But first, let’s define some terms. I avoided cities already deemed magnets for young, creative people—place like New Orleans, Austin, or Detroit. Along the way, I was able to find nine cities where more young people than you might realize are trying to make it work in 2013, and they fit into four basic categories:
Small Ponds for Big Fish
These are cities where creativity and entrepreneurship are on the rise, even as the rents remain reasonable. Chances are, small ponds have DIY art scenes: Omaha boasts a thriving start-up economy and the still-relevant force of Conor Oberst’s Saddle Creek Records while Jackson’s Fondren and Midtown neighborhoods have sparked a local art community. Yet even in the gentrified corners of town, the price points remain low by necessity, since most people aren’t making much money. And since there isn’t a shortage of space, local politicos are practically begging young people to take abandoned buildings and empty lots off their hands. Many of the twentysomethings I spoke with in these towns were on a first-name basis with the mayor or city council. One Jackson native was even running for office. These cities have a growing population of young people who would rather start something from the ground up and live cheaply than scramble anonymously in huge cities.
The Gems Next Door
Jersey City, New Jersey
These more modestly sized, vibrant cities tend to be adjacent to giant ones. They mimic some of the charms of their bigger siblings, but at a dramatically reduced price point. In places like Milwaukee and Jersey City, local governments are more accessible, and the likelihood of being able to buy property or pay rent without scrambling is far higher. In each case, places like Chicago or New York are short drives or train rides away, but Jersey City and Milwaukee are more than mere commuter towns—they have attracted a niche of young people invested in their communities.
Towns Luring Back Their Townies
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Countless trend stories have been written about young, ambitious people flocking to Detroit because it’s cheaper and in need of fresh ideas. But smaller post-industrial cities like Cleveland and Pittsburgh (and its neighboring suburb, Braddock) aren’t under the same spotlight, and most of the young people taking advantage of their virtues are natives. They’ve been there along, reasoning that the economy was too precarious for them to take a risk in a bigger city where had far fewer connections. Or they’ve returned after college or a disappointing stint in a major metropolis, realizing that they need their hometown just as much as their hometown needs them. Albuquerque has been retaining some of its natives, too, especially those who initially flocked to super-pricey California and realized that their quieter, cheaper hometown was the ideal place to ride out the recession.