How a Christmas favorite shows a yearning for small-town life
Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 26, 1998
By Thomas Hylton
Thousands of families will gather around the television today and in the coming weeks to watch the 1946 Christmas classic, "It´s A Wonderful Life." Jimmy Stewart portrays George Bailey, a likable young man who sacrifices college and the big world beyond in order to run the small-town savings and loan started by his father. Bailey feels life is passing him by as he helps the struggling families of Bedford Falls build homes of their own. But in his darkest hour, a guardian angel shows him he has enriched his town and earned the enduring love of his neighbors.
A financial flop at its release, "It´s a Wonderful Life" has grown to be one of the most beloved movies of all time. Ironically, the film evokes a way of life that has been largely abandoned by middle class Americans. They have forsaken towns like Bedford Falls, with their cozy main streets, diverse populations, and walkable neighborhoods, for big houses on two-acre lots.
But the suburban lifestyle is beginning to wear thin. The countryside quickly loses its character and charm when houses are plopped willy nilly over hill and valley. Newcomers seeking seclusion and open vistas soon find their bucolic Edens marred by successive waves of immigrants looking for the same thing.
Building farther and farther out forces people to travel greater distances, dooming suburbanites to a wearisome life behind the wheel. It maroons their children, whose days are rigorously scheduled so adults can ferry them from place to place. While acquiring and maintaining rural McMansions fulfills a desire for status and exclusivity, living in one often leads to feelings of emptiness and isolation.
Thus the powerful feelings evoked by "A Wonderful Life." People yearn for the sense of place and belonging that only a real town can provide.
From an economic and environmental point of view, traditional towns have tremendous advantages over low-density suburbia. Consider this example: Limerick Township, one of the fastest growing municipalities in Montgomery County, has numerous isolated housing subdivisions spread over 23 square miles. It has a strip mall instead of a downtown. Its 9,000 residents, of necessity, do a lot of driving.
Let´s divide Limerick´s population into two small towns. Half the population, 4,500 people, would live in a town of 0.5 square mile, exactly like Narberth. The other 4,500 people would live in another town of 0.5 square mile, exactly like Jenkintown. These towns, like real-life Jenkintown and Narberth, have small downtown shopping districts and dwellings of every size and type.
Thanks to these towns´ compact size, everyone in Limerick Township is now housed on less than 5 percent of the township´s total land area, preserving the remaining 95 percent as open space. Because the infrastructure is limited, efficiently, to a small area, taxpayers are spared substantial costs for roads and utilities. Moreover, our little towns are populated with enough density to support public transportation. Family auto fleets can be pared down, along with the substantial expenses that attend each car.
Because 4,500 people are enough to support a public school system, and because either town can be traversed in a fifteen-minute walk, each town has its own schools and students can walk to them.
Real towns offer us something else, more difficult to quantify, but equally important: an opportunity to feel part of something larger than ourselves. Within a two-block radius of my home in Pottstown, for example, are churches, small stores, an elementary school, homes and apartments of every size, and our town hall. Every walking errand takes me past someone I know or something I love. In a small way, my daily walks have made me a participant in weddings and Sunday services, playground recess, walking the dog, buying the groceries, delivering the mail.
I grew up in a white world, but 25 years of living in an integrated neighborhood have taught me not to fear blacks, Hispanics, or people whose income and education are not parallel to mine. Physical proximity, I think, encourages the personal contact needed to dissolve fear and alienation. And rather than detracting from my town, new neighbors and new growth enhance it. Every new store, office, and dwelling -- sensitively designed -- adds to the richness and fabric of my community.
Living in a small town, rather than a suburban subdivision, really is a wonderful life.