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Peak Urbanization

Is it just you or is everyone hatching plans to move somewhere less expensive?
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Elevator Alley, a stretch of the Buffalo River. (Photo: Andre Carrotflower/Wikimedia Commons)

Elevator Alley, a stretch of the Buffalo River. (Photo: Andre Carrotflower/Wikimedia Commons)

In my last post, I wrote that the future looked brighter in Barcelona than in Buffalo. Today, I'm here to sing Buffalo's praises and revisit the prospects for the end of geography. And by "the end of geography" I mean the end of urban hierarchy. We've reached peak city:

As a professional thirtysomething who has lived in both New York and Los Angeles, I sometimes feel as if everyone I know is hatching plans to flee to somewhere less expensive, less massive, less hectic, and—again for good measure—less expensive. I know people who have moved in recent years from Los Angeles to Charlotte, from Boston to Durham, from New York to Seattle, from the Bay Area to Denver. Thanks to new U.S. Census data, I now know I am not going crazy. The flight to second-tier cities is thriving.

Increasingly, people who can employ geographic arbitrage move down the urban hierarchy. A few years ago, my household went upstream from Boulder, Colorado, to Washington, D.C. Once in Northern Virginia, I encountered faces of disbelief that I would intentionally abandon the promised land for commuting hell. Everyone here, or so it seems, wants to be there. I suck at geography.

I suck at geography because the rules of the economic game changed. If I wanted to succeed, then I thought I had to move up the urban hierarchy. I've been Buffaloed by mesofacts:

When North Tonawanda native Nick Quaranto and his wife, Amanda, graduated from the Rochester Institute of Technology in 2010, they headed off to Boston. “We just decided we didn’t see ourselves in Boston,” Nick Quaranto said. But after a couple of years in Boston, that changed. “At that point, we decided we wanted to move back to be closer to family and to start a family,” he said. “The cost of living in Buffalo is much more reasonable, and we had the support of family.”

But making the move wasn’t without risk. Nick, a programmer, had a trial contract to work with Basecamp, a Chicago technology firm that would allow him to work from his home. That job eventually turned into a permanent position.

Amanda, 26, had a tougher transition. An Erie, Pa., native, she was without work for about nine months before landing a job with an Amherst software company. She now works as a deployment engineer for Engine Yard, a San Francisco-based technology company that also allows her to work from home.

“We’ve kind of found this serendipitous place,” said Nick, 26, who last year co-founded Cowork Buffalo, which runs a Main Street site that provides telecommuters, freelancers and the self-employed a place to work without having to rent an office.

“There’s a lot of companies in the software industry that allow you to work remotely,” he said. “There’s more and more technology that lets people work remotely, and there’s more and more going on. I think it has nowhere to go but up.”

I introduced this passage with the term "mesofacts." If unfamiliar, I have a primer hereSamuel Arbesman deserves credit for the concept. In my wheelhouse, mesofacts refer to geographic stereotypes that live well beyond what actually exists in the landscape. Zombie geographies such as brain drain Buffalo live on (in that undead way) thanks to the meme, "Rust Belt Is Dying." That's what kept Nick and Amanda far from home. That's what keeps piling up the innovation jobs in Silicon Valley. People from all walks of life are creatures of habit, risk averse.

"The World Is Spiky" is a mesofact. Richard Florida clings to yesterday's geography just as much as most migrants do. Iterations between descriptions of urban cool and bored-out-their-minds townies feed the cycle. Creativity is elsewhere. Austin is a self-fulfilling prophecy. A question remains, "Why are people continuing to move where the rent is too damn high?"

Wise to the creative class folklore of Big City, talent opts for Buffalo over San Francisco. Silicon Valley tech needs Buffalo talent more than Buffalo talent needs San Francisco. People develop, not places.