Small towns have a unique place in American culture. Their history as the primary form of settlement in the formative years of the United States established the small town as an important part of the country’s cultural heritage. Over the past century, America’s sense of place, as well as nostalgia for days gone by, has molded the small town into a myth, an idealized landscape of community togetherness, safety and serenity. Though small towns went through a period of critique by those who found them isolated and backward, American culture never lost its affection for the small town of days gone by. Today the idealized small town has resurged in American culture, often as a dream of escape for disillusioned urbanites.

The idealized small town has become a popular place to set televisions shows. Small towns are not new to television -- starting with Mayberry and running through Northern Exposure, numerous shows have been set in small towns. But most told the stories of small town residents as “others,” as people we might observe and be entertained by, but not identify with. In recent years, however, small town shows have emerged as a home for big-city characters, people the audience are meant to identify with. The opening credits of one television show (Ghost Whisperer, 2005) give a short biography of the main character: “I moved to a small town. I opened an antique shop. I might be just like you,” she tells the audience. This character, like many others in recent television history, moved to a small town not just to escape for the big city, but in search of personal redemption.

Redemption through a move (or return to) small towns is a common theme. One reviewer describes the plot involving a small town returnee (Ed, 2000) as “less a tale of a fish out of water than a story about a fish learning how to swim again." In Ed, the title character returns to his hometown, Stuckeyville, from New York City, bringing his law practice to a local bowling alley. The show includes frequent establishing shots of a charming main street, complete with a diner offering “all the pie you can eat, $6.00.” Another recent television show set in a quirky small town, Gilmore Girls (2000), focuses on a woman who moved to a small town from the city to raise her daughter and escape from her wealthy, urbanite parents. October Road (2007) offers another New York City escapee, who returns to his small hometown to face family and friends he lambasted in a best-selling book.

Perhaps the best recent example of this trope in storytelling is the critically-acclaimed television show Everwood. Even more strongly than the other series mentioned above, Everwood is about the dream of the small town and the personalization of this dream in one man’s search for redemption. The (2002) pilot of Everwood focuses on a stereotypical workaholic New York City doctor, who spends little time with his wife and children. After his wife dies in a car accident, the doctor moves his children to the small town of Everwood, Colorado (population 9,000). Through flashbacks we learn that the doctor’s wife suggested that if something were to happen to her, he should go to Everwood:

"When I was a kid, I took this train trip with my parents across the country. There was a snowstorm in the mountains and we had to stop for a day in a town called Everwood. It was the most beautiful place I’d ever seen … It was on this hill surrounded by the Rockies. And I remember thinking, even then, this is what heaven must look like."

Once in Everwood, the doctor exchanges his suit for a flannel shirt, grows a beard, and opens a practice in the town’s long-vacant train station. He befriends local residents and seeks to reconnect with his children.

Depictions of Everwood are in some ways similar to the idealized images described by authors throughout the 20th century: the small town diner, the folksy townspeople, tree-lined streets, and main street markets. But here the idealized image of the small town branches in a new direction. The television series places great emphasis on the transformative powers of the relocation and re-acculturation for both the doctor and his teenage son. The slow pace of being a doctor in a small town allows time for the repair of their damaged relationship. Their proximity to rural areas allows for bonding through hiking and fishing. The doctor’s relationship to his profession is changed as he is transformed from a specialist to a generalist, treating his neighbors and friends, making do without the technology of a big-city hospital, learning to recognize the personal causes and effects of medical conditions. The small town of Everwood is also a place to grieve for his wife with the support of a community that soon realizes he needs the town as much as they need a doctor.

Sentimental and sappy? Perhaps, but also telling of the new role of small towns in America. Like the guidebooks described earlier, Everwood illustrates that small-town life isn’t just for small-town people. We see the imprint of the big city/small town dichotomies on the life of “average” (urban) people. Life in small towns is slower, cleaner, safer, and friendlier than big cities, and this difference can transform the lives of those who live there for the better.

A 1977 Gallup poll found that of those living in cities larger than 50,000 population, 36 percent of residents wanted to move, while in smaller places, only 15 percent of residents were interested in relocating. A 1972-1992 survey found that of those who did not prefer their current location, twice as many were interested in moving to lower density locales. This preference has been supported by generally positive depictions of small towns in American culture.
Despite a gloomy description of the 1970s-era small town, Peirce Lewis makes the prophetic statement that in the future, “a town may find more economic value in green trees, pure air, and a good architect than in capturing the new facilities of a gray-iron foundry or hosiery factory." Others in the 1970s extolling the virtues of small towns, and noting the population trend toward non-metropolitan areas, suggest something similar: that if only the dilemma of employment were solved, small towns could prove to be a more desired, more sustainable way of living than traditional large urban settlements.

If the American myth of the small town involves both ideal and isolation, and a means of dampening or celebrating their isolation were found, what would the result be? If barriers of space were breached, and place preferences overcame traditional geographies of employment, would Americans race (back) to small towns? The remaining chapters of this dissertation seek to answer these questions, to examine how sense of place, nostalgia and a resultant idealization of small town can affect -- and be affected by -- migratory decisions of the 21st century.

Read more:

Bertens, J., T. d’Haen, and H. Bak. 1995. The Small town in America a multidisiplinary revisit, European contributions to American studies. Amsterdam: VU University Press.

Campbell, K. 2002. Stuck on small-town TV shows. Christian Science Monitor. 15

Francaviglia, R. 1996. Main Street Revisited: Time, space, and image building in small-town America. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.

Herron, I. 1939. The small town in American literature. Pageant Books.

Jakle, J. 1982. The American small town twentieth-century place images. Hamden, Conn: Archon Books.

Lewis, P. 1972. Small town in Pennsylvania. Annals of the Association of American Geographers. 62(2): 323-351

Lingeman, R. 1980. Small town America a narrative history, 1620-the present. New York: Putnam.

Russo, D. 2001. American Towns: An Interpretive History. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee.