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I hadn’t read The Smithsonian for years. Back in the 1970s I actually subscribed to it. That was in the days when Stephen Jay Gould contributed columns to the magazine. I liked Gould’s columns. They were witty and informative. At that point I did not know that Gould was a Chomskian-left activist and scientific fraud. (At Harvard he taught a course of his own devising titled “Biology as a Social Weapon.”)

Well, I was sitting in the local radiology place waiting for another damn scan (suspected blood clot on my lung—it never ends, it never ends). There was a pile of magazines. I picked through them. The usual selection: People, Sports Illustrated, Us, and a lot of health and fitness stuff. I couldn’t care less about people—well, not about those people—have no interest in sports, resent the inclusive implications of Us that yokes me in with a host of vapid celebrities, and am sunk in the despairing conclusion that I shall never know health or fitness again and would therefore prefer not to be reminded of them.

And then, The Smithsonian. I recalled my subscription days back in the 1970s, the mystic chords of memory chimed in, and I picked it up and started browsing.

It was the May 2012 issue. The main item was “The 20 Best Small Towns in America.”

Best how? Climate? Wealth? Low crime? High academic achievement? Let The Smithsonian explain:

To help create our list, we asked the geographic information systems company Esri to search its data bases for high concentrations of museums, historic sites, botanic gardens, resident orchestras, art galleries and other cultural assets common to big cities. But we focused on towns with populations less than 25,000.…

At this point I began to suspect that the whole thing was a spoof by the Stuff White People Like website. (For my review of their 2008 book with the same title, see here.)

What has actually happened is that some subset of the Stuff White People Like (SWPL) Bobos lost their grip on irony and have fallen into unconscious self-parody.

Thus we read of the very first town on the list—Great Barrington, MA—that:

Pedestrians [are] stalled in the crosswalk trying to decide whether to have sushi or chimichangas for dinner. Others carry yoga mats, bags of farmers’ market produce, books, CDs, double espressos and all the other stuff it’s hard to find in surrounding Berkshire Mountain villages….

We also hear from a local NPR (!) director that:

Great Barrington is a small, manageable, economically and ethnically mixed town.

That started me wondering just how ethnically mixed Great Barrington and the other Best Small Towns are. I brought up and opened a spreadsheet. Look, it’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it. In what follows, bear in mind that the USA as a whole is 63.7% non-Hispanic white, 12.2% non-Hispanic black, 16.3% Hispanic, and 7.8% Other.

Great Barrington turned out to be deplorably un-diverse, the NPR guy notwithstanding. The percentages of white-black-Hispanic are 84.9-2.6-7.7. Smithsonian readers might have to hunt around for those chimichangas. For the sushi, too: Great Barrington is only 2% Asian compared to a national average of 4.8%.

Taking the 20 Best Small Towns as a whole, though, the averages are less embarrassing. Three of the 20 have white populations below the national average: Taos, NM, Red Bank, NJ, and Marfa, TX. Two—Taos and Marfa—are actually minority-white, whatever commenter #5 says. The overall averages for white-black-Hispanic in the 20 Best are 75.5-5.0-13.5. Blacks are thus seriously under-represented, but Hispanics are up close to the national average.

The general ambience, though, is SWPL. Mill Valley, CA:

A more recent influx of wealthy commuters has made Mill Valley (pop. 13,900) one of the nation’s wealthiest ZIP codes. Shops, galleries, organic food restaurants and art festivals cater to the newcomers….

Gig Harbor, WA:

On any given summer weekend there’s likely to be a chowder cook-off, a quilt show or a festival celebrating boats, gardens or wine; vendors at the farmers’ market offer mandolin lessons along with strawberries and grass-fed beef.

Naples, FL doesn’t sound too bad:

If most of the folks you meet are over 65, in Naples old age looks pretty golden. Ask a duffer with a fishing pole how he likes his martinis and he’ll tell you the third one’s always beautiful….

My kinda folk; and I like the sound of that “state of the art concert hall” with its all-classical programs.

With Key West, FL, though, we’re back in Bobo-land:

Hippies, artists, writers and chefs have sustained a vibrant, kitschy art scene for decades.

Spare me. And do people still use the word “vibrant” non-ironically to mean something other than “crime-riddled multicultural slum”? On one hand, Key West is whiter than the USA at large, though only slightly (66.1%). On the other, it has 19% more crime than the US average given by, with particularly high levels of burglary and theft.

The place that raised most objections from commenters was Butler, PA at #7. “A business and cultural hub,” says The Smithsonian, but commenters beg to differ.

The first word that comes to mind when I think of Butler is rust.

Most of the town is run-down and its inhabitants below the poverty line.

I live here and it is NO paradise, talked to many people who live here and they cannot believe this town made the list.

The only people who would even consider Butler a great small town are those who have never been here, and those who have no clue.

Butler, Pa.? Really? Did you visit, before saying that it has a thriving downtown?

Butler, Pa.? Grew up there. A serious dump.

Someone was smoking something—most likely bought in Butler—to put Butler on the list.

All that is available in Butler right now is new shoes, a good meal, buying drugs, sex and beat up [sic].

On the other hand:

It has a tremendous ethnic diversity….

Not according to, it doesn’t: white 92.1%, black 2.6, Hispanic 2.4. Butler does, though, have a crime rate 5% above the national average, with robbery especially high (252 per 100,000 against a national average of 119). But then:

Butler is probably the least cool place in Pennsylvania, and possibly all of the United States.

The least cool, huh? And I see Pennsylvania has “shall issue” laws for concealed carry, which reduces the robbery stats’ salience. Butler—that could be my retirement home right there.

(Republished from Takimag by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Race/Ethnicity 
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