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Ode to a Small Town

One college student’s reflections on escaping the suburbs and building true community.

I always liked the gated suburbs I lived in, but it wasn’t until I moved to a rural Pennsylvania college town that I realized how lonely a 24-hour Starbucks, Target, and Chipotle made me really feel. I’ve spent the past three years dividing my time between a town with one stoplight and another off the biggest highway to Washington D.C.

How different those are is obvious, but after time for reflection, I think I know where I want to plant my roots after graduation: rural Pennsylvania, a small town where there’s one of everything and not really enough of anything, at least to the suburban eye. And there wasn’t at first glance when I moved here. I now know how wrong I was.

There are two coffee shops on the main street, along with one chain (Dunkin Donuts, but no one spends time in there). Most college students and residents spend hours in the local shops, typing away or talking. You get to know the owners and the customers pretty well, seeing them around so much. Across the street is a barbershop where nearly the whole town goes to get their hair cut, and they don’t go for the bargain—it’s actually quite pricey. It also happens to be where I’ve gotten several of my story ideas for my articles in the college newspaper; I never expected “Betty” to be a name to hunt down on my list of sources.

When I drove my car up to school, my life in town only grew. I got a job at a local women’s store off the interstate highway. I stopped for Subway sometimes after work when I missed dinner at the dining hall, and made friends with Suzie, Brenda, and Angie—three middle-aged women who loved their “fun job,” as they called it.

It was on a slow day standing at the cash-wrap that Angie told me about a local Amish town open to the public with knick knack shops, a donut stand, and a tiny train museum. There, too, the coffee shop wasn’t your usual extra foam soy decaf Americano kind of joint, and my friend and I found ourselves staring blankly at the woman who told us there was, in fact, no flavored syrup. We spent the day walking up and down those hilly streets, talking and pointing out the unique things we saw, and both walked away with old Campbell’s soup mugs we found on the third floor of an old mill-turned-antique shop.

That was one of the best days I’ve ever had, not because it was something new—though that did help—but because there’s really nothing like experiencing a completely different culture firsthand, and in Pennsylvania you do it all the time. I’m also almost certain that this same Amish town produces my Anglican Church’s communion wine. Yet another example of the closeness of this community.

A year ago, I wrote an article for the college paper about a woman, we’ll call her Rachel, who runs both the food pantry and used clothing store in town. I stood at the counter for two hours as she told me about her background—plain and real—while saying “how about $3?” to a customer looking to barter. Rachel looked at me knowingly as this woman explained the disease she swore she had. When the woman eventually left, Rachel turned to me and said, “She doesn’t have anything. She’s fine.” She knew. She knew her well, because that woman was a regular. They all knew each other. I was the only outsider at that counter.

When my check engine light came on, I didn’t know where to go. But I thought of a woman from my church, and I drove to her house. Her husband, who happened to be a history professor at my college, pointed to a small building down the street with cars parked around it, and told me to bother him nicely. Not knowing anything about cars, I drove up, walked into the garage, and found a menacing dog next to a woman with a similar disposition. I mumbled something that I now forget, and she yelled “she’s got her engine light on” and went back to work. Then I saw a gentle giant wearing a baseball hat, glasses, and long beard come out to see what my problem was. He told me the diagnosis, apparently nothing serious, and told me to come back if the light appears again. He didn’t charge me. I thanked him and backed out of the crowded gravel lot.

It’s almost like I have some type of strange support system from all angles. I have Suzie, the coffee shops, Rachel, the woman from church, and her family’s mechanic. Never in my life had I created those connections in the suburbs of D.C., where the only place for community is as a label on a building with the word “center” after it.

These people are forced to be invested in each other, in a way that’s difficult for those living in the suburbs. It’s not rocket science. The lack of limitless options for coffee, food, and entertainment, so available back in the burbs, creates this necessity to be closer and makes it more possible that, yes, you probably will run into your English professor at the Walmart. Accept it.

Alexis de Tocqueville continually stressed the importance of human relations with one another; the ones that are so commonly interrupted by the all-you-could-want big business enterprises of Starbucks and Target. Amid this focus on gratification, the invaluable individual interactions that happen when we buy gas inside, spend days at a coffee shop, or decide to eat locally are lost. When we shop at Target, we buy from Target. When we eat at Barbara’s Delicatessen in small-town New York, we buy from Barbara herself.

Tocqueville writes,

“Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate…it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances: what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?”

It is through this centralization, Tocqueville says, that “men are restrained from acting.” Existence, the most powerful gift given to man, is prevented. But small-town Pennsylvania has shown me the solution to this problem. We must keep the small places, full of employees who know each other and customers who are frequents. It’s these places that make one feel less lonely. Give me a small city, because it’s Suzie’s smile and charismatic personality I will remember, not the crowded Starbucks that has a natural turnover rate of 50 percent.

After three years here, I’ve learned that every Western Pennsylvanian wedding has something called a “cookie table” at their reception, and that Pennsylvanians are really proud of their Eat’n Park chain. I also know that Amish donuts trump any other donut I’ve ever tasted. In this college town most every store closes at 9 p.m. The options are few, and I’m forced to buy whatever is near. Because the service is not as fast as near my house in the suburbs of D.C., I usually have a conversation with the cashier or server.

I don’t feel lonely anymore when I drive back up to Pennsylvania after each break from school. I know I’ll see the ladies at my retail job, and I’ll be taking a trip to the local store to grab a few things too. I make mental notes to do homework at one of the two coffee shops the next day, where I’ll say hello to the regulars. I’ve never appreciated a town with one stoplight so much, because I know I have real relationships with people who live nearby.

Fiona Lacey is a rising senior majoring in English and political science at Grove City College. She is a current intern at First Things magazine. This New Urbanism series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. Follow New Urbs on Twitter for a feed dedicated to TAC’s coverage of cities, urbanism, and place.

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