A Matter of Perspective
First, some backstory. The town of Natick is working on some serious visioning for the future. The program is called Natick 360 and it involves a great many people at a variety of levels of input and committment. I have attended some of their events and contributed my two cents at various times. I am impressed, really, at all the hard work that has gone into this. At the same time, I have been involved with the MICAH interfaith social justice project here in Metrowest. Because of this, I have spent a great deal of time in Framingham, one town west of Natick.
As I was driving through Framingham this week I noticed, not for the first time, how big it is. It is officially a town (it has a representative town meeting, selectmen, etc.) but it feels like a city with its large and diverse population and many services and cultural opportunities. "Hm," I thought to myself, "I wonder how big Framingham is compared to, say, Portland, Maine". I am from Maine and my sister and her family live in Portland. Mainers think of it as city, if not the city as it has the largest population in the state. Lewiston is Second, incidentally, and Bangor is third.
So I went home and took a look. Here is what I found out: Portland (in 2000) had 64, 249 people. Framingham had 66, 910. Yep, if Framingham were in Maine, it would be the biggest city.
I also checked out the population for Natick, Framingham's largest neighbor. It was 32, 170. South Portland, who sustains a similar relationship to Portland (complete with a mall) is at 23, 324. Natick, in fact, was slightly larger than Bangor (31, 074 in 2005)! Most of these numbers are six years old, of course, but if you know Maine and you know Metrowest, one can only assume that, if there is any change, the gap has probably grown a little bit.
What makes this interesting to me is how our image of our selves and of a place can get a bit confused. When folks talk about Natick, they always like to say what a small town it is. In fact, whenever I imply that it might not be as small as people think, I usually get interesting looks, as if they expect me to have sewn a scarlet gadfly into all of my clothing. The fact is, I have lived in small towns where everyone knows each other and Natick isn't it. It is a great place to live, sure, but there are plenty of strangers who will probably stay that way until we choose to recognize them. In order to that we need to recognize our size.
It also works the other way, too. I am not so sure that Portland will ever seem all that big to me again. Maybe this has happened to you from time to time, a change of location can alter your understanding of who you are and your place in the world. This is one reason why it is important to explore and travel. It is also a good reason to question our assumptions.