A few days ago I received an e-mail from Stephanie Shapiro, a Baltimore Sun reporter. She was working on an article about the concept of "Smalltimore" and had come across a post I'd written on the subject a couple of years ago. We had a great conversation about how Baltimore is a large-ish city with a small town vibe, about how you're likely to run into the same people on a regular basis, about how it can seem that nobody in this town is removed from anyone else by more than one degree of separation.
Yesterday evening, for example, K and Carlybird and I went to see Persepolis at the Charles. While standing in line for popcorn, I saw a former coworker, a guy I know from another nonprofit, and a friend of a friend. This morning at church I saw a woman I know from a board I serve on, a gentleman that I randomly volunteered alongside at a Sojourners event last week, and a person that I'd encountered for the first time at a meeting several days ago.
On the phone, Ms. Shapiro and I talked about how the idea Smalltimore is both a positive and a negative thing. The fact that one tends to see the same faces at the Golden West as one does at the Patterson or the Waverly Farmers' Market reinforces the notion that we're part of a community, that we're all sharing in the life of the city. But on deeper examination, it also points to the fact that Baltimore remains a very segregated place. If you live in a city of over 650,000 and you keep bumping into the same folks over and over again, it means that only a relatively small subset of the city's overall population is frequenting the places you frequent. I know I feel that way when I visit Federal Hill, which feels to me less like Baltimore and more like some upscale D.C. neighborhood that's been magically transported 35 miles up I-95. Or when my work takes me into neighborhoods on the west side that I've never been to before, despite having lived in this big small town for nearly 20 years. Perhaps the sobriquet should be pluralized: Baltimore is comprised of many Smalltimores.
Ms. Shapiro's article appears in the 'Entertainment' section of today's Sun. The piece leads off with a quintessential Smalltimore vignette about a woman who discovers that she's dating the same man as her friend. Ed Scheinerman, a math professor at JHU, uses statistics to deconstruct the Smalltimore phenomenon:
"These small-world connections, which, when they happen seem so marvelous and so out of the blue, are really very common...You probably know about 1,000 people and they probably know about 1,000 people. That would add up to 1 million people if there was no overlap. So, two steps out from your social circle is a huge circle," making frequent connections inevitable[.]
Makes sense to me.
The other day, mere minutes after my interview with Ms. Shapiro had ended, I received an e-mail from her. "P.s.," it read. "My husband, _______ [someone I've known for years], says hi."
Welcome to Smalltimore, hon.