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Sometimes You Just Need to Move

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.

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 [1], 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?

interviewed New Urbanist Andres Duany on the Strong Towns podcast [2] 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 [3] 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 [4] and the author of the blog Rational Urbanism [5], 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 [6], 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 PlanetizenIn October 2017, The American Conservative cosponsored his “Curbside Chat” in Washington, DC [7].

This article originally appeared at Strong Towns [6] and is republished with permission.

22 Comments (Open | Close)

22 Comments To "Sometimes You Just Need to Move"

#1 Comment By New England John On July 13, 2018 @ 12:50 pm

It’s funny that I’m reading this now. I’m originally from greater Hartford. I live in Mystic, Conn. right now and work in Greater Providence. I’m considering working up in the Springfield, Mass. area at some point. It seems more affordable than SE Conn or RI.

#2 Comment By simon94022 On July 13, 2018 @ 3:21 pm

Wait, so it’s okay to just leave a marriage if “it’s really not working out”?

#3 Comment By LouisM On July 13, 2018 @ 4:22 pm

I think that most people need to either travel or move to a new location while they are young. Spread their wings to independence and new experiences.

However, I also find that no matter where one moves most people are who they are as a child. Dick Van Dyke said on an interview that he grew up in a very small town where he knew everyone and was friends with everyone and regardless of fame or talent or wealth or the size of the city he lived…his values and personality remained.

These days I caution everyone to stay away from big cities wherever they are and look to 2nd or 3rd tier cities. Big cities have big problems. My advise to people is to look at places where you can have opportunities and lead a balanced life. Places where your not overwhelmed by immigration, gangs, drugs, high cost of education, high cost of taxes, high cost of real estate, etc. Any one or combination can sink you and your family in a recession.

Most of all keep this one thing in mind. All groups of people develop their own norms. Its why every company and every city and every region has its own slightly different personality to it. Make sure that your personality is compatible with the company and city your moving. There are plenty of big cities with a small town provincial feel to them. There are many 2nd and 3rd tier cities that have big city amenities.

I remember moving to Atlanta 20+ years ago before it boomed. At that time, a lot of migrants to Atlanta were from small towns all over the south and migrants fleeing the north and Midwest rust belts. It was a city of 4 million people but residents described themselves as a big Mayberry. Life was fast and professional with all the amenities of a big city but it retained much of the southern charm both from Atlanta residents who maintained the small town charms by moving to the suburbs and the migrants to Atlanta from small southern towns that brought it with them when the chose to settle in Atlanta.

Of course Atlanta is not like that today but there are other large cities with a small town personality and feel to them…

#4 Comment By JJR Blessen On July 13, 2018 @ 6:01 pm

Great article, and great advice.

#5 Comment By Nelson On July 13, 2018 @ 11:57 pm

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, 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.

This is why I morally support immigration so strongly. The people against immigration are “complainers”, but the immigrants themselves are “doers”.

#6 Comment By polistra On July 14, 2018 @ 4:00 am

“Making the town better” is always counterproductive. We’re in the current mess precisely because of reformers who KNOW how everyone else should live.

If you can’t afford the place, you should certainly find a place where jobs and costs are better aligned with your tendencies.

Beyond that, just try to be a good neighbor. Good neighbors don’t INTERFERE in the lives of others, whether the interference is a barking dog or a screeching crusade.

#7 Comment By Jannie On July 14, 2018 @ 9:33 am

I do genealogy and can track my husband’s and my families from and to many places. Most of our families never stayed in one place more than 3 generations and most only for 2 generations. The families that were here in America the longest, were Puritans and Pilgrims. My husband’s surname family, Puritans from cloth trading and clergymen backgrounds in England, scattered in the second generation here, with his ancestor, the son of the immigrant, going from Massachusetts to Long Island, his son moving to New Jersey, the next generation going to Pennsylvania, then the next generation to Virginia, now West Virginia, the next generation back to Pennsylvania, but in the western part, the next gen to Ohio, the next generation to Illinois, etc, etc, and on to Iowa, then Nebraska, then back to Missouri, where 3 generations have lived but not in the same place. The family prospered over the years, being farmers in the main, but also being post-masters, and state representatives, county officers, city advisory board work, etc. down to our son who has an MBA from MIT, and currently living in a town where some of his Puritan ancestors settled at the very beginning. My son has lived in many places in his career: Kansas, Texas, Colorado, Indonesia, England, and finally in Massachusetts. His son will probably be working in the financial industry in a big city on the eastern seaboard. My family, the Pilgrims, moved from England to the Netherlands, then to Plymouth, MA, to Connecticut, to Massachusetts, making their living from the sea in one form or the other for several generations until the American Revolution, then to New York in three locations, then to Kansas, then to Missouri, in the first years being traders and fishermen, then farmers and lastly carpenters and wood workers, with the women being teachers and nurses. My surname family came here, as near as I can tell, as metal workers from Ireland before the American Revolution, moved from Maryland to Pennsylvania, to Ohio, to Kentucky to Missouri, to Montana, to California, back to Missouri, to Illinois and back to Missouri, where I will probably die. One of my great, great grandmothers died in Oregon, having gone there with one of her sons. My grandfather was a cowboy and homesteader in Montana and wound up back in Missouri as a farmer, on a farm he had bought with the profits from his moving around to work. He did community improvement work as a County Judge and Draft Board Member. Our families have never been afraid of moving on to bigger and better things. Moving around does not preclude one from doing community improvement work. I think the ones who moved on have done better in the long run, and certainly lived way more interesting lives, than the ones who stayed in the same place for generations; and there have been those as well. But those lines have seemed to degenerate and peter out slowly.

#8 Comment By Jon On July 14, 2018 @ 9:45 am

Choosing a town where one has no recourse but to live within its margins had been the reality for me when leaving the Big Apple. I struck out for better employment opportunities. The city I chose refused to accept me but I tarried on for six years trying to make a go of it.

Other transplants were quick to remind me that I did not belong while they deemed themselves to be part of the community. And they did so with little barbs such as asking me when I would visit home as if one’s home was other than where one dwelt.

The natives kept their doors closed never inviting me to their homes for Christmas or for a drink and a parley of a few amicable words. They were hospitable on the outside in restaurants and public places but unwelcoming beyond the threshold of their doors.

Hidden in the town’s psyche were invisible rules of engagement where hidden ledgers were kept weighing who owed who and for how much. Favors were never negotiated although tacitly exchanged. And one always craned his neck looking behind to see who might chose to stick a knife in the backside and twist it.

In that fair city, I lived one week behind the pink slip and the street. Tiring of the suspicion of my neighbors, the precariousness of steady employment or rather its impossibility and of living hand-to-mouth, I returned to my parent’s lair.

And, slowly healed finding a career of sorts which led first to financial independence and then retirement. In my retirement, I first relocated to a small rural town to live among nature’s beauty. Tiring of it and its parochially provincial denizens, I migrated to a coastal and more populated but considerably more expensive region to pursue my art.

Thus far no town has sought to adopt me. And I have yet to find a place to settle down and make the area a better place. Of course, in my pursuit I have given up all hope any kind of a fit. Each town where I tarry is for me a temporary abode as I lay my sight upon the next move.

Marriage? Huh! I had long given up on that. It has been over three decades since my divorce and I have long since given up dating. I suppose the same is the case for finding a place to settle. Who knows where I will be in two years.

#9 Comment By Dakarian On July 14, 2018 @ 4:48 pm

“simon94022 says:
July 13, 2018 at 3:21 pm
Wait, so it’s okay to just leave a marriage if “it’s really not working out”?”

The wording is a little odd but take a note earlier in the article.

In the realm of marriage, the author said that you choose a place then work hard on it through good and bad times. It’s not going to be easy.

But when it comes to places you grew up, those aren’t like normal marriages as you had no original say on it. It’s arranged. And arranged marriages may not always work. You didn’t choose to be in it, others did for you. In a way, it’s less about committing to another and more about obeying authoritative orders.

So in a way, the idea is to don’t let yourself get locked down by arranged land marriages. If you want to work on it, work on it, but if you want to leave it, leave it and make sure your chosen marriage is one you wish to commit to.

#10 Comment By J May On July 15, 2018 @ 12:09 pm

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.

This was the wrong analogy to extend to this for many reasons. For me, the main reason is because of God and Him hating divorce.

But there are other obvious reasons. One is that “it’s really not working out” is subjective and, because of human nature, as well as the industrialized economy, this attitude is the great enemy of exactly the sort of marriage that was talked about earlier in the piece. A marriage that lasts is one where the constituents stick it out through thick and thin.

A better analogy would have been the kids of the marriage. It’s barely even an analogy given the point was to talk about being born into a town. You could even use “sons” and “daughters” as metaphors. Something like: sometimes you have to be a son and carry on the family name (i.e. stay in your place) and sometimes you have to be a daughter and take on a new name.

Other than that, it’s a good article. As a a long-practicing urbanist and former community organizer, I agree with the main point.

#11 Comment By Conewago On July 15, 2018 @ 2:28 pm

This wasn’t a bad article till the author used the term, “I feel like…”

Look, this isn’t a personal conversation, this is supposed to be a serious piece.

In the words of those ESPN announcers, “Come on, man!”

I want to know your opinion, not your feeling.

#12 Comment By Anne (the other one) On July 15, 2018 @ 3:48 pm

Jon says: “The city I chose refused to accept me but I tarried on for six years trying to make a go of it.”

I feel your pain.

We moved from NYC to a small town outside of Boston. The Moms at our parochial school asked if I was a Yankee or Red Sox fan. Not knowing anything about baseball or Red Sox fans, I answered Yankees. Needless to say, we weren’t accepted.

I wonder how many single individuals came to the United States alone? Most immigrants came with families or neighbors. Once established, money was sent back for aunts, uncles and cousins to come. Even today, when my husband and I discuss our retirement years, where our children live is important component.

#13 Comment By Tony D. On July 15, 2018 @ 5:11 pm

Wait, so it’s okay to just leave a marriage if “it’s really not working out”?

Yeah, that stuck out like a sore thumb; not what I’d expect on a paleoconservative Web site, to say the least.

And “just move to a cheaper town” sounds fishy to me; the reasons many affordable towns are affordable is because there are no jobs, so nobody has any money, so housing is cheap. What am I missing?

#14 Comment By Liam On July 16, 2018 @ 10:07 am

“We moved from NYC to a small town outside of Boston. The Moms at our parochial school asked if I was a Yankee or Red Sox fan. Not knowing anything about baseball or Red Sox fans, I answered Yankees. Needless to say, we weren’t accepted.”

But you would be eagerly embraced by many in the Providence area, which is one notable redoubt of Yankee fandom in the Red Sox Nation. And there’s a proudly stubborn pro-Yankee subgroup of Italian-Americans with roots in East Boston that has its own diaspora.

New England has a strong residue of localist tribalism that descends from the British Isles (one literary descendant group of which are Tolkein’s Hobbits). This contributes to its much higher level of local civic engagement as compared to, say, what is typical in the American South. It also means it can take a long time for newcomers to be assimilated. And it certainly contributed to the virulent racism in Boston.

#15 Comment By Javier On July 16, 2018 @ 1:02 pm

Nelson says:
July 13, 2018 at 11:57 pm
…This is why I morally support immigration so strongly. The people against immigration are “complainers”, but the immigrants themselves are “doers”.

True….but what those “doers” are doing is not always good or productive or legal.

Just like not all change is positive, not all “doers” do a community good.

#16 Comment By CLW On July 16, 2018 @ 1:52 pm

Where we live is no longer about where we feel most comfortable and are likely to participate in and help nurture a community: it’s about “labor force mobility” for satisfying the ever-shifting needs of corporate interests. Those cities deemed most friendly to corporate interests often then experience surges in population and housing costs that leave long-time residents struggling to get by.

#17 Comment By Cererean On July 16, 2018 @ 5:23 pm

Most people throughout history didn’t get much of a choice in where they lived, because most people were farmers. The features of the land – farmland, rivers, roads, mineral resources – determined where people lived. You couldn’t pick an arbitrary village, because you couldn’t pick up and move the family farm. If you were a miner, you had to live where the mine was. Even if you were an artisan, you had to live near to your customers.

Now, in developed countries at least, this isn’t usually true. Most settlements exist out of inertia – there are houses there because there have always been houses there since time immemorial, and as a result they’ve built up infrastructure that makes it easier to place new houses there. Or it’s got lots of employment in the biotech industry because there are universities in the region that put out lots of suitable graduates and startup companies, but there’s no reason that the universities couldn’t be sited anywhere else other than inertia. Consequently, the main reason people live in a particular town is because of human choice, both their own and others. But the choice can seem quite arbitrary, and so dissatisfying.

#18 Comment By mrscracker On July 17, 2018 @ 9:58 am

Tony D. says:

And “just move to a cheaper town” sounds fishy to me; the reasons many affordable towns are affordable is because there are no jobs, so nobody has any money, so housing is cheap. What am I missing?”

I live in an “affordable” area & there are plenty of jobs but the pay can be lower than in the bigger coastal cities & the pace of life is slower.
Housing is more affordable but not because no one has any money. It’s more about
demand, local income levels, & the overall cost of living.
One of my sons has college friends whose families immigrated here from Asia. They graduated & moved to places like Rochester, NY & West VA & did very well. They weren’t looking for nightlife or museums, they were finding opportunities in areas that many Americans had given up on.

#19 Comment By Tony D. On July 17, 2018 @ 5:33 pm

I live in an “affordable” area & there are plenty of jobs but the pay can be lower than in the bigger coastal cities & the pace of life is slower.

Well, I’m delighted to stand corrected. My own city is on the verge of becoming unaffordable (to what I am accustomed to thinking of as the “middle class,” i.e. household income in the $50 – 100,000 range); fortunately I have a modest home in a good neighborhood, purchased years ago at a fixed interest rate. I’m not sure I could afford to move into my own neighborhood now. I would also have difficulty moving to a place that was too small, as I refuse to live anywhere I can’t get by without a car, and lots of smaller cities have transit systems somewhere between inadequate and nonexistent.

#20 Comment By Jon On July 19, 2018 @ 10:21 am

There are areas where housing is by far cheaper than the coastal cities. This is due at least in part to the abundance of land. But the salaries and wages for the general population are so low that even at these lower prices, housing is far too expensive.

When I lived in Houston, young people, new entrants in the job market, doubled or even tripled up in apartments in order to defray costs. Or they continued to live with their parents. I for one could never afford to buy a home. This was back in the 1970s and early 80s.

Now one might say that this was a long time ago. But do things really change all that much?

Plenty of jobs in Houston at that time. It would seem so with all of the businesses around, flourishing shopping malls and freeways lined with car dealerships.

However there were barriers of entry which in all probability remain in place today. For instance, there is that practice among hiring companies to check references. And when one has moved to Houston such references are out of state. Employers are reluctant to check them out and thus the transplant may not be able to find work.

Why are employers unwilling to check out of state references? In my time the excuse was the cost of a phone call. Actually they like to talk to former employers informally to get the lowdown on the prospective applicant. An invisible network existed where undesirable applicants were blackballed. I would be surprised to learn that this has disappeared. I highly doubt that.

Houston appeared as a cosmopolitan city back than. It still appears so but is it really? And the same could be asked about the Dallas Forth Worth area as well.

Where jobs abound with lower cost housing and accompanied with low salaries and wages, one should look beneath the rock for the salamander. Real income is not necessarily lower than that earned in coastal cities. And an abundance of companies with classifieds does not mean a dearth of barriers of entry for the prospective applicant.

#21 Comment By Jon On July 19, 2018 @ 10:24 am

Correction: Real income is not necessarily higher than that earned in coastal cities. One should not confuse monetary with real income.

#22 Comment By Jay Urban On November 6, 2018 @ 11:02 am

all of the people focusing on the use of “marriage not really working out” are the reason that people are leaving the church, and diminishing the conservative political scene in general. If that is the take away you make from this article you are a fool.