A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

How many cities are there in the U.S.?

February 16, 2000

Dear Straight Dope:

I have a hard question for you! How many cities are in the United States? I could not find any stats. Could you please help me and my associates find this answer?

Dear Mr. Adams,

I have been asked to write you this letter. My husband had some difficulty in answering this question that the authorities thought you should know about.

At first he thought that this was going to be a simple enough question to answer. He had told me that all he would have to do was go down to the library and pull the information out of an almanac. However, according to his notes, which I rescued from the library shelves surreptitiously stashed somewhere between "kabloona" and "turkish sheets," he first consulted the World Almanac and Book of Facts. No dice. He then tried the New York Times Almanac. Nada. Other sources he tried included the Information Please Almanac (the choice of trained statisticians everywhere), the Information Pretty Please Almanac, and the Goddammit, I Said Give Me The Information Almanac. And, of course, Atlas by Glen Baxter. Stymied.

Upon conferring with the reference librarian (a small, squirrelly woman with mouse-brown hair who I suspect he may be having an affair with), they decided that the only way that he was going to be able to come up with the information was to go back to our old friend Rand and his happy little friend McNally, go to the back of the book where all the cities and towns are listed . . .

. . . and start counting.

Mind you, they don't print these listings in really big print. My husband's vision is not the best to begin with. To put it bluntly, there are certain cuts of beef that have better eyesight. Tongue, for example. Local detectives believe that it was a combination of interminable hours of squinty-eyed counting that finally put him over the edge (where many believe he had been teetering for too many years anyway.)

It was while he was counting North Dakota that he began randomly assaulting library patrons with a suction cup dart gun. Somewhere around Pennsylvania he began muttering under his breath. (Something about "Pittsburgh . . . nope . . . nuh-uh . . . ain't gonna do it." He has always had a fixation about Pittsburgh for some reason and insists to this day that it was founded by Zasu Pitts.) However, it was when he hit Rhode Island that all hell broke loose.

You see, apparently even Rand and his dead gay son McNally have it wrong as well. My husband realized while he was counting the towns in his home state that the map listed many villages that are not incorporated towns while completely leaving out some incorporated cities containing these villages. As an example, they listed Wickford and Davisville, neither of which are actual towns in Rhode Island, but neglected to mention North Kingstown, which is. A quick count of what he had for just this one dinky state put his count off by a factor of at least 50%.

They were eventually able to get him down from the library roof (where he had been picking off pedestrians with the suction cup dart gun while screaming "I'm king of the world!") by distracting him with a year old bag of Skittles and whacking him on the side of the head with a well-aimed cuspidor. (I can also now verify the assertion that objects of different weight will fall at the same rate as both the cuspidor and my husband's head put a dent in the library lawn at exactly the same moment.) Before they (figuratively speaking) "wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger," he did note that his original count should contain a 2% margin of error for miscounting errors and other distractions. I mention this number as, coincidentally that is exactly the chances they gave me that they will let him out before he turns 70.

Just so you could have an answer to the question, though, I took the liberty of going back to the now-cordoned-off-to-search-for-further-evidence library and checking the U.S. Census records. Not quite as vainglorious an effort as he had attempted, but what the hell. The most current figure they had dated from 1996; God only knows what's happened since then.

In short (well, too late for that), according to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are 19,354 "incorporated places" in the United States.

19,355 if you have to include Pittsburgh.

Visiting hours are between 12 and 4 in the afternoon.



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