I live in Washington, and it's easy to tell.
Stop lights flash red all night. Restaurants other than the hosptial cafeteria serve food after midnight. My car tires were slashed and replaced, and the slashed tires were promptly stolen from the back seat. There is a zoo, an interstate bypass, people who don't own televisions, barbershops with foreign names and, no doubt, barbers earning their master's degrees in international relations. There is the auto boot.
I moved here not long ago from a little city, actually a whole string of little cities where life had a different cast. The towns raned in size from a metropolitan area of about 100,000 to one of about 600,000. The biggest of them was the 63rd largest urban market in America. The smallest was the sixth largest metropolitan area in its home state. Still another was recently rated the 56th best urban area in America in which to live. So pretend as we may, these places were not the nation's backwater.
They had city amenities such as a symphony orchestra, art museum or professional soccer team, and some mix of urban traits: minorities, gays, decaying center cities in the midst of revitalization, burgeoning suburbs and neighborhoods where the sale of flesh was centralized. In short, they were like big cities in more than a handful of ways.
Yet, they also were unlike big cities in more than a handful of ways, which may help explain why during the 1970s it was the nation's smaller metropolitan areas -- those from about 100,000 to 500,000 in population -- that tended to grow most rapidly and appeared to attract people from large cities.
As these changes hint, the places I lived had their advantages -- subtle stuff reflected in the minutiae of living. Unfortunately, what was destinctive about these places grows from that which was least urban and most fragile about them: size and sophistication.
Take Columbia, Mo., an area of 100,376 people, where, amazingly, the first mammoth suburban shopping mall is still only in the planning stage and where a man named Lonesome Del, who was hit in the face with a pie on TV to advertise his pancake house, ran for the state legislature. Parking meters gave an hour for 10 cents, and tickets were paid by dropping $2 in collection boxes scattered around town.
After 1 a.m., stoplights flashed yellow until morning.
In Springfield, Ill., an area of 187,789, I found the Horseshoe sandwich -- two pieces of toast topped with ham or turkey or hamburger, fat french fries and a scoop of hot cheese sauce -- sold at almost every restaurant. Springfield's rush hour lasted about a half-hour, and a visit to friends never required planning; the most distant of them was 15 minutes away.
When I moved to Harrisburg, Pa., with an urban population of 446,072, my downtown apartment with a fireplace cost $145 a month; a YMCA membership, $90. A few years later, my downtown apartment with a fireplace in Washington cost $700 a month; a YMCA membership, $600.
Harrisburg had no condominiums.
Outside the city was a pornographic drive-in movie patronized by middle-aged, middle-class couples. A gracious gray-haired crew took tickets, sold food during intermission and knew regular patrons by name.
The Pennsylvania Dutch housewives in my next city, Allentown, Pa., located in an area of 636,714 people, still wrapped their garbage in brown shopping bags instead of deodorized plastic sacks. They creased and folded the lips of the bags again and again until the container was a perfect cube, which then was strapped with twine horizontally and vertically and set out for trash men who, by contract, came only after dark and before dawn.
Allentown was orderly. In its restaurants -- even good restaurants -- a glass of white wine was ordered either "up" or "on the rocks." The city claimed no alleys, and even the narrowest of paths separating the backyards of row houses was graced with a street name. Silk Street was the alley that wasn't an alley that ran behind my house. This was an agreeable illusion.
In Allentown, my dilapidated three-story rowhouse cost $19,000 and for $15,500 more it was completely renovated, which was not uncommon.
Crime? They all had it. I was cautious at night when I walked the few blocks from, say, my Harrisburg apartment to the Open Hearth tavern, because mugging was not out of the question. But it also was not a central question. I didn't call my wife on winter evenings when dark came early to be certain she was home safely from the bus stop. Who would have thought?
The cosmetics of life in these towns were much the same as in any larger city. "Bosom Buddies," high-cheekbone fashion and Metropolitan Home magazine have delivered New Class-style even to the Pennsylvania Dutch, and many people in small cities are now self-consciously urban in matters of taste.
But sophistication in things other than mauve prints on vast white walls also is upon them. In Allentown, for instance, local businesses now advertise in Time magazine, and the city hospitals have hired full-time public relations officers. In Columbia, a local bank appointed a marketing specialist and soon began courting the decidedly up-scale by sponsoring National Geographic television specials.
And life is becoming inevitably urban: Springfield's traffic lights haven't flashed yellow at night for years; Harrisburg got its first condominium recently; Columbia removed its parking ticket depositories a few years ago and tickets are now paid through the mail; contract or not, in the years I was in Allentown the garbage men came to my house after dawn with increasing frequency.
Too bad, because these kinds of vanishing and not-so-urban touches, I believe, were what made my friends in small cities a bit different from my friends in large cities. For one, being less alert to fashion, they were -- to be blunt -- not snobs, far slower to judge people on whether their carpets were orange, their beer domestic or their clothing synthetic.
More important, the social mirrors of their everyday life reflected an unconscious attitude that things were ... well, simply not out of control. I don't mean that people believed they could make a difference, fight city hall or something nostalgic like that. It was more religion than politics -- a feeling. In Columbia, Springfield, Harrisburg, Allentown -- and probably in other towns like them -- people could see evidence that life was sometimes shaped for them instead of despite them.
At night, they didn't stop at red lights on empty streets. Working people could afford a home and downtown parking. No one lived on an alley. White wine with ice was their choice, the Horseshoe their sandwich. Aging Methodists could take their wives to a dirty movie. Boots were for wearing.
Perhaps that feeling of control was an illusion, a luxury limited to the trivia of life. But like Silk Street, it was an agreeable illusion. One that in towns like Washington we find reasons to live without.