How big exactly is a small city? This came up at my panel at the Urban History Conference (and rightfully so, it was organized around the theme of small cities). Being a notion central to my research, I have thought a bit about what exactly it means, making some notes about what other sources have to say. NPR looked for art in “small to mid-sized cities” which it described as cities with under 50,000 people. I make the case that Grand Rapids is a small to mid-sized city, though its population is much larger (190,000 in the city and 750,000 in the metropolitan area). However, from my discussion with and readings of other scholars who study small cities, it seems pretty clear that the “smallness” of cities is not about size.
Instead, the city’s economic and social positioning is what really matters as to whether or not a city is “small” or “big.” So while Grand Rapids is the regional center of Western Michigan (it’s size and regional importance are making me think I should start using the term “mid,” but for consistency’s sake, I’ll stay with calling it and others “small” cities) it is very much in the shadow of Detroit and Chicago.
A quick way to find out whether your city is small or big is to look at its amenities. Does it have a professional sports team? Then it’s probably a big city. What about a major airport? I think you can make a good case. While I can continue to name non-scientific measuring sticks, I will look at a few commonalities of the nature of small cities to bring out the essence of a small city.
Fills an economic niche
Lacking the size to boast a robust, autonomous economy of its own, small cities specialize in one or a few closely related industries in order to gain national and even international importance. While on the most part small cities sit on a secondary or tertiary level of the national economy, these particular industries can allow the city to move up to a limited, but significant, place in the national marketplace.
Grand Rapids is the “Furniture City.”
Battle Creek is the “Cereal City.”
Akron is the “Rubber Capital of the World.”
Parks and Rec’s Pawnee, Indiana is even home to Sweetums.
Small and powerful elite
Often the family or families running a small city’s primary industry amass a large fortune. This vast amount of wealth that comes from controlling these national companies in small (and less expensive) cities grants them a huge amount of power over local affairs as major employers and city benefactors.
Grand Rapids’ early twentieth century had several important families, many heading furniture companies, though the better example comes from the contemporary city with Amway’s DeVos and Van Andel families. In Battle Creek, there was the Kellogg family and in Akron the Firestone, Goodrich, and other rubber elites. For Parks and Rec, it’s the Newport family.
Large (sometimes unusual) events designed to attract attention
Big cities don’t necessarily need large events to promote tourism and their local economy. These cities can rely on its attractive nature to turn ordinary events into large ones (such as the popularity of the New York, Chicago, or Boston marathons). Some cities themselves even become tourist attractions. A city like New York can have tourist buses drive around the city everyday. Grand Rapids, not so much. Instead, small cities take a strategy similar to their economic specialization. Small cities pick one event and make it big.