My big city love-hate relationship

Considering all the places I’ve lived over the years, my fascination with big cities would seem an anomaly.

I mean, I grew up in what’s considered a medium-sized city but at the fringe of the city limits. We actually had a working dairy farm less than a block away from our house. As a teen I could ride my bicycle to the public library downtown or my grandparents beyond, though it was in heavy traffic. But that was before the suburban bloat that now engulfs its blot on the map.

I also lived on three farms, which make appearances in Pit-a-Pat High Jinks, Yoga Bootcamp, and the upcoming Nearly Canaan.

Most of the cities were in the 30,000 to 40,000 population range, with Baltimore being the metropolitan exception and Binghamton, New York, and Manchester, New Hampshire, each around 100,000 in the metropolitan area, coming in much smaller than my hometown.

These days I live an hour north of Boston – or more, depending on traffic.

Yes, I do have a certificate in urban studies as part of my college diploma, and cities are the home to high culture I find essential – symphony orchestras, opera companies, art museums and galleries, live theater, art movie houses.

Yet I rarely venture forth to these, in part because of the expense and in part because I find myself being nurtured by them in other ways. For instance, I habitually listen to live broadcasts of Boston Symphony concerts and Metropolitan Opera performances. And I do sing in a choir in a Boston suburb and have wonderful memories of the city’s skyline after some of our concerts. That part’s magical. But all in all, it’s kind of like listening to the Sox games rather than actually going to Fenway … just part of life around here.

Each week, as I go to rehearsals, I’m always astonished at the lines of cars waiting ten or twenty minutes just to get off an expressway in afternoon rush hour traffic. Just think of the stress and precious time that’s expended daily. I’m so glad I’ve been spared that.

As for the packed subway trains at that hour? It’s a fascinating study in humanity, but for me it borders on claustrophobia plus. Somehow, I’ve survived those, uh, assaults of moving from one station to another. Nowadays I can walk to downtown.

My novel Subway Visions stands as an emblem of my relationship to a big city. Like Kenzie, I once thought I’d be living and working in cosmopolitan circles. I came close once, in Detroit – hardly my ideal, then or now. As for Baltimore, I was largely out on the road during the week and, when that ceased, I hunkered down in a self-awarded sabbatical. So events ultimately led me in other directions.

I do enjoy our trips into Boston and, these days, other New England cities. But candidly, I also relish returning home to our small historic mill town of 30,000, free of so much kinetic energy in the air. How else do you think I find time to write?

Polycentric community adds up

With the release of Subway Visions, I’ve been returning to considerations of urban affairs. It’s not all New York City, either, even though the novel takes place there.

For me, the big city these days is Boston. I live an hour to the north – or northeast, more technically. I can even take the train in, as well as the hourly bus, which is quite comfortable and also links us to the airport. (You’d be surprised at the number of pilots and other airline personnel who are boarding from here.)

So we can go in for concerts or museums or dim sum on weekday mornings. We’re not exactly stuck in the sticks.

On the other hand, I live in a city of nearly 30,000 – the largest of a cluster of small cities that together form a larger population base to sustain our varied interests.

Portsmouth, 15 minutes to our south, is wealthier and more fashionable. It has probably as many restaurants per capita as Manhattan as well as several theater companies, the Music Hall, and art galleries.

The state university is ten minutes to our west, and about a third of its students rent apartments in our city. The school runs its own buses to serve them and anyone else who wants to pay to ride. Its library, of course, is a marvelous resource for independent writers and scholars.

In other words, I have no reason to feel deprived. Well, sometimes I wish the Harvard Book Store were closer or Symphony Hall. But I still have my choir in Watertown.

Looking at this has me recalling my mentor in political science, Vincent Ostrom, who coined the concept of “polycentric” to describe the overlapping jurisdictions that govern American polity. A city typically falls within a county, for instance, as well as a state and then the nation. Nowadays there may also be special districts to address things like water, pollution, or transportation needs.

As mayor of Baltimore, William Donald Schaefer took the concept in another direction by enhancing neighborhood identity and decision-making to revitalize a big city. Adjustments could be made in neighborhood settings even while having a central tax base, police and fire services, water and sewer system, and so on.

So my city has a much different identity and feel from Portsmouth or Durham or Rochester or Somersworth or the Berwicks over the state line in Maine. And yet we’re all conscious, even proud, of our identity as the Seacoast Region.

Do you see how these many circles begin to overlap, each adding to the richness we enjoy?

As the hippie phrase used to go, “Small is beautiful.” But, in this universe I’m describing, it doesn’t have to be confining or impoverishing, either.

For now, I do feel I have the best of both worlds.