Monday, July 12, 2010

Targeting Top Towns

In our world of lists and status, of comparisons and benchmarks, perhaps Money magazine's annual ranking of "America's Best Places to Live" rings rather hollow for some people.

After all, the list changes every year, but do the best places to live actually change every year as well? Of course not - Money bases their ranking on ever-fluid data like housing costs, crime rates, employment statistics, and other criteria, whereas most people view practical home ownership on a longer continuum unrelated to annual magazine sales.

Plus, the top cities in Money's list tend to be some of the most vanilla places in America, both in terms of cultural diversity and economic stratification - meaning there's little of each. If you're white and upper-middle-class, you can probably relate to rankings like this more than the majority of Americans, who either aren't white, can't job-hop, or who actually don't need manicured surroundings to feel validated.

According to Money magazine, this year's best place to live is Eden Prairie, Minnesota; the implication being that if you don't mind bitterly cold winters, everybody talking with a flat accent, and topography like your kitchen countertop, you might consider moving to this desirable burg in suburban Minneapolis. But of course, Eden Prairie doesn't want all of us; their population is a blissfully manageable 64,000. What would Eden Prairie look like if 1 million of us wanted to relocate there?

And that's the rub with these "best" lists. Of the top 100 best places to live for 2010, none are cities with more than 235,000 people - and that's Scottsdale, Arizona, not exactly known for its low cost of living. Hardly the typical American city, Scottsdale makes the list at #71, boasting its wealthy snowbird population, multiple country clubs, and luxury shopping centers.

Homogeneous populations generally tend to be easier to manage than heterogeneous populations, and an unscientific study of the cities in Money's list doesn't reveal many cities with widely-diversified populations. Obviously, many Americans tend to like living next-door to people of their own kind, and sometimes that's neither avoidable nor intentional. Some parts of the country simply boast a greater population diversity than others. For example, Maine isn't noted for its large numbers of black residents, nor Hawaii its Hispanics. But the fact that the vast majority of the cities in Money's list - year after year - are mid-sized to downright small suburban and exurban communities actually reveals its fallacy. These towns aren't where most Americans live. They may be our idealized communities, but are they ideal?

Most Americans live in cities and towns that have big-time real-world problems that come, at least in part, from accommodating a diverse population and having a lot of people living in close proximity to one another. Most Americans don't live in picture-perfect hamlets without the crime, struggling schools, aging infrastructure, and other maladies to bedevil civic pride.

And I'm not talking about the New York Cities and Chicago's of the United States. My own home of Arlington, Texas, which used to be the darling suburb between Fort Worth and Dallas back when its population was 150,000, now faces nearly-complete build-out at 350,000 people, plus school gangs, aging infrastructure and housing stock, increasing crime, and white flight (ecru, actually) to brand-new exurbs like McKinney. At number 5 on this year's list, McKinney is a relatively old town, but I'm confident in saying that virtually 100% of its recent growth is coming from people who are leaving places like Arlington and the other aging suburbs in the Dallas - Fort Worth area for brand-new construction and the pursuit of a "better" lifestyle.

Not that people don't have a right to live where they want. Indeed, the whole westward expansion of the United States - even the beachheads established by early immigrants to our shores - came about as a result of restless feet and wandering affections. Some might even say it's in Americans' DNA to rove and relocate. A significant part of our economy thrives on new-home construction and its ancillary industries. And healthy competition between communities can help keep everyone on their toes.

But if Money's ranking is simply charting the fickle nuances of pretty towns with cookie-cutter demographics, what good is it?

If you'll notice in some of their brief overviews for the towns in their list, the editors will point out the distance to the nearest big city for cultural, sports, and economic opportunities. As if proximity to those big, bad cities is some sort of amenity. Which reveals another dynamic nobody really wants to acknowledge:

These towns are leeches on their neighboring big cities, aren't they? They suck out affluent taxpayers and leave the big cities to somehow juggle big-city police departments, infrastructure maintenance, behemoth hospitals, and other demands of a population density that can support the weekend street life suburbanites can flirt with. Then the suburbanites go home and scoff at the big city for having under-performing schools, potholed streets, and urban blight.

Not that residents in America's big cities aren't responsible for getting their own act together. One of the reasons taxpayers leave urbanized areas involves their frustration with bureaucratic inefficiencies in many large municipal organizations and the politicization of social and ethnic problems in urbanized communities. It's fair to say that parents can usually find schools and other civic amenities to be more responsive to their needs in smaller cities, and family dynamics generally drive relocation dynamics.

But you don't see any of the towns on Money's list begging for urban poor folk to move in, do you? Remember, not every poor person is a welfare-dependant criminal. But apart from coming in and working their fast-food restaurants and mowing their yards, they're not welcome, are they?

So go ahead, you Eden Prairies and McKinneys of the world, and enjoy the good life beyond the crumbling vistas of urbanized America. We don't begrudge you your chance in the spotlight, and all things being equal, maybe the statistics really prove you're some of the best places to live in the United States.

This year, anyway.
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