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.