Smallish cities and ambition - can it happen?
May 29, 2008 5:10 AM   Subscribe

Are there any small or medium sized cites that are producing a disproportionate number of famous, ambitious, or motivated people?

Recently Paul Graham wrote an interesting essay on the messages that cities send to its denizens. In his essay he implies that it is difficult to achieve cultural, educational, economic, social, or other types of success if one is not immersed in an urban culture that promotes such success.

Mostly I buy his argument. I have lived in a number of cities, and each has had its own unique vibe. And, anecdotally, it seems true that being surrounded by like-minded people makes achievement much easier. It becomes a reinforcing feedback loop. However, his essay implies that these environments can only happen within a city with a sufficiently large population (he uses Paris, London, LA, DC, NYC, Boston, an SF as examples).

However, some people may not want to live in a city with a large population. So, is it possible to achieve success outside of a large city? Are there any small or medium sized cities that encourage success? What are some cities that are churning out a disproportionate number of successful, ambitious, or highly-motivated individuals? Finally, what is the messages that these smallish cities are sending?
posted by brandnew to Society & Culture (53 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Brookline, Mass.
posted by annabkr at 5:24 AM on May 29, 2008

Brookline, Mass.

Letter of the question versus spirit of it. Brookline borders Boston, one of the large cities cited in the question. Hardly a standalone medium-sized city.
posted by Mayor Curley at 5:28 AM on May 29, 2008

Dublin produces culturally ambitious people, I think.
posted by tiny crocodile at 5:29 AM on May 29, 2008

Define "smallish" please. Boston's pretty small (well under 1 million).
posted by nax at 5:32 AM on May 29, 2008

MSA or City Proper?
posted by Salvatorparadise at 5:32 AM on May 29, 2008

Well San Pedro de Macoris produces an amazing number of baseball players, as does all of the Dominican Republic, but San Pedro seems to be beisbol ground zero.

Not sure if that really counts, but technically it is a small city with a disproportionate number of successful people in a field.

For the most part, especially London, LA, DC, NY, I think you already have to be successful nowadays and the vibe is kind of the vibe of success and money. Boston to me is a smaller city but I am from New York, so this leads me to ask your definition of smaller cities. Does Austin count? Lots of IT talent there.

I suppose college towns, like Ann Arbor or Athens GA might be a source of talent. Also some suburbs might churn out talent trying to get the hell out of the 'burbs.
posted by xetere at 5:34 AM on May 29, 2008

I have always been impressed by the amount of famous people from Barnsley. While most of them will be unknown to Americans, most of them will be known to Brits. Barnsley is not near anywhere and is a very boring town.
posted by TheRaven at 5:35 AM on May 29, 2008

Reykjavík? It has a population of a couple hundred thousand and has produced a fair few popular musicians.
posted by Serial Killer Slumber Party at 5:36 AM on May 29, 2008

las vegas is surprisingly small for the notoriety and fame it has. just 500,000 people live there (according to wikipedia), yet the place was until recently host to a massive housing boom, has lots of people moving there to "make it" and ... well, you know what else is going on there. they're certainly outdoing a lot of other cities of similar size.

and then of course there are places like palo alto (61,200) or pasadena (133,936), which are both part of larger california urban areas but have own city rights. the vast majority of people attracted to these places have an upwardly mobile motive for going there.
posted by krautland at 5:37 AM on May 29, 2008

Bristol (a small city in south west UK) brought us a disproportionate amount of cool music in the 90s. Massive Attack, Portishead, Tricky, Roni Size etc
posted by derbs at 5:42 AM on May 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

Parkersburg, Iowa has (From wikipedia):
Pauline Pfeiffer, the second wife of author Ernest Hemingway.
NFL players Jared DeVries, Aaron Kampman, Brad Meester, Casey Wiegmann, and Landon Schrage are all natives of Parkersburg.
America's Next Top Model sixth-placer Jaeda Young is from Parkersburg.

Which is pretty good considering it is in the middle of nowhere and has population < 2000

I knew about the Football players, but not the others.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 5:42 AM on May 29, 2008

Wellington, also with a couple hundred thousand, has a fair few as well.
posted by Serial Killer Slumber Party at 5:44 AM on May 29, 2008

It seems to me that this kind of thing could often be said about college (or other 'company') towns, or about those oasis-of-hipness-and-sanity kinda cities, or about the largest city in a particular place.
posted by box at 5:47 AM on May 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

Manchester drove the music scene for a long time
posted by mattoxic at 5:55 AM on May 29, 2008

Brighton, UK pop approx. 260,000

See here.
posted by i_cola at 6:08 AM on May 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

What counts as "small or medium sized"? I live in Minneapolis. The Twin Cities are not huge, but not that small (in terms of the metro area, not just the cities proper). They have a fairly vibrant culture. In nearly every question along these lines I chime in to mention it. It's a great place to live. Still, there are fields where there is just much more opportunity in NY, LA, or elsewhere. But there's enough opportunity here, that we produce plenty of bright people, even if some of them do move away.
posted by gauchodaspampas at 6:09 AM on May 29, 2008

Providence, RI. (a college town - Brown + RISD )
posted by R. Mutt at 6:10 AM on May 29, 2008

Providence, Rhode Island. The combined influence of Brown and RISD has had a tremendous impact on the city, especially the latter.
posted by awesomebrad at 6:10 AM on May 29, 2008

Cincinnati, Ohio, isn't the smallest city ever, but it's certainly not the largest. We've got a few famous people from the Queen City, including Jerry Springer (born in London, raised in Cincinnati and would later be mayor-and-paid-with-a-check hooker-user), Sarah Jessica Parker, Steven Spielberg, Charley Harper, Pete Rose (Sr. and Jr.), and a ton more... but, most importantly, Aloysius Snuffleupagus' grandmother was from Cincinnati, Ohio.
posted by banannafish at 6:15 AM on May 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

Parkersburg, Iowa
Unfortunately, half the town was recently wiped off the map.

posted by SuperSquirrel at 6:25 AM on May 29, 2008

Quincy, MA?

This is a very interesting question, and the painful thing is that I can remember past occasions when I was staggered by the number of famous people born in little unassuming _____, __.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 6:41 AM on May 29, 2008

These ideas sort of fit in with Richard Florida's "Rise of the Creative Class." His case is, in brief, that progressive cities that welcome bohemians, gays, etc, tend to be stronger economically, partly because people who work in more profitable industries feel more comfortable in more socially progressive environments, even if they themselves are not bohemian, gay, or whatever.

And as you'd expect, you tend to see this in big cities and college towns. I live in Austin, which is transitioning from being a college town to a big city, and it's true enough here.
posted by adamrice at 6:48 AM on May 29, 2008

Gainesville, FL (and/or the University of Florida) has produced quite a few well known and well accomplished men and women.

Tom Petty
Faye Dunaway
Emmitt Smith
Jack Youngblood
Harry Crews
Less Than Jake(band)
Sister Hazel (band)

And of course, Gatorade!
posted by oddman at 6:49 AM on May 29, 2008

Great responses!

But, just a tiny clarification on the question...

I'm particularly interested in the small places where people have lived while they achieved their achievement. Where people are born is not as interesting to me, because in many cases people born with talent migrate to other places that enable them to achieve.

Also, to clarify on the population of a smallish city, I would say the smaller the better, and under 1M for the entire metro area would be best.
posted by brandnew at 6:54 AM on May 29, 2008

Greenville, NC and pro bmx riders.

Dave Mirra
Ryan Nyquist
Ryan Guettler
Mike Laird
Josh Harrington
posted by deepscene at 7:15 AM on May 29, 2008

It really depends on the field you're talking about. People "achieve" along the coasts in some highly visible fields like design or media. If your field is power tools, many of the big achievements come from places like the Midwest.

If you're looking for achievement in fields like science, you're just as likely to find them in a college town. Madison would be an example, especially if you factor in people that passed through the university, which would include the Vice President, several Fortune 500 CEOs, etc.
posted by drezdn at 7:17 AM on May 29, 2008

OK, another one I thought of is Oxford, Mississippi. I don't mean to hijack your question, but it might be especially interesting to find places that aren't associated with a significant university presence.

P.S. I know you are focusing on residents, not birthplaces, but FWIW.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 7:21 AM on May 29, 2008

Portland, OR
if we're talking music.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 7:25 AM on May 29, 2008

Oxford (pop. 149,100) and Cambridge (pop. 117,900) are relatively small cities, and they are reasonably well away from London - 60 miles or so from the centre.
posted by tomcooke at 7:25 AM on May 29, 2008

Oklahoma City has a fair amount of notables...
To name a few:
Barry Switzer
James Garner
Ralph Ellison
Shannon Miller
The Flaming Lips
Not that OKC is beacon of culture or anything, but it's certainly spawned a few interesting people.
posted by dearest at 7:34 AM on May 29, 2008

You should check out Omaha, Nebraska. We have Warren Buffet (who lives in a modest house for a billionaire). Charlie Munger lives here, too. Also, Alexander Payne, most famous for the movie Sideways, is from Omaha. Payne sets many of his movies here - the most well-known ones filmed here are probably Election (with Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon) and About Schmidt (with Jack Nicholson). He is also a big supporter of Films Streams Omaha's cool independent theater.
Bright Eyes is from here - I'm not sure if Conor Oberst still lives here or not - but his record label is here. Mannheim Steamroller is here.

There are a lot of people that started out in Omaha and moved elsewhere, like Malcom X, Jorge Garcia (Hurley from Lost), Nick Nolte, Paula Zahn, Fred Astaire, Gerald Ford, etc.
posted by Ostara at 7:39 AM on May 29, 2008

Consider New Orleans, Memphis, and Charleston SC. Santa Fe.

Two methodological problems that will plague you: (1) the effect of a major or at least regional university (something a town has imperfect control over); (2) for literary, arts, and musical communities, I'd wager that there's a critical mass aspect, and that it may be difficult to unpack what a city did to achieve the first core of residents.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 7:39 AM on May 29, 2008

How about Bloomington, IN? College town, we estimate 50,000 townies and 50,000 college students, but the census puts it at officially about 70,000 total.

Famous people include John Melloncamp (not born there but doing his bit for light pollution on the lake,) Alfred Kinsey, Joshua Bell (often on tour, does he still count?), and oodles more:,_Indiana#Notable_residents for an introduction.

What do you mean by message? Creativity and intelligence are definitely valued in the kids. There's a social expectation that you should always be willing to try new things and stretch your experiences, and so there's the freedom to experiment.
posted by arabelladragon at 7:39 AM on May 29, 2008

Two observations:

(1) Relative size is probably just as important as absolute size. Thus, for example, someone above cited Reykjavik. This is a very small (~100K) city by most standards, but is by far the largest city in Iceland. If anything creative or entrepreneurial is happening in Iceland, its happening in that city, so it will attract the creative and entrepreneurial types from all over Iceland. Ditto Dublin. Even a smallish city that is a state or national capital can attract a lot of creative and entrepreneurial types, while a huge city in a country full of them (like, for example, Ürümqi, China, pop. 1.8M) may not.

(2) We can wiki just about any small-to-medium-sized city and come up with a list of 5-10 famous people that came from that city. But I would submit that any city whose famous inhabitants can be listed in such a way is not an example of what the OP is looking for. By comparison, large cities like New York and London produce or attract thousands of people who are famous, ambitious, and motivated.

That said, I will nominate Geneva, a city of 185K that is a global center of international banking, finance, and the seat of dozens of international organizations, including the United Nations (European headquarters), the World Health Organization, and the World Trade Organization
posted by googly at 7:40 AM on May 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

Port Arthur, TX: Janis Joplin, Robert Rauschenberg, Jimmy Johnson, Amy Acuff, "Babe" Didrikson Zaharias, etc.
posted by mattbucher at 7:40 AM on May 29, 2008

I grew up in a very small town in upstate New York. A huge portion of the houses in the area were summer residences -- large, lakeside summer residences that paid a good chunk of local taxes every year, but were not occupied in the winter (and were thus not sending kids into the public school). Because of this, the student body at the local school was small but very well-funded. I don't think we produced any movie stars or mega-millionaires, but the large tax base/small student population dynamic might be an interesting one to consider -- Martha's Vineyard, for example, probably follows the same trend.
posted by kate blank at 7:43 AM on May 29, 2008

Ann Arbour, MI comes to mind.

The ultimate example of this phenomenon would be Athens at the height of Hellenism. As a city-state it was around 100,000 but its intellectual and cultural flowering supplied the world with the science, math, astronomy, architecture etc that remained unsurpassed in its sophistication for more than 2000 years. Also of course philosophy, poetry, plays, rhetoric, art and pretty much anything else you can think of. Furthermore, you can attribute most of the best ideas of the Romans to the Greeks, with the notable exception of engineering, I suppose.
posted by buka at 7:48 AM on May 29, 2008

In Canada, the top three postal codes with the highest concentration of artists just happen to be in Montreal's Plateau/Mile End district.
posted by furtive at 8:10 AM on May 29, 2008

Halifax, NS in the early 90s.
posted by loiseau at 8:11 AM on May 29, 2008

Albuquerque, NM
posted by KTrujillo at 8:18 AM on May 29, 2008

posted by YouRebelScum at 8:25 AM on May 29, 2008

Liverpool (pop 436,00, 6th largest in the UK), current European City of Culture, produced not only the Beatles, but the whole Merseybeat scene including Gerry & The Pacemakers, The Hollies and the Yardbirds among other, as well as a well known performance poetry scene.Its often speculated that the poverty and adverstiy the city faced in the past drove its creative output in some ways.
posted by tallus at 8:45 AM on May 29, 2008

Athens, GA - Austin, TX, Portland OR for music. These fit with your clarification to your original question well since the musicians (assuming here... I don't know a lot of musicians) actually write, record, and perform locally.

But for lots of other disciplines, this is a lot harder. I mean, say your town was (magically) good at raising a community of really good architects, or chefs, or opera singers, or some other cool-job-cultural-hipster-bobos. How would all those people stick around in a small city and find work?
posted by zpousman at 8:52 AM on May 29, 2008

I think Paul Graham's essay is pretty much a just-so story. People who want to make a lot of money in banking move to NYC. People who want to be famous on the big screen move to LA. People who want to be great salmon fishermen move to small towns on the west coast. People who want to be great skiers move somewhere with good snow conditions. People who want to make great wine move to Napa. You can call this some sort of message that a city sends if you want, but I think it is more accurate to talk about the historical or other reasons that particular industries or activities are centred in a particular area. Smaller cities don't tend to be centres of major industries, so you'd have to look for more specialized activities in smaller centres.

I'm in Canada, so here a few Canadian examples:

The best cross-country skiers are in Canmore, AB.
The most ambitious heavy equipment operators are in the Alberta oil sands.
The best surfers are in Tofino and Halifax.
A lot of geeks are in Waterloo, ON.
posted by ssg at 8:53 AM on May 29, 2008

Small college towns is going to be your basic answer. Madison, WI; Ann Arbor, MI; Olympia, WA; Eugene, OR; Athens, GA; Boulder, CO; Champaign, IL... etc.
posted by atomly at 8:56 AM on May 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

ssg reinforces a good point point. In baseball, a large portion of American players come from southern California. Good hockey players are going to be drawn north. A disproportionately large number of Olympic gold medalist speedskaters came from my home town. It's mainly because we had a great training facility for it.
posted by drezdn at 9:09 AM on May 29, 2008

In baseball, a large portion of American players come from southern California.

On that note, the Dominican town of San Pedro de Macoris has produced an inordinate amount of really talented professional baseball players, mostly shortstops.
posted by mattbucher at 9:44 AM on May 29, 2008

I agree with atomly and would add Fayetteville, AR.
posted by aerotive at 9:46 AM on May 29, 2008

Chapel Hill, NC (or maybe the RTP as a whole) supposedly has the largest number of phds per capita.
posted by metajc at 10:22 AM on May 29, 2008

Are there any small or medium sized cites that are producing a disproportionate number of famous, ambitious, or motivated people?

You say "producing" here but then say you don't want people who are born there but people who are working there. So why is the city "producing" anything? Isn't it just the nexus where all the already motivated people go?

As people have been saying, there are smaller places that have more famous or motivated people, if there are limitations on who can come, or who might want to. The ambition in university towns is largely made of people who get into the university or work there. An obscure interest will have its "world headquarters" in some random place you didn't realize. But if a young person is generally ambitious and looking to get into some field, they have to go where the action already is.
posted by mdn at 12:20 PM on May 29, 2008

Florence, Italy - Italian Renaissance and the invention of the piano, and seems to be an epicenter of jewelry. Maybe it's not that small compared to it's environment, though; Wikipedia says it's the most populous city in it's region, with 364,779 people.
posted by amtho at 12:20 PM on May 29, 2008

Portland, OR

I think Portland is right now the perfect example of this. I just moved here this year and I feel like I'm watching this happen, as it happens. Three artists I like and follow online have moved or stated their intent to move here within a month of each other. It's already arty and cool and weird and has maintained urban density. It hasn't suffered from foreclosures and the inflated housing market as much as the rest of the country, and it's still affordable. Artists can afford to move here, but the job market is bad and people looking for "real" jobs can't really move here. It sucks that the job market is bad here, but if it wasn't housing prices might've grown more and artists might not be able to afford it.
posted by birdie birdington at 2:14 PM on May 29, 2008

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