Straight talk about the decline of America’s rural North

For years now, a regular theme in our reporting on the North Country’s economy has been the exodus of young people from our towns and villages.

It’s an issue that has become a battle cry for more conservative, pro-development groups.

The Adirondack Association of Towns and Villages points to the Adirondacks’ aging population as a sign that regulation and zoning rules are choking the life out of the economy.

“When you get into the interior, that age bracket, the 20-50 year olds, has really dropped off significantly,” said Brian Towers, town supervisor in Wells.

“The real concern is that when you look at the heart of the Park, some of these communities are seriously stressed.”

The right-leaning New York Post argues that high taxes and regulation are driving people away in droves.

“The US population is fleeing to the South and West, where taxes are lower and the business climate more friendly,” howls a recent editorial.  “Thank tax-and-spend government for that unhappy news.”

Governor Andrew Cuomo has taken up this banner, arguing that low-taxes and more innovative economic development strategies are needed to revive Upstate New York.

“We have the worst business climate in the United States, the worst!” Cuomo declared, during a recent visit to the region.

I think all these factors deserve discussion and debate, but I also think this issue has been politicized in ways that cloud the real challenges we face.

Put simply, most of rural northern America faces the same decline, from the conservative, regulation-free Great Plains states — South  Dakota is home to the nation’s poorest county — to the battered towns of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Right next door to us, Vermont is struggling with a rapid decline in its school-age population, with K-12 enrollments statewide dropping by more than 1% a year.

When congressional redistricting is finished next year, almost every state that loses influence in Washington will be a northern state with a sizable rural population.

When I was born, more than half of the nation’s population lived in the Midwest and Northeast.   Now that figure has dropped to just 39%.

So what gives?  Why is the country shifting its center of gravity away from its Northeastern roots?

Economics play a role, to be sure, but I’m convinced that there are far bigger factors shaping our future.

The first is something we can’t do anything about:  weather.

The US has been evolving into a sun culture for half a century.  Thanks to the advent of air conditioners, which opened the steamy South and the sun-drenched Southwest to development, people are choosing a snow-free lifestyle.

The rise of a Hollywood media that prefers sun to snow has accelerated this cultural shift.  Increasingly, when Americans look at themselves in the mass-media mirror, they don’t see Currier and Ives.

They see sun and sand.

Another huge factor is the rise of America’s Hispanic population, a trend which the rural North has largely missed out on.

Sure, Arizona, Florida, Georgia and Texas are absorbing some of our fleeing snowbirds.

But that trend is all but eclipsed by the much larger tidal wave of Hispanic immigration (a trend compounded by higher Hispanic-American birthrates).

Those of us “left behind” in the Northeast are having far fewer babies, with birth rates so low in some rural counties that we are literally aging ourselves into extinction.

I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t try to compete with other parts of the US.  We should do everything possible to make this part of the world attractive, affordable, and competitive.

In some cases, that might mean deregulation and tax cuts.  But it might also mean developing new models for government-private sector partnerships, boosting the quality of our schools, and finding innovative ways to incubate small, locally-rooted businesses.

I think we should also look closely at the political, cultural and economic factors that have caused the Hispanic community to largely avoid settling in our communities.

But we should also be realistic about the kind of tectonic demographic change that America is experiencing.  The simple truth is that our region will never again be the geographic, economic or cultural center of the US.

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56 Comments on “Straight talk about the decline of America’s rural North”

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  1. Pete Klein says:

    Right on, Brian!
    One of the great draws of the south west is not just the sun for those who hate the snow and cold but the proximity to snow and cold when you want it.
    When you go out west, and this includes California, the weather is all about elevation. A short drive up gets you more snow than you will ever see in the Adirondacks.
    TV, movies and the Internet are opening the eyes of the young, informing them there are more things to do, more members of the opposite sex to meet and more jobs once you get out of this conservative bound mind set we have in the Adirondacks.

  2. john says:

    I wonder if average annual energy costs for heating, electricity and gasoline, pushing or surpassing five thousand dollars and up has anything to do with the declining interest of living at 45 degrees North LAtitude?

  3. Brian says:

    A huge problem is that America as a whole is changing but rural America resists change. Young people are more tolerant of difference. Yet, rural Americans are leading the charge against gays, Muslims and Hispanics (the unholy Trinity of scapegoat-ization by self-appointed ‘real Americans’). Yes jobs are a part of rural America’s decline but small-mindedness is a big reason why young people are reluctant to settle down in a place that is overtly hostile to their values. There are many virtues of small town life that I appreciate and that’s why I live in one. But as an open-minded person, there are many things about the life of my small town that I wish were different. ‘Traditionalists’ want to return America to what it was like in the 1950s. Most blacks, gays, women and non-Christians don’t want any part of that.

  4. Matthew says:

    I agree that the northeast may never again be the geographic, economic or cultural center of the US. Perhaps it is a blessing in disguise. Without development and population pressures, the Adirondacks can begin to focus on how it can develop a sustainable economy. Public-private-partnerships are a must. Also, with the pending reduction in state and federal financial assistance, the Adirondacks needs to figure out a way to attract more private and venture capital investments.

  5. Phil says:

    What? Are you trying to tell me that we can’t blame all our economic problems on the Adirondack Council and the Park Agency? Good luck with making that case to the Local Government Review Board and the AATV!

  6. Jack says:

    Brian (not NCPR’s Brian) – how about a little bit of evidence to go along with your broadside. You claim to be open minded but are exhibiting a tremendous amount of closemindedness in your post. Is “change” always good & shouldn’t there be a vigorous debate? The planet is undergoing “change” but I suspect you don’t like this change. You may want to read Alan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind – it might open yours.

  7. dbw says:

    Much of what Brian says is true, but what says recent trends will continue in a linear progression? The Southwest has serious water issues, and Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico have housing and economic issues that may linger indefinitely. If energy prices spike due to supply or above ground geopolitical issues, living in the Southern half of the country would be far less appealing to most without continued access to air conditioning.
    Despite all the claims of the New South, large pockets of poverty persist throughout the region, and the quality of their education system is poor as well. We have our problems, but so do other parts of the country.

  8. Paul says:

    “Yes jobs are a part of rural America’s decline but small-mindedness is a big reason why young people are reluctant to settle down in a place that is overtly hostile to their values.”

    You gotta be kidding me. Colorado and Utah are booming. These are far more likely to fit this silly definition than parts of the North East.

    I agree with Brian M. When I moved from Denver back here I left behind a climate with 300 days of sunshine a year and traded it for what feels like 60! What was I thinking!

  9. George Nagle says:

    Brian provides an excellent discussion of rural population decline in a context wider than it usually receives.

    Hispanics are quite ready to settle wherever they find work, and have in midwest/plains states’ conservative communities. Economics seems to be determinative and not social or cultural factors.

    While sun, sand, and moderate weather is an enormous attraction the Southwest may not be able to accommodate many more people, and possibly can’t continue to accommodate those already there. Aquifers are depleting, and the adequacy of surface water varies from year to year.

    Of course, that environmental constraints may make an area less attractive doesn’t address the reasons people leave the North Country. I suspect that economics, job availability, is the principal cause.

  10. Pete Klein says:

    More and better jobs for the North Country? Oh really?
    Like maybe more prison guards and more border patrol guards?
    Maybe we can follow the suggestions of the Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board and Betty Little, and substitute tourism for more logging. Yes, by all means, lets return to the good old days before the Adirondack Park and trash the place the way the lumber barons did.
    I’m sure the young people would stick around if only we offered them good jobs like being guards and lumberjacks.

  11. Brian says:

    “You claim to be open minded but are exhibiting a tremendous amount of closemindedness in your post.”

    How so?

    To address what I assume you’re getting at, those who want to return America to some sort of 1950s conception ignore the tremendous social progress of the last half century. Not everything that’s happened in that time period has been good. But a lot of it has. Younger people, the demographic referred to in the post, don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water.

    Small towns tend to be suspicious of anyone who is different from the norm. The pressure to conform is quite high, as is insularity. There tends to be a distinct lack of curiosity about the broader world. Of course this isn’t uniform, but people in small towns generally go out of their way to brag about their traditional, unchanging values.

    I think both extremes (change for its own sake and tradition for its own sake) are bad.

    In my personal behavior, I’m very fond of tradition and routine. I’m open-minded enough to be a very liberal person choosing to live in a very conservative region. I think small towns have a lot of virtues and that’s why I choose to live in one rather than moving to New York City or Boston like so many of my high school classmates. Those places might better suit the part of me that likes the arts and culture and the concept of public transportation but definitely not the part of me that likes to know my neighbors and to be able to walk the streets with a feeling of safety.

    But while I love small towns and can’t see myself living anywhere else, I do not choose to blind myself to its weaknesses. Nor should anyone who values the health of rural America.

    Of course, there should be a vigorous debate. My point is that people are voting with their feet and you have to recognize that.

  12. Pete Klein says:

    Oh, I forgot. The young can get those same jobs down south.

  13. dave says:

    In regards to the youth exodus, our experience since moving here is in direct contradiction to what we keep reading about this topic.

    We are a 30 something couple that moved to Keene last year and, beyond our expectation, have found that this area is packed with young 20 and 30 somethings. Often couples. I feel like every other weekend we meet another young, energetic individual or couple who call this area home.

    Always the same story, these are people that moved here from some other part of the country BECAUSE of the Park, not in spite of it. More than a few of them brought their jobs with them, some have started businesses up here, others commute (tele or otherwise).

    A byproduct of this is that our small little main street/corner seems to be thriving more than it has in awhile. It is certainly doing better than I ever remember it (I started coming up here 15 years or so ago).

    Now, Keene obviously benefits from proximity to the high peaks and is along a common route to Lake Placid. These are some built in advantages. But that has been true forever.

    More than that, it seems, is that there is an atmosphere here that is attracting people. There is an energy, an openness. This was noticeable when we were looking at houses in different communities, and if high speed internet was priority number 1 for us… this “atmosphere” was absolutely priority number 2.

    It seems like a bit of a chicken and egg to me… do young people come to an area because of the atmosphere, or do they create it… I don’t know, probably a bit of both. A sociologist or urban planner would have to weight in there. But however you explain it, there are things here that are attracting young people – and it is not just the Mountains or even anything completely tangible.

    I could give my opinions as to what they are, or at least what they specifically are for us, but I don’t want to get the discussion too far off track.

  14. dbw says:

    It is true that our young people leave the area in significant numbers. there is anecdotal evidence of young people returning to the area. I find that very encouraging. They often return after several years away to be close to family or raise their own. They bring with them skills that allow them to land good jobs. I keep meeting them or hearing about them. Often they are passionate about preserving what is good about our region, and improving community life and economic opportunity. Our colleges also help in this trend by bring in thousands of college material students, and some end up staying in the region. Young people coming home is one of our little successes that I find very encouraging.

  15. Brian says:

    Bear in mind, what I’m talking about is the broad perception of rural America by younger, so don’t focus so much on me personally. After all, I DO live in a small town and by a conscious choice. I’m just trying to give you some insight about some of the why’s of those who don’t.

    I know a lot of people I went to high school with who moved to big cities after college, nearly all the kids in the advanced classes. A lot of the people I went to college with who came from small towns also did not move back to a small town after graduation. And by a lot, I mean the vast majority; I was the exception rather than the rule. And you can ask any politician or business leader in NNY and they’ll tell you about the problem of brain drain.

    In our increasingly service-based economy, businesses want a diverse, well-educated, flexible workforce. That’s why so many end up moving to India, where most people speak AT LEAST two languages. At my company, we require people who speak French, Spanish and Portugese as well as English, people who know advanced computer programming, who know marketing, who know sales and business, who know graphic design. Businesses also want people who can adapt quickly to an every changing marketplace.

    Businesses will put up with higher taxes if it means they have an affluent market place to sell their products in a well-educated work force to create, market and sell those products. That’s why businesses aren’t fleeing (insert Darth Vader music) “socialist” Europe.

    Because so many people tend not to move back there after graduating college, small towns in America are losing that diverse, well-educated work force to big cities… which is reinforcing rural America’s economic isolation.

  16. Ellen says:

    One problem for our small, isolated communities is that they’re not a great place to be single. There are few places to rent; the social scene, while friendly, tends to bring together a small pool of dating material; and if you connect with someone outside of the region, that person must be willing to step into the not-so-secure world of North Country employment.

  17. Mervel says:

    Young people leave for opportunity, they always have and they always will. Also as our communities age, what young person would want to stay in a place that is “old”, I mean just the dating possibilities would kind of inhibit them wanting to stay, so it feeds on itself.

    I don’t think taxes and regulations are the total answer but they play a part. The Plains states are indeed aging, however they have low unemployment and even though they have some clusters of severe poverty (in SD it is on the reservations) they are doing better economically than we are in upstate NY. Part of that though is directly the result of increasing commodity prices, oil, wheat, corn things that they produce.

  18. EB says:

    This data from the IRS might be somewhat surprising to everyone commenting here.

  19. Brian Mann says:

    EB –

    Your map is very cool. And it highlights something that’s worth remembering here: Our part of the country isn’t actually losing that many people, at least not in the short term. We are, depending on your point of view, stable or stagnant.

    The worrisome parts are that we are aging pretty rapidly, and we’re being outstripped by the far more sizable growth in other parts of the US…

    –Brian, NCPR

  20. Brian says:

    Good point, Brian M.

    It’s worth remembering that NYS lost House seats not because it lost population but because it gained population at a slower rate than places like Texas.

  21. dave says:

    I feel like young people leavebecause that is what young people do.

    They venture off, explore, check things out. Some might come back, but by and large my experience has been that people move and settle away from the areas where they grow up.

    In fact, I’m trying to think of my friends, high school, college, or otherwise, who still live in the town where they grew up. I am struggling to name but a handful.

    This happens everywhere, even in large happening cities with lots of opportunities.

    So it always strikes me as odd to point to this as a problem for the Adirondacks. The issue, to me, isn’t that we are losing youth… everyone loses their youth… it is that we are not attracting enough youth. Might seem like semantics – but it is not. There is a very real difference between the two.

    I am not sure what can be done to “keep” youth from leaving, but I bet we could all agree on a few basic steps to start attracting new youth.

  22. phahn50 says:

    Young people move to the big cities. There are more opportunities there – cutting edge stuff etc. Rural areas have been depopulating for hundreds of years. A stable population is good. Is there reason to think that the rural sun-belt areas are attracting young people? The southern/western suburbs are growing, but thats different.

  23. Brian says:

    Here’s a great example of the small-mindedness I’m talking about. Glens Falls school district is having a debate on whether to push the high school start time from 7:45a to 8:30a. This proposal was initiated not by kids, but by adults who’d read quite a bit a research indicating that schools with a later start time saw test scores go up and other educational improvements. Most of the criticism on the newspaper’s website has boiled down to ranting about coddling (even though it wasn’t the kids who pushed this) and fake toughness and “If I have to get up early and be miserable for work, then kids should have to get up early and be miserable at school.” There has been the occasional intelligent skepticism about the proposal but the overwhelming majority of the criticism has been mindless, knee jerk opposition in which the supposed main objective (children’s education) is treated as completely irrelevant. Ironically, some of the most intelligent skepticism has come not from adults but from the kids themselves. This sort of knee jerk, small mindedness (not about their specific opinion of an issue but how they ‘debate’ it) is precisely what turns a lot of people off small towns.

  24. scratchy says:

    To the degree NYS has gained population, it has mostly occurred in the NYC area, very little (if any growth) has occurred north of the northern NYC suburbs.

    The reason? A lack of jobs due to the high cost of doing business. Businesses will not pay extra to do business here like they will in NYC.

    The solution? Make Big Government smaller, more efficient, and accountable to us. At all levels: local, county, state, across the board. And more reasonable regulations.

  25. Mervel says:

    Is it easy and enviting to open and operate a small business in upstate New York? Do we encourage small business?

  26. dbw says:

    I am sorry I just don’t buy the regulation and high cost of doing business in NYS having much to do with our situation here in NNY. We have much more in common with N. Vt. and N. NH. It sure isn’t the long arm of Albany causing their problems. Rural Vt.doesn’t have to deal with County Govt. yet being free of that extra layer of government hasn’t proven to be a boon to Johnson or Island Pond. No the issues go much deeper than the ideological arguments we hear from Unchain NY and others. Low population, geographic isolation, loss of connection to our resource base. Some years ago a Vt. study showed that 7 out of 10 dollars spent, left the state within 7 days. That is a tremendous loss of potential wealth. We end up selling our milk and #1 saw logs not to create wealth but to simply pay the bills. The situation is even worse here in NNY because we get back 4 times as much as we pay out in taxes from state and federal sources.

  27. phahn50 says:

    Scratchy – the cost of doing business in NYC is much much higher than upstate, yet all the growth is in the city. Sometimes things are complicated.

  28. scratchy says:

    I think we all know the answer to those questions. There are, however, important questions that one must consider. Certainly some of the red tape associated with new businesses should be shredded. Ask a restaurant owner who easy it is to get a liquor license.

    I disagree with comparisons to northern Vermont – though I confess to not being familer with northern NH. Many north country counties experienced population losses according to the Census. That is simply not happening in Vermont.

    As I noted, many businesses will pay the cost of doing business in the city. NYC is the financial, media, and cultural center, unlike anywhere else in the country. Speculator and Watertown aren’t. We aren’t competing with London or Tokyo, but rather with Nashua, Worcester, and Raleigh. Those cities have a lower tax burden than we do.

    One could also argue that the APA creates additional costs that aren’t present even in NYC. APA actions with regards to projects like Lowes in Tico may have created a “chilling effect” discouraging future economic development.

  29. dave says:

    “Is it easy and enviting to open and operate a small business in upstate New York? Do we encourage small business?”

    I have yet to meet or hear from anyone who wanted to open a small business up here but didn’t because they felt uninvited or somehow not encouraged.

  30. Mervel says:

    dbw, we have much more in common with West Virginia than we do Vermont from an economic and social perspective. I do think there are broad economic trends both internationally and nationally which are hurting the rural northeast.

    However the entire rural northeast I do think suffers from an attitude which is essentially suspicous of all private business activity. The attitude seems to be you are lucky to be here prove to us why you deserve to do business here and we may let you in. So if one of our solutions is going to be to encourage locally owned small business and let that flower, you need some radical realignment in how we think about business and the roadblocks that are put up to discourage small business activity.

    Government IS important but it will never solve our problems, if it could places like where I live; St. Lawrence County which has over 50% of its economic activity generated by Government should be a paradise.

    On a larger scale every single new major economic trend seems to be fought. Wal-Mart we must fight it, wind power, we must stop it, natural gas exploration; horrible, new nuclear power plants; dont’ even think about it!, even an interstate is fought; and on and on.

    If you are a people who want to start a new venture; why in the world would you ever enter into that when you don’t have to? It’s a big country.

  31. Will Doolittle says:

    Brian (not NCPR Brian),
    Thanks for introducing the topic of culture, which I think is important to this debate. Just look at the racial/ethnic demographics of places like the Tri-Lakes. There is, essentially, no diversity. Some people (locals) will say, “Oh, no, we just had a (insert race/ethnicity here) family who moved to town,” which proves the point. Those families that make the Tri-Lakes “diverse” can be counted on your fingers. The richness and energy you get from cultural diversity cannot be found in the rural Northeast, one big reason not to live there.

  32. Bret4207 says:

    I would disagree with some of the opinions stated here. Close mindedness is hardly limited to small towns. I’ve seem far more narrow minded thinkers during my time in San Diego, Denver/Golden Co., Yuma Az, NYC, than I have in many of the countries more rural areas. I see far more narrow minded thinking on our national tv broadcasts and from Hollywood than I do in our smaller towns. Just because you take a “liberal’ view of things does not make you open minded, not by a long shot. IMO and based on my experience I find the urban mindset to be just as stubborn and unable to cope with differences in outlook as the rural mindset.

    I also find it ridiculous to claim anyone desiring a retention of traditional American values automatically means that person desires a return to 1955 when blacks were out of sight and Mother was in the kitchen in heels and pearls, ala Donna Reed. Your own closed mindedness won’t allow you to see that those traditional American values means treating people with respect, as opposed to simply shooting someone if they diss you, displaying some basic manners instead of in your face rudeness, working instead of expecting someone else to provide for you, accepting the goodness in faith in a Higher Power instead of irrational fear of anything to do with the concept of stamping out anything that is overtly Christian. It’s not wrong to want to keep the good from one period and apply it to another. We hope to leave the bad, the racism, sexism, poverty, disease, behind. Open your mind and eyes.

    Young people tend to seek their own way and there’s nothing new in that. But many used to return “home” if there was a viable living to be made, if they could build their life there. IME it’s very hard to do that within the Park, unless the dream you have is menial labor and a very limited expectation of the home you wish to build (figuratively). It’s just too expensive because of limited land, relatively high taxes and overall high cost of living. It’s a bit better outside the Park, but still, Northern NY is not a cheap place to live. It never was and never will be. The traditional response to that was to live frugally. Our society doesn’t consider that a viable idea anymore. Kind of a catch 22 situation, isn’t it? Modern lifestyles demand we pay, pay, pay but modern economics have made it very hard to do that.

    I think all the talk of building a new tourist based economy in the NC, or of enhancing life here with fiber optics and high speed internet ignores the basic issues we face. Tourism demands a large segment of the population with ready cash to spend and something for them they wish to spend it on. Fuel prices, combined with rising taxes and food prices, are going to limit that pool of potential tourists. We don’t, for the most part, deal with our insect issues from mud season to July 4th (blackflies), we don’t allow by law exploitation of many areas for development, we seem to fight any growth whatsoever that involves the cutting of a tree, much less removal of rock outcroppings or filling a swamp. We don’t or won’t consider development by private enterprise a good thing, yet we applaud taxpayer funded purchase of more and more state lands. Talk about narrow minded! We’re our own worst enemy as far as making this area work for us. I don’t see much hope for improvement until we unshackle ourselves from the narrow minded views and from the taxation and regulation that limit us from the start.

  33. Linda says:

    I think on a interpersonal level, small business entrepreneurs are very welcome up here, but on an infrastructure level, we don’t make it easy. There is not an easy way to buy or sell these business, so brave individuals start them, but are often unable to get their time and investment out when they want to stop while new owners are left to reinvent the wheel. When you live here long enough, you see people start and close, start and close in the same spaces, wasting capital and energy. I think there is a lack of investment capital and or market for small business owners that could help stabilize them and make them more attractive as investments instead of lifestyle dreams.

    I also have noticed that northern counties outside the park in NYS are poorer economically than inside the Park, despite rants to the contrary.

  34. RationalandLogical says:

    Brian all good thought provoking points and I largely agree.

    But I would not characterize the need for community stabilization as all or nothing. In other words I am not just “right-wing, pro-growth”. I object to such a general description as it is inaccurate.

    What I do support is “balance”. Too often times discussions revolving around preservation-growth debates are all or nothing. Regulatory knee jerk reactions tend to force the pendulum to one side or the other and the resulting impact of such overreaction can be devastating. Too much growth can certainly threaten if not harm the environment. Numerous studies of the effects of “sprawl” and “over development” are well documented. However, something that can seem so pure and so good as preservation also comes at a cost. Outright preservation of so much land comes with a consequence and at a cost. Preservation is a use of land. Unfortunately, we are learning a very harsh lesson in the Adirondacks fo the over reaction of too much preservation. We are out of balance. Your points as to weather and all that are very good and are influences that tend to want to tip the balance. All the more reason why there needs to be counter forces that seek to maintain the balance.

    My second point is that it is not enough to simply say that weather is the culprit. I think you need to look deeper into a shift that is occurring within the younger cohorts of our population. People increasingly want easy and convenient. I see my sons – both under 25 years of age and how they react to adversity. I notice my neighbors and their children as well. There is increasingly little interest in learning how to do for yourself, change your own oil, repair your own home. Mechanical inclinations are fading traits. Warm climates are easy and convenient, no snow removal from your driveway and walk. No cold temperatures and splitting wood as a heat source. Simply go to the thermostat and click on and burn some more oil.

    These are my observations to your very thought provoking discussion.

  35. tootightmike says:

    The decline of the North Country isn’t a new phenomenon…It started in the crash of 1929, putting whole families…whole villages, out of work, and on the dole for ever. Development stopped here overnight, and frankly, to my mind…thank god. The cold and frozen north was on the verge of total environmental destruction back then. Look at the old photos…hardly a tree in sight in the whole county, Huge, toxic, polluting facilities in the center of every town, vile, untreated sewage and chemicals in every river…and then it all stopped.
    We’ve given the environment a hundred year break to repair itself. We live in one of the most beautiful places in the state, and if we just get off out butts, we can create the jobs and small industries that we need here and pretty much skip the 20th century’s mistakes.
    I am witnessing the return of many creative and self-productive young people to the North Country. They’re returning here to live in a safer, cleaner, and way-more affordable part of the country. They’ll have fewer babies, drive smaller cars, build better houses, use less energy, and that’s the kind of economy we’ll have to learn to work with.

  36. RationalandLogical says:

    tootightmike…that type of economy you describe is fine as long as the economy has growth. We do not. The most recent statewide population from the 2010 census has the growth at 2.4%. That will not get it done. Looking deeper into this number…most of the growth is occurring south of Westchester County and furthermore, it is largely occurring among the 55 years of age and older cohort. The national average for statewide growth is 9%. We are at a quarter of that and in many places in upstate there is no growth or outright contraction. An economy to survive MUST have growth. We do not and the ramifications now are showing in property taxes as exponentially higher costs are spread over fewer people and it is also showing in the provision of public services, more teachers for fewer children, growing deficits as growth in revenue sources is not keeping pace with the growth in expenses or I am sorry “investments”.

  37. Brian says:

    “Close mindedness is hardly limited to small towns.”

    That’s absolutely correct. Intolerance is everywhere. But tolerance is not.

    In a big city, someone who’s different from the norm will find it easier to be himself not because he won’t face prejudice but because he will do so with support, something he may not have in a small town. This is just because there’s more space and more people (and thus he’s more likely to find people like himself). And yes, that works for devout Christians too.

    Big cities are generally more diverse than small towns. This isn’t a knock against small towns. It’s just a fact of demographics. If you live in a big city, you don’t have to like gays or blacks or Christians or Muslims but you do have to learn to get co-exist with them. Casual prejudices are much more easily tolerance in smaller, insular places where folks have lived with the same neighbors all their lives and aren’t much exposed to anyone much different than them.

    And by way, there is a certain arrogance about the notion that small towns are filled entirely with virtuous people. Small town people can be just as nasty and backstabbing and devoid of manners as those demonic big city folks. They’re just better at hiding it behind a veneer of folksiness. Big city folks are more straight forward about it.

  38. Brian says:

    And one of the things that turns some people off small town America is that they think they’re better and more virtuous than big city folks… like that whole Sarah Palin “real America” nonsense. That small town folks have decency and purity and values… and that urbanites are all rude and hedonistic and materialistic. They blame all their problems on the “poison” of “impure” urban influences ruining their Eden.

    Of course, urbanites think that there’s nothing redeeming about small town America, just insularity, no culture and nothing to do with a bunch of dumb rubes. That’s just as ignorant and self-deluding.

    I find redeeming aspects of both big city life and small town life and wish each would stop being so antagonistic toward the other. It betrays a pathetic insecurity.

  39. Brian says:

    One final thing that it’s important to remember: when people consider where to settle, quality of life is a major factor for many. Quality of life includes economic opportunity but is not limited to it.

  40. Some of us (me) who grew up in a small town (Saranac Lake), and have lived mostly in small towns (Malone, Lake Placid, Glens Falls), prefer cities and find the people in cities generally friendlier. As you say, Brian, when you have to live with lots of other people, many of them different from you in many ways, and when you choose to live with lots of other, different and diverse people, you are more likely to be a friendly, tolerant person with a sense of humor and perspective than the person who chooses to live and/or does live in a small town where they can be/are isolated with people similar to themselves. As you say, the less contact you have with people different from yourself, the easier it is to hold to ignorant prejudices about them.

  41. phahn50 says:

    not to belabor this but businesses locate where there are the resources they need at the best overall cost. That would very rarely be a rural location, especially in the NorthEast, and this has very little to do with tax levels or weather conditions. If the biggest need is cheap labor, they go to out of the country. If the critical need is highly educated/skilled labor, they might locate in NYC or silicon valley where the cost of everything is high, but there is a high concentration of the skills you need. Small manufacturing that needs to be in the US would locate where transportation would be less costly. Unless your major market was the northeast you would locate in Tennessee (or somewhere nearer the demographic middle). Agriculture? The north country has decent dairy land but not the best in the country. Logging/timber? many better locations that the northeast forests (Canada, Georgia). If your biggest need is lots of water, maybe the St Lawrence valley would work. Ecotourism/out-door recreation? The adirondacks are probably the best place for that east of the Mississippi.

  42. Paul says:

    EB, Thanks for the map. Very cool. Assuming it is accurate the migration out of NYS is pretty dramatic. You have to look specifically at the places where we have larger populations. Look at NYC, Albany and Buffalo.

  43. Paul says:

    In fact look at any of the populated parts of NYS. Syracuse, Westchester county etc.

    Brian are you sure this is an “aging” issue. This looks like a fleeing issue?

  44. EB says:


    What struck me the most was the migration within the Adirondack counties and NY. Take Hamilton County, the migration out of Hamilton County in 2008 was entirely within the park. A similar story for many of the other counties.

    As for the aging of the park population, there are a few possible interpretations, the implications of which differ depending on the interpretation. There’s no empirical evidence to suggest “fleeing” is the best. (Check out Chart A-2 of the APRAP Report)

  45. Bret4207 says:

    “Of course, urbanites think that there’s nothing redeeming about small town America, just insularity, no culture and nothing to do with a bunch of dumb rubes. That’s just as ignorant and self-deluding.”

    But Brian, I thought the cities were full of tolerant people??? Sounds to me like they are tolerant as long as you fit their ideas, IOW- no more tolerant than anyone else.

  46. Pete Klein says:

    Just for the record, I live here for all the reasons most people don’t want to live here.
    I like snow. I like cold. I don’t like warm weather and I prefer lots of trees, mountain, lakes and streams to lots of people and buildings.
    Nothing against people but I am more of a person people than a people people. I can only talk to one person at a time, so quantity does nothing for me.
    Jobs? I’ve always been able to find a job, not always one that paid a lot but always one that provided enough for me to get by and avoid welfare.
    To me, all jobs are honorable as long as they don’t involve murder or robbery. This includes some that might not be entirely legal but with the world we live in where just about everything is illegal, it’s difficult not to break a few laws during your lifetime.
    Up here, many break the law by having one or more jobs where they get paid under the table. I don’t have a problem with that but try arguing with the state or federal government about it.
    Sorry (not really) if I offend but all over the world, the Adirondacks included, people will find a way to survive.

  47. Paul says:

    “I can only talk to one person at a time, so quantity does nothing for me.”

    Pete, you are talking to a bunch of us right now. Are you sure you are so anti-quantity?

    Aren’t you a writer? You are talking to a (hopefully) large crowd there? At least you are trying.

  48. Pete Klein says:

    Not exactly true. The conversation here, in books and in newspapers is always one on one, although others may be listening in.
    By the way, it is also a rule of thumb for radio, movies, music and TV. The focus is always on the ONE.

  49. oa says:

    Brian M, One thing you don’t mention is that the Sun Belt has been on the dole from the north for a long time, building new roads, sewers, dams and air-conditioned office parks and government complexes on federal money that flowed out of NY State. Why do you think the Raleigh-Durham research triangle, and places like Charlotte and Atlanta and Vegas, boomed? It isn’t just the weather. If we were able to keep our own tax money, or at least not send out more than we’re given back by the feds, it would be a more level playing field.
    Denver is overrated, by the way.

  50. Paul says:

    “Denver is overrated, by the way.”, ouch!

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