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The Best Small towns in America…Where the Living is Truly Easy!

There are lists of the best places to get a job, retire, ski, golf and fall in love, best places lists for almost everything. The editors of SMITHSONIAN MAGAZINE have produced  the best list of small towns in America, not only to travel to but to live in or retire to.What makes their list so special is that they focused on towns with populations less than 25,000 that have a high concentration of cultural assests common to big cities such as museums, historic sites, botanic gardens, resident orchestras, art galleries, good food. Travelers, visitors and residents can experience what might be called enlightened good times in an unhurried, charming setting. There is something encouraging about finding culture in small-town America. These small towns reinforce the truth that big cities and grand institutions per se don’t produce creative works, individuals do. And being reminded of that is fun.

  1. Great Barrington, MA.  Big city smart meets New England natural in an art-rich mountain setting. Great Barrington (pop. 6,800) is like a big city where you can get anything you want, to borrow the chorus from hometown boy Arlo Guthrie’s Alice’s Restaurant. He was 18 when he wrote the satirical ballad about true events on Thanksgiving Day 1965, when he got arrested for illegally dumping some of Alice’s trash, ultimately making him ineligible for the Vietnam War draft. Trinity Church, former abod of the celebrated Alice, is now the Guthrie Center, a stage for folk music, starting point of the “Historic Garbage Trail Walk” and a place for interfaith spiritual exchange in a town where there could be something contrarian in the water. Take a walk down Railroad Street and you’re likely  to run into folks carrying yoga mats, bags of farmers market produce, books, CD’s double espressos and all the other stuff it’s hard to find in surrounding Berkshire Mountain villages. Great Barrington is devoted to its family farms, and farmers markets that promote the production of locally grown food. Another local boy is W.E.B. DuBois, the great African-American author and educator. His boyhood home just west of town is a National Historic Landmark. Incorporated in 1761 attracted rich summer people who built Gilded Age mansions like Searles Castle, now a boarding school. About 125 miles from New York City, it attracts a hip crowd from the Big Apple, along with New Englanders and recent immigrants from Asia and Mexico. Among its other attractions is a lovingly restored 1905 vaudeville theater, home to a year-round schedule of jazz, rock, dance, lectures and HD broadcasts from London’s National Theater and New York’s Metropolitan Opera. Early summer brings the Berkshire International Film Festival and just a country drive away there’s Tanglewood, Shakespeare and Company, the Norman Rockwell Museum and Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. To top it all off there’s the frame that nature put aound the picture, with 1,642-foot Monument Mountain to the east and the rest of the Berkshires to the west. Orchards are sheer walls of pink in the spring, farm fields thick with corn in  the summer. Fall leaf-peepers train cameras on golden oaks and crimson maples. Honking geese pass over ice-coated bogs and ponds in the watershed of the Housa-tonic River. All this and bagel, too. Arlo got it right.
  2. TAOS, NM. Modern art, ancient history and counter-culture in the luminous high desert. Beyond Santa Fe, the high road (Highway 76) and the low road (Highway 68) are both beautiful routes to little Taos in the enchanted upper valley of the Rio Grande. Before the counterculture found it in the 1960’s, before Spanish missionaries and mountain men like Kit Carson arrived, even before the building of the Taos pueblo in the 15th century, the Anasazi were here, leaving their ghosts to walk in the shadow of the Sangre de Christo Mountains.  These days tourists, seekers, skiers and other outdoor enthusiasts pack the plaza of the old adobe town, dabble in its many galleries and museums, delve into history at the 1804 Spanish Colornial Martinez Hacienda and attend concerts (the Music form Angel Fire is a world-class chamber music festival). But Taos (pop. 5,700) still speaks most compellingly to writers, photographers and artists who like Georgia O’Keeffe and D.H. Lawrence before them, come for the flash of a passing spirit and the quality of the light.
  3. Red Bank, NJWillie Nelson and Basie swings in a riverfront town graced by Victoriana. William Count Basie grew up and got his muscial chops on Mechanic Street in Red Bank. In the early 1920’s he moved to Harlem and the rest is jazz history. His hometown on the south bank of the Navesink River about 25 miles south of Manhattan went through some lean, mean times after that, but has since made an astonishing cultural and economic comeback, linchpinned by the refurbishment of the 1926 Carlton Theater, now the Count Basie performing arts center, a venue for ballet  to rock to Willie Nelson. Cafes, galleries, clubs and shops followed, along with farmers markets and street fairs, attracting people from well-heeled Monmouth County and the Jersey Shore.  Town folk from Red Bank (pop. 12,200) went to work on neglected old homes with good bones, the landmark Victorian train depot was restored and the silver was polished the Molly Pitcher Inn, named for a Revolutionary War heroine who is said to have brought water to thirsy soldiers serving under George Washington during the battle of Monmouth County. The Navesink got a spiffy waterfront park, the setting for jazz concerts in the summer and iceboating when the river freezes, string quartets and youth choruses perform at  the Monmouth Conservatory of Music, while the Two River Theater Company stages new plays and musicals. It all adds up to a model for small town renewal.
  4. Mill Valley, CA. A Bay Area enclave that put mellow on the map keeps its funky vibe. Mill Valley (pop. 13,900) is one of the jewels in a necklace of beautiful towns–along with Sausalito, Marin City and Tiburon–across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. It’s tucked into a canyon on the flank of the 2,571-foot Mount Tamalpais, near the giant redwoods of Muir Woods National Monument and marshland surrounding Richardson Bay. The setting and proximity to San Francisco attracted sawmills, dairy farms and resort operators, then Beat poets and hippies who scandalized locals by skinny-dipping and smoking weed. A more recent influx of wealthy commuters has made Mill Valley one of  the nation’s wealthiest ZIP codes. Shops, galleries, organic food restaurants and art festivals cater to the newcomers, threatening to crowd out ratty old landmarks like the beloved Sweetwater Saloon where Bonnie Rait, Ry Cooder, Jerry Garcia and Elvis Costello played. The good news is that, as of this past January, the Sweetwater’s back, occupying new quarters in the town’s old Masonic Hall. The Art Commission sponsors concerts and comedy in the town plaza, and the Throckmorton Theater welcomes music groups like the Kingston Trio and Left Coast Chamber Ensemble, along with a June festival deicated to gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt.
  5. Gig Harbor, WA. Take numerous art  galeries. Add sailboats and local wines. Stir. Enjoy. Come by boat, as so many people do–beginning with a team of surveyors from the Congresionally mandated Wilkes Expedition in 1841–its easy to miss the narrow opening on  the ragged west edge of Puget Sound that marks the entrance to Gig Harbor (pop. 7,200). That would be a pity because it leads to one of the snuggest harbors in the Pacific Northwest, a thicket of sailboat masts rimmed by tall pines on the far side of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. When the sun shines you can see Mount Rainier and the snow crusted Cascades on the eastern horizon; in squally weather the sky closes in sp seascape artists paint from memory. Never mind. As local gallery owner Bill Fogarty would say, “Don’t let the drizzle get you down. Think of what it does for the rhododendrons.” The unprepossessing little town has been lately been discovered by outlanders from Tacoma and Seattle insearch of still relatively affordable waterfront property. Chain stores have sprung up out on the highway and old fishing docks have yielded to fancy powerboats and yachts. Daytrippers come for gourmet restaurants with Washington State wines. Don’t miss the gallery walks held on  the first Saturday of the month. Settled in the 19th century by immigrants from the Adriatic Coast of what now is Croatia. Gig Harbor is a little like Maine without the Yankees. The peninsula’s forested hinterlands became home to many Scandinavians, who built dairy farms and planted srawberry patches that send their riches to Puget Sound markets. Gig Harbor was isolated until the building of a bridge across the strait that separates the Olympic Peninsula from Tacoma. On any given summer seekend there’s likely to be a chowder cook-off, a quilt show or a festival celebrating boats, gardens or wine; vendors at the farmers market offer mandolin lessons along with strawberries and grass-fed beef. On open-air film nights folks pile on blankets spread across the lawn to watch Free Willy, Jaws or another maritime classic.
  6. Durango, CO. All aboard for mountain fun, plus classical tunes and–gasp–vaudeville. It would be a bald-faced lie to say that Durango (pop. 16,900) isn’t devoted above all to outdoor recreation, from mountain biking and black-diamond skiing to Ironman triathlons, white-water kayaking and rock climbing. But between adventures in the surrounding San Juan Mountains, people celebrate life Western-style in the old railroad and mining town’s lamppost-lined historic district, among art installations along the Animas River greenway, and at the nearby Music in the Mountains festival come July (heavy on the classical offerings, but a bit of pop, too), the Fort Lewis College Community Concert Hall, and the Henry Strater Theatre, a.k.a. the “Hank,” a showcase for vintage melodrama and vaudeville. Best of all the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad opened in 1882 and now a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark, still carries passengers 45 miles into the heart of the high San Juans, pulled by a coal-fired steam-driven locomotive, with the occasional bluegrass band or cowboy poet onboard for entertainment.
  7. Butler, PA. An old-time rural hub as down-to-earth as its most famous product– the Jeep. Mines and factories come to mind when people think about Western Pennsylvania, but forests and farms stretch across the state, punctutaed by small towns like the seat of Buttler County north of Pittsburgh in the Allegheny River watershed. Butler (pop. 13,800) is an American classic that grew up along a trail blazed by George Washington, sent in 1753 to discourage French settlement along the frontier. Farmers followed, giving the region its country character and prized hand-built barns. The town serves as a business and cultural hub, with its own baseball team, thriving downtown, community symphony, theater and barbershop chorus. The Maridon Museum, founded by local philanthropist Mary Hulton Phillips, houses an excellent collection of Asian art, and the Butler County Historical Society maintains an old settler’s cabin, schoolhouse and the landmark 1828 Lowrie Shaw House. Butler owes its star on the map to the Jeep, invented just before World War II at the town’s American Bantam Car Company and still celebrated in August at the Bantam Jeep Heritage Festival.
  8. Marfa, TX. With mock culture, edgy movies and ironic motels, it’s no cow town. It’s just a fly speck in the flat, hot, dusty cattle country of southwest Texas–closer to Chihuahua than Manhattan. But its cooking thanks to an influx of creative types from way downtown: filmmakers like the Coen brothers who shot No Country for Old Men in Marfa (pop. 1,900), indie rock bands and others who have brought such outre’ installations as Prada Marfa, a faux couture shop in the middle of nowhere by the artists, Elmgreen and Dragset. Cultutal camp followers arrived on their heels to open galleries, bookstores, gourmet food trucks and lodgings (in a historic Pueblo-Deco hotel and vintage trailer park called El Cosmico). It may have all started when people noticed the Marfa Mystery Lights, an optical phenomenon popularly attributed to UFOs and celebrated with parades, battling bands and exhibitions every Labor Day weekend. Or in the early 70’s when New York artist Donald Judd landed in Marfa to plant his massive mimimalist sculptures on a decommissioned military camp outside town, the core of the coollection now at the Donald Judd and Chinati foundations. These days–move over Austin–an Our Town grant from the NEA is helping Marfa’s not-for-profit Ballroom Foundation create the Drive-In, an open-air art space designed by the cutting edge New York architect firm MOS.
  9. Naples, FL. World-class music, design to die for and Palm trees: What’s not to like? Even when it’s snowing somewhere up north, around the historic Naples pier they’re catching mackerel, opening beach umbrellas and looking for treasure in the surf. Grandkids are building sand castles, pelicans are squawking and the Gulf of Mexico is smooth as far as the eye can see. Travelers have been coming to this small town (pop. 19,500) on the edge of  the Everglades ever since the  late 19th century when you could reach it only by boat and there was just one place to stay, the steeple-topped Naples Hotel, connected to the pier by a track with a cart for moving steamer trunks. Back then the visitors were chiefly sportsmen drawn to the abundant fish and game of southwest Florida’s cypress swamps. Once the Orange Blossom Express train reached Naples in 1927, followed a year later by the opening of the cross-peninsula hghway system the Tamiami Trail, sun-seekers arrived in boaters and bloomers, many of them Methodists from the Midwest who thought the drinking started too soon after Sunday church service in West Palm Beach. So when the snow flew, say, in Cincinnati, they decamped to winter retreats in Naples with wide sleeping porches, pine plank floors and whirring ceiling fans. Today Naples has malls and high-rise condos. Touristy development has taken over bayside docks where fishermen used to haul in giant grouper and tarpon. Traffic clogs the ritzy Fifth Avenue South shopping and restaurant district but if you’re a first time visitor, check out the Naples Historical Society’s walking tours through the town’s winsome historic district and bougainvillea-lined back alleyways. If most of the folks you meet are over 65, in Naples old age looks pretty golden. Ask a duffer with a fishing pole how he likes his martinis and he’ll tell you the third one’s always beautiful (Methodists not withstanding). A fair percentage of the snowbirds are retired executives with cultural expectations and the means to pursue them. So the town has an astonishing concentration of deeply rooted cultural institutions like the Naples Zoo, located in a tropical garden founded in 1909, the Naples Players, a community  theater now in its 59th season; and the almost- as- venerable Naples Art Association in Cambler Park. Naples also boasts its own Philharmonic Orchestra, born 30 years ago on nearby Marco Island. This renowned group has its own state-of-the-art concert hall visited by the likes of Kathleen Battle and Itzhak Perlman along with Broadway musicals and appearences by the Sarasota Opera and Miami Ballet. Bronze sculpture by the Spanish artist Manolo Valdes’ and massive art glass by Dale Chihuly spill over into the lobby from the galleries in the adjoining Naples Museum of Art. Dozens of Art galleries line Third Street South from the designated Design District. Meanwhile, at the Naples Pier, there’s bound to be someone at an easel, with a palette provided by the Gulf of Mexico–all sky blue, sand white and aquamarine.
  10. Staunton, VA.  A Shenandoah mix of Confederate relics and Elizabethan theater. Drop the U when pronouncing Staunton (pop.  23,700) and you’ll sound like a local. The town looks west to the Appalachians, east to the Blue Ridge at the heart of  the Shenandoah Valley. Staunton played its role on the early frontier and as a staging center for the Confederate Army, bred America’s 28th president (a highlight of the Woodrow Wilson Museum is the 1918 Pierce-Arrow limo he used after negotiating the Treaty of Versailles at the end of World War I) and nurtured the Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind and Mary Baldwin College. More recently it has added such cultural assets as the Dixie Theater movie house, Mockingbird Roots Music Hall, Heifetz International Music Institute, the outdoor Oak Grove Theater and above all, the American Shakespeare Center, housed in a landmark re-creation of London’s Blackfriars Playhouse, where original staging techniques such as role-doubling are replicated and the dramaturge doesn’t shy away from a bit of Elizabethan bawdy now and then. Staunton’s National Historic Register red brick downtown has galleries, a camera museum, an old-fashioned trolley and Tiffany window-lined Trinity Church. Up the hill at  Victorian-era  Thornrose Cemeter, there’s a separate section holding the remains of almost 2,000 Confederate soldiers, while the bandshell in nearby Gypsy Hill Park serves as the summertime home of the 70-piece Stonewall Brigade Band, founded in 1855 to feature the then novel saxophone.

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