Behind the best small town

It can now be revealed: I left the #1 small town in America to take a job at Minnesota Public Radio.

010109 133 According to Smithsonian Magazine, Great Barrington Massachusetts is the #1 small town in America. And, the magazine is right; it’s a pretty neat place. I tried to make a living there one time and we lost our shirt, ironically, because it had become less small and less town-like.

The Berkshires are New York City’s playground (like Nantucket, it’s Massachusetts in name only). Great Barrington always played second or third fiddle to Lenox and Stockbridge, where the big money was. And it was kind of neat helping Linda Ellerbee find a plumber, or running into Hugh Downs or Gene Shalit at the grocery, or Meryl Streep at the pizza joint. I once helped Anne Meara escort a very drunk Maureen Stapleton out of a Marvin Hamlisch benefit concert for the local moviehouse. Good memories, indeed.

But it underscored an unpleasant reality for a small town — the townspeople were losing their community to the money that could afford to live there. The paper plants closed and as more New Yorkers — we called them “212ers” — bought up properties as second homes, there was less affinity for what made it a town in the first place. A small radio station that still aired birth announcements and the frantic messages about lost dogs, and raised money for the local kid in need of chemotherapy, couldn’t hold out against the big public radio network in nearby Albany that kept the 212ers in touch with their universe. Sure, there were times when “being local” was important to them, but there was no long-standing loyalty to supporting local. We eventually sold to that outfit and I headed for Minnesota.

The newcomers loved the town, partly because they could pretend it was a small town while avoiding the things that made it “local.” The two are not the same, but one of those depends fully on the other to survive.

Great Barrington spent an awfully long time trying to figure out a way to be one of the “cool” small towns around it, and less the “working class town” it was. Congratulations, Great Barrington. You made it!

So you have to take these sorts of “ratings” with the disclaimer that in judging small towns, you often only see the winners in the struggle.

Meanwhile, the closest the Midwest got to the top spot was #15. Menomonie, Wisconsin natives will have to reveal whether there’s a similar “the story behind the story” with your fair city.

For more than 120 summers, families from all over the Chippewa Valley have packed up picnic dinners and headed down to Menomonie to see whatever was going on at the Wilson Park band shell: sometimes a concert by the Ludington Guard Band, one of Wisconsin’s oldest performing city bands, or sometimes a Shakespearean play performed by the Menomonie Theater Guild. If you’re in town during the colder months, you can still catch a show at the historic Mabel Tainter Center for the Arts, built as a community center and Unitarian church in 1889 and now serving as a visual and performing arts hub. The presence of the University of Wisconsin-Stout, a widely respected polytechnical institute, draws some of the most sophisticated technological, commercial and industrial minds to the former lumber town.

Go ahead, Minnesota! Make a pitch for why your small town should’ve been on the list.

Photo by Doug Kerr, used via Creative Commons license via Flickr