When did American television become obsessed with small towns? Back in the 90s and early 00s, you couldn’t swing a Bop It without hitting one of primetime TV’s Main Street-obsessed shows like Northern Exposure, Dawson’s Creek, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Smallville.
In recent years, we’ve seen the growing urbanization of television, as the housing crisis made American suburbs less attractive and small town life seemed less rosy. Across networks, the 2014-15 primetime lineup is pushing towards more shows set in vibrant urban centers like Washington, DC, New York, and – I guess – Orlando? (Check out the lineups here CBS, NBC, ABC). Media has made the small town into a cultural ideal. In his book How Cities Work about urban politics and city planning, Alex Marshall says:
Even though the traditional “place” has died, it remains embedded in our collective memory. It’s fascinating how many standard television shows and movies still organize characters and plots around a Main Street, with a corner store or bar, even though those things don’t exist in most people’s lives. A standard television show, like Beverly Hills 90210, still has its pretty teenagers Jason and Kelly hang out at an urban-style soda shop, which wouldn’t exist in the automobile-oriented Beverly Hills. . .the show gets away with it by stylizing the retro soda-and-hamburger joint as one that is being consciously nostalgic.
How inaccurate are the cities and towns we see on TV week after week and what do they say about our nostalgia for a sense of place? Gilmore Girls, which was still in its earliest seasons at the time Marshall’s book was first published, is a more modern example of the 90210 phenomenon, but few things have changed.
Stars Hollow is the fictional home of Lorelai and Rory Gilmore, the mother and daughter at the heart of Gilmore Girls. You probably remember Gilmore Girls as the long-running, fast-talking family show on WB that ran in the early to mid-00s. It’s an idyllic New England town, with sweet neighbors and colorful festivals. The kind you still dream of moving to when you get tired of city life. It also can’t exist.
“There are twelve stores in this town devoted entirely to selling porcelain unicorns.” – Luke Danes
Stars Hollow is a fictional small town located about 30 minutes outside Hartford. It’s roughly based on the Connecticut towns of Essex (pop. 6,605), Wallingford (18,210), and Washington Depot (3,578). Though the population of Stars Hollow is never given, based on what we see of the town, we can assume that its population is closer to the city centers of Essex or Washington Depot than the more urbanized Wallingford.
Essex, whose town motto is “Best Small Town in America” has a roads named Partridge Hill Lane and Sunset Terrace. The median age is 44. It has a riverfront museum and a yacht club on the shore of the Connecticut River, a stone’s throw from Long Island Sound. People there probably use words like “stone’s throw” when giving directions.
I took a virtual walk down Main Street of Essex Village, the closest approximation of where most of the action takes place in Stars Hollow. In How Cities Work, Marshall argues that many modern American towns no longer have a functioning downtown, since cars have enabled us to drive to big box stores for less expensive toiletries and basic necessities. Left behind are the artisanal soap boutiques, the mom n’ pop fudge shops you visit once a year, the new age jewelry emporiums, etc. So how does Essex Village compare?
In my virtual walking tour, I came across at least three specialty clothing stores (Aegean Treasures, Scensibles, and The Silkworm), a jeweler, Selene’s Sweet Shoppe, and an antique store. Those half-circle red, white and blue flags are as ubiquitous as the extra P’s and E’s. Surprisingly, there was also a Talbots in the heart of town – an odd location for an older womens’ clothing store you usually see in shopping malls.
Unsurprisingly, Essex Village lacks many of your basic amenities. For groceries, you can go to Sam’s Food Stores, a convenience store on the corner of Main and Ferry Street, but it seems like the New England equivalent of a 7-11. Essex Village residents (villagers?) need to drive – no sidewalks to speak of – two miles past farms and construction companies to reach the nearest bastion of civilization: a strip mall complete with a supermarket, pharmacy, liquor store, dry cleaners, Hong Kong Kitchen, and kung fu studio.
By contrast, Stars Hollow has a surprisingly vibrant business district, despite Mr. Danes’ quote about porcelain unicorns. You barely need to leave town to buy what you need, whether its purple hair dye or school supplies. It has a small thriving grocery store in the town square – Doose’s Market, named for owner and town magistrate Taylor Doose.
The fact that these stores exist and are doing as well as they appear to be is all very improbable. In season three, we learn that Jess, resident Holden Caulfield and boyfriend of Rory Gilmore, begins picking up extra shifts at the nearby Walmart. He works there nearly 40 hours a week on top of going to high school (sometimes), seeing his girlfriend, and working at Luke’s Diner. Although he has a car, we have to assume that in order to maintain that type of schedule, he is not driving very far to work.
Let us note now that there is a Walmart just 10 minutes outside Essex Village.
The effects a Walmart has on small businesses are well-documented.A 2008 study found a net decline of 150 retail jobs at the county level following a Walmart opening, meaning that each Walmart employee displaced 1.4 retail workers. A study conducted in 2012 looked specifically at the impact of a Walmart on small towns and found that while towns with a Walmart saw their retail sales stabilize and increase, most of the increase went to Walmart.
Unsurprisingly, specialty stores that don’t need to compete with Walmart often stay in business, which is antiques, goldsmiths, and specialty clothing boutiques continue to thrive on Main Street. Stars Hollow lists among its establishments, a dance school, an antique shop, a music store, two bookstores, five restaurants, an office supply store, and a store for cat-themed gifts. Like Essex, some of these are your typical kitschy attractions that the locals might visit once or twice a year to buy a gift for Mother’s Day or a baby shower, but others, like the office supply store, are curiously useful.
One would have to reason that with 28 named businesses in Stars Hollow, there is some off-screen turnover, as places like Stars Hollow Baby and Stars Hollow Party Supply go under, unable to compete with the behemoth selling diapers and birthday balloons just a short drive away.
Stars Hollow is the sort of neighborhood that followers of New Urbanism fetishize – somewhere with a nostalgic sense of place and community, large, pedestrian-friendly spaces and a variety of shops you can walk to while still accommodating automobiles and gargantuan homes. But New Urbanism is an aesthetic solution to a functional problem. Stars Hollow has no internal economic engine, other than perhaps an active tourism industry given the popularity of inns.It would be the tourists, not the quirky Stars Hollow residents, who are keeping the cat-themed gift shops and porcelain unicorn emporiums alive.
I will give Gilmore Girls credit for its inclusion of public transportation in the series, though only Rory seems to take advantage of it to travel to her grandparents house and school. But the problem remains that a town like Stars Hollow would not exist the way it does, where it is, with its local businesses when you consider external economic forces. Doose’s Market would eventually be run out of business by Walmart or some other chain grocery store outside of town and might be replaced by a Sam’s Food Stores. Rather than spending more money on hair products at the downtown beauty boutique, you would rather drive to the CVS less than a mile away.
Ultimately, there is no actual incentive to shop in downtown Stars Hollow, yet people keep doing it.
“This is Stars Hollow. You take three left turns and you’re back in the center of town.” – Luke Danes
The small towns we see in shows like Gilmore Girls, Beverly Hills 90210, and even Sunnydale from Buffy the Vampire Slayer (which despite its minor vampire problem also falls into this category) all portray the small, close-knit, liberal, walkable community that we yearn for in the real world.
Marshall notes that even in The Simpsons, a show that satirizes modern suburbia, can’t do without Main Street.
The Simpsons live in the the prototypical two-story-with-attached-garage suburban home, and shop at the Quiki-Mart run by the Indian clerk. Bart skateboards to school, almost surely an impossibility in the suburban community that the Simpsons live in . . . The town of Springfield is seen as possessing a classic city hall and square, rather than a faceless office complex on a parking lot, which is the style in so many suburban cities. It’s as if a town were impossible to construct conceptually without a Main Street, even though Bart’s counterpart in real life almost surely does not know one.
Stars Hollow doesn’t seem like a fantasy first, but it is. Straddling fiction and reality, it gives the impression that somewhere, a place like this could and does exist, and can be replicated.
“Drive west, make a left at the haystacks and follow the cows.” – Paris Geller
Today there are a lot of places that look like Stars Hollow, some built by New Urbanists and some of them legitimate survivors of the pre-automobile era. I grew up in Farmington/Farmington Hills, Michigan, an affluent suburb just northwest of Detroit. Along with being the 30th Safest City in America, it was ranked 27th Best Place to Live by CNNMoney in a 2013 list of America’s Best Small Towns, citing affordable homes and a historic downtown with modern shops and restaurants.
Farmington has a lovely downtown area on Grand River Avenue, thanks to the millions of dollars invested in redevelopment, now featuring a weekly summer farmers’ market. For about two city blocks surrounding the town public library, you can buy jewelry, visit a Celtic goods store, a handful of neighborhood restaurants, and a vintage second-run movie theater. The roads and parking lots close down for the annual Founders Festival, where you can buy art, handmade clothing, and scrap metal yard sculptures.
But behind those vintage stores and redesigned sidewalks is a strip mall/plaza with a rotating cast of characters – a bargain bookstore that was once a Borders Express and Halloween store and JoAnn Fabrics. A gym that used to be a shoe store and bookstore. Stores that went out of business and have been vacant for years because people are driving to Kroger or Busch’s instead. Across the street from the Celtic giftshop, there’s a small, cozy restaurant space where tenants never seem to last more than a year.
Drive just one mile west on Grand River and you hit another strip mall – sorry – plaza. This one has been empty for at least the last five years. I remember when I was in middle school (just over ten years ago) it was home to a family-owned grocery story, a hobby shop where I bought and painted a model airplane with my dad, and a diner my parents visited every weekend.
Today, Drakeshire Plaza, still in view of the historic downtown homes near the redeveloped sidewalks and farmer’s market, remains empty despite promises of an incoming Walgreens and other stores promoting walkability that have been discussed on and off since 2008.
Farmington is still ranked one of the best small towns in the country if CNN is any authority in the matter, and Stars Hollow would assuredly make the list too.
But the point is, a historic downtown is often window dressing covering up decaying strip malls struggling to lure residents. Suburban teens are driving to shopping malls to congregate, not patronizing the local diner. Stars Hollow is supposed to be a fantasy town where we all wish we could live. It represents not just Hollywood’s fabrication of a Main Street to create story, but also our collective desire for a place where business and community are one and the same. Where the places we go to work are like second homes, not meaningless office blocks.
My call is not for complete realism in television – we get enough of that day to day – but I would love to see a storyline where Taylor struggles to compete with Walmart. I’d be thrilled if there was a plot around trying to save the unicorn-vending gift shop from going out of business. Can you imagine watching Stars Hollow struggle through the 2008 recession? Now that would be drama.