Strong values can thrive in big city, too

Small-town America has always been held up as an ideal.

Norman Rockwell made a fine living re-creating it in his paintings.

John Cougar Mellencamp hit the charts singing about it.

You can never go wrong proclaiming small-town roots and the stalwart values that automatically follow.

Part myth, part reality, the images of small-town life go down smoothly: kids playing baseball on a flawless field, mom setting a blueberry pie out on the windowsill, and flags – lots of red, white and blue – fluttering in the breeze.

You hear it in the rhetoric of a presidential election season. Vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, from Wasilla, Alaska – population 7,000 or so – voiced it in her much-quoted GOP convention speech.

The people in small towns, she said, “are the ones who do some of the hardest work in America ... They love their country, in good times and bad…”

So starts (again) a culture war, with a soothing small-town image used as a weapon. We all know the identity of the unnamed villain in this scenario: the big, bad city, full of crooks, crime and corruption.

I grew up in a big city.

My family didn't have a lawn, but we did have values.

We attended St. Pius V, where my mother competed with the other ladies in a yearly women's day to see which team could raise the most money, for the church and charity.

When snow covered the concrete sidewalks, my father – after coming home from one of his several jobs – would shovel our pavement, and then clear the walks of elderly neighbors. I knew those families well, since I scrubbed their white-marble steps after finishing my household chores.

At nights in the summertime, we would gather on those steps for games and chatter and wait for the ice cream truck to deliver sweet relief from the Baltimore humidity.

Everyone gathered in good times, but especially when tragedy struck. I remember the funeral of the teenager two doors down, who was killed six weeks after his Vietnam tour of duty began. Years later, I ran my fingers across his name on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, where no distinction is made between big-city and small-town sacrifice.

What is a big city, anyway, but groups of neighborhoods where people look after one another?

Not that I'm immune to small-town charms.

When I worked in New York City, I lived just miles but a world away, across the George Washington Bridge in Cresskill, N.J., population 8,000 (give or take a few hundred). I loved getting away from my hectic work life to a place where, at Halloween time, costumed children led by a fire truck would parade to town hall for some primo pumpkin-carving.

One year, our neighbors across the street, who were Asian American, took our son into the big city next door for Chinese New Year.

I'm still not sure why some people need to feel their way is not only the best way, but also the only way.

To me, straddling both worlds was a perfect mix. My family could enjoy what both had to offer, people whose values of kindness and friendship never end at the county line.