Li: Telling the small-town American story

Grant Li, Columnist

People from small towns know these places aren’t perfect — we have lived in them long enough to know. But there seems to be a misguided practice in American political journalism of making a pilgrimage to a small town to ask for the locals’ opinions. What they say is uplifted as the Gospel of a supposedly true, real America. The reality is that about 83% of Americans live in metropolitan areas, according to the World Bank. An urbanite likely speaks for more Americans than those in far-flung corners of the country. So while the insufferable genre of journalism that simply relays opinions sourced from places you’ve never heard of should have gone extinct long ago, there is still something to be said about the question of who speaks for the small town.

Recently, I’ve been catching up with old hometown friends, some of whom are even farther away from home than I am. At Northwestern, the distances we travel to get here often seem small compared to those from other hemispheres. In a small town like the one I grew up in, the distance from home feels immense.

It’s not easy to illustrate a place like New Milford, Connecticut. When telling people where I’m from, I often say it’s “Gilmore Girls country” and hope the person I’m talking to has watched the show. In the same way the dusty, one-dirt-road ghost town holds a special place in America’s collective imagination of the Wild West, New Milford feels a bit like the East Coast equivalent. Not because New Milford actually occupies any spot in America’s cultural imagination, but because it feels like a stereotypical colonial town.

“Downtown” New Milford is the large Town Green (think grassy university quad) lined with centuries-old buildings. The landscape is punctuated by the steeples of a few Presbyterian churches, along with our town hall that used to be Founding Father Roger Sherman’s store. To top it off, there’s a gazebo on the green that we consider our town symbol, alongside a M3 Stuart light tank that never actually saw battle. It’s truly an “all-American” town, a place older than the country itself. But does this place represent real or true America?

When I was preparing for college, I thought everyone would be like me: a kid from a small town who attended a poorly-funded public school. I clearly never put two and two together. Instead of meeting other small-town folk, I often found myself trying to explain exactly what my hometown is like. I was surprised when most people just didn’t get it. In my experience, the prevailing idea of small town America is oftentimes that of backwards enclaves inhabited by intolerant people. As an Asian American, this sometimes feels accurate. Even still, I occasionally feel awfully provincial among such a cosmopolitan student body.

The notes and rhythms of life are simply different in a small town. For instance, the year the school board didn’t fund the band program, New Milford’s only music store closed. Every day, I walked past my band teacher to see him a little dejected, not ever sure what to say. In a city, this might not be fatal, but in a small town, it spells doom. And where New York City Hall can feel a little distant, inside Roger Sherman’s store are the familiar faces of next-door neighbors and the parents of friends deciding what to cut funding for next. All things are connected in intricate ways.

Big cities are known for their fast paces of life and diverse neighborhoods. And yet, somewhere along streets lined with department stores and walls of concrete and glass, all cities seem to meld into one. Where cities do find their uniqueness, they have plenty of representatives to tell of it. Whether in pop culture, sports franchises, movies, documentaries, popular media or their own residents, cities are well equipped with journalists to tell their own stories. On the other hand, there are no documentaries or movies about New Milford. It feels like it’s just up to me and my friends, and maybe Gilmore Girls — if our interlocutors happened to have watched it.

Those of us who’ve lived long enough in a small town know these kinds of places are too flawed for quickly surveyed local opinions to just be reprinted in national newspapers as barometers of true American feeling. At the same time, these flaws are what give small towns their uniqueness, not to be easily articulated in the neat quotes that appear in the small-town pilgrimage pieces. Small-town America is to be understood by simply experiencing its curious dynamics, from frustrating ineptitude to complete charm. It is these flaws that should be written about, already done by the alarmingly endangered local newspapers across America’s hinterlands. There, what can be found is likely not the most representative real or true America, but at least a very peculiar form of it. 

Grant Li is a Weinberg senior. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.