Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
The typical plots of holiday rom-coms involve women finding love in a make-believe small town—and getting out of the cruel big city.
If the deluge of holiday rom-coms from the likes of Hallmark, Lifetime, and more recently Netflix are to be believed, the city is no place for love.
Take Lauren Gabriel, heroine of the new Hallmark Channel holiday movie Christmas Town. She hits a dead end in Boston with her self-absorbed boyfriend and also the city’s white-hot job market. So she leaves the big city in search of the simple life (on a train!) and gets stuck in picture-perfect “Grandon Falls,” a small town so serious about Christmas it’s nicknamed after the holiday. And there—spoiler alert!—she finds the perfect guy.
You don’t have to watch many of these movies to see the bad rap that cities get. Before our protagonist (usually a single woman) gets enchanted by twinkling lights and prop Christmas trees, she must first flee the grey, cold-hearted metropolis that leaves her feeling some combination of lonely, overworked, and grumpy. And leave it to the residents of some weirdly Christmas-obsessed small town that she finds herself in for some reason—a baking contest! a secret inheritance! supernatural forces!—to teach her the True Meaning of Christmas.
If the popularity of Hallmark’s decade-old “Countdown to Christmas” franchise is any indication, the urban-rural divide resonates with holiday movie viewers. Perhaps it reflects the very real loneliness reported by urban residents, and the lack of community space to help combat it. It may also be that these movies tap into nostalgia for a vanished world of idealized Main Streets in the face of growing criticism of what current consumer habits are doing. What these movies aren’t, as Dylan Reid poignantly notes in Spacing Toronto, are rebukes of urbanism itself.
In fact, the small towns of holiday movieland embody everything one would want within a city, Reid writes: “Dense residential neighborhoods around a vibrant downtown main street full of independent stores and services, with attractive and well-used public spaces that bring residents together in person.”
These pretend hamlets aren’t just uncommonly pedestrian-friendly (Grandon Falls appears to have a car-free business district), they’re human-friendly. Imagine Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood—with jolly postmen and friendly shopkeepers who mean it when they inquire about your day—except Christmas has vomited all over it.
But that’s not to say these towns don’t have their own problems. Sometimes, it’s developers from the big city who want to bulldoze the antique shops and Christmas-themed bakeries. Often, the drama revolves around insufficient funding for holiday decorations.
Killing time at an airport hotel watching Lifetime Christmas movies. Two consecutive plots revolve around a small town’s decoration budget being slashed. The mass appeal of municipal government minutiae is vastly understated.— Glyn Bowerman (@glynbowerman) November 10, 2019
In the real world, wealth and opportunity are continuing to concentrate in a handful of large, affluent metros, leaving diminishing economic resources for smaller towns and cities. But spacial inequality isn’t a problem in Grandon Falls, because the primary local industry seems to be altruism. The townspeople have taken in families displaced by a building fire nearby, and the first foster kid that Lauren meets just can’t stop donating jackets to the other foster kids. When services are lacking, the residents pitch in. There is no ride-hailing in Christmas Town; only Travis, a stranger with a rusty pickup who forces Lauren to accept a ride from the train station. (Lauren’s concern for her safety is quickly brushed off, because everyone knows Travis!) It’s the kind of community that Lauren could not have found in cold-hearted Boston.
The irony, of course, is that these movies that portray the cruel hustle of big cities and the virtues of small-town life are filmed in big cities that get high marks for livability. Christmas Town, like many products of the holiday rom-com industrial complex, was shot in the made-for-cable Christmas movie wonderland of Vancouver, British Columbia, which boasts an abundance of studios and proximity to a variety of urban and rural shooting locations. Vancouver is also a perennial high-scorer in urban happiness and well-being rankings, a place that Canadian journalist Charles Montgomery singles out for praise in his book Happy City. (As this first-hand report from the Christmas Town shoot reveals, conditions on set were somewhat less magical: Filmed on a suburban backlot during a heat wave, the movie used leftover ice from Vancouver’s fish markets as a stand-in for snow.)
Other films rely on Toronto, another Canadian metro with enviable livability scores, to play the urban heavy; while certain landmarks may stand out to local viewers, the mostly American Christmas-movie audience is none the wiser. They’re too busy inhaling the on-screen, small-town romance that Hallmark and its kin have carefully crafted to make us believe miracles happen—just not in the big city.