“Pawnee: First in Friendship, Fourth in Obesity.”
Fans of the critically acclaimed television show “Parks and Recreation” are quick to make references to Leslie Knope’s beloved town, Pawnee, Indiana. From their oversized soda cups to their intense rivalry with their pristine neighbor, Eagleton, the tight-knit community of Pawnee adds not only another humorous element to the show, but also a bit of charm.
But what would it be like to grow up in Pawnee?
Another running joke on the show is that Jerry has a timeshare in his favorite vacation town, Muncie. Although Pawnee is not a real place, Muncie is.
What many “Parks and Rec” fans do not know is that Pawnee is actually loosely based on Muncie. If you look at the maps of the two cities side by side, it becomes easy to see that the map of Pawnee is just the map of Muncie flipped upside down. That may be where the similarities begin, but it is certainly not where they end.
I was born and raised in Muncie. When I tell people where I am from, they usually respond by saying that it sounds familiar, usually because of Jerry’s timeshare.
So what are some of the similarities and differences between Muncie and Pawnee? Is Pawnee a fair representation of the place I call home? Though Muncie doesn’t have oversized soda cups or a rivalry with their neighboring town, and I cannot speak to their Parks department, the heart and soul of Pawnee are definitely present in Muncie.
Muncie and Pawnee have geographic and historical similarities. Both towns have approximately 70-80,000 residents and are close to state universities of similar sizes—Ball State University and University of Southern Indiana, respectively. The history section of Pawnee’s website discusses its famous Boone Bread Factory, which was Pawnee’s biggest employer for seventy years, in the late 1800s and early 1900s. This is similar to Muncie’s own Ball Corporation, the factory that began manufacturing the famous ball jars around the same time. Ball Corporation was Muncie’s biggest employer until it moved to Colorado in 1998. Muncie boasts the second most fast food restaurants per square mile, attributing to a large obesity rate, similar to Pawnee’s.
Like Pawnee, many of Muncie’s residents have lived there for their entire lives. Many people are born and raised in Muncie, attend Ball State, and then raise their own families there. These people are proud to live in Muncie. Thirty years after their high school graduation, they still spend all of their October Friday nights cheering on the Muncie Central Bearcat Football Team and participate in the annual Walk a Mile in My Shoes event to help end city hunger. Part of Muncie’s charm comes from its residents’ pride in it. Similar to Knope’s love of Pawnee, citizens of Muncie are incredibly proud of and thankful for a town that many outsiders would want to run from.
Muncie is by no means perfect, and, growing up there is nothing like growing up in New England or the West Coast. Since the Ball Corporation shut down, employment rates have plummeted, and the distinction between the poor and the middle class has become increasingly apparent. The school system is still recovering from tremendous budget cuts, and the two public high schools were forced to consolidate beginning in the 2014-2015 school year. To an outsider, these facts might seem daunting. I can’t count how many times people have asked me, “Is Muncie just like Pawnee? Why would anybody want to live there?” Well, why does Leslie Knope want to live in Pawnee?
Pawnee has the heart and soul of a great Midwest town. The people genuinely care about each other and want to build strong relationships with each other. In Muncie, I became acclimated with people who have many different stories from various walks of life. Though I don’t plan to spend the rest of my life in Muncie and have already made the decision to part ways with the town, I’ll always be thankful for the people I met there and the life that my family built there. Maybe there is a little part of Leslie Knope in me. I yearn for something bigger than my small town Indiana life, but I’ll be forever thankful for what it gave me.
People usually laugh when I tell them I grew up in the town that inspired Pawnee. I am sure it gives them all sorts of ideas about the life I live and the person I am. Before I started watching the show, I was afraid that people thought I was from some sort of hick town in the middle of nowhere. I was always the first to complain about how Muncie was so boring, and I feared that this show would just reaffirm my complaints while making them visible to everyone. Because of this fear, my mom told me that I should watch the show before I started college, so I could understand the frame of reference.
When I watched the show the summer before starting college, it made me thankful that I grew up in a place like Muncie, or as most people know it, Pawnee. I came to understand the great things that come from growing up in a small Midwestern city. I was able to build lasting relationships that I know will last a lifetime, be engaged in my community without feeling overwhelmed, and really understand what it means to have a place to call home. Maybe the next time people laugh when I tell them about the Muncie-Pawnee relationship, I will have to remind them of all the great things that Leslie Knope sees in Pawnee. Pawnee is by no means a glamorous big city, but there is something about it that makes viewers keep coming back.
This article is the first in a new series called “The Place I Call Home,” in which students write about where they’re from. If you are interested in writing a piece for this series, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.