A growing issue throughout Minnesota is the uncertain future of our small outstate towns. The state is full of small towns with a few thousand or fewer people. To generalize, these towns have some difficult years ahead of them – aging populations, migration towards large metropolitan areas, little to no industry. In many cases the towns are nowhere near being able to support themselves financially, and the public infrastructure is often in poor shape. The historic main streets (if they’re still standing) are full of empty storefronts.
What does the future hold for places like this? A few of them located in scenic areas may reinvent themselves through tourism, others will have the fortune of being located near some new mine or something, and will experience a small economic resurgence. But most will simply continue to exist, infrastructure continuing to age, population continuing to shrink, and so on.
So what will happen to them? I’m not sure, but I know they won’t become ghost towns overnight. After all, if nothing else, they excel at providing cheap housing. And that’s going to be attractive to somebody. As telecommuting becomes increasingly popular and feasible, people will have greater freedom to locate wherever they choose. So who would choose to locate in a small town in the middle of nowhere?
Enter: The Hipsters.
This is where I will begin my wild speculation, untethered by the realities of facts. Hipsters are a rather amorphous group – difficult to define, but as Clarence Thomas would say, you know a hipster when you see one. They tend to be the trendsetters in younger cohorts – or at least, if a trend is started, the hipsters tend to be early adopters. Also, they can be rather nomadic, often chased out of their bohemian neighborhoods by chain stores bringing a wave of gentrification. When I moved to Minneapolis in 2005, Uptown was the fashionable place for hipsters to be, but now that Uptown is home to stores like Victoria’s Secret, CB2, and GNC, the hipsters have moved on to Northeast Minneapolis (nobody goes to Uptown anymore. It’s too crowded.) Eventually they’ll lose their footing in this neighborhood too, however. And armed with increasing telecommuting flexibility at their day jobs as independent graphic designers, eventually they’ll start seeking new frontiers. Anyone whose employment only requires an internet connection could just as easily relocate to Hipsterville as anywhere else.
So here’s my prediction: At least one of these small towns will become known as Hipsterville, a haven for twenty-something hipsters (or artists, hippies, urban planners, or whomever) who will be the first wave of a nation-wide post-urbanist* movement. Young, artsy folks with skinny jeans and etsy shops will begin to move to aging outstate small towns. First, it might be an aspiring young custom bicycle manufacturer who will be attracted by the low cost of an old, small machine shop he can buy for next to nothing from a retiring baby boomer. Next, a few young internet journalists will relocate, seeking cheap housing and an escape from city life. Then a few people will arrive with just enough money to purchase a small plot of land where they can grow some organic vegetables for themselves and a few others. Others will show up and appreciate that many older buildings can offer dirt-cheap art studio space. Others will be attracted to the idea of small-town life because it’s soooo ironic for a hipster to live in a small town. The historic main street buildings will find re-use for a number of small endeavers, none of them particularly profitable, but everyone will agree that it will be better than empty buildings. Finally, many of the remaining older generation will grumble about it at first, but eventually even theywill agree that the old Lutheran chapel the local synod was forced to shutter a decade ago when several congregations were consolidated really does make a rather striking art gallery space.
This is where it could really start getting interesting. As I mentioned, none of this will really change much about the local economy. The arrival of this hipster class may provide a bit of a lifeline to the local economy, but it will take a lot of etsy shops to replace the tax revenue that used to be generated by the old [insert industry] plant that closed a few years ago. Even with an infusion of creative young web designers earning decent wages for their work, it is still unlikely on it’s own to reverse the declining economic trend. How will this younger generation choose to deal with the aging infrastructure? Will their post-urbanist values give them different priorities for investment? For example, when the local streets begin to crumble to the point that they must be repaired, will Hipsterville be the first town to experiment with abandoning the local streets and replacing them with much less expensive bike paths instead (since they all ride fixies rather than drive cars)? When the storm sewer system fails, will they try to continue to maintain or replace the status-quo, or will they abandon the system in-place and instead invest in a cheaper system of rain gardens? And how will their values inform day-to-day decisions about local policies? Will they maintain a strict zoning code, or will they seek a new system better suited to their needs?
What do you think, readers? Is it entirely unrealistic to think that a young creative class eager to find the new frontier (which turns out to be the old frontier), combined with increasingly flexible telecommuting jobs could bring new life to (or at least slow the decline of) small towns? If so, how do you think leaders from this younger generation, empowered with running a small town, would have more freedom to experiment with innovative strategies other communities may not be willing to consider?
*I realize that post-urbanism is already a moniker used to describe an existing movement or school of thought. I’m obviously using the term a bit differently.
I live in one such small outstate town (Fergus Falls), and though I have some borderline hipster tendencies, my marriage, kid, mortgage, and inability to grow substantial amounts of ironic facial hair probably disqualify me from the hipster world at large. Though the urban hipster is beginning to make an appearance here, it still does require a certain critical mass of creative class-types to tip the scales in favor of small-town influx. In addition to the several scenarios that you lay out above, I would strongly suggest we consider an additional categorization: the alternative farmer. Think the South Minneapolis front-yard gardener gone country.
Furthermore, I think that these individuals might be *the* colonizing force that makes small-town life safe for other city-bound hipsters to flock to. To borrow from Kunstler, history doesn't repeat, but it rhymes. These small towns grew up around agriculture (and the railroads, but that's another post), and were scaled to support that way of life. With the consolidation of what was once hundreds of small family farms around a town into perhaps a couple of dozen mega-operations (with their associated global supply chain), the systems that these small towns relied on for their vitality largely dried up. But if you subscribe to the idea of the re-localized economy (again, from Kunstler, but not solely so), these small growers, ideally located with both substantial land available AND nearby customers, along with the people who add value to the food products grown (millers, bakers, brewers, chefs, etc. — the second wave), can make the small town an attractive place to re-inhabit.
To put a plug in for what's going on here in Fergus Falls, I'd like to mention the work of several instructors at our local community college who have started a "Sustainable Food Production" program. It's only been in operation for a couple of years, but already it is turning out a very dedicated and knowledgeable bunch of would-be farmers who are perfect seed material for rebuilding rural Minnesota and the country at large. I wouldn't say we're ground zero for the rural hipster movement, but I like to think that we're in the running.
You can find more information about the program here:
Sounds like the college and Fergus Falls are doing some pretty cool things. The next step is to actually create a degree program so people can graduate with an associates degree in Hipster Studies. I've never actually been to Fergus Falls, but I've heard great things.
The idea that hipsters and artistic types may reinvigorate small, dying outstate towns is intriguing and it makes sense given the historic nature of many of the buildings alone, not to mention the fact that there is definitely a quirky nature built in to many of these towns which would seem to be a draw for artistics and hipsters. As for funding the infrastructure in these cities, that's the biggest challenge. Much of the tax burden has already been pushed on to the shoulders of homeowners and things are getting paid for so as long as the hypothetical hipster influx is willing to pay their way this idea of Hipsterville could actually work and being I live in a smaller town that would work very well for this type of transition I am all for it.
I can imagine hipsters totally taking over the old main street theater that hasn't shown movies in years- they could put on some "festivals" showing Goonies and Adventures in Babysitting, sell $8 ice cream cones made from organic goat milk, and ask viewers to pedal power the projector.
1. Uptown wasn't cool in 2005 either. Heck, it was barely cool in 1995.
2. How about Duluth as a hipster haven?
Duluth has some street cred when it comes to Hipsters. It's got a good cultural base and a University, plus good natural amenities. I'd say Duluth is ripe for a hipster invasion. Who knows, maybe it's already happening.
Oh yea, hipsters love Goonies. Figuring out ways to harness pedal power is just one of the creative things a hipster class could do.
Duluth is pretty cool, although I think Duluth has an actual economy and so might not need the hipster class to reinvent it. Maybe Duluth will be the next stop after Northeast Minneapolis, probably somewhere in St. Paul, and Anoka. Then after they get edged out of Duluth by mainstream underwear shops, they can head for the small towns.
I would Cedar-Riverside is the new hipster area.
The biggest problem with small towns, at least as you're proposing: they're isolated. Maybe I don't understand the hipster culture enough, but I assume that even if they're in the perfect hipster community, they'll want to leave sometime. And then geography gets in the way. Maybe it's to see family, or to go to that concert that they couldn't get into Hipsterville, etc.
And these small towns, if they have any intercity bus/train service at all, have an incredibly weak schedule. Basically, they're auto-centric communities, and without a complete reversal of that, I can't see them becoming Hipsterville. Though I suppose they could have a car-sharing service. It still wouldn't be hipster utopia, though…or am I wrong?
Yes, they're definitely isolated. So this speculation hinges on the idea that hipsters will have to decide that it's cool to be isolated (which is what I was getting at with the "post-urbanism" bit).
As for automobile dependency, this is probably worth of a separate post. You're right that they would be completely dependent on private autos if they want to leave Hipsterville, but I think small towns have plenty of unrealized potential to become less auto dependent. Primarily because they are small enough physically, that even in a worst-case scenario, you're never more than a 10 minute bike ride or 15 minute walk from anywhere else in town.
Interesting article Reuben. I just have to weigh in on the comments about Duluth.
It could be argued that hipsters accomplished a coup d’état in Duluth in the middle of the last decade. A very well organized group of ambitious muckraking journalists, musicians, artists, and scrappy business owners mounted a very successful insurgency against the establishment.
Just don't call them hipsters to their face. In Duluth 'hipster' has pretentious cidiot connotations. And there's nothing Duluthians are more proud of than the fact that don't live in 'The Cities' (or 'The Sh!tties' as they unaffectionately refer to MSP).
Duluth is a Great Lakes Rust Belt city. Steel plants and other industry shut down in the 70's leaving a very depressed local economy. Duluth's population has declined dramatically since the 1960s. The mood was so pessimistic in the 1980's, someone literally took out a billboard on the edge of town that said, "last one out, turn off the lights". The message was clear to all; Duluth was a post-heyday city in irreversible decline.
In the 1990's a small counterculture group waged an offensive against the stodgy conservative Doty Administration primarily by using the Ripsaw, an Alternative Weekly, as their bludgeon. A long dormant music scene gradually came to life. A pirate radio station (eventually shut down by the FCC) promoted the local music scene. Co-op housing in an abandoned Elementary School provided a home base for the musician and activist community.
Over time, this tenacious group extended their influence. Folks started brewpubs, turned the beautiful, boarded-up Norshore Theater into the center of a vibrant music scene. They started Homegrown Music Festival which has grown to 167 LOCAL bands. This music scene was able to nurture now national acts, like LOW, Trampled by Turtles, Charlie Parr, and Haley Bonar.
Mayor Don Ness may not be your idea of a hipster considering his boyish politician look, but don't be fooled. This music loving, mico-brew swilling, old red pick-up driving, Central Hillside-living mayor was absolutely the political face of this group of artists activist insurgents. Now that he is Mayor, with a majority on the city council, the outsiders are the mainstream.
And it would be really difficult to overstate the effect this has had on the trajectory of Duluth. I have a t-shirt from Ness' first campaign that reads, "Believe in Duluth." This sounds a bit cheesy and not all that watershed, until you look at the complete turnaround in the attitudes of Duluthians. For local kids It's gone from, "I can't wait to get out of this crappy town", to a pride of their hometown, with a "roam if you must, but come home when you've seen enough" outlook. Duluth now has a cool local scene to draw college kids out of the UMD bubble and engage them in the community, so not all graduates flee back to the cities after college.
And old downtown (East Superior Street) has seen a revival beyond anyone’s hopes. Abandoned buildings have been renovated for new tenants. Old City hall was recently beautifully restored (again by members of this same group) into a new restaurant and pub. A suburban-style muffler shop in the heart of downtown was replaced by tasteful urban condos (although mostly unsold, as of yet).
A spirit of insurgency typified by the muckraking Ripsaw, has been replaced by the cooperative spirit of the community blog, Perfectduluthday.com. The Ripsaw crew runs the blog, but now in their early 40's, and with their friends running things, the tone has changed. The focus is still to nurture the arts, shine a spotlight on the outdoor natural beauty of the area, and foster civic engagement necessary to build a vibrant community out of the leftovers from yesterday's industries. The few old-money families who have long driven the city’s agenda have taken notice of the success. A newly vibrant and optimistic community benefits their bottom line as well. Something must be working, Mayor Ness ran unopposed in his re-election campaign, a first for Duluth in over a century. Last year, unbelievably, Mayor Ness polled at an 86% approval rating.
Recently, even the decidedly un-hipster Enbridge Energy announced plans to move over a hundred corporate jobs (from other regions) to Duluth's old downtown. The gentrification cycle continues.
Could this success work in much smaller towns across Minnesota? I don't know. Duluth has a sort of critical mass that makes an alternative community possible. Another vital factor is the natural beauty of Lake Superior, and rivers, and cliffs in and around the city. I would look for this young resurgence in places like Ely and Grand Marais, but Wilmer or Alexandria, I'm not so sure.
Daniel- your comment is an entire post in and of itself. Great comment and an awesome take on Duluth. -Nate
There are a lot of small towns/cities in Minnesota that are seriously hip… and they do it in their own style. Fergus Falls has A Center for the Arts that has been a great force in their growing "creative economy." The VERY Hip Springboard for the Arts (in St. Paul) has set up their first satellite office there. Granite Falls, Lanesboro, Ely, Faribault, Winona, Morris, St. Peter and Mankato are all places that have their own growing hipster scene – although the term hipster might not comfortably apply to folks in the small towns (maybe entrepreneur? artist? farmster?) I started Local Flavor to help promote local food, art, culture, heritage and slow travel in Minnesota. We're populating the website now – no chains allowed! Hopefully it will become a website for people who like getting into local stuff wherever they go.
What I've noticed in Fergus Falls, where I currently have a show at the Kaddatz Gallery, is young people from the area who are coming back partly because of the new arts' initiatives and programs like the one mentioned at M-State, but also because they've sowed their wild oats, gotten their education, and their small town, which seemed confining and narrow at the end of high school, looks pretty good now.
There have been organic farmers and artists in Fergus Falls. I made a film about Charlie Beck, intrigued by the way, at 85 years old, he has tirelessly worked at his art, in a small town studio and has managed to keep both his practical, common sense rootedness, where he can relate as easily to farmer's and sewage pumpers, and yet make art that is exhibited at the Institute and Mill City Museum.
But Fergus is one of those outstate towns that attracts people like that.
Hipsters need urbanity to survive, but the reality is that not everyone who hangs out in Uptown or Nordeast for a while is destined to be tragically urbane. Small town life is challenging, you have to make long term relationships with people who don't necessarily share your world view, 'cause you are going to see them everyday. But the influx of sophisticated young people with small town roots and a broader vision is definitely enlivening the countryside.
I suspect Monticello MN will be a hipster away.
Commuter rail to the farming community.
Yet a train ride away to the big city.
Hate to break to it ya bud, but your theory is actually a really well established theory in Sociology. Essentially cities go through a migration that looks like this. Farm -> Industry –> Enter middle class white people –>Enter lower-middle class white people to work service jobs–> Enter low income people –> Enter low income minority people trying to get some of the economy for themselves –>this causes the middle class and eventually the low income white people to leave with their money and social capital –> this causes the industry to fail —> once this fails the city no longer thrives and eventually it evolves into an empty factory ghetto. Once this happens artistic middle class white people generally come into the region and like the "gritty opportunity" of it. This then brings industry back via malls and stores and the process begins again. If you want to read more go read about the history of Soho districts in Chicago, New York, or Paris. This exact thing is happening in Detroit right now. Tons of art and music is emerging out of the ghetto. Bob Dylan also grew out of one of these areas in New York after his move from Minnesota!
I think the crutch of what your describing is that burgeoning economic-drivers seek affordable space, in so much as infrastructure and transportation allow for it to occur.
It may very well be established, but ultimately still a theory, that in some sense things like this have happened in the past. However, I'm not so confident that our future will resemble our past. What Reuben is describing doesn't specifically fit into your equation. What you're describing is what has generally happened in large, growing Western metropolitan areas.
What if the economic and population growth equation changes? What if we face a future of energy scarcity?
We have a tendency to examine the past, collect data and project those changes into the future. But, that's not really how the world ultimately works. For further explanation, you'll have to read the book "Black Swan" by Nassim Taleb.
Kipp, we know this happens in big cities, I'm predicting that we will see this happen in small towns, populations of a few-thousand or less. If you know of examples or case studies of this already happening, I'd love to hear about it.