Jen Gerson: In praise of second-tier cities

So many of my peers who moved to or stayed in a first-tier city now give off a whiff of ratcage desperation that doesn't make me envy them.

If you are inclined to follow the spitball matches of the Very Online, you may already be aware that New York City is Dead Forever, according to some guy named James Altucher, who recently wrote about the great city's imminent demise on LinkedIn. His post was so provocative that it went viral.

The prospect, the very thought of the city's decline, was deemed so unpalatable that none other than Jerry Seinfeld himself responded in the New York Times. "Are … You ... Kidding ... Me?!"

If this seems a touch disproportionate, that's because, well, it was. It's a little like responding to a Facebook fight by hacking your frenemy's computer and then wiping it. One doesn’t try to squash a social media post with the musings of one of the most famous comedians of all time in the New-York-goddamn-Times unless Mr. Altucher's observations were a little too on the nose to begin with. 

New York has always been a neurotic universe unto itself, but the same debate is playing out in other major cities where the cost of rent can't quite keep up with the value proposition in the era of easy telecommuting and COVID-19.

A major city was probably one of the worst places to suffer a pandemic lockdown. High population density increased the risk of spread, but it was worse than that. Offices, restaurants, clubs, bars, museums — all of the conveniences that traditionally offset the downsides of urban life were rendered impossible. Outings with friends were forbidden. Crowded public transit — the pride of any self-respecting urbanite — morphed into metal contagion tubes. 

I'm sure leafy suburbs with big backyards and BBQ decks, countryside bungalows, or small towns with endless walking trails began to seem like a tempting life choice to people who spent the Spring of 2020 suffering in squishy apartments and small balconies. Once considered outré and regressive, the pandemic is sparking new interest in the suburbs. Even younger people are hearing the call to return to their spawning sites.  

The yearn is real. The question is whether any of these trends will hold when the pandemic is over — though that is likely to be years away, yet. And, if so, how major cities will adapt. 

Let me tell you, that as someone who has long lived in what is known, not unfairly, as a "second-tier city," I enjoy a luxury that extends far deeper a patch of grass and an extra bedroom for guests. I enjoy the freedom to be totally indifferent to the self-important inner monologues of larger cities. It’s awfully liberating.

Don't get me wrong. I lived in Toronto for years in my 20s and I love that city. I think it's a phenomenal place.

Like many people in their 20s, I imagined myself irrevocably altered by my move to a major downtown core from the terrible boredom and stifle of the ‘burbs. The coffee shops, the streets and boutiques: Toronto was the only place I'd ever be able to live — unless I moved to even greater urban centres like New York or London. Or so I thought then.  

These cities are great places to be if you're young. They're greater places if you're rich. 

They're necessary places if you're pretending to be either. 

And a whole lot of people seem to live in these cities because they feel it to be necessary — necessary to be close to their families and communities, or necessary for their career. For many individuals, and in a lot of industries, I have no doubt that it's true. I just don’t think it’s as true today as it was a year ago.

A lot of my peers who moved or stayed in Major City X now give off a whiff of ratcage desperation that doesn't make me envy them. I can feel this manic defensive energy even in Seinfeld's op-ed: 

"The last thing we need in the thick of so many challenges is some putz on LinkedIn wailing and whimpering, 'Everyone’s gone! I want 2019 back!'" Seinfeld wrote. "He says Everyone’s gone for good. How the hell do you know that? You moved to Miami. Yes, I also have a place out on Long Island. But I will never abandon New York City. Ever." 

And that dude is rich. He doesn't have to live with any of the downsides of New York. I’m further willing to bet he's quarantining at that place on Long Island, if not some luxury bug-out resort in the mountains.

Striking from home to test oneself is a developmental necessity, and most people who heed the call to adventure and make it in a place like New York are better off for the experience. But if you have a romantic vision of success for yourself that requires you to live in one of the marvellous first-tier cities of the world forever, you will find yourself physically trapped by your own fear of failure. You will be unable to envision any other life for yourself, even when the one you are living isn't actually working.

Toronto was a great city for me in my 20s. But I'm in my 30s, now. And many of the best parts of being a 20-something in Toronto are no longer relevant to the life of a basic middle-class mom with two kids and a mortgage who needs a Barbie Jeep just to get the two-kid monster stroller to the farmers’ market. 

Do I miss living in a city with thousands of amazing restaurants and infinite fascinating streetscapes and a festival every weekend? Of course I do! Just as I miss being able to squander my free time tripping on magic mushrooms and trolling the Internet for an easy date. 

I don't know what to tell you. Life changed.

You want to know how many times I hire a babysitter so I can leave my screaming kids at home to go to an actual restaurant, now? Let's just say that I don't need the option of thousands of venues anymore. 

When I left Toronto, I discovered that I don't need very much from a city to be happy in it. I need a good coffee shop; a bookstore to browse; a few fun streets to wander around once in a while.

In truth, I don't feel deprived by the revelation. I feel lucky. 

If leaving home in search of victory and adventure is the first stage of the hero’s journey, then returning home, at peace with yourself wherever you live, is the completion of that arc to adulthood. I could live in Calgary, or Edmonton, or Kelowna. I could probably be happy in Nanton or Medicine Hat.

Because what I need aren't the amenities that only high-density living can provide — what I need are friends, people to love, and things to do that give me a sense of purpose and meaning.

My smaller city is cheaper; which means I could afford two children instead of one. I can raise them in a house instead of a condo. I am starting my own business. I still write and edit for a living.

First-tier cities are amply stocked with the kinds of luxuries that allow for short-term gains. But pursuing those deeper goals that were more likely to make me happy in the long run was only possible because I opted for someplace smaller. You're only free to chase your dreams when you're free from chasing rent. 

I am a cheerleader for Calgary. I don't think there is a better value proposition in Canada for its combination of opportunity and lifestyle, especially for young families. The oil downturn has, if anything, shifted the math in Calgary's favour, especially if you telecommute in a non-oil related job. Housing and office space are affordable. It’s sunny, bike-friendly and an easy trip to the mountains on the weekends. 

It is cold. I'll grant that. But it's still better than Edmonton. 

I won't rule out leaving Calgary at some point. I try not to rule anything out anymore. The next great adventure could be anywhere. There are lots of places to be in the world, and lots of ways to be happy within it. But, I've found, those big-city evangelists who freed themselves from the ratcages of their own brains didn’t tend to regret it once they began to breathe fresh air. 


On a further housing-related note, Max Fawcett appeared in The Line yesterday to argue in favour of taxing housing equity. “It’s time to take the idea of a home equity tax seriously — one, say, that targets speculators and the ultra-wealthy while protecting the vast majority of Canadian homeowners.”


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