New York is over. And so are the other US Metropolises. This is the time of the Alternative City
As an entire generation of Americans, plus some expats, come into their age of influence and leadership the desire for more humanity and, of course, diversity is ever-so rife – finally we’re growing up?
Forget the usual coasts, America is opening itself up to something new and worth spending time in and around. There are the outdoor adventures of Colorado, or the Smoky Mountains near Knoxville and brainy Asheville. And the new cultural capital outposts: the trio of river-lover Midwest cities Columbus, Cincinnati with its revitalized OTR neighborhood and healthy-living inspired Indianapolis. As well as the opportunity-rich phenomena of Richmond, Lexington and, of course, Portland. Then there is the surprise of art-heavyweight Jacksonville. Now the choice of where to live, and where to travel, isn’t just an obvious yes to the big guns anymore.
Should I stay or should I go? More people are moving out of New Jersey, Massachusetts, New York and Illinois than are moving in – according to the annual list compiled by United Van Lines, a moving company that has put together an annual survey of where Americans are moving for the last 40 years. The top ten list includes: Oregon, with Portland’s appeal of walkable neighborhoods, public transport and cuisine, the mountainous areas of Colorado, with Denver and Breckenridge on the rise. And the Carolinas getting their share of love to with cities like Charleston, Raleigh, Greenville and Asheville starting to offer pretty much everything the big cities have.
Only a decade ago it was merely the major cities in this country that offered urban culture, that thing we may call “refinement” and some version of a European quality of life — with those French flurries — that Canada’s Montreal does so well in North America.
Let’s say it’s a Zurich meets Amsterdam meets Lisbon for good measure. Today a series of imaginative cities are being reborn as purveyors of such, right here in America.
Many of the globally recognizable cities, like New York and Los Angeles, have attracted fat cat real estate buyers who don’t actually live locally and added so much homogeny (and rising costs) that it unsettles visitors and residents who see multiples of the same in a very small radii. Nothing like the destruction of all the delicious character: gaudy banks, bright light drugstores or behemoth strip mall slash airport brands. Damnit, bring back the Mom and Pop store, yells Manhattan. What kind of “style of life” is this?
Lifestyle, the most overused word of this century, really just means living in agreement with your values – the tangibles and intangibles – and doesn’t need some silly overthinking. This applies to where you’re thinking of spending the next long weekend, or where you’re considering uprooting your life for. Just head upstate for a weekend at Sim Foster’s gorgeous inns, like 9 River Road, and you’ll start getting the itch to leave the major just-too-big city.
Portlandian Mike Thelin, after a food-writing career in New York, made the move to play a more direct role right on the ground in food evolution out west. For him the decamp is all about lifestyle, which he refers to as “the day-to-day.” But it is Richard Florida, urban studies theorist, who makes the most compelling case for “quality of place” and the three T’s of economic development: technology, talent and tolerance in his book The Rise of the Creative Class. He says: “Independently minded, innovative, creative people, who value lifestyle, are looking at a handful of alternative cities. They’re after a new way of living that embodies true quality.”
For Sarah Scarborough, founder of tea specialist (and newly opened tea-bar) Firepot in Nashville, it’s all about living somewhere where it’s a great place to raise kids. And the creative growth in her southern city was a total bonus – “Business is easy here, you could sell local rocks here right now.”
And over in Raleigh, two bestest friends, Van Nolintha (co-owner of the finest Bhavana and Bida Manda Laotian eat and drink love spots) and Cheetie Kumar, (chef and owner of Garland) have made home in this southern east coast intelligentia town. “As an immigrant and a young entrepreneur, this community took me in generously and inspired me to dream boldly and authentically,” shares Van. And Cheetie chimes in: “What keeps me here is this unique community full of potential, support, imagination and creativity. As a chef, it’s a dream to be able to focus on all things local with a global backdrop of spices all within a 10 minute drive. Plus a two hour ride to the beach!”
“People just want diversity in their daily lives,” says butcher Brent Young, who moved back to his native Pittsburgh after years in grueling New York. For Young the return to his city was all about the fostering of variety: “I wanted to just do what I wanted to do in an inspiring place”. For entrepreneur Hugo Matheson (who is in partnership with Elon’s brother Kimbal Musk at The Kitchen), Boulder was the next move after life in the big capitals of the world: “It’s simply that these smaller cities are just more approachable, as it’s all on human scale.”
And so the next level of Brooklyn-ization of the country continues. The latest information available from the United States Census Bureau shows that the general mobility from state to state is highest in the age bracket 25-45 for reasons cited as “housing needs.” According to Joe Cortright, a principal economist of consulting firm Impresa, “25 to 34 year olds with a bachelor degree or higher are moving to close-in neighborhoods and it’s fueling urban revitalization.” Their statistics shows the Metropolitan areas that include Portland, Charleston and Philadelphia are where the significant increases over the last 10 years lie.
But it’s a two-way situation – cities themselves are evolving as much as their inhabitants are embracing their well carved out ‘lifestyles of the mindful and happier.’ Charleston has added dozens of tradesmen to their repertoire bringing more social awareness, health and finesse to southern farm to table cuisine – that good old southern livin’. Ex New Yorker and restaurateur Ben Towill wanted more space, and freedom so he moved to Charleston bought a classic heritage home, plus a new cafe and renovated those meticulously. He left the big city looking for alternative opportunities and keeps finding them, and says “The holy city (Charleston) has an energy that is infectious: a great mix of new ideas and tradition.”
“People crave a deeper connection to their community – and so I left the big city for just that,” says Jonathan Cohen, who left San Francisco, then dropped out of Aerospace engineering and moved to Portland. Cohen has utilized this west coast gem as his entrepreneurial breeding ground for the last 13 years working on various projects – like a gorgeous boutique hotel and a new floating hotel with spa that’s currently in development talks. It’s true, smaller, or call them younger, cities are making it easier for like-minded people to take back their true work-life balance and this exists beyond income or equity.
This is the urban shake-up of our era – seekers call and alternative cities respond. Thomas Woltz, owner of Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects, sees alternative cities globally as the future of innovative development and that this trend will just continue to expand to more places to live and to visit: “I respond intuitively to the authentic grit that places like Birmingham, Louisville and New Orleans share. And I like their bold experimentation in food, hospitality and art thus allowing these cities to flourish.”
Go forth and conquer this new America, I say.