Sizing up the city

As an urban dweller all my life, I’ve long been intrigued by how various cities see themselves:  perception of their own size doesn’t seem to be well-modulated by population or other empirical data.  The cities of the Bay Area are a case–that is a suite of cases–in point, with San Francisco weighing in at under a million but carrying the heft of history and density, while San Jose is bigger, sprawlier and johnny come latelier, factors that continue to give many within it the idea that it’s “just” a small city.  In truth, California nomenclature makes “city” into a funny word because every incorporated municipality is one; this leads to suggest concepts at City of Industry and City of Hawaiian Gardens (neither of which is in the Bay Area).

In contrast, Massachusetts has very few entities which are classified as cities; instead, incorporated municipalities are largely towns. When I was a child, my mother used to giggle when we drove through the countryside in Massachusetts and come upon warning signs on the road: “Thickly Settled.”  Apparently, a collection of any 17 residents in a certain geographic proximity led to the need for such a warning.

Massachusetts’ largest city, of course, is Boston, and herein lies a similarity to Halifax: both outstrip their regional siblings by yonks and yet both claim a kind of small town status. In neither case is it pretension or artifice; residents really have the self-perception of their city as an alternative to the hyperurban “other cities” like Manchester or Prague.  A lot of people in Boston and Halifax, just like lots in Manchester and Prague, have “always” been here and lots of others have moved in from outlying parts of the immediate region within a generation or two, moves of distances small enough that–on the California scale–might have been barely a shift in high school district.

Of course, there are scads of other elements that are important to any city’s identity:  history, natural resources, diversity, economic position in the region.  But size seems to matter to city dwellers, or, more frankly, self-perception of size.

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