Did Thoreau say “simplify” or “gentrify”?

Interesting piece floating around in the Wall Street Journal –

The word “gentrification” conjures up images of once-poor urban neighborhoods invaded by cappuccino bars and million-dollar condos. Now, broad swaths of rural America — from New England to the Rocky Mountain West — are being gussied up, too.

Affluent retirees and other high-income types have descended on these remote areas, creating new demand for amenities like interior-design stores, spas and organic markets. For many communities, it’s the biggest change since the interstate highway system came barreling through in the 1960s and 1970s.

With the Internet allowing people to work from almost anywhere, the distinction between first and second homes has become blurred. Many people are buying retirement property while they’re still employed. Millions of soon-to-retire baby boomers, say demographers, will propel this trend for years to come.

“What we’re seeing is a class colonization,” says Peter Nelson, an associate professor of geography at Middlebury College and an expert on rural migration. “It really represents a shift in the nature of the economy from a resource-extraction economy to an aesthetic-based economy.”

For me, the word ‘gentrification’ conjurs up images of the death of niceness about Newtown, Sydney. Opinions differ (probably not amongst Sydney Uni alumni, though). Graphically, for the US (click for the story/larger version):

wsj pic

Here’s a “con”:

Today, Valley County is attracting newcomers from as far away as New York and Sydney. They’re putting up second and third residences costing well over $1 million — price levels once reserved for the few waterfront properties.

In recent years, developers have snatched up land for $100,000 an acre in some cases, or 40 times what it fetched as farmland. Though home prices here are declining as in other parts of the nation, houses still cost about 60% more than in 2004.

And a “pro”:

The influx of money is creating new jobs in hotels and restaurants as traditional industries like farming and timber fade out. Tamarack ski resort in nearby Donnelly helped super-charge growth in the area. Opened in 2004, the resort, the nation’s newest downhill ski destination, is expected to cost about $1.5 billion when fully completed in a decade or so.

Retail sales in the Valley County area increased 30% between 2003 and 2005, according to local research. New members in the McCall Chamber of Commerce include a jewelry store and two art galleries.

Ultimately, such a phenomenon as this is neither good nor bad, necessarily. George Monbiot supplied what is still the best indictment against owners of second, rarely-occupied, homes. As mentioned above said people can easily afford to drive the costs of housing up (and, more importantly, beyond the range of affordability of those living and working in the townships for generations), while simultaneously starving local businesses of steady patronage. That is a bad (not for nothing did Monbiot call such people Britains Most Selfish).

Here’s a different perspective. Consider this detail:

One indicator of rural gentrification: An increase in residents’ total dividend, interest and rent income. That measurement, tracked by the Commerce Department, is a sign that new residents — usually retirees — are living off their investments rather than salaries.

Coupled with the line about internet penetration in the US, working from home, etc. This is a different locus of optimality: Jim Kunstler’s argument(s) about down-scaling regional and local economies. That makes this phenomenon a good one: if people leave cities for rural communities sure, they will probably use a car more often – but, odds are, their food won’t.

On aggregate, if – as it appears to me – we’re seeing an initialisation of economic devolution, that fits in well with the Kunstler universe. We shall see, by and by: water and energy use is another issue (particularly as schools, hospitals, etc. develop): if this is an initialisation of erstwhile-rural urbanisation, those gains will all be wiped out.

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