Washington Evening Journal
111 North Marion Avenue
Washington, IA 52353
I have worked in Washington for just over three weeks now, and every time I introduce myself, I’m consistently asked the same question.
“Where are you from?”
This is hardly unusual. I’m an extrovert who needs small talk to feel alive, and it’s a pretty safe icebreaker. The thing that gets to me is the follow-up, because when I answer, “Iowa City,” my place of birth and home for the last 22 years, I’m met by one of two reactions.
The first is something most Iowans have dealt with at some point or another. Someone from not-Iowa asks where you’re from, you tell them, and they scoff and say something like “Oh, do you live on a farm?”
These people mean well, but they don’t understand that farmers make up roughly 1% of Iowa’s workforce. That’s fine, my first reaction when someone lives in Wisconsin is to ask about cheese, or ask pizza places for those from the Chicago area. We all do this kind of thing because nobody understands the nuance of places where they don’t live, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
My problem is that even when I explain that Iowa City is a college town where the median age is 26 years old and the most common occupation is “full-time student,” a fancy term for being unemployed nine months at a time, I’m generally still remembered as the small town guy from Iowa.
I only recently discovered the second reaction to my home town. One of the first strangers I talked to in Washington replied with “Oh, you came all the way out here from the big city?”
I was perplexed. Iowa City is a city, but it’s not a big one.
Sure, it has a downtown area that’s larger than four city blocks. It has more than five bars. It has a Hy-Vee big enough to get lost in, but it’s hardly a sprawling metropolis. It has a university area, a residential east side and west side, and some stretches of interstate. I took a moment, assumed the comment was a joke, and moved on with my day.
Then, last week, I overheard someone use the phrase “Washington big city lifestyle” in passing, and I went from confused to dumbfounded. Washington has less than 10,000 residents. If that constitutes a “big city,” then what does that make Iowa City? Further still, what does that make Des Moines? What about Chicago?
It’s a pattern with troubling implications. I’m sure there’s somebody out there that would call Kalona or Riverside a big city, just as there’s someone else who thinks Des Moines is a small, remote community. But it seems like every Iowan lacks context, trapped in a state of population misunderstanding. My greatest fear of all is that I will some day refer to my own hometown as “the big city.”