Americans celebrate moving away from their small home town

An excerpt from a new book presents an American conundrum: many Americans like the idea of small towns yet celebrate moving away from them.

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I was humiliated, not just because I’d left school, but because I’d glaringly stumbled off the traditional path everyone I knew had taken: If you move away from home, you don’t move back. That’s not how young adults do it. We leave. We find our way.…

So there’s this push and pull, where fulfilling this Americanized ideal of being out on one’s own and forging one’s own life comes at the real cost of contributing to families and communities in tangible ways, Katsiaficas explained. “For so many young people that I’ve talked to, they’ve narrated that hyperindividualism as a real sense of loss,” she said. Rarely, if ever, had I heard that sense of loss, or even homesickness, described as anything other than something we’re supposed to grow out of…

Because moving is so ingrained in how we think about this time of life, even though not everyone can “achieve” that milestone, staying seems like it is rarely celebrated. With going-away parties to celebrate new adventures and graduation parties to mark the close of one chapter and the beginning of another, staying in one place can feel boring…

In our conversation, Warnick pointed out that there is a stigma in America against not only small towns, but staying in the same place at all. We tend to think of it as representing “the abandonment of our big dreams,” Warnick said, a feeling of escape that some young people feel acutely. I felt called out, and with good reason: I’d clung to the belief that life would really begin once I left wherever I was. It kept dreams I was too scared to say aloud at arm’s length; it allowed me to imagine, and reimagine, the “best life” I’d finally find with a new zip code, conveniently forgetting that my real life was happening wherever I happened to be. I could participate, or I could wait. And for years, I waited.

There is a lot to consider here: the particular stage of life in the discussion here (from roughly college to settling down as an adult), mobility, frontiers, cities versus other settings, and larger American narratives about success. A few quick thoughts in response:

  1. I wonder how much these narratives differ across places. Is this more prevalent in rural areas where the allure of trying the big city is strong or is it also present in big cities where young people want to experience other places, including other appealing big cities? This could help untangle whether this is more about small towns or a general theme that emerging adults need to strike out on their own somewhere else.
  2. This reminds of some marriage advice I once read that suggested newlyweds should move hundreds of miles away from both families to establish themselves as a couple before moving back near family. Does such a narrative go against most of human history?
  3. Could all of this help explain the enduring appeal of the suburbs? They are not quite small towns but they are not cities. Americans can feel better about returning to suburban municipalities and making a home there because it feels in between.
  4. This all seems to beg for a more robust theology of place in the United States.
  5. It would be interesting to know how social media and the Internet either help connect people to home towns from afar or present just a poor and ultimately unsatisfactory substitute.
  6. Plenty of Americans do stay in the community in which they grew up or stay nearby. What is different about their stories? What are the factors that help explain why some commit to staying and others leave?
  7. How do Americans process their experiences with and understandings of place? If the emphasis is largely on mobility or making do where you are, this might discourage positive memories or investing too much in a particular place.

Graphic options for illustrating where Americans moved during COVID-19

I appreciate the effort at CityLab to take all of the data regarding where Americans moved during the COVID-19 pandemic and put it into graphs and charts. Good graphs and charts should help illustrate relationships between variables and help readers see patterns. Here are several choices that I thought succeeded.

First, start with patterns in metro areas across the United States.

The two colors plus the size of the circle show the percentage change in population. The percentage is a nice touch yet the comparison to the previous year might slip past some viewers.

Second, another way to look at metro areas on the whole regarding population changes.

The side-by-side of central cities and suburbs quickly shows several differences: lower ratios for cities, more variability among suburban counties, more losses for cities during COVID. The patterns among suburban counties are a little hard to pick up; there are a number of counties that lost people even as the general trend might have been up.

Third, where did all those people moving from New York City, specifically Manhattan go?

In absolute numbers, there are patterns this map displays nicely: a lot of moves in New York City and in the region plus moves to other metro areas (including Miami, Los Angeles, Chicago, and more). The inset of the Southwest at the bottom left is a nice touch…presumably New Yorkers did not move in large numbers to anywhere roughly between Nashville and Seattle.

Fourth, which New Yorkers moved?

Looking at zip codes, neighborhoods with higher incomes had more people moving while the numerous neighborhoods with lower incomes had smaller changes in inflow.

All together, this is more than just a series of pretty graphics. These choices – first about what data to use and second about how to present one variable in light of another – help clarify what happened in the last year. Each choice could have been a little different; emphasize a different part of the data or another variable, choose another graphic option. Yet, while there is certainly more to untangle about mobility, cities and suburbs, and COVID-19, these images help us start making sense of complex phenomena.

Acknowledging our topophilia

More geographic confinement during COVID-19 can help remind us of our important attachments to place(s):

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There is a word for love of a place: topophilia, popularized by the geographer Yi-Fu Tuan in 1974 as all of “the human being’s affective ties with the material environment.” In other words, it is the warm feelings you get from a place. It is a vivid, emotional, and personal experience, and it leads to unexplainable affections. One of my fellow Seattle natives made this point to me when he said he hated the rain in Boston but not Seattle. Why? “Only Seattle rain is nice.”

In his book A Reenchanted World, the sociologist James William Gibson defines topophilia as a spiritual connection, especially with nature. Oladele Ogunseitan, a microbiologist at the University of California at Irvine, demonstrates topophilia by showing that people are attracted to both objective and subjective—even unconscious—criteria. My friend’s affinity for the “Seattle rain” is probably fueled by what Ogunseitan calls “synesthetic tendency,” or the way particular, ordinary sensory perceptions affect our memory and emotions. If the smell of a fresh-cooked pie, the sound of a train whistle at night, or the feeling of a crisp autumn wind evokes a visceral memory of a particular place, you are experiencing a synesthetic tendency.

It is worth reflecting on your strongest positive synesthetic tendencies—and the place they remind you of. They are a good guide to your topophilic ideal, and thus an important factor to be aware of as you design a physical future in line with your happiness. It is notable that one of the world’s most famous happiness experts, Tal Ben-Shahar, left a teaching position at Harvard University several years ago, where he had created the university’s then-most-popular class, to return to his native Israel—because he felt the pull of his homeland…

You probably have your own Barcelona or Minnesota, somewhere that has a highly topophilic place in your heart. Perhaps you sometimes daydream about going back—but then you snap out of it. Moving is a huge commitment, and not one to be made on a synesthetic whim. The cost of a big move is prohibitive for many people who might like to find a new home. Even if work and family circumstances make it possible, the idea of starting a new job, making new friends, changing schools, facing the DMV—it’s too much for many.

This is more than an acknowledgment of the importance of places in our lives; this encompasses all of the senses. One quick example: there is a home near us that has a line of four or five of the same kind of trees along the sidewalk. When I run by there, the smell alone is enough to transport me to a familiar family vacation spot where that smell is more common.

The argument here helps push back against a more recent narrative in human history that suggests people can and should be mobile. While people not too long ago might have been anchored in a relatively small geographic area for a lifetime, people today are more used to moving for jobs and travel across longer distances. Of course, as is noted above, such mobility might lead to loving a new place or an unexpected place. But, if people form these attachments to places, how do they then respond to mobility? Perhaps mobility can reinforce topophilia; you do not know how much you like places until you are away from them.

This also highlights the material world in ways that we sometimes ignore. Our environments matter, even if we are in an age of screens, private spaces, and lots of driving. There can be a lot of focus on this within private spaces – think decluttering trends or an emphasis on layouts and design in homes – but less emphasis on public or community spaces. To put it in the terms of James Howard Kunstler, are our collective environments worth paying attention to?

The American communities paying people to move there

At least a few American communities are offering financial incentives to try to entice new residents:

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Some cities and regions in America’s heartland are offering this sum — and more. They’re seeking to bring energy and vitality to their towns by attracting dynamic workers. With legions of people working from home during the coronavirus pandemic, these programs are getting a lot of attention as people in congested cities seek more space and affordable housing.

Northwest Arkansas launched its program this year, in the middle of the pandemic. Other cities in the nation’s heartland have similar incentives: Topeka, Kan.; North Platte, Neb.; Hamilton, Ohio; and Newton, Iowa

The city had its sights set on the growing number of “laptop workers” who can do their jobs from home — or at the local co-working space or coffee shop — when it launched the program two years ago. Since 2018, it has welcomed nearly 500 new residents, according to Stewart…

The urbanist Richard Florida has worked with both Tulsa and northwest Arkansas on their efforts to attract remote workers. And he thinks these types of campaigns will benefit small cities in the heartland. But only if they’re attractive places to live. Cash incentives won’t do the trick on their own.

This story profiles communities largely in the center of the country that want to attract residents but likely have limited population growth (perhaps due to low birth rates, low numbers of immigrants, and some younger residents moving away) and are not in the public eye. Without long-term population growth, many communities may feel they are stuck. Growth is good – and population stagnation or less is unspeakable.

But, as the story hints, these incentives have not exactly led to a flood of people moving to these locations. For how many people would a payment like this make all the difference? On one hand, people often do desire good jobs – higher pay, that provide opportunities for advancement, in exciting fields, etc. – and some may be able to go where those jobs are. On the other hand, people live where they do for more than just new opportunities or a financial incentive: they may have social and personal ties to a community, be coming from an area that has lots of options, and moving can be costly. Sometimes, people talk as if all people need is a good job or money to move somewhere new. It does not exactly work this way.

I also wonder how these incentives line up with different pressures the people being targeted by communities face. The article said communities are interested in remote workers. I also imagine these communities – and many others – are interested in young professionals. What do these workers want? A financial incentive, a cheaper cost of living, and a slower pace of life in a smaller community might be attractive. But, so might urban neighborhoods in exciting cities with lots of cultural opportunities and plenty of tech jobs and corporate entities nearby. Or, perhaps a walkable suburb is attractive with jobs and culture available via a reasonable commute. In other words, these remote workers could go anywhere they can afford. We are not at the level yet of communities acting like they do to attract major companies with tax breaks but I would not put it outside the realm of possibility in the future.

Companies moving out of California – yet continuing offices and operations in California

I have read several news stories discussing the move of companies out of California. Such news feeds chatter about companies and residents leaving places because of politics, taxes, discontent, etc. But, the details in this one story suggest some companies are shifting some workers and activity while retaining operations in California.

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“Oracle is implementing a more flexible employee work location policy and has changed its corporate headquarters from Redwood City, California to Austin, Texas,” the filing said. “We believe these moves best position Oracle for growth and provide our personnel with more flexibility about where and how they work.”

The company already has a significant presence in Austin, opening a five-story, 560,000 square-feet campus overlooking Lady Bird Lake. It also has employment hubs in Redwood City, Santa Monica, Seattle, Denver, Orlando and Burlington…

Oracle follows a handful of similar moves by California companies and high-profile business leaders leaving the state. Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced he had moved to Austin last week at The Wall Street Journal’s CEO Council summit. His exodus followed months of bashing California for its handling of the pandemic. The billionaire CEO said he is maintaining company operations in California, but also has significant operations for Tesla and SpaceX in Texas…

HP Enterprise also announced its decision to relocate its headquarters from San Jose to the Houston suburb of Spring earlier this month. Palantir Technologies relocated from Palo Alto as well this year, landing in Denver. Tech giants Google and Apple have also been expanding their presence in Austin over the last several years.

Headquarters are important, particularly for cities. Attracting the headquarters of a major company is a big status symbol for any big city. See the interest in trying to attract Amazon’s second headquarters. The implication is that the new location has a favorable business climate and is on the rise (with the opposite assumed of the previous location).

But, headquarters are just part of a company. They may be the nerve center and the physical home of company executives. Yet, large companies today can have offices and plants all over the place connected to a headquarters elsewhere.

Another way to read the moves out of California above is to suggest that these companies are hedging their bets by being located in numerous advantageous locales. Having multiple locations can help take advantage of local tax breaks for particular purposes, build on local work forces, maintain their place in local social networks, and provide points to pivot around when conditions change. The headquarters may have moved but they may move again and the companies still see some value in keeping operations going in California (even if some of this is simply due to inertia).

This suggests a different future reality than one where cities serve as anchors for major corporations. Instead, major multinational corporations keep offices and facilities all over the place, ready to move when needed or when an opportunity arises. Austin and Houston might be attractive now, Miami or Denver in a few years (just sticking to US locations). And as cities continue to look for an edge over their competition, attracting another big company is important…even as that company is actually rooted in multiple locations.

Survey data on wealthy New York City residents thinking about leaving the city

New survey data looks at what New York City residents making more than $100,000 think about leaving the city:

We found that 44% of high-income New Yorkers say that they have considered relocating outside the city in the past four months, with cost of living cited as the biggest reason. More than half of high-income New Yorkers are working entirely from home, and nearly two-thirds believe that this will be the new normal for the city…

Of those considering leaving New York City, 30% say that the possibility of working remotely makes it more likely that they will move. Of New York City residents who earn $100,000 or more annually, 44% have considered moving out of the city in the past four months (see Figure 4). Looking ahead, 37% say that it is at least somewhat likely that they will not be living in the city within the next two years…

The cost of living, more than any other factor, contributes to the likelihood of leaving New York City (see Figure 5). A total of 69% of respondents cite cost of living as a reason to leave the city; that figure is even higher among black (77%) and Hispanic (79%) respondents. Other reasons cited by respondents considering leaving New York City include crime (47%), desire for a nonurban lifestyle (46%), and the ability to work from home (30%)…

Only 38% of New Yorkers surveyed said that the quality of life now was excellent or good, a drop by half, from 79% before the pandemic (see Figure 2). Most believe that the city has a long road to recovery: 69% say that it “will take longer than a year” for quality of life to return to normal.

Finally some data on New Yorkers leaving the city! (Of course, this is more about attitudes than actual behavior.)

If I am interpreting the data above correctly, it sounds like COVID-19 has brought some other issues to light. This includes:

(1) If I can work remotely, do I value city life enough to stay there even though I do not need to be close to work?

(2) If the city is not what it was – and it is not clear when it might return to normal – because of decreased social activity due to COVID, the cost of living may not be justifiable.

Ultimately, is it worth living in a global city – with all that comes with it for high earners including jobs, cultural amenities, and a high cost of living – when the positive features of this city are muted during a pandemic?

“Zoom towns” better have good Internet capabilities

“Zoom towns” are areas of the United States that are gaining residents due to people trying to move away from COVID-19 cases:

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Like a lot of other vacation destinations — the Hamptons, Cape Cod, Aspen and so on — the Truckee housing market is booming during the coronavirus pandemic. It’s up over 23% since last year, according to data from Redfin, a real estate brokerage. Truckee is part of a trend that realtors and journalists are calling “Zoom towns,” places that are booming as remote work takes off.

There are numerous ways that these new full-time residents might transform their new communities, particularly if they are people with more resources.

But one issue for these growing communities involves infrastructure: how prepared are they to host more Internet traffic? Since March, much activity has moved online: work, school, social gatherings, public meetings, etc. Are there some places better equipped to handle all of this increased streaming? Are “zoom towns” the kinds of places that have robust Internet capacity? This might not be a big problem in suburbs of major cities (such as New Yorkers headed out to New Jersey) or for people who move from major city to major city (from San Francisco to Austin) but it could be for others who head to smaller communities or vacation towns.

What the COVID-19 pandemic could do is help remind Americans of the need to improve networks that enable computer, smartphone, and tablet activity. We do not just need to maintain what already exists; this pandemic has highlighted what was already going to happen: an increased need for streaming and conducting activity online. Without good infrastructure development in this area, future opportunities may not exist. Or, particular locations or kinds of places can be harmed or left behind, leading to or growing digital divides. From rural communities to poorer communities in and around cities, residents need decent Internet speeds to live during COVID and flourish afterward.

Where will people move to if the suburbs are “abolished”?

With President Trump’s claims that Democrats want to abolish the suburbs, we can ask this: where will people move to instead of the suburbs or where will suburbanites end up? A few thoughts:

  1. This reminds me of the first and only homeowners association meeting we attended when we moved back to Illinois. The board and attendees discussed efforts to combat some vandalism of association property, mainly some signs at the playground in the middle of our neighborhood as well as on a bridge over a creek. One attendee stood up and told this story (and I’m doing my best to paraphrase: “Any time my family and I move somewhere, we stay until there is crime. And then we move further away from the city until there is no crime and try again. If the vandalism issue is not dealt with, there will soon be babies shot in the street.” The suburb we lived in is rather small and sleepy but I would not be surprised if many people share a similar mindset (given what I see on social media about reactions to local crime).
  2. Those with resources will likely always try to find ways to create protected suburban communities. Depending on what regulations could come down regarding affordable housing, some will try to find loopholes and some might just defy the regulations and fight in court. (Another option: some might move to upscale urban neighborhoods.)
  3. An easy answer might be to embrace telecommuting and working from home and move to more rural locations. Yet, this negates some of the advantages suburbs offer including access to amenities of the city (including cultural institutions, major airports and transportation options) and job centers in the suburbs and cities. How many people truly want small town life (rural, tight local networks, few local options for shopping, dining, entertainment) versus wanting a suburb that straddles urban options and lower density?
  4. What does this do to our understanding of white flight and related phenomena? As it stands, historians, sociologists, and others largely talk about white flight as a process that occurred after World War II as whites left urban neighborhoods for suburbs and black residents moved in. If the suburbs are more open to all (and they already are much more diverse compared to the postwar era), will white flight come to include whites moving from suburbs to more protected suburbs and/or more rural areas?
  5. At the same time, Americans are less mobile than they been in the past. Would a threat to the suburbs actually prompt people to move or would they “shelter in place” or fight in place?

Treating suburban communities as another consumer good to choose among, Part Two

With the New York Times sharing suburban communities to choose among, I argue this could have long-term consequences for how suburbanites think about their community and social life. In short: treat suburbs like objects to consume and suburbs and suburbanites will struggle to form, develop, and maintain community. Here is why:

woman picking wine in store

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  1. Suburban community is often anchored in moral minimalism. With an attitude of leave each other alone, community is relatively shallow. The emphasis on each resident making the best choice for them could hinder efforts to build community. Consumerism encourages individual choices and often says less about and provides fewer opportunities for collective action.
  2. Making a choice among places of where to live could encourage people to more easily move away from places and/or limit their investment into each community. Purchase one suburb, throw it away when it no longer works for you or no longer meets expectations or another looks more attractive. Suburbs can be picked up and discarded at will, limiting commitment from residents and community members.
  3. Consumerism works through consumers making choices based on the resources they have available. This sorts people based on resources and makes it easier to justify different outcomes – and inequality –  by what resources people had coming in (which can be the result of social and individual factors). For example, one historian highlighted the shift in the 1960s from language about segregating by race or ethnicity to economic resources and social class.
  4. Consumer goods need to be differentiated from other competing consumer goods. The sort of analysis from the New York Times – fairly common in real estate sections – can put a spotlight on a few New York area suburbs and it is very difficult to provide an overview of all suburbs. While suburbs do indeed have unique characters, they also share similar traits compared to other places. Yet, for each of the suburbs highlighted, there are dozens of other suburbs with similar characteristics as well as other unique features. Going even further, trumpeting a few suburbs only might push more residents there while depriving other suburbs of possible residents. Highlighting particular features of places can reinforce statuses and traits and encourage agglomerations of both amenities and a lack of resources. In the long run, this pits suburbs against each other when they actually have multiple common interests and residents need particular services and options.

Articulating a different conception of social life beyond consumers making choices and could be more productive in the long run for nurturing the involvement of residents, deeper social connections, and stronger suburban communities. As I have heard said by multiple scholars, consumers take while citizens benefit as well as have responsibilities to others and the whole.

During COVID-19, wealthier people now less mobile than poorer people

Researchers found changes in mobility patterns among Americans of different income levels during COVID-19:

woman in yellow tshirt and beige jacket holding a fruit stand

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Writing in the journal PNAS, researchers from several California universities describe how they used anonymized cell phone location data and census info to show a dramatic reversal in how mobile Americans have been this year. Before Covid-19 struck, rich Americans moved about more than poor Americans—they can always afford to travel. But between January and April, that flipped. Rich folk are now far more likely to stay completely at home than poor folk: The study found that 25 percent more high earners stayed completely at home during the pandemic, compared to the number of them who had stayed home before. That increase was only 10 percent among low earners. And that has major implications for how we as a nation can fight the pandemic.

“In the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, there was a clear mobility response across the board,” says University of California, Davis environmental economist Joakim Weill, lead author on the paper. “In the US, everyone started to stay at home more. But we also found that there is a clear differential between wealthier communities and poor communities, where individuals in wealthier neighborhoods tended to stay at home much more than people in poorer neighborhoods.”…

Close to half of the wealthiest Americans stayed completely at home on weekdays in April, compared to less than 40 percent of low-earners. The poor traveled farther distances on average: In the same month, people who live in lower-income areas traveled between 5 and 6 kilometers, while the rich traveled closer to 4. The rich nearly halved their visits to recreational and retail areas in April, while the poor cut their visits by only a quarter—perhaps because their jobs required them to return to work there.

To be clear, the researchers can’t definitively say why the data shows this dramatic discrepancy, but they can begin to speculate. For one, essential workers often earn lower incomes, like clerks at grocery stores and pharmacies. Indeed, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics has found that among Americans 25 and older with less than a high school diploma, just 5 percent teleworked in June. On the other hand, 54 percent of Americans with a bachelor’s or more advanced degree were able to work remotely.

Social class is connected to mobility, health, and a whole lot of factors in social life. The anonymized cell phone data also seems to align with other patterns: those who can leaving certain big cities as well as differences in COVID-19 cases across communities and racial and ethnic groups.

As the article goes on to note, the fact that anyone can contract COVID-19 is not the same as saying everyone has the same likelihood of contracting COVID-19. Those with resources have more options in how to respond to crises plus more options when it comes to treatment. These differences are generally present regarding health but a large pandemic reveals some of the underlying patterns that deserve attention.