I must make a confession. I come from a place (Bay Area, California) where the typical city has nearly hundreds of thousands of residents…and some cities have well over 1 million. My hometown of San Jose, CA is a residential city and yet still has well over 1 million residents. So naturally the overall size of the average city or town in the Midwest was a culture shock at first. Driving through Nebraska, Iowa, and Illinois I say hour after hour of vast rural and agricultural land.
Then I arrived in Bloomington. Now Bloomington is certainly not San Jose or San Francisco. Nor is it not Chicago–or Indianapolis, for that matter. But as a fan of boxing, I use this metaphor: for its size, Bloomington packs a serious punch. I think the analogy holds. Here’s why.
First, Indiana University is a large research institution. Therefore, enrollment is in the tens of thousands. This makes the population of Bloomington particularly high. So based strictly on numbers Bloomington is larger than most Midwest towns, especially those in Indiana. Indianapolis is about one hour to the north and Louisville is two hours to the south. Aside from that there is not much going on in southern Indiana in terms of large cities or tens of thousands of people en masse.
Second, Indiana University is an international university. As a result, you see a thousands of international students. That translates into one thing: lots of fantastic, authentic, first-generation-caliber ethnic culture…especially food. That in itself is not particularly common in the Midwest; but in the state of Indiana that is EXTREMELY uncommon. There are dozens of ethnic restaurant options, dancing options, etc.
For these two reasons Bloomington as a city is a big fish in the small pond of rural southern Indiana. In no other part of the region will you find anything remotely similar in terms of numbers or cultural diversity. But these are the distinguishing features that makes Bloomington so unique.