The Places We Leave

by Ann Friedman

I am from the center of the country and have lived most of my adult life on the coasts. When I was very young, it didn't occur to me that being from a small-ish town in the middle of the country might be a bad thing. It was just where I was. The older I got, the more I came to believe that the center was, in fact, the farthest point from everything important or interesting to ever occur. A place no one made movies about. (Well, almost no one. The people of Iowa thank you for Field of Dreams, Kevin Costner.) A place where leaving is the way to prove you've arrived.

In New York, San Francisco, and D.C. I got used to hearing, "You're from Idaho? Oh, Iowa? Whatever. Same thing, right?" This is perhaps why I love to visit cities and parts of the country not typically defined as tourist destinations. Pittsburgh. Peoria. Milwaukee. Wichita. Reno. When I told friends who had only lived on the coasts that I was about to embark on a month-long road trip, most were jealous. They've always wanted to do a cross-country drive! To face their fears of the limited menu at Country Kitchen, the bleakness of the Nebraska landscape, sexist good ol' boys and racist yokels. Maybe to assuage a low-level guilt that they have been to rural India but never rural Indiana.

Small and medium-sized towns all over America -- not just those in the middle of the country -- spend a lot of time thinking about how to get young people to stick around. How to become places people go, and not just places people leave. I stayed with a friend of mine in Kansas City who told me that despite being heralded by any number of local civic and arts organizations as an "up and coming community leader," she was kind of dying to move.

I wouldn't blame her. After all, I left. Lots of us did. Other than my home state, only North Dakota has seen more young, college-educated people seek their fortunes elsewhere. (I would love to see a statistical breakdown of how many of those kids move to an apartment near the L train and then get a tattoo in homage to their home state.)

This is obviously just one small part of the larger story about migration within the United States. Traditional power centers like New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, D.C., and Boston are absent from this list of the fastest-growing cities in America. But why we leave the places we're from -- and whether and how we can be persuaded to return -- something I've been thinking about a lot as I get reacquainted with the center.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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