Would You Rather Live in a Big City or a Small Town?

Travel Blog  •  Sophia Dembling  •  02.13.09 | 2:06 PM ET

Photo by Sophia Dembling

I keep a file titled “Good Reads,” into which I tuck stories and articles that I enjoyed reading and like to revisit from time to time. The other day, I pulled the file out and found a photocopied page from the book O Pioneers! by Willa Cather.

I copied the page for a particular speech, spoken by Carl, who has just left Chicago, to Alexandra, who is trying to keep things together on her family farm on the Nebraska prairie. Read the quote after the jump.

Here you are an individual, you have a background of your own, you would be missed. But off there in the cities there are thousands of rolling stones like me. We are all alike; we have no ties, we know nobody, we own nothing. When one of us dies, they scarcely know where to bury him. Our landlady and the delicatessen man are our mourners, and we leave nothing behind us but a frock-coat and a fiddle, or an easel, or a typewriter, or whatever tool we got our living by. All we have ever managed to do is pay our rent, the exorbitant rent that one has to pay for a few square feet of space near the heart of things. We have no house, no place, no people of our own. We live in the streets, in the parks, in the theatres. We sit in restaurants and concert halls and look about at the hundreds of our own kind and shudder.

I felt all “right on, right on” about this speech the first time I read it, which is why I copied and saved it. I had recently moved to Dallas from New York City and I was discovering the nation beyond my big city home town.

For a long time, I imagined I wanted to live in a small town and that Dallas was just a stop en route to that. But after years of life and travel, I’ve come to understand that I’m not cut out for small-town life. It’s not because I need theater, symphony and shopping (although I do like lots of restaurants). No, it’s because I like a certain level of anonymity in my day-to-day life. The intimacy of a small-town—even a small-city—sounds difficult.

I remember visiting an old friend in a small Montana town in the early 1980s. My first night in town, we walked into a bar and a cowboy hollered, “Hey, New York!” I was a little spooked that my presence in town was such fast-traveling news. (Not too spooked to dance with the cowboy, though.)

And the gossip—my gosh, the gossip. When I was working on a travel story in a small Texas town known for its bed-and-breakfast inns, I got my ear bent all over town by B&B owners dishing about other B&B owners. And not kindly.

This all comes to mind after two of my Flyover America posts attracted interesting but frankly hostile comments about high-profile individuals in small cities. When you dare to stand out in a small town or city, you have nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. Yikes.

As much as I enjoy visiting small towns, I’ll take big-city life. At the very least, it’s pretty easy for me to avoid people I dislike, and if they talk trash about me, I might never have to hear about it.

So, which is better/worse? Anonymity in the big city or intimacy in a small town?

Sophia Dembling

Dallas-based writer Sophia Dembling is co-author of the Flyover America blog and author of "The Yankee Chick's Survival Guide to Texas." She would love to hear your tales of America, so drop her an email.

5 Comments for Would You Rather Live in a Big City or a Small Town?

Cruise Blackwell 02.14.09 | 2:49 PM ET

Personally, I like big cities better than small towns.  My girlfriend is from a really small town of around 100 people, and I always find it spookey to go there.  If we walk around the streets, there’s always these people staring at us like “You guys aren’t from around here.”  I’d much preffer the ananymoty of a big city.  I currently live in a college town of about 150,000 people, and it’s too small for me.

Sophia Dembling 02.14.09 | 3:02 PM ET

Wow, that’s even smaller than a small town. I think it would freak me out a little. How does she feel about it?

Chris 02.15.09 | 1:36 PM ET

I actually like it right in the middle. I live in a city of about a quarter-million (400,000 in the bi-county “metro” area) and it seems to be just right. Big enough that there is plenty to do (minor league sports, symphony, ballet, theatre, lots of restaurants from a variety of ethnicities, etc) but small enough that I see people I know when I go somewhere and the traffic isn’t bad. I will say that I can’t imagine living in a small town, but I could see living in some of the big cities I’ve visited (Toronto or Seattle maybe, definitely not New York or Washington).

Sophia Dembling 02.15.09 | 2:35 PM ET

One of my criteria for a big-enough city is that the major touring acts make stops here.

chris cohrs 02.27.09 | 2:39 PM ET

I grew in a major city and I did not enjoy it because of the big crowds. Sure the cultural aspects were nice for a while (if you enjoy theater galleries) but I did not like growing in a inner city neighborhood where all the people lived in apartments and were at least 10 years my senior. I got robbed several times at knife point and the Cops didn’t care about the neighborhood enough to check up on it. The air is dirty, pollution annoying and people just shove you out of their way. On top of that getting around is a hassle even with public transport because everything is so spread out. The only positive time to be in a city is when your in your late teens and 20’s because cities are generally more tolerant of different lifestyles.

Right now I’m living in Holland, Michigan which is under 50,000 people and I can’t say I miss the big city nor feel like going back in the near future

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