What is a city?

Massachusetts has 50 cities and 301 towns—collectively known as “municipalities.” Does it matter which ones are cities and which ones are towns?

And should you care about the definition of “city”?

Perhaps; perhaps not. If you’re studying civics anywhere in the northeast, you should care. The reason is that the distinction is not what you might think it is. The most common misconception among New Englanders is that it’s a matter of population size: big municipalities are cities, municipalities with small numbers of people are towns. In colloquial English that more-or-less fits with how people talk.

And it’s also true more often than not. There are, however, a great many exceptions. For example, the city of North Adams has 13,708 people, which is fewer than the town of Brookline, with 58,732 people.

Sometimes the name will help. But nope—you can’t even trust the official names! For instance, the “Town of Watertown” (which also has “town” as its last syllable, as an additional clue) is actually a city.

So what on earth is going on?

I referred to New Englanders above, but what about Old Englanders? According to Englishman Tom Scott—who is always worth watching—I should probably write a post specifically about him—most Brits think the city/town distinction has to do with “size or power or population or cathedrals or castles or universities or history,” but actually it’s much simpler than that. It’s just that the Queen says “that one!” and Bob’s your uncle it’s now a city.

So in Britain the definition is apparently a self-referential one: a municipality is a city if it’s on the list of cities.

But who makes the list?

Officially the Queen, but in practice some bureaucrat. (Go back and watch Yes, Minister for more on that matter.) And that means that sometimes Mistakes Are Made. In today’s divisive times those mistakes are always blamed on some conspiracy, but please keep in mind Hanlon’s Razor:

Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.

Anyway, back to Massachusetts. The main distinction between city and town is the form of government: a city has a city council and an elected mayor, a town has a town meeting, a select board, and a town manager. The town meeting is part of the sacred tradition of New England towns, antedating even the formation of the U.S., but what happens when there are too many adult residents to fit into the school auditorium or any other meeting place? The answer, as is the case in the aforementioned Brookline, is an elected town meeting, in which voters choose representatives to go to the town meeting—not quite the same as a city council, which is much smaller and much more permanent.

That’s pretty straightforward, isn’t it? Unfortunately—wait for it—there are exceptions. Apparently there are towns that have mayors, though I have been unsuccessful at finding a list or even an example. If you know, please tell me!

Of course it would be too simple if the rules were the same in the rest of New England. But more about that another day. And then we can look at what a village is. And what about a neighborhood?

Life is complicated.

Categories: Life, Teaching & Learning