Bursting the Small Town Bubble
It's not easy growing up and believing you were raised in a big town
Before you read, I need you to take this 30 second, one question survey. It is the same one from my last post, but I foolishly linked the survey at the end of my screed instead of at the beginning, limiting the number of responses I received. To motivate answers, I will choose a random survey respondent and mail them a mystery IBT sticker, free of charge. If you already submitted a reply, no need to fill the form out again. Thanks!
Roughly 13.7 percent of families with children move houses in any given year. My family was not one of them. To this day, whenever I return to Central New York to visit my parents and siblings, I walk through the same door as when I was a shithead teenager trying to hide the beer on his breath.
Having the same home for such an extended period has led to unintended mental dissonances. I am a 25-year-old man, complete with a retirement account and neck pain, and yet whenever I am back in Manlius, I catch myself asking mom for permission first before I meet up with friends. Some of that urge comes out of respect — and some necessity in terms of juggling car needs — but much of the feeling is my instinctual adolescence kicking in again, the walls and floors that watched me grow up snapping me back in time ten years.
My home, the literal house in which I was raised, was and still is phenomenal. It has its quirks, like the permanent spider population in the basement bathroom and a Wi-Fi setup that was built for the Nintendo DS rather than working from home, but altogether I am incredibly grateful for what my parents provided. Residing unencumbered in an isolated basement bedroom that was designed with grandparents in mind rather than teenage sons was a dream come true as a high school kid.
My hometown, on the other hand, left much to be desired.
My dad briefly served on the Manlius Planning Board when I was younger. I am unsure how he ended up in the roll. He certainly never ran for an election, but with the board’s main responsibilities consisting of arbitrating signage disputes and mapping out new drive-thrus, I’m not sure an election would have been necessary.
One of his favorite jokes from this period — a joke which, in classic dad fashion, he trots out to this day — was to feign excitement whenever a new bank opened in Manlius, as it often seemed that banks were the only thing to ever come to the town. The whole reason the board was so free to adjudicate whether the lights on local stores’ signs were too bright was because there wasn’t much in the way of planning to be done with Manlius.
Undoubtedly, there were positives to growing up in Manlius. The school district was excellent, with college acceptance built into the high school experience as the norm rather than the exception. People left their doors and cars unlocked. And while there might not have been a plethora of activities in the immediate vicinity, Manlius is located roughly an hour away from the Finger Lakes, Adirondack Mountains, and Lake Ontario, three gorgeous natural attractions that, even in California, I miss.
Subscribing to a free and independent Substack? I bet they wouldn’t try THAT in a small town!
The incredible homogeneity of Manlius, with its banks and gas stations and single-family homes and SUVs, created a specific cognitive dissonance that I am just now recognizing: To those of us at Fayetteville-Manlius High School, or FM, we were the Big Town in the area.
Much of the suburbanization of Syracuse and the Central New York region happened on the city’s northern end. Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, Syracuse shrank due to white flight and the loss of manufacturing.
The nail in the coffin was the decision to route Interstate 81 directly through the city, decimating Syracuse’s Black community and allowing northern towns now connected to Syracuse by highway like Liverpool, Baldwinsville, and Cicero to grow rapidly. Today, the Cicero-North Syracuse district is so large that its district had to move their ninth grade into a separate building; otherwise, their high school enrollment would be on par with that of the larger New York City schools.
Thanks to an early connection to the city by trolley in 1898 and ample running water to power industry and shipping, the Manlius suburbs had grown quickly since their establishment. But by the latter half of the 20th century, left alone on the southeastern fringe of Syracuse and ignored by both the north-south and east-west interstates built through the region, it became clear that the southern suburbs would never reach the same heights as those on the northern end of the city, creating the Big Town illusion.
Since the towns further out from Manlius never saw the population booms of those to the north, they maintained their rural, agricultural feel, giving FM students like myself a smug sense of superiority to those in the boonies of towns like Cazenovia and Chittenango.
While I moved far away in a physical sense for college, culturally, South Bend and Syracuse might as well be twins. They are both small, Rust Belt cities once powered by manufacturing and currently reliant on their local university for much of their economic activity. I would further argue that Syracuse has much more in common culturally with a true Midwestern city like South Bend than it does with similarly sized urban centers closer to New York City like Albany.
This change-that-wasn’t kept me firmly ensconced in my Big Town Bubble, allowing me to laugh off jokes from visiting college friends about how small of a town it was. “Sure,” I told myself, “Manlius is not Los Angeles or Chicago, but it’s no hick-town like Canastota!”
Then I moved to Sacramento.
The errors in my ways were still not readily apparent, however, as my first few visits back home after moving out for real were marred by the pandemic. It is hard to familiarize yourself with your new home or reconceptualize your old home when you are isolating from others for much of the time.
Finally, in summer 2022, I visited a Manlius free from pandemic restrictions. I was free to walk the hallowed corridors of Destiny USA without a mask and eat Tully’s tenders freshly crisped in the restaurant instead of out of a takeout box. I even brought my girlfriend back to finally meet my parents.
Immediately, I noticed things were different.
Except, no, they weren’t. Manlius hadn’t turned into a pandemic boomtown like a Boise or Las Vegas. There was little in the way of new construction or business to speak of, although the addition of a brewery within walking distance of my house was a nice touch.
Instead, I was the one who had changed. Living in Sacramento had burst my Big Town Bubble for good. Sacramento’s suburbs were ten times the size of Manlius! Sacramento County is home to more people than the entire state of Wyoming! And to top it off, I was seeing Manlius through my girlfriend’s eyes as well, she who had insisted when we first met that she too grew up in a small town.
None of this should be construed as a dunk on my girlfriend. The very point of this post is that everyone’s expectations and norms are defined by their own lived experiences. My mother, who spent the first three decades of her life in the various metros of New England, always took care to point out that being a big deal in Manlius was the definition of big fish in a small pond; it took me moving away and coming back to finally understand how she meant that.
This post is, however, a dunk on my younger self. I recently visited Manlius again, spending a week working remotely from my teenage bedroom and catching up with family and friends. Exactly three years removed from my time as a Manlius resident, the smallness of Manlius had finally crystalized to me. The ironic foolishness of having poked fun at the even smaller towns nearby was painfully clear.
One of the reasons I visited when I did was to celebrate my twin brother and sisters 21st birthday. To celebrate, I offered to drive them downtown to the bars so they could drink and have fun without worrying about how to make it home. Mapping out a route that would allow me to drop off a friend without wasting time, Google Maps sent me past multiple farms. I was 25 minutes from the heart of Syracuse.
In Oakland, where I now reside, you can easily spend 25 minutes stuck on the freeway waiting for your exit to clear. And yet, people from Los Angeles or San Diego probably think of the East Bay cities as quaint or even irrelevant, much as I thought of Manlius’ neighbors.
In addition to my personal experiences, there was one key piece of information that helped me recalibrate my understanding of where I was raised. Manlius, located in Onondaga County, is a mere 30-minute drive away from being in Appalachia. When people think Appalachia, they often think of coal miners and John Denver, not the Syracuse Orange. But the Appalachian Regional Commission, which legally defines Appalachia’s boundaries, demarcates Cortland County, the next county south of Onondaga, as part of the region’s northern extent.
I learned this fact nearly two years ago and am still floored whenever it comes to mind. But the more I contextualize my hometown, the more the Appalachian association makes sense. Central New York has always been a weird place culturally, an area where you can drive past Confederate flags on your way to the birthplace of the women’s suffrage movement. Most Syracuse manufacturing plants closed decades ago, taking tens of thousands of jobs with them overseas. The landscape is marked by rolling hills and dozens of creeks — or hollers, as those in more traditional Appalachia would call them.
I anticipate that my relationship with Manlius will continue to change as I age. It is already easier to ignore the negative memories of feeling trapped in a suburb without a car or of the blizzards so intense they trapped you even if you did have a car in favor of recollections of the long summer nights lit by fireflies and sledding through the sound barrier at the library.
As unlikely as it feels to me now, maybe one day cities will lose their appeal and I will find myself once again in a small town. If this day comes, I will be sure not to allow myself to develop Big Town Bubble syndrome.
Things I Enjoyed This Week
Searching for Friends in Mark Zuckerberg’s Metaverse | Intelligencer
The Dirty Secrets of a Smear Campaign | The New Yorker
Colombia Tries a Transformative Left Turn | Council on Foreign Relations
Thank you as always for reading! I missed my self-imposed weekly deadline by a bit, but not by too much.
I want to offer the Bluesky code one more time in case someone wants it. I like the platform and want it to succeed, as each day we draw ever closer to Twitter/X requiring you to scan your irises before logging on. If you click the link above and register for a new account, you can use this code to skip the waiting process for an invite.
If someone uses the code, I’ll share a new one next post.
Remember not to work too hard today!