The small town in the American imagination is far more uniform in cultural representations than on the ground. In this chapter I seek to both define and describe small towns and how these places have changed since 1990. Defining small towns in concrete terms can be challenging. Unlike “village” or “city,” the term “small town” has never been tied to a set population or municipal status. In official census designations, vocabulary involving small places is complicated: they could be villages, townships, “census designated places,” or cities.

Despite its demographic fuzziness, I argue that the idea of the small town is so strong in the American vocabulary that our understandings of it coalesce in a very real definition of these places. To translate these understandings of what a small town is, I situate the term within a growing set of critiques about the dichotomous definitions of “the city” and “the country.” I examine how definitions used by the U.S. Census have affected our understandings of small towns (or lack thereof) and how the Census has sought to improve these definitions with new categories of place. Using one of the new census categories, the “urban cluster” (places with populations of 2,500-50,000, with a central density of 1,000 people per square mile or greater), I use statistics to consider the similarities and differences between small towns and larger urban areas.

While the small town can be narrowed down demographically, its statistical profile is more difficult to decipher. Some small towns are primarily white, others are black, still others Hispanic. Small towns are rich or poor, filled with newcomers or static and growing older. Small towns are farm towns, timber towns, college towns, mill towns, tourist towns. Small towns cannot be pigeon-holed into a single category, as they often are in cultural representations. Here I look for patterns amidst this diversity.

Below is a map of urban clusters (light blue) and urbanized areas (white).