After I graduated law school, I found a job in the legal profession (!) … in my hometown. Here I am, back where it all began.
I am from Rochester, New York. There are far worse places that you could live. In fact, as a pretty humble city, I suggest that Rochester adopts “there are far worse places that you could live” as its slogan. It has less violent crime than Detroit (Detroit has many fine attributes, like motown), lower average yearly snowfall than Anchorage (AND ten other U.S. Cities!), and, with over a million people in the Rochester metropolitan area, is by far the largest Rochester in the United States. George Eastman (founder of Kodak), Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, and Kristen Wiig have all called this city home. (A Marie Claire profile of Wiig referred to Rochester as a “suburban backwater,” which was a little harsh for a city with so many fine cultural institutions.) Did I mention that the National Museum of Play is here, too?
But this piece isn’t about Rochester, this is about hometowns, and living in yours as an adult — whether you’re from a mid-sized city, a mega-metropolis, or a small town. There’s a tendency, I think, to feel like if you live where you did at 14, maybe the rest of your life has become stagnant, too (you know, like a suburban backwater?). It’s easy to fear becoming that former varsity athlete who works at the same gas station he did senior year, reliving his glory days. Luckily for me, I was never very good at anything in high school, so that’s not really a danger. I don’t think appearing in the chorus of high school musicals and playing second doubles in tennis counts as “glory days” by any standard.
One bright spot if you find yourself back in your place of birth is the NBC series Parks and Recreation. It is a love letter to the hometown. The protagonist, Leslie Knope, is proud to be from Pawnee, Indiana, and is proud to live there still. As you watch the series, you can’t help but fall in love with Leslie’s enthusiasm about Pawnee, and hopefully you can catch some enthusiasm about your hometown, too. Here are some lessons I’ve learned from everyone’s favorite mid-level municipal employee:
(1) Nobody insults your hometown but you. And maybe you shouldn’t either. You will never see Knope more angry than when residents of nearby Eagleton snub Pawnee. Eagletonians are jerks, though: “When a tornado went through Pawnee, we asked Eagleton for help, but they claimed they weren’t home. The whole town said they weren’t home.” Your hometown is like your siblings when you were a kid: you might have complaints about them, but you would not put up with that kind of talk from anyone else. So when people make fun of your city’s downtown crow infestation, you should either remind them that at least that means the city’s secret uranium store didn’t kill them all, or take a cue from Leslie Knope and shut the whole conversation down:
(2) First in friendship, fourth in obesity. There are negative things about every city. Maybe the local sweets factory has contributed to a full-blown obesity bonanza. Maybe teen girl battles have compromised the municipal transit system. Despite its flaws, there are certainly plenty of wonderful people in your hometown. There’s something great about friends you have known for decades. But, some of Leslie’s best friends are not native Pawneeans. Remember that just because you grew up in your city, doesn’t mean everyone you meet there did. Be friendly and welcoming to newcomers, and they just might fall in love with your hometown, too. Ben Wyatt thought he was just passing through Pawnee, but the wonderful locals (well, mostly Leslie) changed his mind.
(3) Lil’ Sebastian Makes Everything Better. In one of Leslie’s greatest triumphs, she brings hometown hero Lil’ Sebastian (a winsome, elderly pony) back to the Harvest Festival. One of the best things about living in your hometown is being familiar with the local shorthand and in-jokes. Someone from Indianapolis or Eagleton might not understand the appeal of a geriatric pony with a heart of gold, but Pawneeans do. My city has a flagpole strung with lights instead of a municipal Christmas tree, a laser light show about an ill-fated 19th century daredevil and his pet bear, and our must-try cuisine is called a garbage plate. I love them all, because I grew up with them — except for the garbage plate, anyway. It is hard to understand these hometown heroes if you aren’t actually from the town – I remember the locals getting all fired up about “spiced wafers” when I lived in Philly, and I just didn’t understand it because they taste like a grandmother – but when you are from there, it’s magic.
(4) Success starts at home. Living in a small town doesn’t mean that Leslie Knope has given up on her dreams. Instead, she believes that she could be president one day. More importantly, she takes steps to achieve her dreams while she’s still in Pawnee, running an impassioned campaign to become Pawnee’s next councilwoman — just see her closing argument in “The Debate,” where Leslie suggests that maybe true success involves making a difference right where you are:
I love this town. And when you love something, you don’t punish it. You fight for it. You take care of it. You put it first. As your City Councilman, I will make sure that no one takes advantage of Pawnee. If I seem too passionate, it’s because I care. If I come on too strong, its because I feel strongly. And if I push too hard, it’s because things aren’t moving fast enough. This is my home, you are my family, and I promise you, I’m not going anywhere.
(5) If all else fails, just slisten to Amy Poehler. Here is Poehler’s take on her character’s life in Pawnee: “I think there’s something very romantic about people deciding to be in love with your own small town. There’s a lot of arc in art and literature about moving to the big city, and there’s something really sweet about moving to a small town.” Whenever she talks about her character, Poehler respects Knope’s tenacity, and never acts like Leslie is at all pathetic for living in her hometown. And neither are you. Just ask Leslie Knope (…unless you’re from Eagleton).