I grew up in a small town of just over 3,000 people in the 1980s. It was pretty idyllic. There's some truth to the depiction of small towns in the media. Everyone really does know everyone else. We left the doors unlocked, and never needed to knock at the neighbor's house. The town cops ticketed me once for failing to signal a right-hand turn -- on my bicycle! Because it was such a small community, we also were very close-knit. When I was in elementary school our town was devastated by an industrial accident which killed 15 men. Nearly everyone in our class lost a relative or friend. The town rallied, as it always does, with memorial services and fundraising potlucks in the park.
My parents still live in their house in the center of town. I go back several times a year and am astonished each time by how much it has grown. More than 6,500 people live there now, and there are new suburban style developments whose residents don't really mix with the old timers. But the heart is still there. When I run to the grocery store I am always greeted by the manager, for whom I used to work a lifetime ago. My mom keeps me updated on the local gossip, and keeps everyone there posted on my life so when we run into each other conversation continues like I never left. I fled because the town was too small, but I miss that closeness now.
Today I live in a big city where the metropolitan area population numbers in the millions. We have every amenity, convenience, and opportunity a modern American city can offer. I love it. I love the anonymity. I also love the variety and number of people. When there are only a couple hundred kids around, and everyone has roughly the same background and interests, making friends as the odd kid is not easy. With so many people to choose from it's been a little easier for me to find a fit, and I'm hoping it works that way for my kids, too.
Still, there's a special kind of security in a small town. People watch out for each other. So I was pleased and grateful the other day when I realized that my neighborhood really is a small town inside the big city. I know all the grocery store clerks by name and chat with them about their kids and gardens. I run into folks I know on the street and we say a quick hello. There's a neighborhood group on facebook where people can ask for the name of a good window cleaner, or hear about a burglary. On our block in particular all the kids roam from house to house, playing across half-a-dozen front yards just as I did when I was their age.
We went to the neighborhood 4th of July parade this year. It ran for blocks and blocks, and had marching bands and local politicians. Kids decorated their bicycles and swerved along, shepherded by watchful parents and bystanders. Fire engines ran their sirens and kids scrambled for candy -- just like we did years and years ago. It was a small town moment in my big city, and it felt like home.