In Defense of Small Cheap Cities

Photo by Josh

Hartford is actually pretty good

On the heels of Nicole’s examination of where we should go to get jobs, homes, and marriageable men (the trifecta of American happiness, as I understand it) comes a missive from CityLab suggesting that we all move to Hartford, Connecticut. The problem this apparently presents, if the article is to be believed, is that Hartford, jobs and affordable housing notwithstanding, is BORING.

The young Hartford professional whom CityLab interviews has to concede that Hartford “doesn’t have nearly as vibrant a lifestyle” as Boston. This lines up with our own commenter Marille, who felt obliged to defend Nicole’s statistical choice of Provo, Utah, by saying it is “actually kind of cool.” In literary circles, this is called “damning with faint praise.” But how vibrant a lifestyle does our statistically normal, up-and-coming, 18-34-year-old need?

Before coming to boring old Hartford, I grew up mostly in Brooklyn, which has not been boring for 100 years, and in Portland, Oregon, back when it was not exciting and vibrant but merely bland and populated with disconcertingly friendly people who were timid about crossing the street. As a young man, I lived in Brooklyn and Boston. I am a city person, and when I returned to New York after a four-year hiatus, my plan was never to leave the city again.

I sang the praises of New York and decried anywhere less New York-y — including, it should be noted, Staten Island, which is still technically part of the city. But in all the time I was there, and in all my years in Boston, I did not go every weekend to a world-class cultural event, nor see with any frequency important lectures or dazzling concerts or the most shocking and brilliant new offerings of the downtown art world. I did those things now and then, to be sure, but mostly I went to neighborhood bars and saw small, struggling, mediocre bands at hole-in-the-wall clubs, and ate breakfast at diners.

Now that I live in Hartford, I mostly go to neighborhood bars, see small, struggling, mediocre bands at hole-in-the-wall clubs, and eat breakfast at diners. It is true that in New York and, to a lesser degree in Boston, the air seems thick with a sort of busy, creative striving, so that every available inch of wall is covered with interesting graffiti and stickers for obscure bands or concepts or inside jokes, and every open space where people walk gets quickly occupied by other people who strum guitars or blow on horns or do synchronized dance routines. I like that stuff. A lot.

But living in Hartford, I still see art and music, and I get to live in a city, and my rent is about one third of what I would pay for an equivalent apartment in Brooklyn. This is a trade-off, to be sure, but maybe not as big of a trade-off as the youngs tend reflexively to think.

In fairness, I’m not exactly the right demographic to weigh in on this: I’m outside the 18-34 statistical group known as “young,” although Nicole has charitably asserted that 23-40 would be a better measure, and I’m still in that group. I’m not looking for a marriageable mate, although that is because I found one right here in my neighborhood. And I have children, which probably means that if I still lived in New York I would suddenly hate it and long for Hartford’s boringness.

Still, even younger, singler, and more childless people than I should probably give the Hartfords and Provos of this world a chance. There is a lot of fun to be had in second- and third-tier cities, and cheaply. So cheaply, in fact, that you are more likely to have cash lying around for the impetuous purchase of a sousaphone, and what’s more fun than a sousaphone? The answer is nothing. Nothing is more fun than a sousaphone.

Move to Hartford and buy a sousaphone. You won’t regret it.

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