In a climactic moment in the third season of Parks and Recreation, Leslie Knope steps to the podium to sell local businesses on the idea of The Pawnee Harvest Festival. The expectation is her efforts will go awry. She’s deliriously sick and has refused to let anyone else handle the presentation, so it would seem we’re about to watch a colossal failure. Then she nails it. Her handsome boss Ben is left struggling to find an adequate comparison, “That was a flu-ridden Michael Jordan at the ’97 NBA Finals. That was Kurt Gibson hobbling up to the plate and hitting a homer off of Dennis Eckersley. That was—that was Leslie Knope.” Unlike The Office getting laughs from Michael Scott, the humor of Parks and Rec doesn’t come from Leslie being incompetent. Most often, it comes from her over-the-top devotion to her hometown.
In this age when the population of rural and small town America is shrinking dramatically, as young people—especially college-educated young people—flock to large urban centers, the main character of Parks and Recreation is an anomaly. The voice of Leslie Knope is in discord with the siren song that calls so many to big cities.
Rural Brain Drain is the phrase used to describe the diminishing populations of young college graduates in rural and small town America. In an economy that so highly values education and credentials, this trend presents dire challenges for small towns. Often, the comedy surrounding Pawnee’s shortcomings disguises the pain felt by those in real towns facing similar problems. Pawnee’s government is temporarily shut down due to budget shortages. A major plot point of the show is the pit that Leslie hopes to transform into a park; it was created when the company that had begun a construction project on that site went out of business. Limited economic opportunity drives many from small towns and their leaving exacerbates the problem. Related to these economic woes is the belief that leaving town is the normal path and those who don’t leave choose to stay because they have few other options. A recent Saturday Night Live sketch advertised your hometown as a tourist destination. The sketch is predicated on two ideas: where you grew up isn’t where you live, and even visiting a small town is painfully boring.
In Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America, Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas detail what they learned about this trend from interviewing young people in one small Midwestern town. Carr and Kefalas develop categories to describe the experiences of the young people they met, which they argue are representative of experiences of young people in small towns across the Midwest. The first category,
Achievers, are, according to Carr and Kefalas, groomed to be the best and the brightest, the most likely to succeed. They are also raised and educated in a way that encourages them to leave their homes and pursue their careers elsewhere. Leslie Knope breaks this mold.
Her determination to achieve political and professional success is so great that she gives campaign speeches in her sleep, and her commitment to Pawnee is such that she gets viciously competitive about it. Unnerved to discover there are seven other states with cities named Pawnee, she announces to someone she’s just met, “Pawnee, Missouri is a crap hole!” Leslie doesn’t stay in Indiana because she has limited options. When she turns down a boyfriend who asks her to move to San Diego, her reasoning is simple: “I love this town.”
Parks and Recreation both reaffirms and subverts the message that greatness lies outside small towns. When the Parks Department is asked to propose a mural depicting the Spirit of Pawnee, surly intern April begins by searching in a dumpster and even Leslie struggles to think of something positive, so she creates a picture of a factory fire. When dignitaries from Venezuela visit and Leslie fails to impress them, she gets desperate, “We’ll take them to Chicago and pretend it’s part of Pawnee. Or maybe New York. Or London!” The show is most critical, though, of anyone who would look down on small town life. And while Leslie’s love of Pawnee is occasionally depicted as ridiculous, it’s also what makes her endearing, even heroic. She makes a compelling case that while a small town may never achieve notoriety, it’s still possible for it to be the best: “Look I’m not crazy. I know Pawnee isn’t Paris or London or Chicago. But it’s a great place to live and work. And serving the goof balls in this town is an honor and a privilege. And yes, every town claims its diners’ waffles are the best in the world, but somewhere, in some town, there really are the best waffles in the world… Why can’t it be here?”
In presenting both extreme affection and disdain toward the fictional town of Pawnee, Parks and Recreation captures the mixed feelings many people have regarding their nonfictional hometown. I live in New York City, about two and a half hours from the town where I grew up—perhaps you’ve heard of it—Scranton, Pennsylvania. The Office, NBC’s other workplace mockumentary, made Scranton synonymous with small town lameness. Then, Joe Biden and the Obama campaign tried very hard to make it synonymous with Salt-of-the-Earth Americana. Scranton struggles with the exodus of its young people. In the three decades I’ve been alive, the city’s population has shrunk more than 17 percent. I grew up planning to leave, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love the place. I have gushed with Knope-like enthusiasm about the rolls sold by Scranton’s National Bakery. On a cold but sunny fall day, I want nothing more than to be able to go for a walk around Lake Scranton. It has been 13 years since I’ve lived in there, and I don’t expect to live there again, but I’ll always refer to it as home.
I came to New York because I wanted to try swimming in a big pond, because I wanted to be able to leave work and see a Broadway show, then come home and order any one of a myriad cuisines to be delivered to my door. In large part, I came to New York, because it was where most of my friends had moved. We all grew up hearing songs and watching movies about braving a big city—from Frank Sinatra to The Muppets Take Manhattan. Parks and Recreation is telling a different kind of story.
In the preface to Hollowing out the Middle, Carr and Kefalas explain why it was necessary for them to study Rural Brain Drain, “We believe that there are more than quaint postcard images of sepia-toned Main Streets at stake.” Though Pawnee’s problems get laughed at, the show is aware that addressing these problems is important. In the first episode of the current season, Leslie is snubbed in Washington when she tries to advocate for a river cleanup project in Pawnee. Then, she returns to Indiana to lead the cleanup herself. Parks and Recreation reminds us that while there may be something noble about learning to ride the subway, there is also something noble in caring for one’s home.