Small Towns For Living, Not Just A Weekend33

Posted by Deirdre // 04-20-2012


Two people sent me Smithsonian’s 20 Best Small Towns in America the other day thinking it would be good for the blog, and it’s taken me days to finish this mammoth post! Why didn’t ever think of reading The Smithsonian, when it has some pretty amazing stuff on the site? I guess I thought it’d be science-y. Anyway, my lameness is for another discussion.

It’s interesting that this piece appeared in the Travel section, because their criteria for the ranking is a lot of what we talk about here.

“We think any best place worth traveling to should have one quality above others: culture.

To help create our list, we asked the geographic information systems company Esri to search its data bases for high concentrations of museums, historic sites, botanic gardens, resident orchestras, art galleries and other cultural assets common to big cities. But we focused on towns with populations less than 25,000, so travelers could experience what might be called enlightened good times in an unhurried, charming setting”.

I often think of the neighborhoods in Brooklyn as small towns themselves – Park Slope has around 62,000 people according to Wikipedia. So why limit it to travelers? Two places on their list are truly commutable to the city – Red Bank and  Princeton, NJ. Another is part-time commutable – Great Barrington, MA and yet another is East Coast enough if one of your fears of going way beyond is leaving family here – Brattleboro, VT. Mill Valley is somewhere you might consider if work takes you to San Francisco, a place that’s been a big topic on the list serve as of late. Marfa, TX – of No Country For Old Men fame – just sounds pretty damn cool.

Here’s my somewhat limited knowledge of the above places:

Navesink River near Red Bank, NJ

Red Bank is an adorable little town right on the Navesink River and close to truly beautiful beaches. One of my best friends from college grew up there and after 20 some-odd years in Manhattan, just moved back and loves it. Her husband takes a ferry to work! Not a bad commute. I have visited her family there several times (although not since she moved – this summer, Peg!) and it’s a beautiful area – there’s Rumson on the money side and Little Silver (where she lives) for a bit more affordability.

My husband and I walked the downtown of Red Bank, with its cool little cafes and a clothing store you could actually buy stuff in you would want to wear, on the weekend of my friend’s wedding. Granted I was 8 1/2 months pregnant, had suffered through being a bridesmaid the night before with cray-cray cankles, it was a scorching day in June and we were getting a flat fixed – not an ideal sitch but we managed to enjoy it. Then the following weekend was the whole I-saw-Wilco-at-a-cool-old-Main-Street-Theater-so-we-should-live-here thing that my husband experienced. I’ll get the scoop on schools from my friend and let youz know, but suffice it to say that she went through the whole public school system and turned out ok.

I know nothing about Princeton. I have never been but it looks beautiful, and the commute is shorter than I would’ve thought – an hour on NJ Transit. Their schools look great, although “A Commitment To Excellence” scares me. Maybe I just got burned going to a competitive private school and underachieving. I guess some parents want a school system that commits to excellence for their kids! Anyone else have first hand knowledge?

Rubiner’s and Rubi’s in Great Barrington – YUM

Great Barringon, MA is another beauty of a town. We visited Brooklyn friends who have a house in Sheffield, a few miles away, and went into Great Barrington one beautiful Fall day to walk around. The town seems very sophisticated, and in more of a modern, urban way than you’d think of for the Berkshires (which I often equate with frilly B-and-B’s). Nor is it crunchy, but there is a great co-op, and there is a lot of sustainable stuff going on as you’ll see in the article. We had an amazing lunch at this awesome restaurant/take-out gourmet shop Rubiner’s, including a perfect latte at Rubi’s, the cafe. There’s a great kid’s store right on Main St, too. In terms of schools, there’s a Waldorf School right in Great Barrington. The public schools share a district with Stockbridge and West Stockbridge. If you look at some of the pics on their site and read their Mission, “To ensure all students are challenged through a wide range of experiences to become engaged and curious learners and problem solvers who effectively communicate, respect diversity, and improve themselves and their community,” it seems pretty ideal!

I’d classify it “Beyond the Burbs” because I would consider it commutable a day or so a week if your business was partly reliant on NYC. There’s a Metro North train to Wassaic, NY that’s 2 hours during peak times, and it’s a 1/2 hr drive from there. Not ideal but doable depending on your tolerance for that kind of thing.

Brattleboro Farmer’s Market Beets via Becoming Crow Lady

My sister-in-law lives in Brattleboro, VT with her family so needless to say we’ve visited there a bunch. It’s a gorgeous town with a totally walkable downtown. There’s a great Farmer’s Market every Saturday May – October which is a bit of a gathering spot for locals, and even has amazing food to buy and eat there, sitting on a tree stump listening to the local band and watching kids dance. There’s also a co-op which is not limited to members, and where you can choose to join and work or not (and they do have their own drama if you’d miss that). Needless to say it’s surrounded by beauty, with the Connecticut River running through town and Mountains all around. It’s definitely on the crunchy side, but there are a lot of transplants from all over the East Coast, so there’s a mix of ethnicities and types that you wouldn’t necessarily imagine in Vermont. It’s very progressive and I would say welcome to most types, except maybe certain Manhattan types!

There’s a great Montessori School where my niece went and the public school system is well regarded, especially middle and elementary. There are two prep schools in the area – Northfield Mount Hermon and The Putney School – which some local kids do as day students.

I won’t comment on Marfa or Mill Valley, except that I do know a lot of people live on house boats there (in Mill Valley, that is) so if that’s a dream of yours…? Of course I sent this article to my husband and he was like, “I’d live in Mill Valley!” Helpful.

What’s your take? Any of these places on your list, either the real one or the dream one?


8 Responses

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  3. tracy says:
    April 24th, 2012 at 2:05 pm

    Yeah, Princeton’s gorgeous, I have 2 friends from college that are raising their kids there, but it’s SUPER DUPER waspy. Now that I think of it, I was never actually *friends* with these two girls at Lafayette because they tended to wear WAY too many madras prints, and not in an ironic way. Their kids wear bow ties and whale shorts. Lovely, sweet people, but I would stick out like a sore thumb there (kind of like I am now, in stupid Dedham, MA). 

    It’s a good choice for the banker, broker, corporate lawyer set, not creatives, in my humble opinion.

    • Deirdre says:
      April 25th, 2012 at 1:53 am

      Not creatives…or teachers or journalists or…many of the types that happen to live in Brooklyn. And come to think of it, a woman I used to work with who listened to conservative talk radio and had a closet full of Lily Pulitzer was from there, and moved back. With her banker husband. Oh well.

  4. Tmillert756 says:
    April 21st, 2012 at 6:03 pm

    We have been looking in Princeton due to aging relatives, and I have to say, I think it’s sort of like Greenwich, CT. If you drive a BMW and are a banker, you might fit in. Being in the grocery store with kids is painful because it seems like a hushed library setting. The downtown library is absolutely wonderful though. We toured the public schools which look great mostly because there are so few kids in the classrooms (15-18 in first grades). Many houses in town are on very busy highways even if you are very close to downtown and the schools so you’d never be able to walk anywhere with small children. The Bent Spoon ice cream shop downtown is almost reason to move there, but oddly enough, there are no decent restaurants in town. While it’s beautiful, coming from a midwestern farm family, I’m not sure it would be possible to find artists and “good weirdos” who don’t golf. Terhunes is a sweet farm outside of town with animals, but seeing McMansions on all of the land that used to be farms just makes me sad. Up the river might make more sense for our Brooklyn family looking for smaller classroom sizes. 

    • Deirdre says:
      April 23rd, 2012 at 12:43 am

      Sigh. This is about to be a *HUGE* generalization…but 

    • Deirdre says:
      April 25th, 2012 at 1:59 am

      The “being in the grocery store with kids is painful because it seems like a hushed library setting” made me laugh. Imagine feeling that way in Brooklyn?! The people at Union Market are totally gracious with my kids taking way too many cheese samples and touching way too much of the fruit.
      While I can’t live without delish food, fancy-pants grocery stores ain’t for us.

  5. Sandra says:
    April 20th, 2012 at 3:43 pm

    I went to John Witherspoon Middle School in Princeton, NJ, for one year a very long time ago. It was very rigorous and I was completely over my head coming from the artsy Little Red School House in The Village. I think this kind of a school is great if the child has been raised in the system and is used to spelling bees and public speaking. Standing for the National Anthem every morning freaked me out, though.