Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Rural Exodus

It still feels like winter in the Midwest and the natives are getting restless. Week after week we’ve been reminded that the Midwest gets cold as an ominous polar vortex delivers yet another one two punch of frigid air and unwelcomed precipitation. Driven indoors we find ourselves contemplating the return of sweltering heat while our Netflix queues run dangerously low and half read books pile up by the night stand. On this weekend, I’ve found myself pouring over census data. The topic I’m immersed in is the continual exodus of the populace from rural to urban areas.

My own amateur research reveals that the patterns of this exodus are not applied equally across the landscape. Census data shows that there are winners and losers in the game of migration. At a macro level, it appears that some states actually gained residents in rural areas (places that are not considered part of urban areas or urban clusters). In fact 26 states saw their rural population increase between the years 2000 - 2010, for a composite total of 950,209 additional residents living in areas which qualify as sufficiently rural according to the broad definition developed by the U.S. Census Bureau. Of course, this is of little consolation to those residents of small rural communities in the remaining states which saw 519,379 of their neighbors and friends relocate elsewhere. 

In addition to the increasingly desolate rural landscape, small communities face a similar predicament. The census includes an additional category of urban clusters, this includes smaller communities with more than 2,500 residents but less than 50,000 residents which are not part of a larger urbanized area. The Census Bureau has determined 3,087 areas which meet this criteria within these United States and the news here isn’t promising either. Over the past decade 705,567 stopped calling these places home as well. 

These are merely the macro numbers and one would be correct to assume that these statistics do not convey the dynamics of human migration in it’s entirety. Even in states that lost population I have no doubt that some communities were winners, but taken as a whole the trend of rural to urban migration continues. Communities, filled with pride and facing the reality that they may soon join the ranks of “ghost towns”, are actively seeking innovative solutions to stem the tide of population loss. It’s not difficult to find communities in various stages of decline, leveraging their unique attributes and cultural identity into a strategy which delivers the coveted millennials and encourages them to stake a claim and make it their "home".

Two places that have recently come to the forefront include Traverse City, Michigan and Eastport, Maine. At the surface level their visions are not dissimilar, both communities aspire to be a “vibrant” community, populated with a new generation that calls their houses, streets, and institutions home, adopting the identity of each place and perhaps adding to it at the same time. Despite similarities their pathway to prosperity differs at a fundamental level, neither community necessarily having the right answer but at least having one that works for them. 

Traverse City is experiencing an identity crisis, on par with a wayward teenager struggling to find an identity that suits them and displeases parents. After four decades of population decline, something has gained traction. Numerous festivals and events are drawing visitors with reportedly over 3.3 million making the trip annually. Celebrations of music, wine, microbrews, cherries, and film keep the highways well stocked with visitors making the pilgrimage north. In contrast to a history of tourism centered on outdoor activity such as hunting and fishing, it’s shopping, eating, and drinking that are drawing a new type of visitor. 

Not many would deny that Traverse City has become a great place to visit. In the midst of all the revelry at least one has dared to question the dogma of a tourism based economy. Last November John Flesher reported that a Traverse City resident brought the issue to the forefront through an attempt to reserve the “public space”, frequently occupied by festivals for the entire summer.

Mr. Colombo’s dissatisfaction is asymptomatic of the inherent shortcomings associated with a strategy being employed to “grow” declining communities back to prosperity. Amid the excitement an aspect of community is being lost. Community after all is the sphere in which individuals come together to shape the shared space they inhabit together. However, when a community has been relegated to a set of menial tasks based on serving up soft serve with a side of small town charm, it becomes more difficult to define the authentic aspects of community. Although cash is flowing to Traverse City, there is something deeply unsettling in the fact that the residents find themselves needing to purchase a ticket to enjoy the public waterfront and picturesque views for which their community is known. 

Traverse City has seemingly found the answer to that age old question “what is there to do?”. A question asked with increasing frequency as economic growth alleviates us from the drudgery of work. While I acknowledge this problem, as I age I can see why humanity has pursued freeing itself from feeling tired, achy, and sore. What is there to do you might ask? You may be entertained, you may consume, and you may spend uninhibitedly, and all from the comfort of the commons. The community assets, regarded in such high esteem that they were reserved for the enjoyment of all, are now being viewed for their potential not to improve quality of life but to generate revenue.

A little over 1200 highway miles away a different methodology is taking root in Eastport, Maine. Eastport, a picturesque seaside village, confronts the same dilemma as many communities but is taking a dramatically different approach. Situated on a coast already crowded with roadside attractions and “great places to visit”, Eastport set to work not remaking itself but reviving itself.

James Fallows brought Eastport to prominence in 2014 when it was included in the American Futures Project. His journey began with a flight up the coastline to this easternmost outpost of the United States. As he eloquently described the view from above reveals patterns which are not visible at street level, offering a glimpse at the economic system interwoven with the natural landscape below. Descending out of the sky details of the community come into focus revealing a story that can’t be told from 2500 feet. Eastport, similar to the places you and I call home, is full of real people whose stories aren’t that different from our own. 

Eastport's revival is centered on leveraging natural and existing infrastructure to reintroduce this one thriving place to the pulse of a bustling economy. Stories of renewed shipping activity, reduced emissions in European power plants, innovative hydro energy experiments, salmon farming, and artisanal mustard offer hope that Eastport might not be condemned to go the way of Atlantic fisheries. Eastport has identified it’s strengths and placed bets, however these ventures are not the equivalent of a Hail Mary pass. The community is supportive of efforts to transform renewable energy and reinstate the link between this deep water port and America’s railways. It’s more than numbers and projections that guides them, the residents whom know this place best have insights which even the best paid consultants can’t quantify. Here in Eastport, it’s unique local knowledge that’s driving a resurgence.

Eastport is the type of place where local knowledge can be leveraged, for with a downtown that’s four blocks long you have no choice but to know the landscape intimately. There is more to Eastport than an aerial view reveals. Interspersed among the buildings and streets are stories that will give a new generation reason to call places like Eastport home. 

The stories of Eastport and Traverse City, different as they are, share a rare tale of success for rural communities. The hemorrhaging of residents and tax base has been stemmed, albeit the results of dissimilar methodologies. This change in the pattern of human migration has not  yet constituted a trend and both communities will continue to have to compete not only with large metropolitan areas, but with an array of other communities. There will be no shortage of festivals celebrating various vegetables, fruits, beverages, and seasons, nor will these events ensure the future viability of any community.  The patterns of migration, not visible from any height will be measured over time. One community has opted to become a great place to visit, the other focused on creating a great place to live. It will be over decades that these two strategies diverge. Meanwhile other communities will succomb to modern economic pressures and others will innovative out of necessity in order to attract and retain human capital in an increasingly competitive landscape.

(Picture from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.)

Farm Security Administration: Families on the road with all their possessions packed into their trucks, migrating and looking for work. (Circa 1935)