What makes a small town big on culture? For the second year running, we sought a statistical answer to this question by asking the geographic information company Esri to search its databases for small towns and cities—this time, with populations of less than 15,000—that have exceptional concentrations of museums, art galleries, orchestras, theaters, historic sites and other cultural blessings. Happily, the top towns also boast heartwarming settings where the air is a little fresher, the grass greener, the pace gentler than in metropolitan America. Generally, they’re devoted to preserving their historic centers, encouraging talent and supporting careful economic growth. There’s usually an institution of higher learning, too.
Most important are the people, unpretentious people with small-town values and high cultural expectations—not a bad recipe for society at large. As a sign on a chalkboard in Cleveland, Mississippi (our No. 2) puts it, “Be nice. The world is a small town.”
They’re picking Dungeness crab down at Bornstein Seafoods. Chowder’s on the hob at Josephson’s Smokehouse and the chef at Baked Alaska is preparing thundermuck tuna. In a dental office at the foot of 12th Street, patients sit in a chair that overlooks the Columbia River on its last massive surge to the Pacific Ocean. When the dentist disappears, it could be he’s gone out to the porch to see if there’s a sturgeon on his line.
One way or another, it’s about fish in this town. Wild salmon put Astoria on the map two centuries ago when 16 million of them swam upriver to spawn every year. Salmon fishing earned fortunes, gave work to immigrants, turned canneries into mints and lined the steep streets with flush banks, proud wood-steepled churches and Victorian mansions. And so they still call it “Little San Francisco.”