Small Town America

This post was published more than a few years ago (on 1999-07-03) and may contain inaccurate technical information, outmoded thoughts, or cringe takes. Proceed at your own risk.

Tomorrow is Independence Day (which I learned in my recent reading of Made in America by Bill Bryson, is a curious date for the celebration of our country's birth— the declaration’s proposal was adopted two days earlier). Thoughts around this time inevitably turn to Americanisms like the flag, fireworks, mom’s apple pie, and the quintessential small town parade.

I happen to be fortunate enough to live quite close to one of those vaunted small towns, in the guise of Old Towne Gaithersburg. Shortly after moving here about a year and a half ago, my family enjoyed our first Fourth of July parade in the Old Towne sector, complete with fire trucks and Dalmatians, local politicians and Miss Somethingerothers waving from the back of convertibles, clowns passing out candy and balloons, Shriners driving around in cars much too diminutive for their portly stature, several marching bands, and a number of other bits of homey regalia that I thought had long since gone the way of the dodo. I'm much more relieved to find them still around than I would be the dodo; as my friend AAl remarked on a recent trip to the zoo, “What's the big deal? It’s just a dodo.”

I became enamoured of the small town feel ever since I lived in a suburb of Philadelphia by the name of Jenkintown. I only lived there for about three or four months, but I became enchanted with the idea that practically everything I wanted or needed was within walking distance. There was a grocery store and a deli nearby, a Barnes & Noble bookstore and a Houlihan’s restaurant just down the street, innumerable small businesses within a short walk (including the oft-visited art supplies store), and if I ever wanted to venture into the city, the local train station was less than a mile away (or, if I was pressed for time, I suppose I could have jumped one of the trains that passed, with no exaggeration, through our back yard).

Until even the 1950s, most places were like this, but as the American obsession for the automobile took hold (surpassed only by the Italians), suburban sprawl has taken its toll. It's almost as if Americans loved their cars so much that they wanted to be made to drive everywhere. Indeed, as a recent statistic shows, the maximum distance the average American is willing to transverse without hopping in a car is a mere 600 feet. Nowadays, even that is rarely practical. It's all but impossible to get around in most places without the aid of a motor vehicle. I don't own one myself— partially due to circumstances of an accident a few years ago, and partially because, since then, we have found that it's not altogether necessary. Sure, it’d be nice to have one to take the family to go see relatives and friends that our local public transportation doesn't reach— and we will— but it hasn’t been a priority.

Washington, DC and its suburbs have remarkably efficient mass transportation, which we are all too happy to avail ourselves of. The small town, though, even precludes the necessity of public transport— everything is within walking distance. And given the choice between waiting out on a bench for up to a half hour for a noisy bus packed with screaming kids and a driver with a penchant for evangelism, I'll take the short walk, thank you.

Up until recently, I had thought that most small towns were relegated to the remnants left in New England states— until, that is, we discovered Kentlands. Kentlands is a planned community that is technically part of the City of Gaithersburg, but it's really a little community unto itself. As a planned community, it does come with the unsavoury (and sometimes maddening) prospect of community codes and bylaws that preclude all sorts of things you can do, even to the point of getting permission from the governing board if you decide to change the colour of your house— but the town is planned so well, that I would be ready at a moments notice to give up my choice of acceptable pigments just for the chance to live there.

It's a rather large area (352 acres), but the houses, townhouses and apartments are laid out so that nearly all of them are within a short walk of the town centre. There lies a pool, a community garden and a historical mansion (after which the community is named) which often features art exhibitions and chamber concerts. Just a tad further is what they term the “mid-town,” which features a thoughtful smattering of small shops and a tastefully designed multiplex cinema. Add a small shopping centre nearby (still within reasonable walking distance) with a bookstore, department store and home improvement centre, and you have what I could call— without even a tinge of my usual sarcasm— the perfect community.

The amazing thing is that it only dates to 1988. And it's not alone. It tuns out the architectural firm of the imminent Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk has produced 80 such projects across the United States as well as in a few other countries, since their first collaboration in 1980. Even my beloved Old Towne Gaithersburg is being touched by their skilful hands with a 25-year plan (completion in 2022) to renew Old Towne as the centre of life in Gaithersburg. This movement to “restore sanity to the suburban landscape” was actually started by Mr. Duany, and has now been dubbed The New Urbanism.

I find it compelling that people are now flocking to these new small towns that they had eschewed up until recently. I certainly would if I could afford it (from $120K for a townhome to $500K for the bigger homes, and on upwards). It is, though, gratifying to find that, through this twelve-step town planning, America may finally be regaining it's soul.

2 thoughts on “Small Town America”

  1. I find it fascinating that Americans on average are unwilling to walk over 600 feet. However I would very much like the source: What “recent statistics” have shown this?

  2. Gosh… when I wrote that five years ago, I wasn’t exactly the biggest keeper of notes. I expect that statistic is probably from one of the sites linked to from the column.

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