I’ve lived in San Francisco long enough (I’m getting old) that I’ve seen several waves of bright young people arrive, burn out, then move away. For some they were looking for adventure, found it, and then carried on with normal life elsewhere. But for most it was simply a matter of the numbers not adding up. Working a dead end low wage job while sharing a two bedroom apartment with seven room mates is only romantic for so long. I’m fairly inquisitive so I’ve kept up with many of these folks to see how they manage after they leave. I travel a lot and pop in to visit on occasion. The big surprise is that they aren’t moving to the suburbs the way previous generations did when they were done with their youthful excursions in the city.
Instead, they’re seeking out smaller less expensive cities with the same basic characteristics as the pricey places that squeezed them out. I’m very fond of one young couple in particular who spent time in Los Angeles, Baltimore, and Portland before finally settling down and buying a house in Cincinnati. Why Cincinnati? It’s a great town at a fantastic price. They bought a charming four bedroom century old home in an historic neighborhood a couple of miles from downtown for $50,000. Their mortgage is $300 a month. Okay, with tax and insurance it’s more like $500. And it wasn’t a fixer-upper in a slum. It’s a genuinely lovely place with amazing neighbors.
Who needs New Urbanism or Smart Growth when so many amazing old neighborhoods are just sitting out there in under-appreciated and radically undervalued cities all across North America? The Rust Belt has long since hit bottom and has already adjusted to every indignity that the Twentieth Century could throw at it: deindustrialization, race riots, white flight to the suburbs, population shifts to the Sun Belt… Now that the unpleasantness has run its course what’s left are magnificent towns ripe for reinvention. Personally I believe many of the boom towns of the last fifty or sixty years have peaked and are about to enter the kinds of steep decline we currently associate with Detroit – except the dried up stucco and Sheetrock ruins of Phoenix and Las Vegas won’t age as well as the handsome brick buildings of the Midwest.
Don’t get me wrong. Cincinnati isn’t San Francisco. It isn’t Brooklyn either, although they do have an elegant bridge by the same engineer. If you want to be a Master of the Universe in international finance, or the next super genius computer whiz, or a millionaire movie star you probably need to be in a bigger place. But most of us just want ordinary comfortable rewarding lives surrounded by good people. The big question is pretty simple. Do you want that life to involve a $500,000 mortgage on a bungalow in a coastal city, or a $50,000 place in the Midwest. Will you earn less money in Ohio? Probably. But since your overhead is one tenth the California or New York price you really don’t need the big salary or the stress that comes with it. It’s like moving to the suburbs except you get to live in a great vibrant city instead of a crappy tract house on a cul-de-sac an hour from civilization.