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Parks and Recreation: The untold truth of Pawnee, Indiana

Leslie Knope and her colleagues in local government spend most of Parks and Recreation trying to make life a little bit better for the citizens of Pawnee, Indiana. Along the way, they have to deal with angry residents at town hall meetings, the mockery of wannabe shock-jock radio hosts, and the occasional vicious raccoon.

Pawnee might be a fictional town, but the beloved sitcom's writers created a place that feels so true to life, it seems like you could stop by for a visit. What Parks and Rec fan wouldn't want to take a road trip to eat waffles at JJ's Diner, grab a greasy lunch at Paunch Burger, do a little grocery shopping at Food and Stuff, and enjoy a night out at the Snakehole Lounge? Throughout the series, the writers reveal all kinds of interesting (and sometimes terrifying) tidbits about the history of Pawnee and the peculiarities of life there in the modern day. Here are a few facts about Pawnee that even devout Parks and Rec fans might have missed.

The residents are based on real people

As you watch Leslie and her coworkers field countless silly questions from citizens at town meetings, you might find yourself shaking your head and wondering how the writers came up with such ridiculous dialogue. As it turns out, these exchanges are based on the creators' real experiences at Los Angeles City Council meetings, which they attended to conduct research for the show.

Show creator Mike Schur noted that such meetings were primarily attended by people who were opposed to a particular policy or project. At one point, the writers encountered a group of California residents who were vehemently against the construction of any new parks in their town. This provided the inspiration for the residents who fight against — you guessed it — Leslie's proposal for a new park.

City planner Scott Albright, who served as a consultant for the first season of Parks and Rec, has also shared many stories about his dealings with the public as a government employee. "I thought that stories of interesting and bizarre community engagement events would be interesting to the producers and writers," he recounted in 2015. "We, as government workers, experience all sorts of imaginable and unimaginable experiences. At times, the Parks and Rec folks give me that incredulous look of bewilderment or even disbelief about some of my stories, but I spoke only the truth."

Pawnee was inspired by a real city in Indiana

While Pawnee is not a real city in Indiana, it is based on a city that is brought up several times throughout the show. You may remember Jerry Gergich mentioning that he and his wife own a timeshare in Muncie, Indiana. Naturally, this prompts Tom Haverford to question his choice of vacation destinations. While you won't find Pawnee's cultural hallmarks in Muncie, the team behind Parks and Rec did look to Muncie for inspiration and research while sketching out Pawnee.

In an interview with Wired, fact-checker Greg Levine explained that he kept up with small-town politics in Muncie to make sure the internal workings of Pawnee's local government seemed realistic. In addition, many of the maps of Pawnee that are shown in the series are simply maps of Muncie turned upside down.

Funnily enough, at least one of the cast members had no idea that Muncie actually existed. When Aubrey Plaza, who played April Ludgate, was asked if she was familiar with Muncie, she replied, "Wait. It's a real place?"

Pawnee was supposed to be called "Paradise"

As an expert on all things Pawnee, Leslie knows all about the founding of the town. In 1817, Reverend Luther Howell planted the first flag on the land where Pawnee would stand. He also started the first Lutheran church in the town. However, the Native American Wamapoke tribe was already living there. In the end, this didn't matter much to the settlers, who ended up forcing them out in pretty horrific ways. This kicked off centuries of unjust treatment from the settlers towards the Wamapoke people.

But how did Pawnee get its name in the first place? Apparently, Howell originally wanted to call the town "Paradise." Unfortunately, Howell was functionally illiterate. When he tried to write the town charter, his handwriting was illegible. His attempt at writing "Paradise" was misinterpreted as "Pawnee." Of course, the name stuck — but some people, like Leslie, really do think of the town as a paradise.

Pawnee's rivalry with Eagleton started centuries ago

Every Parks and Rec fan is familiar with Pawnee's rivalry with the neighboring town of Eagleton. But this rivalry is not a modern phenomenon — in fact, it's been going on for centuries! Eagleton was originally founded by some of the wealthiest citizens who lived in Pawnee in the early 1800s. They decided to leave Pawnee because they were unsatisfied with the soil quality and detested the smell of the town.

They headed off in search of greener pastures and founded Eagleton on top of a nearby hot spring, which gives the city its own "micro-climate," allowing palm trees to grow there. The residents of Eagleton live in luxury, and the entire town smells like vanilla thanks to the local cupcake factory. When Leslie ends up in an Eagleton jail cell, she finds that even the prisoners are served herbal tea and Greek yogurt.

Ever since the first Eagletonians left Pawnee, residents of both towns have held negative opinions of each other. They finally have to set their differences aside when Eagleton goes bankrupt and the town is incorporated into Pawnee.

Pawnee was run by a cult in the 1970s

In the 1970s, Pawnee was briefly taken over by a cult called the Reasonabilists. Contrary to their name, this strange group was far from reasonable. They believed that a giant lizard called Zorp the Surveyor would take over the world and wipe out humanity. This earned the cult the nickname "The Zorpies" from the residents of Pawnee. They were founded by Lou Prozotovich, who wrote the groups' two foundational texts: Organize It! and Organize It! 2: Engage With Zorp.

Decades after their initial takeover, the group has dwindled to only a few followers and their current leader, Herb Scaifer. Every few years, the Reasonabilists predict that the end of the world is nigh, and they hold an all-night vigil at a park in Pawnee to await it. How sincere are they in their beliefs? Well, Scaifer is happy to adjust his apocalypse predictions based on which nights the park is available for booking.

The violent history of the murals in Pawnee City Hall

The walls of Pawnee City Hall are covered in colorful murals, but look a little closer and you'll see that the history they depict is rather depressing. No one loves Pawnee more than Leslie, but even she can't help but express shame when she describes exactly what's going on in these tableaus. For example, there's the "Turnbill Mansion Wedding" mural, depicting a wedding between a white woman and a Wamapoke Chief ... which turned into a bloodbath that only two horses survived. Then there's the mural of the traveling magician who wandered into Pawnee in 1973 and tried to impress the locals by pulling a rabbit out of a hat. He was subsequently burned at the stake.

There's also the infamous "Spirit of Pawnee" mural, which includes stereotypical caricatures of practically every group that has lived in Pawnee over the centuries. Naturally, there was an attempt to paint this over, but when all of the new design proposals proved unsatisfactory, it was simply renamed "The Diversity Express."

The horrifying laws of Pawnee's past

In Parks and Rec, we see just how strange it can get behind the scenes when you're working for local government. But in the past, Pawnee's legal system was even crazier. At one point, just "being Indian" was considered a crime that was punishable by death. Women were also banned from showing their elbows — it was considered a Class-A felony, in fact. When one local woman, Sarah Nelson Quindle, exposed her elbow outdoors, she had to endure a cruel punishment: She was sent adrift on Lake Michigan on an ice floe to become a "human popsicle."

For a time, Pawnee did not even have a proper law enforcement system, because local sheriffs had either quit their jobs or died of self-inflicted gunshot wounds after drinking too much. Therefore, the locals would settle all of their problems by brawling. If you got into a dispute with someone, a bare-knuckle fight was your only option for seeking justice.

Pawnee has a serious raccoon infestation

Every town has to deal with local critters, and Pawnee is no exception. For as long as Leslie can remember, Pawnee has had a serious raccoon infestation. Leslie resents the fact that she was born at a hospital in Eagleton because when her mother went into the labor, the hospital in Pawnee was overrun by raccoons. This means that Pawnee has been struggling to deal with the raccoons for decades. Moreover, it seems that after all this time, the local raccoon population has begun evolving.

While raccoons are typically nocturnal animals, the raccoons in Pawnee are active during the daytime as well. They're also more aggressive than your average raccoon. As the Parks Department prepares for a local Christmas celebration, Ron Swanson remarks that if the raccoons are not removed from the Christmas village, they will hunt the children for sport. The town's ineffective animal control department also has to contend with a local opossum problem — when they're not getting high and ignoring their duties, that is.

Pawnee's changing town slogans

Pawnee has had many different town slogans throughout its existence. Fearing military invasions, previous mayors took some unorthodox foreign policy stances with slogans like "Welcome German Soldiers" and "Welcome Vietnamese Soldiers." When the Reasonabilists were running the show, town slogans included "Engage with Zorp" and "Zorp is Dead, Long Live Zorp." When the series begins, the slogan is, "Pawnee: First in Friendship, Fourth in Obesity." Since the local Sweetums candy company employs so many people in the town, obesity has become a public health crisis in Pawnee. In that sense, the slogan is unpleasant, but it's definitely also honest.

Eventually, the town hosts a public forum where residents can voice their opinions on a new potential slogan. Naturally, our heroes have to listen to quite a few nonsensical suggestions before hearing anything with potential. One lifelong resident comes up with the slogan, "When you're here, then you're home," which wins over Leslie. Of course, even this process doesn't go smoothly: When she presents her idea, she uses "than" instead of "then."

The fourth floor of City Hall just might be cursed

It seems like every old building has a haunted floor or room that you feel hesitant about entering. Pawnee City Hall is no different: Employees try to avoid the fourth floor at all costs. This is where the DMV and probation offices are located, for one thing. It's also where people go for divorce filings and marriage licenses. Leslie finds out that Tom is getting a divorce from his wife, Wendy, when she runs into them on the fourth floor. Overall, the atmosphere is extremely depressing.

The Parks Department employees prefer to stay away from the fourth floor, and whenever Leslie has to venture there, she's overcome by a sense of dread. She reveals that at one point, someone set up a popcorn machine on the fourth floor, but they used the wrong oil, and everyone who ate the popcorn had to get throat surgery. Although nothing supernatural goes on in Parks and Rec, it does seem like the fourth floor of City Hall is basically cursed.

The Pawnee library is notoriously corrupt

Most people think of librarians as kindly people who just want to encourage a love of reading in others, but in Pawnee, it's an entirely different story. The Pawnee library is notoriously corrupt, and Leslie despises the local librarians. In fact, she thinks they're a "diabolical, ruthless bunch of bureaucrats." Her anger towards them only grows when they put in a bid for the Sullivan Street pit, where Leslie hopes to build a park. They want to build a library on the lot instead.

One reason Leslie can't stand the library and tries to stay away from the librarians? Ron's ex-wife, Tammy, is the director of the whole operation. She's a manipulative woman who Ron loves to hate –  every time she comes around, he falls under her spell and turns into another, far dumber, person. Naturally, Leslie wants nothing to do with her. Tammy hopes that rekindling her relationship with Ron will help her secure the lot, and she brags to Leslie that this is how they get things done at the library. Eventually, Ron and Leslie both agree that even accounting for all of her other flaws, the worst thing about Tammy is simply the fact that she works for the library.

You can actually read Leslie's book about Pawnee

When Leslie runs for City Council, she needs to come up with creative ways to promote her campaign. As she wrote a book entitled Pawnee: The Greatest Town in America, she hopes that local talk show host Joan Callamezzo will choose it for her book club, boosting sales and bringing more attention to Leslie's campaign. But Joan sets off a controversy when she reveals that Leslie was actually born in Eagleton, not Pawnee. Eventually, she does select it for her book club — but not without putting a big "Gotcha!" sticker on the book.

Pawnee: The Greatest Town in America wasn't just a prop for the show — it's actually a real book, and the author really is listed as "Leslie Knope." In her book, Leslie takes the reader through the entire history of Pawnee. She also lays out an itinerary for the perfect day in her hometown, with commentary from other citizens of Pawnee. If you catch yourself wishing there could be another season of Parks and Rec, this book might be the perfect read.

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