If there is one thing that is true about Millennials, it is that we are mystifying, and therefore constantly being asked to explain ourselves. This is the premise, I think, behind Angela Lashbrook’s recent viral article for OneZero titled “Millennials Love Zillow Because They’ll Never Own a Home.” The piece rightly points out that often, our wish to escape our terrible lives leads to us fantasizing about buying nice houses in cities where we do not, and, due to the circumstances of our personal lives and/or careers, probably could not, live. In fact, there is an entire genre of internet content — some of it reputable, some of it laughably not so — that seemingly exists to either supplement these fantasies of skipping town or to actively encourage them.
The most recent example of this phenomenon came from the commercial real estate listings start-up, which last week proclaimed that it had objectively determined the most Millennial-friendly cities in the country. Judging by things like population trends, affordability, average commute times, and the number of young people in a city whose jobs offer health insurance, Commercial Cafe determined that the metro areas surrounding places like Denver, Austin, Seattle, and Portland were, definitively, friendly to Millennials. Of course, I already knew these cities were Millennial-friendly through another methodology: being friends with people who aren’t boring as hell, since if you’re friends with any kind of young, cool or cool enough person, you’ll invariably hear one of them talking about how they’re thinking about moving to that city, if they haven’t already.
Still, this is not the only study that claims to have figured out what makes a city Millennial-friendly, a concept I find fascinating because of how arbitrary it seems. Politico believes that Millennials choose which city to live in based on the number of other young people, especially those with college degrees or who have recently relocated there, as well as the average GDP and the possibility of taking an “alternative commute” to work. Business Insider has its own rankings, based on population changes, increases in median wages, and decreases in unemployment rate. The Penny Hoarder developed a formula for Millennial-friendliness which factored in “Millennial happiness” and ended up placing St. Louis, MO and Grand Rapids, MI at one and two, respectively. This is just random enough for me to believe that these places might secretly be tight.
But these lists, including Penny Hoarder’s (whose counterintuitive conclusions I honestly do appreciate), fail to grasp what makes a city a genuinely compelling place to live. Cities like New York, Berlin, and Austin are not “cool” because of their public transportation or how many jobs there are there; instead, they were all direct beneficiaries of a cycle in which artists, punks, and general counterculture types ended up moving there when they were still cheap, treating these underpopulated cities as places where they could live affordably and in close quarters with likeminded people, together producing the sort of radical art and culture that end up being cool enough to get vacuumed into the city’s self-conception, after which a bunch of yuppies move in and fuck it all up. (I don’t have specific numbers to back this up, but my landlord once told me if I ever wanted to buy an investment property, I should buy something in a town where an anarchist bookstore just opened up.)
This isn’t a great cycle, especially since the arrival of the artists and punks is the first sign that the local population — in these neighborhoods, that most often means people of color and immigrants — is only a decade or two away from being priced out. Think of it as Lenin’s theory of the two-stage revolution, except in reverse, and instead of communism, it’s a path for gentrifying a city until it sucks ass.
Since 2016, I’ve lived in the Raleigh-Durham municipal area, which is frequently pegged as one of the most Millennial-friendly locales in the nation. Durham in particular has seen its star rise dramatically, to the point that all the artists and punks barely had a chance to set up shop before everybody else started moving in. Case in point: About a year ago, I was sitting in the backyard of a local bar when I ended up talking to a bro wearing a Patagonia sweater and Sperry boat shoes who told me that he and his roommates from architecture school had all moved down to the area after graduation because a friend had told them that, “the job market was poppin’.” (In case I have not been clear enough: this person was white and very fratty.)
Ever since then, I have noticed an influx of “that type” of person — preppy out-of-towners who flock to an area during a boom period and, through sheer force of numbers, end up changing its character in increasingly generic ways. Previously fun bars where adult people can simply relax while drinking an adult beverage either get overrun or run out of the neighborhood, with “experiential” bars that Millennials allegedly enjoy (read: bars where you can throw axes, play arcade games, or do mini-golf) popping up in their place. Music venues start booking different acts who appeal to this growing market of kinda-generic Millennials, letting local scenes languish in the background.
When people treat the place they live as a giant AirBnB they can check out of after a few years working as a “creative lead” at a mid-sized start-up before moving elsewhere, they become less attuned to local issues, specifically the problems faced by those outside their specific, transplant-y milieu. In other words, there are two types of people: those for whom such lists apply, and those who are negatively affected by those for whom such lists apply.
Most normal people, when looking to move to a new city, don’t make the sorts of “rational” choices that the idea of the Millennial-friendly municipality is predicated upon. They move places because have a pre-existing personal network there, or a job waiting for them, or because their partner is moving there and they’d like to tag along. Maybe they’re really into sludge-metal, and a certain city happens to have the premiere sludge scene in the nation, or maybe they’re seeking a specific pace of life that only a handful of places in the world offer.
I, personally, moved to Durham mostly because a lot of my college friends were already living here, and besides, I was living with my parents at the time so I didn’t have anything better to do. I suppose I could have moved to, like, Denver, because there are a lot of young people there and they’ve got legal weed, but why would I? I grew up in North Carolina, and understand the rhythms of life here more intimately than I ever would somewhere new. I feel at home here, invested, and that in turn makes me care about the well-being of the city as a whole.
It’s easy for me, a person who has spent the past four years working from home, to say that everyone should only move somewhere if they feel a connection with the place as it is and as it has always been. However, that doesn’t mean that everyone can’t work harder to identify with one specific, special thing about the place they live, and expand from there until they’ve developed an appreciation for it as a whole. And if you’re not interested in doing that, allow me to suggest you move to a place that has never been good. Think the Hamptons, or one of those towns in Virginia where everybody who lives is a low-level White House appointee. You still won’t make the place any better, but at least the only people you’ll make miserable will have always sucked.