I didn’t really understand the appeal of a small town until I came to Juneau. I’d been to lots of small towns before but I couldn’t see what all the “It’s a Wonderful Life” era Americans saw in them. The small towns I’d driven through in southeastern America are all dilapidated ghost towns. The small towns in the American northeast are just suburban, bedroom communities with little character or sense of community. I myself grew up in a small town, Emmaus, Penn., which is only a bit smaller than Juneau. But it never felt like a place in and of itself. It was simply a collection of houses adjacent to the larger city of Allentown located only a few miles away. Even to this day when people ask where I’m from, I just say Allentown. It’s easier that way.
So, why has my experience been so much different than previous generations? I think that the change can be attributed to how much easier it is to travel now. Before WWII, most Americans didn’t have cars, and so 20 miles was an insurmountable distance. People spent time with their neighbors because it was difficult not to. Now, what reason does anyone have to spend time on the streets of downtown Emmaus? It’s just as easy to jump in a vehicle and head to the larger city where there are bigger malls and more people and better restaurants. No sense of community remains in the average small town because nothing holds people together.
Remoteness and terrain make southeast Alaska different From Juneau you can’t get anywhere else except by plane or ferry. While that’s sometimes annoying when you need to buy something you can’t get locally, it means the people in this tiny community have few options but to stay and spend time with each other in the few streets we have downtown. We all end up going to the same restaurants and the same stores because there really isn’t anywhere else to go. That may seem limiting, but in a way it is really marvelous. I’ve lived here less than two years and yet everywhere I go, every street I walk down, I run into someone I know. I’ve lived in a number of big cities, and I found them horribly lonely places. Sure there are people everywhere, but they’re just strangers. I lived in Washington, D.C. for over a decade and I never once bumped into a single co-worker on the street. Here in Juneau, I know that if I walk out my door I’m sure to see someone I care about, someone to talk to, someone to share lunch with.
I guess that’s the appeal of small-town America. It’s that sense of community, that sense of camaraderie that comes from seeing the same people over and over again and having that familiarity with one’s neighbors. I’m no luddite, but I think that not having an easy way for people to drive to a major city or out to a giant strip mall is really helpful for this community. It’s the last bastion of small town America that still functions the way our forefathers envisioned. I’m finally seeing what Frank Capra saw when he envisioned Bedford Falls.