

“Small towns” even in New York City

After college, I moved from the Upper East Side to the Park Slope neighborhood. In the mid-80s, there were still sketchy areas, but it was a true neighborhood: clear lines of where it started and stopped, with a variety of people living there and a variety of stores and restaurants catering to people of all races and social classes.

(Top row: lady walking with parasol on near the former American Bible Society; oranges in front of our local grocery store, Broadway Farms; yes, even the subway can feel “local;” Middle row: a friend of mine in Harlem who told me about the nature of growing up in his neighborhood; a kid with melting ice cream; last two photos are my friend Hans Honschar, who creates sidewalk art.)

Fast forward and I lived for a total of 14 years on the Upper West Side (with a 10-year exodus to New England), also a mash-up of different people. We all converged, though our kids, in the local public elementary schools, where our young children learned to see each other and make friends despite the differences we adults saw in each other.

It was all about having fun and being together.

This, too — fun, togetherness — is part of the answer to my question.

West 4th Street Court, "The Cage"
The West Fourth Street Courts, aka “The Cage.” A premier spot for amateur basketball in NYC.

Even the famous “Cage” basketball court on West 4th Street and Sixth Avenue feels like a neighborhood place. There is an aliveness to them.

“Alive” is another word to help answer my question.

The artistic composition of small towns

You may have noticed that the heading of this article was an abstract expressionist painting. (Full disclosure, there’s no coincidence between the artist’s last name and my own.)

Why…

wings and town

There is an artistry to small towns, both in the “plan view” from above and also at elevation (looking straight ahead). I’ve always thought that the organic growth of small towns — from the first humans to early civilized towns to European towns and now modern towns and cities — mirrored nature.

Nature itself has given us the model of how towns look when they’re healthy.

Artists over the years have picked up on this and portrayed them that way.

Why do we love visiting and living in small towns?

We love them — towns or neighborhoods in small cities — because we have always lived that way. Even before we knew we did. We have always gathered by clans and families, separated because of differences or opportunities or selfishness, and created a new part of the larger whole.

german street art
Building art in a German neighborhood. Photo: Velvet Escape

But each section of the whole did make the whole both larger and more cohesive.

Why do we love small towns?

Because whether we like to admit it or not, whether we live in a big city and boast about it — yours truly included — or live in a small town and feel suffocated, we have always lived this way.

It’s where we come alive.

Or, at least, it’s where we can.

 

 

 

About Author

Husband, father, traveler, writer, surfer.

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6 Comments

  1. Well done Howard, and figured the cover was Karen’s. Do you know whose 5th Ave building attracted those Presidents?

    1. You know, I’ve always wondered whose place that was! It’s always possible that it was a high-security venue that presidents found convenient to meet people right there in the money motherlode, too.

  2. Hi, Very interesting article!
    It is true that even big cities can have small towns inside, with different cultures.
    I lived in Buenos Aires, Argentina for many years and it is the same there. Every neighbour has a particular people, culture, kind of shops, is like a whole town in itself!
    Thanks for the article!
    Isabella

    1. Thanks for the comment, Isabella! You might find it interesting that in the Upper West Side neighborhood of New York City, where my wife and I lived for a long time, we had a restaurant called “Isabella’s.” (No longer in business, sadly.) It was on 77th Street and Amsterdam Avenue and had an outdoor dining area along Amsterdam. Great for people watching!

      This and other aspects of the City made the Upper West Side feel “small townish.” I happen to love a coffee shop in downtown Kerrville called PAX, because I see people I know walking along the street. During this COVID time, connection on a personal level is more important than ever.

      Thanks again for your comment! Have always wanted to go to Buenos Aires.

      Cheers.

  3. Very good, thank you Howard! In small rural towns it is not the streets that separate, but the railway line. You life either this side or that side of the track.
    Living a memorable life is where you feel free to be yourself and associate with whom you feel comfortable with.
    Growing up in a small rural town, what stands out is the one big family feeling. The closeness and care in the community and the feeling you matter.
    Thank you, you took me down memory lane and relived the happy moments.
    Stella

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed the post, Stella! Feel free to sign up for our newsletter: we’ll be handing out FREE Texas salsa to some lucky readers!

      Howard

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