BRAINERD, Minn.—I grew up on the farm that was homesteaded by my great-great grandparents. When I was a kid, we tore down and replaced the house they had built, and that others had subsequently added on to. The saying “if those walls could only speak,” has extra meaning for me, because we found many things within those walls—old newspapers, letters, trinkets long forgotten. My parents still live there.
In fourth and fifth grade, I attended Lowell Elementary. This is the grade school my mother attended, as well as the one my grandmother attended. Fridays during lunch I would walk to my grandmother’s house for pizza and Norwegian cookies. It was with great pride that I sent both of my kids to this same school. Many Fridays I would go there and have lunch with my kids, thinking of my grandmother.
This past weekend my youngest and I were biking past the cemetery and I suggested we stop. We visited one of the family plots—my mom’s side—and I shared with my daughter (again) what I knew about them. We’ve often done the same thing when we’re in the neighboring city near the place where my Marohn ancestors are buried. Those are moments I value.
Up the street from where I live today is the Franklin Arts Center. When I was a teenager it was known as Franklin Junior High. I’ve shown my daughters, on multiple occasions, the exact spot where I met their mother on my way to geometry class. I’m sure they will tell the story to their kids someday.
- Gracy Olmstead: Stuck in America’s Struggling Small Towns
- Charles Marohn: The Conservative Case Against the Suburbs
But when they do, there is a big part of me that hopes it will be as a visitor to this town, and not a resident.
I love this place. I have deep, deep ties in this area and I care about it immensely. And not just the place, but the people. My neighbors—some of them relatives, but many not—may be called deplorables by some, but I experience them as beautiful people.
Still, I spend a great deal of time wondering if I should have left and not come back. And more importantly, while my children will ultimately determine their own paths in life, I wonder: should I nudge them to consider a life far away from here?
We’re currently having a national conversation about immigration. The backdrop to that dialogue is that nearly every one of us—admittedly with some obvious and notable exceptions—either came to this country as an immigrant or is a descendant of someone who did.
I don’t want to debate immigration policy circa 2018, but I do want to point out something important: The act of being an immigrant requires one to leave one place and travel to another. To the extent that we have an aspirational national identity (and I’m perhaps one of the naïve few remaining who believe that we do), it’s the embodiment of a restless spirit, of the notion—Go West, Young Man—that a better life can be forged by moving over the next ridge, onto the next state, or across the continent.
In the past week, I’ve had two different people contact me for advice. The first person wanted to know what to do as the city they were living in became unaffordable, and grew even more so by the day. What should they do to make their place a strong town, to bring the cost of housing back in line with what they and their neighbors could afford?
The second person lives in the quintessential suburb, a place that has no chance of aging well and even less chance of voluntarily changing course. This person wanted to know how to convince those around them that they were in a Ponzi scheme, that things weren’t going to end pleasantly, that they needed a revolution in how they do things and it should have started yesterday.
I would never discourage someone who loves a place and wants to stick around and pour their heart and soul into making it work; I would be a hypocrite of the worst kind if I did. But with both of these people, I asked the same question: Have you thought about moving?
I interviewed New Urbanist Andres Duany on the Strong Towns podcast back in 2016. That conversation infuriated many listeners because of Duany’s suggestion that millennials need to stop complaining about gentrified cities being so expensive and move to—in his words, “pioneer”—someplace that isn’t so expensive, and then do the work to make it great. Here’s a quote from that interview:
Who’s really complaining about gentrifying are the new, young people who want to come in. But my feeling is: Hey, somebody else did the job, somebody else pioneered. Why don’t you go to Buffalo? Why don’t you go to Detroit? Instead of inheriting the work of others, do the work yourself.
I think if Brooklyn is over-gentrified, those people should go to Detroit and to Buffalo and to Troy and should go to the great small towns of America and get to work on them. People should, like proper Americans, move on.
My family is primarily of Norwegian descent. Most Norwegians came to the United States, not because of opportunity, but because of disasters—crop failures, blights, poor harvests—that caused poverty and starvation. They left places that were experiencing hardship and moved to places where there were better opportunities.
Pause and take a deep breath. I’m not excusing modern hardships and I’m not wishing them away. I’m here, after all, working to make my place better, despite the many challenges. All I’m saying is that sometimes you might need to move. And that’s okay.
I feel like living in a place is a little like a marriage. There are times, especially early on, when it’s bliss, but there are way more times when it’s simply a lot of work. Marriage—or some form of binding two people together—isn’t an institution that has been around for all of recorded history because it is easy. Rather, it’s endured because a committed relationship provides benefits—security, support, hopefully love and fulfillment—that are worth the effort.
Incremental developer Monte Anderson has said that we should all find a place that suits us and stay there. Focus on it and work to make it better. He’s saying, essentially, marry a place; stick with it through good times and bad, even after the bliss evolves into ongoing hard work.
I agree, but being born in a specific place is a little like an arranged marriage. And like any marriage, if it’s really not working out, it’s okay to leave. If it’s not the right place for you, if the opportunity for you is not there, then go someplace else.
I drew the ire of Steve Shultis, a founding member of Strong Towns and the author of the blog Rational Urbanism, when I suggested to students at a university near his hometown of Springfield, Massachusetts, that Memphis, Detroit and Buffalo were exciting places, that if those students wanted to make the world a better place while improving their place in it, those three cities were not only affordable but dripping with opportunity.
Steve was upset with me for not encouraging people to stay where they were, to make the Springfields of the world— which also need them—better places.
Just like a marriage, you need to choose your town freely. Sometimes you need to move out of a town that needs you, to find a place you need back. And that’s okay.
Charles Marohn, the founder and president of Strong Towns, has spoken in hundreds of cities and towns across North America. He was recently named one of the Ten Most Influential Urbanists of all time by Planetizen. In October 2017, The American Conservative cosponsored his “Curbside Chat” in Washington, DC.
This article originally appeared at Strong Towns and is republished with permission.