Go eastward, young Americans

There's a reverse flow of population in the West, drifting from expensive coastal cities to interior boomtowns. It's definitely changing the politics of the Rockies, while also stirring resentments at "Aspenization."
Crosscut archive image.

Missoula, Mont. (<a href='http://flickr.com/people/prizrak2084/'>prizrak2084</a&gt; / Creative Commons)

There's a reverse flow of population in the West, drifting from expensive coastal cities to interior boomtowns. It's definitely changing the politics of the Rockies, while also stirring resentments at "Aspenization."

Not long ago, I spent a fascinating few days in Missoula, Mont., a college town that now feels a lot like Boulder and Eugene and Bellingham. Mountain-grit Missoula is a pale-blue city in a red state that is itself turning blue. Truth is, the coastal West is moving into the Interior West, as mobile knowledge workers head for places with good schools, nearby fishing streams, and plenty of people like us.

Montana is certainly swinging toward the Democratic Party, with the folksy Brian Schweitzer, a moderate Democrat, as governor, and now two Democratic U.S. senators, Max Baucus and Jon Tester. The state voted for George Bush by a 20-point margin in 2004, but the latest poll puts Barack Obama ahead of John McCain by five points.

A lot of that swing is owing to newcomers, many of them knowledge workers in the New Economy, who bring tolerant politics, environmentalism, and a yen for better schools along with their taste for panini sandwiches. In the past two decades, about 100,000 people have left Montana, where jobs are scarce, while 200,000 newcomers have arrived. That's a significant number in a state whose population is only 950,000.

The Montana economy is still flat, and some of the young people I talked to in Missoula said a lot of their friends had to depart the state after college, seeking jobs on the coast but hoping to return when something opened up in Missoula or nearby. Denver was a popular destination, since mountains are near. Portland was especially popular, "because you could afford to keep pursuing an interest in the arts there." Seattle was least popular, because of the high cost of living. It was "just a place to get a high-paying job for a while."

For years, the population flow of the country was from Rust Belt to Sun Belt, but now it is more from coastal cities to what political analyst Michael Barone calls "Interior Boomtowns." The big hip coastal metropolitan areas, such as Los Angeles, San Franciso, Boston, and D.C., are losing American-born and middle class families and gaining poorer, immigrant populations. From 2000 to 2006, for instance, the San Francisco region lost 10 percent of its American-born population while experiencing 7 percent growth in immigrants. High prices, high taxes, and some distaste for the swelling immigrant populations are driving out middle class residents, who often flee to the interior cities such as Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Charlotte. State capitols (Sacramento, Austin, Boise, Nashville, Raleigh) are among the fastest growing, adding high tech industry to government jobs. By Barone's calculation, eight top coastal cities grew 4 percent, 2000-2006, while the 16 Interior Boomtowns grew 18 percent.

Seattle is put in a group Barone calls "Static Cities," with modest growth among both native and foreign born. Portland, Denver, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Oklahoma City, Indianapolis, and Minneapolis are also in this group. They are not losing domestic population as much as the Coastal Megalopolises, nor gaining as much as the Interior Boomtowns. As such, they avoid to a degree one of the most undesirable features of the coastal hip cities, which is accelerating income disparities. These expensive cities are splitting into a wealthy class pleased at rising real estate values and an immigrant servant class. There's much less economic polarization in the interior cities.

Those interior cities may soon face some serious problems related to rapid growth. A new Brookings Institution report warns that these arid regions are growing thirstier, and that surging growth is producing urgent need for spending on transportation, water, and energy — in areas wary of federal programs and high taxes. Go-it-alone political traditions may be exactly the wrong approach. And now that economic hard times are arriving, finding money for infrastructure will be tough.

Another reason there may be a slowdown in this interior migration is the housing bust, which is forcing more Americans to stay put rather than selling their homes in a poor market. "Amenities cities" that have been retirement magnets are also seeing a sharp decline in growth.

And then there are the growing cultural wars. All over the rural West, longtime residents fear Aspenization, with prices for real estate rising so fast they have to move to the countryside to avoid the escalating taxes. (The average home price in Aspen is now $5.5 million, and retail stores pay rentals five times the Denver rate.) Bumper stickers say "Don't Bend Walla Walla," warning folks about what's happened to Bend, Ore., now a very high-priced boomtown with a population of 65,000 that is issuing building permits at twice the Portland rate. When Western regions like Bozeman and Durango are discovered, the growth is explosive and regions are quickly transformed.

The Democrats who have been getting elected in these Mountain West states have been skillful in playing down cultural differences, mixing in a new environmental awareness with old-time folksiness and muting issues like gun rights and gay marriage. But culturally, there clearly are two tribes in these states now, with Cowboy bars and Arugula Cafes on the same block.

As celebrities and other rich folks build big spreads and exclusive enclaves, most Montanans pay them little heed. Missoulans told me that the ultra rich mostly keep to themselves, importing friends for the weekend rather than mingling with the locals. But everyone complains about how (now-troubled) posh resorts are driving up property taxes (and providing lots of construction jobs). Real estate development is now the big industry in Montana, far surpassing the old mainstays of ranching and mining.

You don't have to go all the way to Montana to find these tensions and trends. Washington state House Speaker Frank Chopp is busy recruiting moderate Democrats in Eastern Washington, hoping to pad his lopsided majority in the House. Okanagan rancher Peter Goldmark, running for the statewide post of lands commissioner, is another sign of the growing appeal of rural Democrats. In turn, these moderate Democrats exert a conservative influence on the Democratic caucus, where complaining about Seattle is the main glue that binds.

The trade in ideas flows both ways, of course, and there are distinct liberal enclaves spouting around the state where wealthy weekenders or pre-retirement winegrowers are tilting the demographics. Walla Walla, the San Juan Islands, and Whatcom County are now just as reliably liberal bastions as Seattle is. Locals call it the Invasion of the 206ers.


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