cultural geography

Isn’t Wasilla really more of a suburb than a small town? The city website’s “At Work” page talks about “small-town living” but the statistics sure look like “suburb” (or “exurb”):

One of the Mat-Su Borough’s chief exports is labor. Wasilla residents and most of the Borough’s population live within 40 to 50 miles of the state’s largest city, Anchorage, and approximately 35 percent of Mat-Su workers commute. Many local residents who work in other locations were first drawn to Wasilla because of its affordable housing and the benefits of small-town living.

A significant number of workers travel even longer distances. These commuters—about 10 percent of borough residents—include North Slope oil workers, construction workers who travel among various parts of the state, and commercial fishers (120 area residents hold commercial fishing permits).

These population statistics suggest the same thing. Look at the high rate of growth for the city and the borough of which it is a part since the 1990 census.* Wasilla may still be fairly small, but it certainly appears to be following the path of a lot of other former small towns that have been incorporated into larger metropolitan areas through the processes of urban and suburban growth.

There’s been a trend in recent years towards urban living, but if I’m not mistaken, more Americans live in suburban than in urban or rural areas. And as anyone who follows current debates over transit and urbanism knows, suburbs have no shortage of defenders. Better schools, larger houses with private yards, access to open space, more light, often cleaner air and water – there are a lot reasons many people favor suburbs over many central city areas.** Combine that with proximity to the cultural and economic power of a city and you have a pretty good idea of why many choose suburbs over small towns, perhaps after an initial move to the central city.

But how often do you hear about “suburban values”? The phrase doesn’t necessarily have a negative connotation, but compare it to “small-town values”: why, after decades of suburban growth, does the latter ideal still retain such power, and political power in particular? I suppose the quick explanation is that it is the continuing influence of the agrarian ideal, but that’s somehow not very satisfying, especially since the shift away from “independent yeoman farmer” to “small-town resident, possibly but quite often not self-employed” was a non-trivial one. Why hasn’t there been another shift?

Last year on CNN Candy Crowley ran a story about Congress and its low approval rating. It was the usual “Congress isn’t getting much done, find some people to criticize it on camera for being out of touch, don’t mention the filibuster or the veto” kind of story. One of the people quoted was described as a small-town mayor. A quick search online revealed the small town to be near O’Hare airport, to have been founded as a suburb, to contain a large business park, and to have a mayor so distant from Congress and its concerns that he was mentioned as a possible candidate for Henry Hyde’s seat in the House when Hyde retired. (He chose not to run).

*Also check out the relatively low median age and high percentage of residents under 18: probably a lot of young families with children.

**Yes, not everyone, and not every suburb over every central city. That’s why I wrote many. But it’s no use denying that there are plenty of people who choose suburbs for these reasons.


  1. I’ve been thinking the same thing about Wasilla. Also note that the largest employer seems to be the local school district.

    As for small-town vs. suburban values, I suspect much of the appeal of the suburbs is in their superficial similarities to the traditional small towns of lore, particularly their lack of association with big cities and their problems, which is obviously something that suburbs can’t replicate exactly but something that they can rhetorically allude to in their marketing. And, of course, race is lurking somewhere in the background here.

  2. I think you’re right about the appeal of calling suburbs “small towns” for marketing (business and political) reasons. It still seems odd that you can’t just call a suburb a suburb for the same purposes. Maybe the critique of suburbs as homogeneous, conformist, [etc.] bedroom communities has had a lot more staying power even among satisfied suburbanites than I would have guessed.

    As for race: idealized small-towns generally don’t have strangers. (But many suburbs aren’t supposed to either.) There are surely other ways race is involved.

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