The United States has big cities of various sizes. For example, the Wikipedia list of the largest cities in the United States ranges from New York City to #326 on the list, Roanoke, Virginia, at just over 100,000 residents. By important measures, whether population size, density, or land size, some places are definitely bigger than others.
But, a trip this week to Springfield, Illinois reminded me that these absolute measures obscure how different big cities function within their own regions or geographic areas. Take Illinois. The biggest city by far is Chicago and the majority of Illinois residents live within that metropolitan region. Yet, within Illinois there are numerous smaller big cities that anchor sizable areas as well as the big city of St. Louis just over the Mississippi River. If you are in Quincy, Illinois, with roughly 40,000 residents, Springfield at over 114,000 residents might be the big city over an hour away. Chicago is even further away both geographically, five hours by car or train, and culturally. Regional political, economic, cultural, infrastructure, and health systems revolve around these smaller big cities which then have links to the less common truly big cities.
This even happens within the Chicago area. Yes, the truly big city is close and can even be seen from different high points 25-30 miles away. But, in daily activity, many suburbanites do not travel to the big city. They may travel to a different suburb for work as jobs can be concentrated in suburban job centers,e they attend religious services or lessons for their kids in yet other suburbs, and they look for restaurants in entertainment in even more suburbs. The suburban lifestyle is dominant, even thought a world-leading global city is nearby.
Put these different experiences together and “the big city” can mean different things in different contexts. Is it the regional center an hour away, the truly large city with a major international airport several hours away, the sizable suburb nearby that offers some different options, the tourist magnet that many people visit, or the big city as it is depicted on television and movie screens?