December 28, 2015

Small-town New England: Recent utopian experiment, not organically rooted

If you've seen videos of Trump's rallies across a wide variety of locations, you've probably had your first and only glimpse into small-town New Englanders, as well as small-town Appalachians, small-town Plains folk, and so on.

Something about the ones from New England always seemed a bit off to me -- they're much more on-edge and hostile than the ones who show up in Knoxville, TN, or Greenville, SC, or Davenport, IA. And it's not just an East Coast or Northeast thing -- those rude regional traits are due to living in or near huge cities, and having shallow roots in the country (Ellis Island people, or more recent arrivals). The New Englanders from small towns should have avoided those toxic influences, shouldn't they?

It turns out that small towns in New England have only become re-populated since the 1980s and especially the '90s. From the General Social Survey, the graph below shows what percent of New Englanders lived in communities of a given population size (in 1000s), from the 1970s to today (smaller towns are at the bottom, big cities at the top):

As recently as the '70s, less than 1% of New Englanders lived in a place with 1 thousand or fewer residents, and only another 2% lived in places of 2 to 9 thousand. Nearly 20% lived in big cities (100 thousand to 1 million), and nearly 50% lived in large-ish cities (50 to 100 thousand). Under one-third lived in mid-sized cities (10 to 50 thousand). It shouldn't come as a surprise that one of the earliest sites of industrialization should show such an urban-oriented residence pattern.

But then rising crime rates sent people out of cities and into more sparsely populated areas. In other parts of the country, where rural areas were already well settled, this "white flight" took the form of migration into mid-to-large suburbs. There were already lots of people in the small-town and rural areas -- 40-50% in the eastern half of the country, less so out west. But in New England, the white flighters found almost entirely abandoned small towns and took them over with no competition from rooted locals.

As crime rates have fallen since the '90s, cities have lost the stigma of being dangerous hellholes. So New Englanders have come back to urban areas, although not as eagerly as they fled to the countryside in the first place.

Most small-town residents are native New Englanders (80%), so at least the small towns aren't being picked over by outsiders (just small-scale transplants within the region).

Has anybody tended to stay out in the small areas? The history of residence patterns looks the same no matter what race, marital status, political orientation, or education level the person has. The one thing I could find a big difference for was how often they attend church -- those who attend frequently have moved back to the urban areas the most eagerly, and those who attend semi-regularly have also returned to the cities. But those who rarely or never attend have tended to stay out in the smaller parts.

You'd think it'd go the other way -- shouldn't religious people fit in better with pastoral residence, and non-religious people fit better in cities?

But remember that small towns in New England have roots that go back no further than one to two generations. Religious people want to fit in with wherever their roots are, and in New England that means cities. People who rarely go to church are already disconnected from one of the central institutions, so they won't mind being disconnected from their community roots either. Or so it appears.

Those who have mostly remained in small towns may not go to church, but they're not mostly atheists or agnostics either. From the '90s through today, residents of towns under 10,000 people, who rarely attend church, are only about 20% atheist or agnostic. Another 20% of small-town rare-attenders are certain God exists, which leaves a majority of small-town rare-attenders who believe in a higher power, believe sometimes, or believe with doubts.

Spiritual seekers who don't actually practice religion, who fled urban New England for abandoned nature, during a wave of Gothic rising crime rates -- it's the Transcendentalist movement all over again.

Just bear this in mind whenever you come across "small-town New England" in the future. It's a recent utopian experiment whose results cannot be judged too well this early. Although given the levels of free-floating hostility that seem to be found there, it's certainly not encouraging. You can take the urbanite out of the city, but you can't take the city out of the urbanite.

GSS variables: size, year, region, reg16, race, educ, marital, polviews, attend, god


  1. Boston working class whites have a reputation as the meanest in the country. They're not the descendants of abolitionists:

    Some say that the ethnic Germans from the former Soviet Union who made aliyah to Germany in the 1980s and 1990s have a very un-Germanic tendency to form criminal gangs. HBD blogger Jayman would say it's the Russian admixture.

  2. This relates to Vermont going very left wing in the last 50 years or so. Many people are weirded out by VT electing Bernie Sanders and Howard Dean---how can these country hicks be so left-wing? It doesn't really compute with how the rest of the country has gone in the last 50 years, with the rural becoming red and the cities becoming blue.

    The key is that many, many wealth Silents and Boomers from Boston, New York, and Hartford got second homes in Vermont once their money kicked in. And then retired to VT, or at least claimed residency there. And many of their hippie kids and grand kids went to the local university; Burlington is like Portland, Oregon, complete with a naked bike ride.

    So these carpetbaggers out-voted the old VT Republicans.

    So you see a lot of VT folks LARPing as country bumpkins, small-time folks when really they're just big-city blue folks with large bank accounts who escaped all the diversity and crime and chaos of city life. Lucky for them the diversity didn't follow, which is why the old VT republicans didn't revolt too badly on being taken over; the crime and ethnic replacement didn't follow.

    N.B. Next-door New Hampshire used to be the counterpoint to this: few city people moved there, and it remained red. Unfortunately, it, too, has been gentrified and blued, as Bostonians have begun retiring there and talks about expanding the commuter train to Boston across the NH border have increased; many people now can commute to work from NH to Boston, although it's hour to two hour trip right now.

  3. That's really interesting. You are describing my mom's family. She and her four sisters all grew up in Morris, NJ, a commuter suburb of NYC. But today two of the sisters live in Cheshire, CT, a small town adjacent to New Haven. My mom lives in IL.

    My grandparents lived in rural CT as well, first in New Preston (a small town in the NW corner of the state), and later Cheshire. My grandfather passed away in 1988 but my grandmother only died a couple of years ago.

    I've spent a fair amount of time in that corner of CT and you are right -- virtually EVERYONE is an out-of-towner from the NYC or Hartford metro areas. Like, everyone. There aren't even that many longstanding local businesses. You'd think there would be a quaint old hardware store or family restaurant that has been open since the 1800's in lots of these small towns, but nope -- the closest thing to a "down home" restaurant in Cheshire is an Italian grocery store that also has a dining room. Lots of Italians live in that area now, my aunt's husband is an Italian guy who grew up in Brooklyn. But the flinty old New Englanders are pretty much non-existent. There is a family pick-your-own-produce farm that appears to be owned by long-time residents of the area, but I can't think of too many other local businesses in the area.

    In fact, my mom's family is the closet thing I can think of to "long-term" residents. My great-grandparents lived in NYC and retired to New Preston back in the 1950's. My grandmother and and grandfather lived in the NJ suburbs of NYC and then retired to New Preston themselves in the 1980's. Now a couple of my aunts live in Cheshire, about 40 minutes from New Preston. One of the aunts works for Yale University as an accountant, the other one is retired. But even though my mom's family has been in the area for 60 years, they haven't established longstanding ties with other area residents because everyone else is a transplant, too. My grandma was an old-school WASP out of central casting, but there is not an entire entire close-knit community of people like her in the area. There just aren't that many community ties. My mom's extended family is very, very close, but the communities in the area are very weak.

  4. As Agnositic said, these places are small towns but they do not have a small-town feel. They are kind of like commuter suburbs located in rural areas. Oddly enough communities are much closer knit here in Los Angeles than in rural New England. In the LA suburb where I live there are lots of multi-generational families who all know each other, and you can find restaurants and local businesses that have been operated by the same families for 100 years, etc.

    There doesn't seem to be too many communities or indigenous institutions left in rural New England. People still look and act like New Englanders on the surface, everyone looks like they stepped out of an LL Bean catalog, but there isn't much below the surface. There isn't any real old-time religion, either, my aunt and uncle attended a UCC "church" which, until recently, had a pastor who was "married" to another man. This was very sad because my aunt and uncle are very good people, solid citizens who actually served on the board of their "church" and volunteered for all of its outreach functions.

    ut that was the only "church" available in that area, the town squares of those small towns have plenty of beautiful old Congregationalist churches that are basically abandoned now, they have one Sunday service per week that is attended by like 15 people, and no real church communities. My aunt and uncle are very good people, and they probably would have attended a real church given the opportunity to do so, but the crazy liberal church in Chesher was the only one that had any active parishioners.

    That church is geared toward the spiritual beliefs, such as they are, of upper middle class professionals from big cities, it is basically a Boomer megachurch set in a rural small town, it is not an indigenous community church, steeped in history, that has baptized the children of the area since the 1600's. There aren't really any churches like that in rural New England, the old buildings are still there but the communities are all gone.

  5. Maine is ripe for city slicker gentrification, too. LL Bean was a native, but that was the old days.

    The new symbol of Maine's rustic LARP-ing is Burt's Bees -- founded by a Jew from Long Island and an Irishwoman from Lexington, MA.

    I'm glad people are moving back to small towns there and preserving things that would otherwise deteriorate, but they ought to take a more self-effacing conservationist role, and not an attention-whoring LARP-ing role.

  6. According to the GSS, the regions with the most stable (or least unstable) rural / small-town residence patterns are East South Central (southern Appalachia -- KY, TN, AL, MS), West North Central (western Midwest -- ND, SD, NE, KS, MO, IA, MN).

    Decent showing as well for East North Central (eastern Midwest -- OH, MI, IN, IL, WI).

    West South Central (southern Plains -- TX, OK, AR, LA) is OK, but is bi-modal with another huge chunk living in big cities and mega-cities (all in Texas).

    In the Plains, I think most of those living in tiny places are living on more spread-out standalone farms, rather than in close-knit small towns.

    Farms can be carved out, settled, and worked without the residents having any roots there.

    Small towns require slow growth, gradual building up of trust and social capital. They will have been settled much earlier.

    If you're looking for organic small towns, your best bet is the old Northwest Territory (eastern Midwest) and Appalachia.

  7. This is a well-written article, Agnostic.

    I went to a liberal arts college in Vermont and saw this first-hand. I could never really place my finger on why Vermont small towns felt different than Upstate small towns. The latter has multi-generation people living there. Hardly any money. But a great sense of community.

    The former focused more on looking the part of a Vermonter. Wearing LL Bean and Patagonia. Eating local and organic. They're more smug about everything, but also removed from the community. Probably didn't know the multi-generation dairy families nor really cared. The churches really are abandoned there, whereas I can't say that for Upstate NY.

    The upside is that these new transplants have restored a lot of derelict structures, so most of the old town centers are preserved. They demand high-quality food and drink, so you can find really good restaurants and breweries in the state now. They're environmentalists so not only is there little trash around, they also have banned roadside billboards. I actually really hate these and wish more states would enact the bans.

    Here's a website that profiles the next generation moving from the city to the rural part of New England (the site's owners focus around Maine). These are mostly Gen Xers. I just find that a lot of them look smug. But ultimately think that they're doing something good by starting a family and moving to the countryside than pissing away their lives in the city.

    Man, I need to leave NYC.

  8. Everyone on that website is a lifestyle/persona striver who's moving out to the country in order to share pictures of their vintage lifestyle on Facebook and drive all their friends jealous.

    As a side effect, they will preserve a lot of the run-down structures -- otherwise the staging wouldn't look so authentic, and the friends wouldn't be driven so jealous.

    But, it's better than nothing. And maybe future generations will take on the conservationist projects for their own sake, and not as part of a grander vainglory project.

    It'd be even better if those moving into small towns actually came from there and are moving back, or had family there a few generations ago and were moving back. They need some organic connection in order for them to have some skin in the game.

    With most of the urban exodus crowd, if the whole pastoral Vermont thingie doesn't work out, meh, moving back into the East Village wouldn't be the end of the world. Either way, they're OK with whatever.

    If you're from upstate New York, you're only one year away from President Trump restoring the Rust Belt to its former glory. They're going to start making great stuff there again, and it'll be a source of genuine pride -- unlike when hipsters colonize an abandoned town and peddle artisanal granola.

    This travesty must be avenged, but it's going to take the best-and-brightest of the region to stick around and run things well:

    "Oneida Limited transitioned from its manufacturing history and focused on design and marketing of its products that are globally sourced. Sales, marketing, advertising, procurement, customer service, legal and operational support is also still based in Oneida, New York. The company was taken private in 2006. Oneida no longer operates manufacturing in the United States."

    Make silverware great again!

  9. Yeah, that web site gives me mixed feelings too. On the one hand, those lifestyle strivers seem awfully shallow and annoying. I like "authentic" stuff too, everyone likes it. But spending your entire in the pursuit of "authentic" experiences and things -- that seems really shallow and empty. Sad, too.

    On the other hand, these people are having families, and that's wonderful. And there really is something to be said for pursuing a slower-paced, less competitive life outside of big cities. IMO these people's lifestyle striving is an attempt to do something meaningful with their lives, even if it is a misguided attempt. lt's better than Boomer consumerism, that's for sure. And perhaps these people will one day discover something really meaningful. They're already halfway there. The Boomers with their tanning salons and plastic surgery were never even 1/100th of the way there.

    On an unrelated note, one interesting thing about the hipster lifestyle is that it offers mobility between social classes. A lot of the people on the NY exodus web site are obviously from privileged backgrounds, they have perfect teeth and a certain poise that I associate with a relatively privileged upbringing. But the thing is, poor and middle-class people can lead the simple life, too. The hipster identity is something that anyone can cultivate. A couple of years ago I had some hipsters as clients, and really didn't care for them, to be honest. I found them to be shallow, lazy, and filled with completely unearned and undeserved self-righteousness. But you've got to recognize the good along with the bad. The hipster lifestyle does offer people some measure of social mobility, and hipsters do know how to relax and have a good time.

  10. I wonder whether those lifestyle strivers will ever discover religious faith. It seems possible. Their search for an "authentic" life is obviously a search for spiritual meaning. They can sense the emptiness of contemporary culture and they are trying to build something better. Could they have a spiritual awakening one day? It does seem possible.

    Also, these people have solidly middle-class values, if you look below the pretentious surface. They are doers, not talkers. They couldn't afford a house in NYC, so they moved to a place where houses were affordable. They didn't just complain -- they took action. And now they are building homes and families and trying to make things happen economically, even though it's a struggle. And they are actually building the kinds of communities that Agnostic speaks of in this post, from scratch. I don't know whether those communities will last, but they are attempting to build them. You have to admire that.

    Also, the lives the urban exodus folks have built for themselves are very similar to those of religious believers. It will be interesting to see whether the urban exodus folks one day begin to take stock of their spiritual situation and do something about it.

  11. "I wonder whether those lifestyle strivers will ever discover religious faith."

    Likely not. They maybe will become Buddhists and do a ton of meditation, but they won't come back to the Christian faith. The whole sin thing is not their cup of tea, man. Their spirituality originates from their love of Gaia and doing all things to pacify her. That's why they latch on to climate change, recycling, composting, preserving species, riding bikes, hemp, etc. All to benefit Gaia, even though Christianity preaches very commendable deeds, e.g., charity, maintain home and hearth, be close to neighbors, don't become hedonistic, etc.

    "If you're from upstate New York, you're only one year away from President Trump restoring the Rust Belt to its former glory. They're going to start making great stuff there again, and it'll be a source of genuine pride -- unlike when hipsters colonize an abandoned town and peddle artisanal granola."

    Agnostic, I know you're from the Rust Belt too, and I really hope that Trump gets elected and starts changing things. Upstate is on its last legs, and many of its best-and-brightest have fled for better lands. Me including, even though I would love to move back, and it is a long-term goal of mine.

    Funny thing about Oneida: everyone in Upstate has it. My mom gave me her set that she got for her wedding back in 1975. Stuff is solid and still looks great. My wife wants us to buy some high-end WMF stuff, and I'll probably give in, but I'll store the silverware to give to my future kids when they are looking to leave home.

  12. My mother still has her wedding set from 1977 also. The pattern is Capistrano -- maybe yours is, too, it was in production during the '70s and first half of the '80s.

    I checked WMF's online store for flatware, and their stuff is made in China or Vietnam -- i.e., cheap-quality silverware-looking objects that will be junk before long, and that are too heavy.

    Their older stuff was of course made in Germany, but why replace one quality vintage set with another?

    Women are very hard to persuade, though, about quality of construction, materials, etc. It's more about what looks pretty or trendy.

    I'd go the route of emphasizing country of origin, to sum it all up (which it does). They know that quality stuff comes from America, UK, Germany, Italy, Switzerland... but China? Vietnam? If she isn't drawn in by "made in USA," go for a more generic appeal of "made in the first-world vs. the third-world".


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