The next Brooklyn/Boulder/Austin/Portland …

by drewnilsen

“I’m not from here/
but people tell me/
it’s not like it used to be.
They say I should have been here/
back about ten years/
before it got ruined by folks like me”

— “I’m Not From Here,” Austin, Texas musician James McMurtry

By the time everyone knows a place is cool, it’s already well on its way to yuppification and losing the spirit that made it cool in the first place. Asking “What’s the next Austin?” (or Portland, or Prague, or wherever) has become a cliche — one I’m happy to perpetuate.

Pondering The Next Big Place is certainly a fun exercise, but beyond that, it has practical applications. It can be helpful in figuring out where to move if you’re a recent college graduate or planning a life change. It can identify what cities are thriving and reviving, in contrast to those withering and dying. It can identify fun, off-the-radar places to visit. (Yesterday, the New York Times had a nice profile of a local benefactor single-handedly revitalizing downtown in the small Appalachian city of Roanoke, Virginia. It’s nice to see these things happening in places that aren’t preciously hip. I’ll have to add this to my East Coast road trip list, maybe on my 39th trip to Asheville.)

Obviously, merely considering job growth and overall pay ignores a multitude of factors. Matt Yglesias — an insightful urbanist as well as political commentator — recently posted a chart of Bureau of Labor Statistics figures showing the metro areas with the highest-paying jobs. On its own, though, these figures are pretty meaningless, as the entire graph consists of some of America’s highest-cost-of-living counties (NY, Boston, DC, SF, etc.). This information would be more useful if translated into a “best bang for your buck” metric.

Joel Kotkin did just that, and Houston comes out tops. [Side note: Although “Houston” is almost a pejorative to most coastal/Yankee city dwellers, it’s a surprisingly diverse and fun city, with great arts and walkable inner-core neighborhoods. Yeah, the metro is a sprawly mess, but Houston — with its re-elected lesbian mayor — is a fairly progressive, nice city with good museums, great food and drinking establishments ranging from nouveau cocktails (The Anvil) to old school, outdoor walk-up bars (Alabama Ice House).] Other good value cities: Austin, Cincinnati, New Orleans, Nashville, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Dallas-Fort Worth.*

Moreover, the Web has no shortage of slideshows with the top 10 places where people are moving. Many of these, however, are often the product of the growth of a particular industry, not the character of the town.

As I discussed last week regarding the personality traits of cities, we’re all looking not for raw data, but rather the je ne sais quoi of what makes a place great. Kotkin extrapolates his “bang for your buck” data into predicting the next big cities, but its too objective and not subjective enough. San Antonio is a lovely place with a thriving economy (and seriously great tacos), but its too undereducated and unintellectual to comport of to Richard Florida’s idea of a “creative class” city any time soon. It may boom, but SAT will not be a PDX or an AUS or even an MSY anytime soon.

Earlier this year, an Austinite postulated on what the next Austins might be.  I was surprised to hear Chattanooga, though a friend of mine has played up Richmond to me (both: road trip list). I’ve been a decade-long champion of Pittsburgh, Detroit is a perennial favorite of journalists to lament or, simultaneously, exalt. I adore Asheville, but I’m not sure it can ever grow enough economically to be The Place (though it might have the best weather in the South). Burlington has been a hippie haven since Phish was playing Nectar’s, but I doubt it will ever blow up.

This is a curious list that has added some new spots for me to check out. I’m curious to hear feedback about the list (tell me more about Chattanooga!), but also readers’ own picks. What off-the-cultural-radar places are fixing to bust out big?

My picks: Milwaukee, Portland (Maine), Missoula or Bozeman, and Orlando.

*You can do your own cost-of-living conversions between metros using this calculator; $1,600 per week in DC is the equivalent of only $1,100 in Kansas City, for example.