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Thursday, May 30th, 2013

The Inevitability of Community in Small Cities

This is both a standalone piece and a bit of a bridge between the first installment in my Las Vegas Downtown Project overview and the second one.

One thing I consistently heard from the people in Vegas was their pride about the sense of community they had downtown. Tony Hsieh says it is the most community oriented place he’s lived. One of the Downtown Project official goals is to make Las Vegas the most community-oriented downtown in the world.

There’s certainly a big sense of community in downtown Las Vegas. I don’t want to diminish that in any way. And there’s a ton of enthusiasm about the city. But there are four things I think are nearly inevitable in any small city like Vegas. They are ubiquitous in the places I’ve seen. Those are boosterism, community, cross-pollination, and a sense of creating the future of the city.

Boosterism

This is the easy one since it exists everywhere. I just want to add that people who choose to live in a place like Las Vegas have an extra incentive to be evangelists for their city. That is, they have to defend the decision to live there, maybe even to themselves.

When I tell people I live in Providence, nearly 100% of the time they ask, “Why did you move to Providence?” Some of it is understandable curiosity. But part of it is a sort of challenge to defend a decision to move to a place that isn’t in the cool kids club. If I’d moved to one of the usual suspects places, say Boston or New York, I bet I’d get that question a lot less.

Some of the biggest skeptics about a move to a smaller region are often the natives. Natives tend to kvetch about where they are from, which irritates those who are there by choice to no end. It’s like a friend of mine in Indy said one time when she got fed up: some of us chose to be here.

It’s generally newcomers who are the most passionate cheerleaders for any smaller city. Beyond general boosterism, there’s an added chip on the shoulder and something to prove.

Community

Community is another hallmark. As I noted previously re:Providence, different scales have different virtues. One of the things about a small scale city is that because the various communities that make up the urban scene are so small, they have no choice but to hang out together.

Firstly, the small urban crowd and the cut against the grain choice I mentioned above generally create a bit of “us vs. them” solidarity by themselves. Then there’s the small number of venues, so you’re always running into people you know. Of course everybody in downtown Vegas runs into someone they know at the Beat – it’s the only independent coffeehouse downtown. And there’s nowhere to hide if you are a jerk or burn bridges. You’ve got to show your face among your peers. Clearly a “strong sense of community” is always the sell on bona fide small towns, and the generally sparse populations of most downtowns creates what is functionally a small town within the city. For all these reasons, strong community is nearly inevitable.

Cross-Pollination

Cross-pollination is also a huge benefit of small cities in general. The indie rock scene in Chicago is so big, for example, you could easily spend your time hanging out inside that community. Dittos for the architecture community and so on. In smaller cities, that’s not feasible. Because each group is too small to be self-contained, cross-functional collaboration and interaction is standard operating procedure.

Along with community, this makes small cities ideal for the type of serendipitous encounters we always hear are so valuable. I never once had a serendipitous encounter of value in all the years I lived in Chicago. But I had multiple of them in Indy.

Being a Producer Not a Consumer

Lastly, another common feature of small cities is what I term being a producer, not a consumer. People aren’t just there to soak in what the city has to offer, but they are part of building the product in a very real and tangible way that can’t be replicated in larger places unless you’re a billionaire. Again, no need to belabor this as I’ve covered it many times before, such as this piece discussing a New York Magazine article on Buffalo.

Summing Up

Some of the things I heard people say in Vegas are things I hear people in all similar sized cities say. Like running into people you know. For example, a couple months ago a guy in Providence told me that if he had a list of people he needed to meet, he could just spend a day in various coffee shops downtown and would probably run into most of them without even bothering to set up an appointment. Even today every time I’m in Indy I run into someone I know walking down the street. You can’t escape the collisions!

All this to say, while I love what they’ve got going in Vegas, it might not be quite as unique as they think it is. Certainly there’s competition out there for the title of top community oriented city.

Where I do think they’ve got a window of having a genuine leg up is the idea of creating the future of a city. Downtown Vegas is almost literally starting from nothing. The “Providence Renaissance” already had a book written about it. If you’re looking to get in on the ground floor, Vegas is probably one of your better options.

5 Comments
Topics: Urban Culture
Cities: Las Vegas

5 Responses to “The Inevitability of Community in Small Cities”

  1. John Morris says:

    Many very large cities have parts with that kind of “small town” advantage.

    Bushwick in Brooklyn is a pretty tightly focused community where many easy social connections can be made. The subway links to Manhattan and many other parts of the city are not good. Most people make an effort to get there or live there, so one has a self selecting community. Not long ago Williamsburg was like that.

  2. Gene says:

    Great post, Aaron. A lot to think about. I haven’t been to Vegas in several years but I have been downtown, and am glad to hear of the efforts there.

    A sense of community can be had in large cities or small. I think off it as a cohesiveness born of pride. Las Vegas and New Orleans have it. NYC has it. Jasper, Indiana has it. I don’t sense it here in Indianapolis – all we have is the wrong kind of boosterism, that which is pushed by sports franchises and big corporations.

    I would have no ‘sense’ of Indy if I didn’t live here. There’s nothing particularly distinctive or interesting about the place. Might as well be in Ft Wayne, Evansville, Dayton, Akron, Cleveland.

  3. John Morris says:

    Not sure one can throw Cleveland in there, in spite of the best efforts to make it otherwise, it’s a very unique city, with some very hard core urban pride at least in sub communities like Ohio City.

  4. John Morris says:

    Cleveland seems to have a similar dynamic to what might be happening in Vegas. The overall metro is still very sprawl oriented. Residents of Tremont, Ohio City, Downtown Cleveland, Detroit Shoreway & Collinwood feel a strong us vs them pride.

    Detroit & Cincinnati also have that going on. In Pittsburgh, things have blurred as the power relationship between the city and suburbs has balanced out.

  5. Alon Levy says:

    This is mostly a placeholder comment because I’ve been meaning to write a post about it forever, but my main question when people talk about small town communities is “whose communities?” Clearly, not everyone’s community: it’s a metro area of 2 million. More likely it’s a community of city leaders that’s small enough to feel like one community, without splitting due to excessive size.

    This is actually an advantage of big cities over small ones, though. In a truly small town – not a metro area of 2 million, but one of 20,000 – your social status is determined by a small number of people, who you can’t afford to piss off. This leads to more conformity and more authoritarianism. In a city the size of Vancouver and Las Vega people have more choices, though specialized communities still have the same small town problems, and impose a limit to specialization. In New York and Boston (and Providence, which is in the Boston orbit), the gaming communities are so big that if you have problems with one group or subculture or convention you can realistically avoid it without noticing it. In Vancouver, they’re not and you can’t, unless your interests are very mainstream within the community (e.g. D&D and the more common board games as opposed to independent roleplaying systems).

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