The Scary Cities and Friendly Small Towns

I grew up in a rural area of Oregon where the nearest town was 1,200 people, and the next biggest town was 19,000 people. I grew up believing that the country was better than the city and that the country was safe and cities were dangerous and scary. By the time I reached my twenties cities were still dangerous and scary, but they were a place where interesting things were happening and there were interesting people living there. It took me almost 30 years for me to tame my view of what cities are, and as I approach 50 I can’t help but laugh at my increasing belief that small towns are dangerous and scary, and something I work to avoid—-most likely living out the rest of my life in an urban landscape.

Cities were always where the apocalypse would play out, or so the folks around me growing up told me. It is where the nuclear missiles would first strike, where there would be riots and disorder, and you would starve first because there are no gardens and deer to kill. So when I began first going to big cities as a teenager, cities were intimidating. Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle, all were very ominous, loud, and borderline terrifying places to be. If they were so dangerous though, why did I find myself attracted to them? There was good music in the cities. There were museums, art galleries, festivals, and other interesting things catching my attention. The libraries were bigger. The bookstores were bigger. There were more jobs. Better food. It goes on and on. Over time I became more comfortable in the city than I am in the country, and because I was able to make a better living, I ended up moving there and staying there.

Cities can be loud and intense. So can the thoughts inside my head. While there are more people and cars in cities, I’ve learned over the last decade that the loudest parts of cities exist within my head. 70% of what is scary about big cities was programmed into me through movies and the people I grew up with. It has taken me living in New York City, Seattle, and now Oakland to see just how much the noise and dirtiness of cities were defined by my programming as a young white man growing up in rural America. I don’t share the details of my views around how damaging white supremacy can be anymore because I have stalkers online who enjoy taking things out of context and making trouble for me. However, I will say that the mainstream programming of television, movies, and the small-town narrative I was exposed to is something I will be unwinding for the rest of my life as I live in a racially diverse urban reality as I possibly can.

I have recently seen more people pushing back on the age-old narrative that things are better in the country. You see these memes on Facebook all the time, where a cabin in the woods is all people want. That terrifies me. I have lived in a cabin in the woods. I prefer a comfortable apartment in a diverse urban neighborhood. I could see maybe a weekend, or a vacation in a cabin in the woods, but I have no desire to live that way for the rest of my life. I don’t want to have to drive 30 miles into town to get groceries. I want Mexican, Ethiopian, and Vietnamese food within walking distance. I want bands to come to play in my neighborhood and art exhibits that blow my mind and make me think in new and exciting ways. Why would I want to just sit in a cabin in the woods? Similarly, sub-urban neighborhoods seem another version of boring and quietly scary to me, where the isolation from other human beings can leave you stuck from ever-evolving or experiencing anything new. I just don’t understand the attraction any more.

There are definitely trade-offs living in the city. Things are noisy. But I am learning much of that noise is in my head. It is a reality that has been programmed and conditioned since the early 1970s. But, I am finding is something you can unwind, and separate the fact from fiction, and once you begin doing this you realize the urban landscape is a lot less intimidating. A lot richer and more diverse. There is a lot of culture in most of that noise. There is a lot of beauty in all that is happening. Also, that there is a lot of fear wound up in my brain regarding what I thought was happening in cities. I am not going to let myself flip the other way and believe that rural towns are dangerous places full of just backward people—-I know better. I am looking, to be honest about the challenges and dangers of both places, but honestly, I find myself captivated by the diversity of cities at this moment. It is just something that doesn’t exist in small-town America, and I have so much to learn from the black and brown people who live in East Bay right now, and living out in the woods or in a small town just seems very nutrient deficient to me. I need more right now.