There’s a mean but useful expression to describe something that’s the best of its not very good kind: “the best ballerina in Galveston.” The idea is that the pool of Galveston ballerinas is so small that it’s not hard to rise to the top of that tiny pot of cream.
It came to mind reading Russell Arben Fox’s smart reflection on the travails facing Wichita, where he lives, a challenge that most mid-sized American cities face. Russell says that the billboard ad for a never-quite-launched city weekly newspaper there captures the attitude cities like his need to adopt: “Face It. You’re in Wichita.” He explains:
That billboard advertisement was wiser than it knew, because it captures an essential truth for cities like Wichita, cities far larger than the hundreds of “micropolitan” urban clusters across the county with a populations of 50,000 or less, but also cities that are not part of an extended metropolitan agglomeration. I mean cities that form their own relatively isolated geographic centers, perhaps topping out at a half-million residents or so. The truth that such cities must face, basically, is that a great many of their residents are regularly tempted to believe that their home isn’t what it is, but rather is, or should remain, or is almost ready to become, one of the other two options mentioned above. The truth, of course, is that Wichita and cities like it are not oversized rural towns, supposedly similar in culture and practice to so many of their surrounding and supporting communities. Neither are they, though, on the cusp of a great metropolitan explosion, primed to start networking and contributing to–in terms of jobs, the arts, and more–those flows of information and investment which characterize the great global cities of the world. Wichita, like so many other cities of middling size, is not likely to become a major node in the globalized flow of information, culture, and wealth anytime in the foreseeable future, and it is cannot pretend that its political culture is that of a quaint homogeneous farming village at heart. It is, put simply, a big city–but not all that big; a space of concentrated resources, both human and commercial–but not an ever-expanding supply of such. That’s what it is stuck with.
To make a case for sticking with mid-sized cities–for investing in it and improving them–means, first and foremost, facing up to what they are. The odds of being able to quickly create in the context of Wichita’s undeniable yet also limited urban character some kind of progressive fantasy of diversity and development are small to nonexistent. With much of the social and economic innovation and opportunity in our country and world invariably gravitating to megapolises wherein the promise of anonymity is entwined with the chance of being able to elide obstacles and break through and do something productive in one new niche or another, leaving older and anxious workers behind, it isn’t surprising that Wichita’s political culture and economic landscape increasingly reflects, as Chung mentioned regarding Wichita, a “closed” environment. That environment will not suddenly change, and expressing frustration at the lack of diversity or socially oriented initiatives in such cities simply drains energy from what will have to be–as the effort to push Wichita in the direction of reasonable reform in the matter of marijuana possession shows–a long and slow effort.
At the same time, Russell continues, the idea that cities like Wichita should just give up on trying to improve anything and settle into being insular small towns on a bigger scale is even more problematic. The answer, he says, is to reject the aspirational extremes of the boosters who are forever cooking up a scheme to make a mid-sized city “world class,” as well as reject the resentful, why-try-harder attitude of temperamental conservatives who never want anything to change for the better. Here’s the third way, according to Russell Arben Fox:
Look around our city, as in so many smaller and middling cities, and you can see a great many informal and quasi-formal networks forming: small-scale businesses and volunteer operations and church groups, hosting festivals and art shows and local markets and devotionals, crossing the conceptual boundaries between urban and rural (so much easier to do in a smaller urban space than in a sprawling urban agglomeration!). Of course, few of them present themselves in terms of a “growth plan” to attract venture capital and rent floor space downtown, and neither do they generally start out rejecting all city council seed money on ideological principle. Which means, they get ignored by the fantasists on both sides of the divide.
Read the whole thing. It’s very good, and I would love to read in the comments thread here the reactions of you readers who live in such places.
I think one place to start thinking about living in such places is by thinking about what it means to live a Good Life in a place — that is, how does one measure quality of life? When I was 22, I had a very different idea about that than when I was 42 (and, as you know, that got radically altered when I was 44). You could have a higher quality of life in a place where there were a lot fewer restaurants, less diversity, and fewer things to do, as conventionally measured. I mean, you could be a lot happier in relatively boring Wichita than in, say, Dallas, though it’s hard to see that when you are young.
Let’s not forget that Wichita has at least one amazing thing that no other city in the world does — oh, and that related amazing thing too — the existence of which makes it a wonderful place to live. If you live in Wichita and you aren’t involved with them, oh boy, are you ever missing out.
A mid-sized city that had a couple of special places like Eighth Day Books and the Eighth Day Institute (with its Hall of Men) would do wonders for itself. I’m looking at you Brian Daigle and your Baton Rouge mafia!