By Published on .

I made the move back to the Midwest this past winter, after 16 years in Gotham. My friend Gary said I'd wilt on the vine. Business excursions from the Big Apple inevitably make him pine for cosmopolitan New York, hours at The Strand bookstore, indie flicks at the Angelika, great Thai food, regular schedules of rock 'n' roll shows, real bagels. Iowa City, I assure him, matches up OK: the University of Iowa's eclectic Bijou cinema program, weekly lineups of shows at The Mill and Gabe's, three Thai places within a mile radius and bookstores galore. Einstein's will never match La Bagel Delight, but, hell, when I left the state in 1984, God help you find anything but Lender's.

American migration in the 20th century linked in some way to the Big City, urban, then suburban centers. Yet, subtly, that tectonic plate shifted, and now places like Iowa City are blossoming. Most American migratory analysis focuses on Baby Boomers' eventual Frost Belt-to-Sun Belt tsunami. But, an under-the-radar trend shows a quieter exodus crossing that grain, bypassing the burbs and sunny climes for more rural, less subdivided environs. Older Gen Xers and younger Boomers have begun to bolster populations of smaller, less harried cities. These new migrants both look for and create a cosmopolitanism you once could only find in major metropolises. The trend portends a waning gravitational force of the long dominant metropolitan industrial/commercial nexus.

This movement, augured by the 2000 census, may mark a reversal of the great emptying out of the countryside, as Loyola-Chicago sociology professor and demographer Kenneth Johnson puts it. Most migrants seek not to put their own heads on American Gothic, but rather a stress-reductive, cost-efficient step between the stereotypical Mayberry and the cultural amenities and career opportunities once considered the province of great cities., the national online employment and moving service, for example, has some of the latter (New York, San Francisco, Minneapolis, Denver, Phoenix) on its list of America's best places to live. Conspicuously, markets like Boulder, Colo., Burlington, Vt., Fargo, N.D., Columbia, Mo., Northampton, Mass., Rochester, Minn., and, of course, Austin, Texas, are also high on the list.

Rural counties not necessarily agrarian, but those without an urban center of 50,000 or more grew 10.3 percent, some 5.2 million incremental residents, from 1990 to 2000, a profound jump from the 1.3 million additions during the '80s, per Johnson's analysis of the census, Rural Rebound. The data shows marked gains in the Mountain West and Upper Midwest, not coincidental to the National League of Cities' analysis of the census. The NLC reports medium-size cities (pop. 50,000 to 175,000) growing by 12.9 percent on average through the '90s and those with less than 50,000 residents by 18.5 percent, versus 9.1 percent for the nation's biggest burgs.

Cities on the NLC's growth chart, like Steamboat Springs and Grand Junction, Colo., and West Plains, Mo., have become their own regional micro-hubs, while the likes of North Bend, Wash., Buffalo, Minn., Columbia City, Ind. and Coralville, Iowa, lie well past the suburban rings of their nearest metro area.

Coralville, for example, has seen its population double to 15,000 in the past two decades, on the strength of its contiguous relationship with Iowa City (pop. 62,000), itself 25 miles from the area's industrial metropolitan center, Cedar Rapids. Other university towns like Ames, Iowa, Madison, Wis., Chapel Hill, N.C., and Morgantown, W.V., have shown up recently on sundry lists of hot cities in which to work and live. According to the NLC report, small cities in the Midwest and West are significantly outpacing their regions overall, 34 percent to 8 percent in the Midwest and 32 percent to 20 percent in the West, indicating an increasing draw from within their areas and without.

These cities are sort of becoming their own centers of regional culture, not just written off as out in the middle of nowhere, says Christiana Brennan, research assistant at the NLC.

Austin seems to be a template for what is going on in such cities. The Texas capital's population nearly tripled over the past three decades, to 656,000, as of Census 2000. Its smart, breezy culture, nonpareil music scene, University of Texas and any number of information tech companies spawned at the university make the city a hopping crossroads of both cool and commerce. Not every growing small city in the country is doing so because of this same confluence of factors, but, as with Austin, the allure of these towns transcends the basic notion that once sent waves of laborers to Detroit and MBAs to New York.

Non-economic factors carry more weight than they did in the last great wave, says Loyola's Johnson. He cites two basic catalysts: the monumental advances in transportation infrastructure (notably the Interstate highway system) since the '60s, and, more recently, the technology revolution. Gone, he says, is the friction of distance, making proximate what was once considered remote.

Johnson has mapped a telling dispersion pattern of the automotive industry as executives sought their own cost-of-living benefits in smaller communities in the '80s and '90s. Once exclusively the lot of Michigan, an auto corridor of assembly plants and component manufacturers now stretches from Tennessee and Kentucky to heavy concentrations in Indiana and Ohio, up into Wisconsin, all along the Interstate system.

As a result, from 1990 to 1997, 87 percent of the nonmetropolitan counties along the corridor saw a net migration growth rate of 3.6 percent, after losing more than 500,000 people in the 1980s.

Such tremors presage the new tectonics of how communities grow and where and how people decide to live. Both individuals and corporations are beginning to define the meaning of space as opposed to being defined by that space, says Ryan Mathews, a futurist who runs Black Monk Consulting in Eastpointe, Mich. You used to build cars in Detroit because that's where rail lines met, where you had access to massive supplies of coal and steel. So people would go to that city for that job. Now we're not so dependent on infrastructure, or we're redefining what it means now it's high-speed lines and satellite links so we're moving beyond the industrial model, with economic activity diffusing from the great population centers.

So, as the industrial model transitions to an entrepreneurial model, Mathews says, central locations become less important, Ames becomes a cauldron of biotechnology, Iowa City and Madison hotbeds of medical research and Evansville, Ind., a producer of Toyota trucks. As with Austin, new industry expands population and tax base, creating a city able to reinvest in its own infrastructure and lure new businesses to repopulate storefronts once emptied by the country-to-Big City diaspora. As smaller cities become more attractive to move to and perhaps just as important, not to leave the influx of new residents of all stripes, but particularly of resettling professionals, works both ways on a community.

The value proposition of migration has always been economic, says Mathews. Now, the proposition is more than just that. Quality-of-life decisions make more sense when they're culturally supportable.

Most Popular