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William Merritt Chase: A City Park (c. 1887)

"It sure feels like home."

Though I hail from a small city, I do not even pretend to represent the interests of small towns or their people, for mine's not the smallest or the largest town in that category. No, the SmallestTown I've ever visited must be New York City, for it represents everything a small town or city should properly embody. I know it does appear to exhibit a somewhat inhibiting size, which would seem, at first glance, to disqualify it as if not a smallish place, then certainly as the smallest. Yet I insist New York City is the perfect example of the SmallestTown I've so far found. I won't pretend that other contenders might exist, but I will insist that I stopped searching after visiting here and discovered perhaps its most closely held secret: its size.

You see, this place is not a single place but a series of tightly nested and uncontested neighborhoods, each featuring remarkably few people, each of whom understands their place.
One cannot live anywhere while considering it enormous. The human genome cannot cope with bigness on such scales. It perceives the adjacent space and disregards most everything beyond those boundaries, however drawn. These edges are almost always narrowly drafted, lest the artist feel overwhelmed. To walk in New York City is to experience continually shifting contexts, each a microcosm of some utterly imaginary broader whole. Each seems remarkably small, given surrounding distractions. It's just that New York City had the misfortune or benefit of being colocated with many tiny imperfect replications of itself. From Brooklyn to Queens, The Bronx to Staten Island, and right through Manhattan, the SmallestTown in this country manifests.

One only needs to engage to see this difference. A new visitor might be able to hold their distance for a spell, but for no longer; the countering experiences quickly overwhelm the earliest misconceptions. You'll notice that people talk to each other here and engage in ways observed in few other places, even in most of the so-called smallest towns around. There, one might get trapped into a single role and be forced by consensus to continue inhabiting it regardless of its fit or purpose. In New York City, though, anybody can instantly be a stranger or just as quickly a confidant. Accidentally drop a comb on the sidewalk, and within a few seconds, someone who had witnessed the event will approach you to report the incident. In New York City, ten thousand eyes see everything you do, and every pair seems to be watching out for you.

Unlike in many small towns, you're rarely truly alone and never really on your own. The communal ideal comes closest to manifesting in these SmallestTown surroundings. This small town performed at scale entails coping with many inherent larger-scale system effects. Infrastructure quite naturally gets shared so that no borough or neighborhood has to absorb more than their fair share of the development and maintenance burden. Many are quite rightly employed in the interests of few. This maintains the system balance.

Consequently, public servants seem numerous and well-compensated. The illusion of hugeness could not coexist with the reality of extreme smallness without public servants. Real live neighborhood joints thrive like they have survived almost nowhere else because the neighborhood remains a viable element. In gated and blighted communities, people must commute long distances to find a so-called neighborhood joint, which often ends up being a chain dressed up as if it belonged. The biggest corporations now service most small towns. In the Smallest Town, families still seem to service most of the population.

Neighbors supporting neighbors thrives in a place like this. Everyone shares the subway and the street. No income or privilege elevates anyone far above a common place. Empathy thrives where people live like this. Diversity doesn't exist as an abstract concept but as a lived experience every minute of every day, so people don't seem so alienated. The parade of people passing the stoop on the street appears inherently more interesting than anything broadcast on an alienating television. More people sit on front porches and promenade in New York City than in all the Mayberries and Anytowns in the rest of the USA. Enter a bodega and experience all that Safeway or Kroegers never understood about the grocery business. Visit a freaking deli and ask what's cooking. The American experience warms on the burner there, ready to be delivered twenty-four-seven. If this isn't heaven, then heaven's probably not worth visiting. It's this world's SmallestTown, or the smallest one I've found. It sure feels like home.

©2023 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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