Since 2013, James and Deborah Fallows have traveled through smaller-town America, reporting on cities that had faced economic or other challenges and had devised responses. One of their findings is about a new trend in migration, of ambitious young people looking for alternatives to big-city coastal life.
Through the past few generations, many people have assumed that the more you aspire to first-rate achievement (and rewards), the more you have to decide to live in a handful of coastal centers. New York for finance, San Francisco and Seattle for technology, Washington, D.C., for politics, Los Angeles for entertainment, and so on.
But across the country, a discernible reverse sort is under way. It is driven not by retirees or people who found that they couldn’t cut big-time competition but, rather, by younger people who have decided that the balance of life and work is more attractive in Columbus, Ohio, or Greenville, South Carolina, or Sioux Falls, South Dakota, than in Los Angeles or New York. The difference in real estate costs is a fundamental and under-appreciated part of this shift. In the biggest cities, personal and business decisions turn fundamentally on the cost of real estate. In many smaller towns, much lower costs for apartments, homes, office space, or art studios make more possibilities open.
But there are other attractions too. Here are examples from the otherwise very different cities of Duluth, Minnesota, on the shore of Lake Superior, and Fresno, California, in the heart of California’s agricultural Central Valley.
“There was this attitude around Duluth that nothing’s any good,” Gary Doty, who had been mayor of Duluth in the 1990s, told us, about the days when he was growing up in the city and beginning his teaching career. “We’re this little city stuck way to the north, far away from the Cities” — he was using the Minnesota term for the Twin Cities, Minneapolis and St. Paul — “and we’re just going to have to plod along.”
Now Duluth is a major aerospace center, based on the success of Cirrus aircraft, and at least as…
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