Celebrating the Attractions of Small Cities

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via Wikimedia Commons by Acroterion
German Street in Shepherdstown, WV, via Wikimedia Commons by Acroterion

When I talk about cities I have visited, I use sensory language. I describe the art or architecture I saw, the unique foods I consumed, the sounds of nature or of music I heard, the landscape I traversed or the people with whom I connected. Big city or small city, in the U.S. or abroad, my experiences are similar. There is always something unique or compelling that creates a story about this or that place.

I have previously written on this blog about thriving and creative small cities. Shepherdstown, West Virginia was one such community that offers a range of activities and amenities that draws visitors to the Shenandoah from across the region. This community, while charming, is not unique. In fact a magazine called American Style has been reporting on the creativity and imagination of smaller communities for many years. Although generally focused on arts and cultural assets, the stories about cities represent the wealth of diversity that causes us to celebrate June as Small Cities Month.

There are few things more delightful than outdoor concerts. Eureka Springs, Arkansas offers a veritable cornucopia of music programs year round. A recent look at the city’s website shows an activity calendar listing the 27th Annual Arts Festival in May, the bluegrass festival in June, the 64th season of Opera in the Ozarks during July and the jazz festival in September.

The visual arts – painting, sculpture, metalwork, photography, etc. – offer other opportunities for communities to advantage a unique strength. The Ox-Bow School and artist-in-residence program in Saugatuck, Michigan is one such example. This program was established in 1910 and is now affiliated with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. From a beach, harbor and arts and crafts town, Saugatuck has catalyzed their artist colony status into a genuine growth industry.

Sarasota, Florida may offer the most eclectic mix of arts and culture of any city. The long-established Ringling International Arts Festival (Yes, THAT Ringling) puts circus arts front and center as well as dance and music. A more sublime event will run concurrently during 2014, the 27th Annual Downtown Festival of the Arts. This event provides exhibition space to creators of sculpture, painting, jewelry and crafts. Multi-cultural foods tend to grace all events in Sarasota.

Film and music are at the center of the arts festivals in Aspen, Colorado. The annual FilmFest has grown over the years to rival the film events hosted in Cannes, Toronto and Sundance. The historic Wheeler Opera House offers an unmatched venue for previewing autumn new releases, documentaries or Oscar-quality performances. For those whose tastes run to music, the Aspen Music Festival attracts world-class performers and guest artists.

Programs that showcase the arts and culture thrive in smaller cities as well as in larger ones. Many of these festivals have grown from modest events highlighting local artists and performers in ad hoc spaces into high visibility orchestrations with professional management and national or international reputations. Proof that an investment in cultural and arts programming is an investment well made.

Brooks, J.A. 2010About the Author: James Brooks is NLC’s Director for City Solutions. He specializes in local practice areas related to housing, neighborhoods, infrastructure, and community development and engagement.  Follow Jim on Twitter @JamesABrooks.