If Seattle becomes too unaffordable to stay, or come to in the first place, America offers some real cities worth considering.
Last Sunday’s Money Makeover feature had the sobering news that a 56-year-old part-time art teacher won’t have the means to retire here, although she is a longtime Seattle resident.
She won’t be the only one.
Although Seattle is growing strongly, the city especially is becoming divided between the relatively affluent — even if this cohort includes middle-class folks who can hang on to their homes — and the poor, subsidized by public funds.
If Seattle is merging with Silicon Valley, as the Economist magazine observed recently, even the relative affordability of parts of the metropolitan area will come under increasing pressure. Like it or not, Tacoma might eventually become Oakland to Seattle’s San Francisco.
“Fixing” this is beyond public policy. Only so much land exists. The tech hub is roaring while many middle-income jobs are disappearing. This certainly is the case if one has a middle-income job and wants a Seattle single-family detached house. Building more will help, but it will be denser and, because of demand, still pricey.
Some people will leave, by choice or not. And some won’t come. For example, this is among the last cities you should consider if you don’t have advanced skills in the healthy sectors here (and metro Seattle still has one of the nation’s most diverse economies).
The internet has no lack of lists: most affordable cities, best places to retire, top college towns. You can use “the series of tubes,” as the late Sen. Ted Stevens might say. Family or a desire for sunshine and a demand for suburbia might drive your decision. (Beware: Housing costs are a national problem, tightly bound to lack of wage growth.)
But these lists won’t give you Seattle 2.0. It can’t be had. Other great, vibrant cities are even more costly — or, in the case of Denver or Portland, getting there fast.
But as the staff itinerant who has lived and worked across the country, here are some real and affordable cities to consider:
Minneapolis-St. Paul: The fraternal twins are perhaps the Goldilocks metro of America.
The economy is strong, including knowledge jobs. Inequality is relatively low for a large metro. The cultural offerings are strong, especially in performing arts. The University of Minnesota is a major research institution.
Twin Cities urban bones are good — Minneapolis historically liked to tear down and build new, while St. Paul preserved. Two light-rail lines offer some transit options.
Downsides: Severe winters. Flies and mosquitoes in summer.
Cincinnati: Mark Twain may have said, “When the world comes to an end, I want to be in Cincinnati. It’s always 10 years behind the times.” But this offers some advantages for one of my favorite adopted hometowns.
For example, Cincy has some of the finest cityscape in America. Growing slowly in the last part of the 20th century, it managed to preserve an architectural jewel box downtown and in the adjacent, priceless Over-the-Rhine district, as well as many wonderful residential neighborhoods. Union Terminal is one of the most breathtaking Art Deco masterpieces anywhere.
The city and close-in towns are inexpensive. Cincinnati offers a rich selection of culture, especially its symphony and Contemporary Arts Center. The Ohio River and hills are lovely. Several universities are in or near the metro area. And Procter & Gamble anchors a still-potent corporate center.
Downsides: Severe pockets of poverty in the city. Red state Ohio blocks urban needs such as light rail. A history of racial tension.
Pittsburgh: The former steel capital is a finalist for Amazon HQ2, and no wonder. As the mills closed, it reinvented itself into a successful knowledge and health-care center.
Like Cincinnati, this is a beautiful river city on hills, with great buildings, civic spaces and affordable neighborhoods. It is home to the well-regarded Carnegie Mellon University.
Downside: Pittsburgh has struggled to retain the young talent trained at its universities. That may be changing, but it remains a concern.
Cleveland: On the northeast end of Ohio from Cincy is what was once one of America’s largest and most economically powerful cities. It was badly mauled by the closing of steel mills and auto plants, along with mergers that took away some of its top companies. Like most Midwestern and eastern cities, it suffered severe white flight.
Still, Cleveland has come back again and again, lately as a strong hub of medicine and higher education. “The North Coast” puts you on Lake Erie. In addition to a fine parks system, Cleveland offers a world-class orchestra and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Downsides: Winter, with “lake effect” snow.” Pockets of poverty. A red state hostile to cities. Unlike Cincinnati, Cleveland is flat.
St. Louis: This is another forgotten American treasure: Once one of the nation’s most important cities that suffered through decades of flight, disinvestment and subsidized competition from automobile suburbs.
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But there remains a lot of there there. Eero Saarinen’s stunning Gateway Arch oversees a downtown full of fine architecture, culture, tourist attractions, offices, lofts and condos. A variety of pleasing, walkable neighborhoods are available in the city. Washington University is adjacent to Forest Park, site of the 1904 world’s fair.
Downsides: Racial tensions and pockets of poverty.
I offer the above because they contain many of the urban amenities that make Seattle so attractive at a time when cities are drawing people again. To be sure, no Mount Rainier, no Puget Sound, no (don’t tell anyone) relatively temperate weather.
But they might be tomorrow’s up-and-comers. If you love cities, get in now.