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'Cool' Cities Are Not Necessarily Warm

A Commentary By Froma Harrop

The soft economy has left lots of Americans in place, whether they want to be or not. That would include the most mobile group, young people. But to the extent that adults ages 25 to 34 are still moving, their preferred destinations seem to be "cool cities," according to U.S. Census Bureau figures. What are the so-called cool cities? Denver, Houston, Dallas, Seattle, Raleigh, Austin, Washington, D.C., and Portland, Ore., among others.

And what makes them cool? I had to ask. They have a "certain vibe, a coffee house scene, a night scene," responded William Frey, a Brookings Institution demographer who follows such trends. "You know it when you see it."

That's what I would have said.

Most interesting, young people are headed to these places with or without a job. What are they thinking? They're thinking that if you're not going to have a job, you might as well not have one in a groovy place. "It's Only for Now" go the lyrics from "Avenue Q," a musical about recent college grads, unemployed in New York and learning they're not that special.

Speaking of college grads, the Census Bureau also reports that more educated Americans are moving to places that are already home to many like them. The result has been a brain gain for some areas and a brain drain for others. The gainers include Boston, metro New York, Madison, Wis., and California's Silicon Valley. Educated cities tend to have colleges, high-tech industry and, if you look at the above lists, generally liberal-minded attitudes. As such, they share many characteristics of the cool cities.

Note that most of the cool and educated places don't have cheap housing and low taxes. Note that most aren't in warm climates, and some have downright nasty winters. The Texas cities would be the exception.

And they're not necessarily proximate to glamorous ski or beach resorts. Omaha has enjoyed one of the strongest brain gains in the country, even as the rural Plains continue to lose educated people. During the last decade, the percentage of Omaha's adults with college degrees rose 6 points to 33 percent.

What does Omaha have? Another question for Frey. "Omaha has a river (the Missouri) and a close airport," he explains. It has nice amenities and offers face-to-face daily interaction with people who have a lot in common. Like other favorites, it is cosmopolitan.

The apparent allure of densely populated regions goes against another prediction of years ago: that the communications revolution would cause the educated to spread out from the crowded urban corridors. After all, one could work anywhere with an Internet connection. So why slog through the slush on the Mass Pike when you could do your job beside a powdery ski slope in Colorado or a balmy beach in Maui -- and in your slippers?

A few years ago, messy winters up north supposedly helped feed escapees to such Sunbelt hot spots as Phoenix, Las Vegas, Orlando and Riverside, Calif. All those places are now working through the subsequent housing bust, and their influx of college grads has slowed to a trickle. Things will eventually turn around for them, Frey believes, "but it's never going to be as good again as in the middle of the last decade."

As for weather, "weather doesn't matter if you're in a place that has all kinds of connections for you socially and in terms of your job," he says.

Isolation, even splendid isolation, is apparently not the ideal life for the young and the educated. To quote from another musical -- actually, to misquote -- "People need people."



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See Other Commentaries by Froma Harrop.

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