A city where time stands still?
August 28, 2012 12:08 PM   Subscribe

FictionFilter: I was going to use a fictional city, but decided to opt for realism. What is the most white bread, vanilla, time-stands-still city in the United States? I'm thinking 1958 in 2012. I know that is 'literally' impossible, but as close as you can come.

I'm thinking the city is probably very conservative, white as snow, lots of churches, they rarely see a tattoo or hear hip-hop music. Population is 50,000 and up.

Real experiences with said community would be helpful as so many cities have been stereotyped and they're not actually what we perceive them to be.

Does this place exist? If not, I may go the fictional city route, but I'd rather not.

As always, thanks in advance!
posted by Gerard Sorme to Society & Culture (58 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Chillicothe, Ohio
posted by mdrew at 12:10 PM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Derby or Ansonia, CT.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 12:15 PM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Use a fictional city, because if you get one thing wrong (and you will get many things wrong) people from that city will be down on you like a ton of bricks.

Wichita, Kansas would be pretty reasonable inspiration, as might be Boise, Idaho; Spokane, Washington; and Augusta, Maine.

The major city in the US with the highest percentage of "white, non-Hispanic" residents is Portland, Oregon, which generally surprises people.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:24 PM on August 28, 2012 [3 favorites]

Janesville, WI (pop. 63,575). Hometown of Paul Ryan and a famous KKK cross-burning in 1992.
posted by theodolite at 12:25 PM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Livonia, Michigan. 90-plus percent white (which is a drastic improvement over the last few decades), a bit under 100,000 people, will elect any crazy-ass Republican, almost pure suburbs, so many churches that when a friend told me his wife worked at "the Lutheran church," it took me six guesses to get which one (and there are way more Catholic ones).
posted by Etrigan at 12:27 PM on August 28, 2012

I think any attempt at generalizations and stereotypes will fail, frankly. Tattoos might be less on display in Olde Lyme CT, but I'm pretty sure you hear hip-hop. Maybe Jupiter Island, FL lacks hip-hop, but not so many churches, either. Just use your imagination and invent someplace or maybe you can ask Garrison Keillor if you can borrow Lake Woebegon. Lots of churches, white people and not much hip-hop.
posted by Ideefixe at 12:35 PM on August 28, 2012

Boise, ID ain't it. Not sure where you got that idea.
posted by Picklegnome at 12:42 PM on August 28, 2012

Springfield, Missouri.

posted by crackingdes at 12:43 PM on August 28, 2012 [8 favorites]

I've slept on the floor of a punk squat in Chillicothe.

In my experience, Derby and Ansonia are on the lower end of the economic scale for CT and are going to have more kids with tattoos and piercings, and they are both under 20k in population.
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed at 12:44 PM on August 28, 2012

Either of the two major non-Fargo cities in North Dakota, Grand Forks or Bismarck. I'd avoid Fargo because of the movie-related baggage, and I suppose GF might be a little too liberal given the presence of the University of North Dakota.

(North Dakota has the highest number of churches per capita in the US and has the 6th highest percentage of non-Hispanic white residents.)
posted by easy, lucky, free at 12:45 PM on August 28, 2012

Boise, ID ain't it. Not sure where you got that idea.

Census figures alone. What's it really like?
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:48 PM on August 28, 2012

Waukesha, WI. Population 64,825, 91% white alone, 62% McCain in 2008.
posted by Hollywood Upstairs Medical College at 12:48 PM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Okay, also Boise's city website and tourism website. But I am ready to be corrected!
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:51 PM on August 28, 2012

Places like Boise and Portland are certainly white - but they're definitely not 'time stands still.' They are progressive and hip and very much not 1958. If anything, Portland and Boise are like really hip versions of 1975.

You probably want someplace in the midwest. I think Waukesha is a good suggestion. Bismark is a pretty good suggestion too, but North Dakota has its own sort of culture, where a lot of the mid-sized midwest cities feel extremely generic and lacking in any sort of cultural identity. I grew up in Clinton, IA, for example, a town of 25k, one the Mississippi, old river boats, old downtown, A&W root beer stands and all of that. St. Cloud, MN came to mind as well, Peoria, IL, Davenport, IA.
posted by Lutoslawski at 12:59 PM on August 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

If you want to go half-way and use an established fictional city here's Wikipedia's category fictional populated places in the United States. I use Arkham, Massachusetts whenever possible. (Of course, there may be trademark or other IP issues with some places if you're publishing what you're writing.)
posted by XMLicious at 1:00 PM on August 28, 2012

Buffalo, NY
Utica, NY
Lake George, NY
posted by JohnnyGunn at 1:06 PM on August 28, 2012

Wichita, Kansas would be pretty reasonable inspiration

Well, it's pretty white by census data, I guess, but I've been to Wichita many, many times and it really doesn't fit the OP's bill. They may not have a ton of Hispanics but you can certainly get great Mexican food there (as well as great foods from other cultures) and if people aren't getting tattoos and piercings, I don't know why there's so many purveyors of those services there.

I'd be careful with the upper midwest, a lot of towns in this region have very visible (if small, depending on the town) minority populations due to either agricultural needs or because of refugees, most recently Somali and Hmong but many Vietnamese refugees in the past as well, who have stayed on and made lives. Not to mention Native Americans. It can be hard enough for these groups to assimilate without being entirely erased from a fictional depiction of the place they've made their home.

So, put me into the "create a fictional town" camp.
posted by padraigin at 1:07 PM on August 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

Valencia, CA
Suburban planned community that manages to be 70% white in southern California. And plopped in next to it is CalArts, an arts institution known for its healthy enthusiasm for the experimental.

A few years ago Valencia had this ad campaign around LA where they tried to rebrand themselves as Awesometown.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 1:11 PM on August 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm interested to hear other impressions of Boise and Wichita! Maybe this is getting at a bigger idea that you're going to have to go way smaller than 50,000 population to get a "time stands still" city that makes sense in today's world.

I had the best Mongolian barbecue meal I've ever had in the US at a chain joint in a strip mall in Sioux Falls, SD, and we were the only not-Asian people in the restaurant. This was not what I was expecting.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:13 PM on August 28, 2012

Why not use someone else's fictional city? Zenith was white bread, vanilla, and time-stands-still enough for Sinclair Lewis in 1922, and one can be sure it hasn't changed much. Better yet, almost anyone who remembers their high school or freshman English Lit class will be familiar with it, and yet its citizens will not rise up to correct any errors you might make.
posted by ubiquity at 1:13 PM on August 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

To elaborate on my suggestion above, Waukesha is evangelical Protestant, strongly Republican, and largely middle class. If you want generic frozen in time midwestern American baked in a casserole, that's it.

Other cities will give you slightly different flavors of white:

Provo, Utah. Population 112,488, 89% white, county voted for McCain with an astonishing 78%. Mormon conservatism might not be the specific flavor of evangelical Christianity I think you are looking for. Mormon conservative values have a much different history.

Overland Park, Kansas. 173,372, 84% white, county 53% McCain (don't let this fool you, it's surrounded by other Johnson County cities with more Democratic leanings). Overland Park is white, religious, but very rich. There might be too much money to seem frozen in time.
posted by Hollywood Upstairs Medical College at 1:14 PM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

I love the idea of using Zenith.

Buffalo is a really interesting source of inspiration because it has a lot of white ethnic traditions that flourish. Dyngus Day, anyone?
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:15 PM on August 28, 2012

Re the Wisconsin suggestions:

Waukesha is indeed a very conservative place, politically, but in some sense this is driven by white flight from Milwaukee and is thus not really a "this reminds me of 1958" conservatism. It is also 12% Hispanic, for what it's worth.

Janesville went strongly for the Democrat in the last gubernatorial election. And a dominant theme there is the recently closed GM plant, which sent an unemployment shock through the city and the region. In other words, the whole economic tenor of the place has to do with the fact that it is not 1958 anymore.

I'm sure there are tons of tattoos both places.

The truth is, it isn't 1958 anywhere in America, but especially not in the Midwest. I think any fictional town that didn't have tattoos or non-white people would be believable only to people who don't get around the country much.

If you really must use a real place, I would nominate the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where people still live much as they did in the 1950s, subscribing to paper newspapers, getting psychoanalyzed, etc.
posted by escabeche at 1:25 PM on August 28, 2012 [3 favorites]

I always felt like time stood still in Warren, PA.
posted by backwords at 1:28 PM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Celebration, Florida (aka Disney's Dream Town, aka Walt's Other Fascist Utopia).
"Before I came here my sister told me it creeped her out, it was too perfect," said Julie Jensen who was visiting the town recently. "It is kind of Stepford Wife-like." [...]

To be sure, Celebration exudes uniformity and perfection in the same way Disney World does. Streets are meticulously clean, lawns manicured, trees trimmed. It looks like Ozzie and Harriet Nelson's neighborhood...

Mrs. Howard said she had heard many rumors about her town. Her daughter, Courtney, a college student, teaches dance in a nearby town and hears people there say that Disney pays the residents to walk their dogs and sit on their porches a certain number of hours each week. Ridiculous, said Mrs. Howard, but people do enjoy sitting on their porches. "When I come home and drive through those white picket fences I say whew and think I'm home and I don't have to go back out,'' she said. ''It's neat and organized. What's not to love?'' - Via
posted by ourobouros at 1:30 PM on August 28, 2012 [3 favorites]

Fort Wayne, Indiana
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 1:46 PM on August 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

Wichita is not a time-stands-still-folks-sleep-with-their-doors-unlocked-Pleasantville any longer.
posted by Oriole Adams at 1:46 PM on August 28, 2012

Use somewhere you know, or at least somewhere you have a passing familiarity with.

My votes for general regions/counties/suburban areas:

- The Central Valley or Inland Empire of CA.

- somewhere in Ohio. I have a good friend from the Cleveland area, and every time she talks about growing up there, it all just seems so gosh-darn wholesome. People bowl and go to church and attend potlucks at the Bohemian-American Society and suchlike. Everybody's dad is in a union.

- Upstate New York. Driving around upstate, aside from Hudson Valley and Catskills towns that are periodically infiltrated by NYC freelancers and bohemian types, it feels very much like time stopped circa 1962. Similarly, eastern PA and western NJ.

- A small town in the Deep South. Just to throw one out your way, Natchitoches, Louisiana (which is the place the fictionalized town in Steel Magnolias is based on).

The way I would actually do this, if I were doing it, would be to pick a town like this that I know intimately, and then fictionalize it in a realistic way. It's easy to make lists of real-sounding fake names for towns in specific parts of the country. Keep the details the same, but change the names and super-specific identifying stuff. Maybe Allentown becomes Schuylkill, PA. Yorba Linda, CA, becomes Yerba Buena, CA. Etc.
posted by Sara C. at 1:48 PM on August 28, 2012

Yeah, Boise ain't it, and neither is Spokane. You're going to have to go a lot smaller than 50,000 to get what you're looking for, but if you can, Colfax, WA, would be pretty much exactly what you have in mind.
posted by HotToddy at 1:51 PM on August 28, 2012

Another good option in Connecticut may be Willimantic. It is so stolid and ordinary that back in 2009, when someone did a fun thought experiment to see who was the most "average" man in America (meaning: someone who actually fit the MOST of those "the average person in America does [foo] and does [baz]" kinds of statistics), they narrowed it down to one single guy in Willimantic. Also, the town's only contribution to the rap scene is a guy whose stage name is Apathy.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:55 PM on August 28, 2012

Also, talking about the whiteness issue, your hypothetical town doesn't necessarily need to be super white, but it should be segregated and culturally oriented towards whiteness.

A California town with a large population of disenfranchised Hispanic migrant workers would be par for the course in 1958. A California town with world-class Mexican restaurants and a local Dia De Los Muertos festival, not so much.

A lot of the rural South would shake out the same way, and is probably easier to find in real life -- the South is still really segregated, and not in a cute pluralistic "yay Kwanzaa for everyone" kind of way like a lot of Northern and Western cities can sometimes be.
posted by Sara C. at 1:57 PM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Many (most?) small towns in the Deep South won't fit with "white as snow", even though you might get the time standing still feeling.
posted by bizzyb at 1:59 PM on August 28, 2012

I realize that you're using it as a shorthand, OP, but tons of conservative / Red State / Republican-voting / "America, Fuck Yeah!" / "Jesus is my buddy" / blue-collar white people get tattoos. It doesn't really signify what you think it signifies anymore, if it ever really did.
posted by The Master and Margarita Mix at 2:05 PM on August 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

Maybe Rexburg, Idaho? Population 25,000, 95.2% white. But it also has a very high LDS population, not sure if that would impact your story. (I have no personal experience with Rexburg).

From Wikipedia:

Rexburg has been referred to as the "reddest place in America," owing to the area's strong conservative majority and political trends. Some political experts have considered Rexburg, Idaho the true antithesis of San Francisco, America's liberal bastion.
posted by castlebravo at 2:32 PM on August 28, 2012

There are no cities that fit your description. Or if they do, they're probably a suburb of a large city and not as insular as you'd like. Big cities = more access to wealth and you need big bucks to have lots of churches and that much choice in what race and political party your neighbors are. I'd agree with commenters who suggest cobbling together a fictional city from details you know.

Unhelpful comments here:

Ha, wow-- I lived in Janesville, WI until I was 14. Not as white as you're looking for, but then again I was in public school. I remember my babysitter whispering to me outside of Farm & Fleet that the cranky old man in a flannel shirt that had rung us up was in the KKK. Pretty scary to a 10 year old. But I had the most badass sex-ed teacher ever, who told us that being gay is not a choice and talked to us about rape and had us watch the birth video. Some Facebook stalkage in college revealed that my 8th grade boyfriend is now a Juggalo.

The Midwest does have a lot of towns with old diners and I-talian restaurants, competitive high school football teams complete with cheerleaders and marching bands, tight-knit communities (some very white), et cetera. But they all have a Starbucks, a Best Buy, and a Super Huge Wal-Mart tucked away somewhere.
posted by stompadour at 2:35 PM on August 28, 2012

What about Salt Lake City?
posted by gentian at 3:09 PM on August 28, 2012

I was thinking Salt Lake City, too.

Whatever you chose, be sure to at least visit there yourself! I've lived in Florida all my life. When I read Carl Hiaasen I know he's authentic and I can enjoy his books, but if someone tries to write about Florida when they don't really know what the attitudes and the communities are like, they'll always go for the stereotypical stuff. Errors like that are just glaring to a native.
posted by misha at 3:23 PM on August 28, 2012

Danville, California. Not so much stuck in 1958 as created in modern times to be 1958.
posted by zippy at 3:58 PM on August 28, 2012

Not sure what your exact criterion are, but here's the thing, cities tend to have a decidedly leftward lean to them. In Missouri, for example, St. Louis and Kansas City both are very blue when you look at an election map.

The place you're looking for is the very very red exurb of a larger city that's very very blue come election time. That's the place that's going to fight tooth and nail to be as much as what you describe as it possibly can be. And keep in mind, just as there were beatniks in 1958, your town, real or fictitious, is going to have a vibrant underground culture that is pretty fluid and moves around pretty regularly as the powers that be go out of their way to chase the kids out of this or that place.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 4:19 PM on August 28, 2012

The Central Valley or Inland Empire of CA.

Bwahahahahahaha no.
posted by psoas at 4:30 PM on August 28, 2012

St. Charles, Missouri is 93% white, definitely Republican, boasts a quaint historic riverfront shopping district, and is home to the very Pleasantville-esque New Town planned community.

And you'd have St. Louis nearby as a den of crime and liberal hedonism for contrast. Heh.
posted by BlueJae at 4:36 PM on August 28, 2012

Oh and by the way, in my opinion as a midwesterner, Spokane, WA (I have family there) is full of liberals. It just looks conservative in comparison to the rest of the state.
posted by BlueJae at 4:39 PM on August 28, 2012

Possibly Casper, Wyoming, which is nearly 95% white and quite conservative (though please note that the conservatism of Wyoming and other Mountain West states tends to be quite different in some key ways from Midwestern or Southern conservatism, in that -- very broadly speaking -- it is more oriented to the libertarian/land rights rather than evangelical side of the spectrum, given its cultural history as part of the Old West).

My dad grew up there; he was schoolmates with a certain former vice president, whose wife has written a memoir of life in Casper in the 1940s-50s. I haven't visited in the past 20 years, but I can say that at least through the late '80s/early '90s, going to Casper felt very much like traveling back in time to the '50s.
posted by scody at 5:02 PM on August 28, 2012

Certainly not Boise. Nixing Salt Lake, also, even though they're backwards in many ways.

Lewiston, Maine? Coon Rapids, MN?

Seconding the idea of making up a city. Readers will be all over any mistakes in the details.
posted by BlueHorse at 6:10 PM on August 28, 2012

Lewiston, Maine has a sizeable Somali population. Also, in 1968 textile mills would have been the largest industry and more than half the population would have spoken French and there were still French-language newspapers, which is no longer the case. Although you can still get some good salmon pie.
posted by XMLicious at 6:47 PM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Tall order for 50,000+. Not many cities like that left. If you're willing to go smaller, check out places like Cheboygan, Michigan. Maybe bigger cities in Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, too.
posted by trip and a half at 7:38 PM on August 28, 2012

what about something in western Nebraska? Or anywhere in Nebraska?
posted by goethean at 8:21 PM on August 28, 2012

XMLicious: Really!? That's neat to know. I traveled through there in the early '80's and thought it was Mayberry RFD. Guess I'm way off base.
posted by BlueHorse at 10:35 PM on August 28, 2012

Lutoslawski, when I think of wholesome 1950's-style Iowa towns, I think of the Dutch Reformed western part of the state, not of the towns along the Mississippi. Spencer or Orange City would probably fit the bill, though both are much smaller than 50k. Davenport manages to support Daytrotter's concert series, and is significantly more diverse than Iowa as a whole. Clinton, um, is home to Flava Flav's fried chicken restaurant. And while it may well be perfectly wholesome, as anyone who has been there will testify, it doesn't exactly smell that way.
posted by hal incandenza at 10:40 PM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Off-hand (i.e., no direct experience, strictly knee-jerk reaction) I'd say look for a city in Utah/some place that is heavily Mormon.
posted by she's not there at 6:32 AM on August 29, 2012

I vote for fictitious, but Waco TX felt stuck in time when I lived there briefly.
posted by postel's law at 6:37 AM on August 29, 2012

So many great thoughts here! FWIW, I'll probably to take the fictitious route, but the input here, and the cities/towns mentioned, will help. Thanks to all!
posted by Gerard Sorme at 7:41 AM on August 29, 2012

That should read, "I'm probably going to take the fictitious route."
posted by Gerard Sorme at 7:42 AM on August 29, 2012

Dubuque, Iowa.
posted by AdamOddo at 10:32 AM on August 29, 2012

Waukesha, WI. Population 64,825, 91% white alone, 62% McCain in 2008.

I got my first tattoo in downtown Waukesha!

Montana as a whole is pretty white, but the two largest cities (Missoula, Billings) are out. Missoula is called "The Berkeley of the Rockies" for its liberalism, and Billings is pretty scruffy in areas.

Great Falls, however, has a population of ~58,000, which is 90% white, and the military presence keeps it rather conservative.
posted by desjardins at 1:01 PM on August 29, 2012

Yeah, Rexburg is lovely but I ate some AMAZING hotpot there when I drove through. And BYU-Idaho does keep things less ossified then they might otherwise be.

As for North Dakota, you know, I think there's some great towns you can take inspiration from, but not the capital (Bismarck) or the home of the flagship university (Grand Forks). There's some overlap with what you want and some points of failure.

To wit, Grand Forks has a heavy international student influence (Somalis but also lots of Saudi Arabians, Indians, Chinese, and students from other areas of the world where a US education is highly valued--and of course, that's not counting the Canadians), several tattoo parlors, and plenty of hip-hop (it's a college town!). I'm sure it looks like it'll fit the bill from the outside looking in, but this is the same town which hosted Bill Clinton and the state Democratic Convention this spring and the Japanese ambassador to the US this past month.

Bismarck, eh, it's the state capital. I'd normally suggest looking at Minot, but then there's the oil boom.

At this point, having acknowledged Mayberry doesn't really exist anymore, you might as well pick the elements you'd like to see and visit towns which have one or more elements (visit in person, preferably, or virtually as needed).
posted by librarylis at 8:03 PM on August 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think part of the problem is that people got tattoos and had gay sex and voted progressively and ate foreign food in small cities in the 1950's

So nearly any suggestion is going to include an anecdotal caveat of somebody having done something contrary to the city's image. I'd suggest picking something that has the right feel, preferably somewhere you can travel to and look at yourself.
posted by French Fry at 7:01 AM on August 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

French Fry makes a great point. It's not like minorities, immigrants, gay people, divorce, tattoos, and music made by people who aren't white suddenly blipped into existence in 1972.

Another thought I had: I'm not sure if you've ever seen the sitcom Parks And Recreation, but they successfully pull of what you're trying to do. They invented a fictional -- but seemingly very real -- Indiana town to serve as the setting of the show. The result feels so true that there's still a teensy kernel of me that feels like there might really be a place called Pawnee, IN.
posted by Sara C. at 10:42 AM on August 30, 2012

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