Why I'm Leaving my Small Southern Town

Bo Wright is a Strong Towns member who recently joined our staff as Development Director. Today he's sharing a guest article about his choice between two different sorts of towns. When you're finished reading, be sure to check out Strong Towns member Haile McCollum's response piece, "The Case for Small Southern Towns."

I’m someone who believes strongly in the virtue of loving one’s place, sticking with it and giving back to the places that have shaped us. But my wife and I are moving; we’re leaving the small southern town I thought I would commit my life to and moving to a mid-sized Rust Belt city. The reasons for this are personal — moving closer to my wife’s family, etc. — but as someone who thinks a great deal about the value of place, I’ve reflected on the cultural resiliency of my current community and the one we’re moving to. The decision to move came first. Then, because I’m an optimist, I created plenty of post hoc justifications for why this is a good decision. Today I'm going to share some of those and offer them up for discussion. I’ll begin with my optimistic case for the Renaissance of the Rust Belt.

The case for mid-sized Rust Belt cities

Everybody knows the once-great mid-sized Rust Belt cities (places like Detroit, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Akron and others) have their fair share of problems — declining population, the loss of stable middle-class jobs, the residual effects of urban renewal, to name a few — but they have at least three good things going for them:

  1. They’re incredibly cheap.
  2. They offer excellent urban qualities and architecture that we seem incapable of producing today.
  3. They know that they have problems and can’t continue on the path of the last 60 years.

The combination of these three things means that many young people and especially young families are moving to these cities, and they are capable of having a significant impact in their neighborhoods.

My primary case for optimism for Rust Belt cities begins with the development curb of great places that Andres Duany has discussed on several occasions, and writes about in his article “Gentrification and the Paradox of Affordable Housing.”

Former factories and warehouses offer opportunity for those pioneers who are willing to take a risk on them. (Source: Johnny Sanphillippo)

Former factories and warehouses offer opportunity for those pioneers who are willing to take a risk on them. (Source: Johnny Sanphillippo)

Phase I: The first pioneers—usually artists, musicians and other penniless young people with a good eye and a sense of adventure—are what Duany calls “risk oblivious.” These are the people who ignore things like poor infrastructure, graffiti, and crime because they see potential in a neighborhood. They make low-cost investments that allow them to fix the buildings, make their own security arrangements, and invent their amusements. As Andres put it, “They transform ratty bad-food joints into ratty good-food joints.”

I should note, that these pioneers aren’t always young hipsters; perhaps a better example of the Strong Towns principle of building incrementally is the immigrant community that is growing in many Rust Belt cities. Most of these immigrants are un-phased by hard work and conditions others might deem “unacceptable.” In every one of these cities I’ve traveled to, I’ve seen the immigrant population playing a major role to revitalize their neighborhood.

Phase II: Later, once the neighborhood is cool and desirable, the “risk-aware” people arrive. These are the developers and more established (and probably experienced) business owners who secure proper permits and mortgages, hoping to capitalize. This second group “likes the place to look rough and edgy, even as it becomes more expensive.” This is the “Keep Austin Weird” phenomenon.

Phase III: It is only after a neighborhood is established and attractive, with its safety issues “resolved,” says Duany, that the "risk-averse” — the proverbial “dentists from New Jersey” — move in. These are the people who have money to spend but expect a pristine environment. By the time the dentists from New Jersey move in, the place has lost its vibe, and those who want to be a part of creating a great place realize that the costs are too high and move on.

You should read the whole article. Not surprisingly, given Andres’ genius, it’s packed with insights on how the permitting process and stifling regulations prevent the first group from getting a foothold. This both prevents good urbanism, and prevents low-income and marginalized members of society from creating wealth. Most cities have made it illegal for the first group—the pioneers—to exist. And once it is effectively illegal for the pioneers to exist, the second group, the developers, must be enticed—so governments subsidize their expensive projects and take out all the risk. That is why public-private partnerships have proliferated over the past 20 years, and part of the reason why big players have gained privilege over small.

But in my experience, the Rust Belt cities have a healthy collection of neighborhoods in all three stages. I believe this is partly because there are so many vacant and abandoned buildings, partly because they realize they have a problem, and partly because of the type of people those problems attract—broke and entrepreneurial people. I see this natural process of development flourishing in Rust Belt cities and I think that bodes well for their future.

Sadly, plenty of small southern downtowns look like this. (Source: photolitherland)

Sadly, plenty of small southern downtowns look like this. (Source: photolitherland)

The case against small southern towns

I was the biggest advocate I know for why my small southern town was going to be great. I saw nothing but potential. But once we made the decision to move—again, for personal reasons that had very little to do with my current town or the city we’re moving to—I suddenly saw nothing but problems in my community. It was as though I was going through a bad break-up and finding reasons to dislike my former partner. So, the following should be taken with a grain of salt. That said, I do see the following as obstacles for small southern towns seeking to create a vibrant community. (These are purely anecdotal, and I welcome being told that I’m wrong).

Building for Tourism versus Livability

I think one of the best articles to appear on the Strong Towns website in the past couple of months was "The Big Urban Mistake: Building for Tourism vs. Livability" by Arian Horbovetz. His points capture perfectly what has happened to my town. We have built and continue to build for tourism rather than for livability. For us, the seduction is too strong: Less than five miles from us, some big-time developers are building what is supposed to be the largest sports complex in America when it’s all said and done. This may help support some of our local businesses, but I’m skeptical that it will lead to our town becoming a better place. Building for tourism rather than livability is a serious temptation for many small towns, and I think it is a fatal error.

Baby Boomers

Read anything about the growth of urban areas and two groups are mentioned: Baby Boomers and Millennials. But here’s my fear: Baby Boomers are a generation who grew up deep in the throes of the “illusion of wealth," when debt and outside money were easy to access. Combine this with the fact that many retired people are at a point in their lives where they’re settling down, looking to live comfortably and focused on spending time with family. Towns like mine are filling with retiring Baby Boomers, and while part of me is happy that they desire walkable neighborhoods, I'm still skeptical that they will have the interest and time to take a risk on improving existing neighborhoods.

Southern Culture

My favorite fireside question to friends—most of whom were raised in the South—is: What about the South and Southern Culture is worth preserving, building upon, or recovering? I don’t know the answer, but I want to.

The fate of small towns will come down to strong citizens — those who care about their places and do the small things to make them a little better.

As I think about a resilient local community, I’m not sure that the sort of pop-redneck, cheap consumerism culture of many southern towns and suburbs is resilient. Emile Doak at The American Conservative has written about the difference between country music from three decades ago and country music today. Country music used to be about maintaining a sense of place; these songs were about fighting for a way of life that was worth preserving. Today they are about “girls, trucks, girls in trucks, beer, and more beer,” and the celebration of being uneducated. I’m just not convinced that our current brand of Southern culture is capable of creating great places and producing the sort of citizens necessary to sustain those places. (I say this as a born and bred Southerner.) Of course, I’m painting with broad strokes, and the same may well be true about a lot of other cultures.

Most importantly, I say all of this as someone who does want to see small southern towns—and small towns elsewhere—thrive and flourish in every way, because I certainly do think that there is something worth preserving and building upon about their ways of life.

The fate of small towns will come down to strong citizens — those who care about their places and do the small things to make them a little better. This is one of my favorite things about the Strong Towns movement; there are so many Strong Towns members who live in small towns and are making them better places.

Read Strong Towns member Haile McCollum's response piece, "The Case for Small Southern Towns."

(Top photo source: Chris Pruitt)

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