We emit our version of culture, not B.O. We bathe. We wear shoes. Our toilets are indoors. Kudzu and squirrel with moonshine isn’t on our menus. We read — and, by gosh, we write, too.
Our museums are noteworthy. Our best architecture is alternatively antebellum and Southern chic. Our musical heritage isn’t Top 40 trash: Haven’t they heard of W.C. Handy and Hank Williams and the Swampers from Muscle Shoals? Our landscape is as diverse as it is beautiful; thank you, Lord, for Mount Cheaha and Gulf Shores.
We have landmarks. We have botanic gardens. We have orchestras and art galleries and cultural assets.
Plus — to steal the words of our critics — we habitually offer “enlightened good times in an unhurried, charming setting.”
Yet, Alabama was shut out of Smithsonian.org’s 2012 list of the 20 best small towns in America.
None. Nada. Zilch.
Not Florence. Not Dothan. Not Selma.
Not Auburn. Not Opelika. Not Tuscumbia.
Not Montevallo. Not Decatur. Not Monroeville.
And, no, not Anniston. Not Oxford. Not Jacksonville.
If you’re curious about Southern towns that offer “enlightened good times in an unhurried, charming setting,” a few did make the list.
Key West, Fla.
Siloam Springs, Ark.
A Texas town called Marfa.
And Oxford, Miss. — because, by golly, you can’t have a list that combines “culture” and “Southern” without including the ballyhooed home of the University of Mississippi.
It’s a rule, apparently.
Let’s grant some leeway to the editors at Smithsonian.org and those who assisted them in putting together this compilation. America isn’t comprised of New Yorks and Miamis; it’s made up of small places, most of which have fewer than 25,000 people and fight for attention when it comes to tourism and development and the cultural amenities that flutter the hearts of big-city magazine editors.
Plus, small-town defenders are quick to anger when their towns — or their entire state — are shunned like yesterday’s lunch. I’ll admit: This is a simple target, a softball on a tee. Twenty towns listed, none in Alabama. And, for what it’s worth, only one — the aforementioned hotty toddy, gosh almighty Oxford, Miss. — in the Alabama-like Southern states of Mississippi, Tennessee, Georgia, Louisiana, South Carolina and North Carolina.
It’s enough to make us feel inferior. To make it seem like, oh, 1858.
Scratch that. We tried that once. Bad idea.
But, man, what’s an Alabama small town got to do to get some national love? (And, yes, yes, Florence made this list a year or two ago, but what have you done for us lately?)
For the sake of argument, and since it still is Calhoun County’s medical and legal center, let’s consider Anniston. (Shush, haters. This isn’t your time.)
Anniston has two state-level museums that draw out-of-town visitors.
Anniston is building large botanical gardens at the former Lenlock Community Center.
Anniston is home to the Knox Concert Series — since 1946, in fact.
Anniston’s view includes Mount Cheaha, the state’s tallest point.
Anniston has become the home of Alabama ecotourism.
Anniston was the home of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. (We got somethin’ for you, Montgomery!)
Anniston’s renovated Homes of Noble Park resemble the South’s best postbellum architecture.
Yet Anniston — like Selma, like Auburn, like Dothan, like the once-noted Florence — didn’t measure up.
With that, I give you Great Barrington, Mass., the No. 1 small town on Smithsonian.org’s list. Only 6,800 people live in Great Barrington, which is about 125 miles from New York City and was built as a mill and railroad center, Smithsonian writes. Great Barrington, Arlo Guthrie’s home, is laden with family farms and farmers’ markets and — get this — issues its own currency to encourage residents to shop local.
Here, perhaps, is an apt comparison: Smithsonian lauds Great Barrington’s former vaudeville theater, which was built in 1905 and now hosts all sorts of cultural and musical events in the city’s downtown.
Anniston used to have such a theater on Noble Street. It was gorgeous, with ruby-red curtains and New York-styled interiors; William Jennings Bryan spoke there. It became a movie hall in its old age. And the city, lacking foresight and money, tore it down.
I’m sure Great Barrington is a swell place. Congrats on being No. 1.
I’ll be the first to say that Anniston has work to do, but it’s unfathomable to think Alabama or Georgia or Louisiana or South Carolina or North Carolina didn’t have a Great Barrington-like town worthy of inclusion.
We have culture. Some jokers just don’t get it.
Phillip Tutor — firstname.lastname@example.org — is The Star’s commentary editor. Follow him at Twitter.com/Ptutor_Star.