Small Town Rising

According to a poll released by a Bay Area advocacy group this past weekend, 46% of the area’s residents are ready to call it quits and move out.  Poll respondents cited the high cost of living and the area’s housing crisis as the primary factors leading to their desire to leave.  Even more interesting, 76% of those wanting out plan to leave California completely.  Life is apparently no longer golden in the Golden State.

The population of the Bay Area is around seven million, so forty-six percent is a staggering number.   Even if a fraction of them act on the impulse, it would dramatically alter the landscape of northern California and just about every place else.   Many US cities…places like Seattle, Denver, Boston, Miami and even Midwestern outposts like Minneapolis and Chicago now offer a similarly poor value proposition.  I suspect that if similar surveys were done in those places, you’d find similar numbers of people ready to bolt.

The deeper the blue, the more affordable the place. Here in the Heartland, Chicago and the Twin Cities stick out like sore thumbs.

This is different than previous migrations such as the mass exodus from the Rust Belt to Texas and the Southeast in the 1980s.  These refugees aren’t seeking jobs.  They’re fleeing high costs.   As a result, they may surprise us in terms of where they end up.

Jefferson Iowa: I came here for bike trails, high quality of life and a value proposition that was more in line with my view of the future.

I have a theory about this.  I think more than a few will choose small towns, particularly those small towns that are world aware and offer a high quality of life.   I think this for a couple of reasons.  The biggest reason of all?   Cities are starting to break down under the load.   It’s not just high prices.  It’s deferred maintenance and failing schools.  It’s infrastructure that is not being properly maintained.  It’s crime.   Many of us are willing to put up with all of that  if we’re making a good living, but when we can’t make ends meet any longer it just doesn’t make sense.

Then there’s the Internet.   The promise of technology always been to unleash us from geography and it has been quietly happening.  Large numbers of us, myself included, now work remotely.  If you can have a big city salary and combine it with small town costs, it’s much easier to win the economic game of life.

When my wife and I came to Iowa from urban Utah a little over a year ago, we had no idea where we’d end up.  We chose this area because Iowa is open and welcoming and not even a little extreme.  The center is valued here.  People’s reactions to life’s stimuli are measured and muted.  It just fits us.

We looked at houses in the heart of Des Moines and the suburbs as well as the small towns that dot the map of central Iowa.   We ended up sixty miles northwest of Des Moines in Jefferson, population 4,100.  Although we have never lived in a small town before, it has turned out to be the right choice.  I have no doubts.

Jefferson is the most bicycle friendly place I’ve ever lived.  It’s not really even close.   Motorists tend to drive slowly, stop completely at stop signs and are more than happy to share the road with cyclists and pedestrians.   That’s the primary component of bicycle friendliness…this willingness to share.  Most urbanists have given up on it and so instead they advocate for things like protected bike lanes.  We don’t need them here.   They would be redundant.

The town is centered on a square.  There is a focus on making it remain vibrant.  We have a coffee house that roasts beans right in the store.  Our movie theatre has only one screen, but it shows current releases.  We have the best Chinese restaurant I’ve ever been to.  There’s a rec center and a decent library.  We might even get a brewpub.  In spite of this, we’re not overrun with tourists like so many otherwise nice small towns.  This is real live working place, not a movie set.

Since landing here, I’ve come to discover that there are a surprising number of towns like Jefferson.  They offer affordability and an insanely good quality of life.   They’ve been overlooked for the last 100 years or so, but it would be a mistake to assume that their future is bleak.  Waves break.  The tide goes out as well as in.  I sense that we’re on the cusp of a big change when it comes to urban:rural migration in this country, and I believe the winners will be those small towns that are open and welcoming and bike friendly.


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