The Rise of the Rural Millennial

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Tourists lodge, North Adams, MA. Photo by Connor Orlando
Tourists lodge, North Adams, MA. Photo by Connor Orlando

Millennials are moving to more rural environments and making them active again – stimulating those places that were close to being forgotten about. But this growing shift in millennial demographics has gone largely unnoticed. Millennials, a demographic that reached young adulthood in the early 21st century, comprised of individuals born between 1981-1996, have been largely criticized for their strong attraction towards urban life. Often, they are used as a scapegoat by earlier generations for problems in the world today and, as a result, millennials are the group associated with fairly negative characteristics.

The urban-rural divide has monopolized the conversation surrounding the future of American culture recently. Rural areas are fighting to entice younger generations to stay, giving the impression that growing their population will help them remain relevant. But the question that remains is, what are they offering? Richard Florida reminds us that population isn’t the only way to judge economic success. He says, “adding people does not necessarily equate to adding jobs, and it certainly does not by itself add up to higher wages or better jobs.”

North Adams, MA. Photo by Connor Orlando

Urban millennials are often the focus of the criticism surrounding the generation, as wanting to be in an urban environment seems to be synonymous living an active lifestyle. In a Survey of Rural Challenges from 2017, the number two concern was to address how these areas can retain their younger population. As a result, a study was conducted to specifically focus on learning more about rural millennials. The 2017 survey covered a range of categories highlighting the preferences of rural millennials versus that of urban millennials, including social media, living environment, jobs, and networking. It found that being located near a college is a good way to get young people to move to the area, especially if there are larger employment opportunities nearby that prove to be a great incentive. In the situations posed below, the cultural nexus represents the large economic center in an atypical way, but they are what draw people in, and allow them to stay by providing them with jobs.

Growing art communities such as North Adams, Massachusetts or Marfa, Texas are typically sparsely populated areas, but they are currently experiencing a shift in their demographic – as millennials are looking for a slower paced lifestyle and a close-knit community, and see it in these environments.

Outside gallery, North Adams, MA. Photo by Connor Orlando

Neither North Adams or Marfa was inherently predisposed to cater to the arts prior to their current status as a sort of contemporary art haven. North Adams was a blue collar mill town, due mostly to its proximity to the Hoosic river. The enormous complex that MASS MoCA now occupies has lived a rich history, tracking over 200 years of changing economies by tracing the arc of industrialization and post-industrialization both locally, and as it relates internationally. The first known company that occupied the Marshall Street compound was Arnold Print Works, a textile company that specialized in printing cloth. Unfortunately, the lingering effects of the Great Depression and falling price of cloth forced APW to vacate the compound and relocate elsewhere. Following the textile company’s drop in business, and relocation to a smaller space, Sprague Electric moved in. Although their operation required a total conversion of the interior spaces from textile mill to electronics plant, the building’s exteriors remained as Arnold Print works had constructed them. Sprague, responsible for designing and manufacturing components for the United States government’s most advanced high-tech weapons systems during World War Two, played a crucial role in the development of the atomic bomb. Unfortunately, declining sales due to lower-priced components manufactured abroad caused Sprague to close down at Marshall Street, like Arnold Print Works. Now, Sprague Electric has become a story for the new residents, and a memory for the locals.

there’s no well-worn path for how to create a life for yourself. But because of that there’s also endless opportunity if you’re driven"

Mandy Johnson, Co-Partner of North Adams-based JZJN and outside gallery, said the switch from an urban life to a rural one happened organically over a period of time. After renting a studio space with her partner in North Adams, and traveling up from Brooklyn on the weekends, they decided to move up to the Berkshires full-time, only traveling to the city when they needed to. When asked about the challenges and advantages of living in such a rural place she said, “there’s no well-worn path for how to create a life for yourself. But because of that there’s also endless opportunity if you’re driven.”

Greylock Works Mill Building, North Adams, MA. Photo by Connor Orlando

Originally, Johnson said moving to North Adams had been intended as a short-term plan that has now turned into 3 years. When asked if she would ever return to urban life she said, “I’ve been in pattern of going back and forth between urban and remote environments, so I could see myself going back to urban again. However, establishing roots in a remote area has actually made my time in cities more enjoyable and meaningful. I travel there with purpose, enjoy that fantastic world for a period of time, and am happy to drive back to my home in the mountains.”

The disconnect between the museum and North Adams locale is very apparent, specifically in the demographic that the museum attracts. The percentage of North Adams residents that have been to MASS MoCA is dismal.

MoCA has sparked a cultural movement in a blue-collar town. It’s often said that those who could leave when Sprague Electric left did, and those who couldn’t are still waiting for them to come back. The program of the museum is so niche that the skillset of the locale, very industrial and manufacture-focused, doesn’t serve their needs.

Building 2, Heritage State Park, North Adams, MA. Photo by Connor Orlando

A three-bedroom apartment in North Adams can run you $800/month, providing artists with plenty of room to create makeshift live/work spaces at an affordable rate. City living isn’t conducive to fostering community or providing artists with feasible living situations. The misconception of cities is that, because there’s so many people, it’s inherently a community. But the camaraderie found amongst city dwellers isn’t the same as that of rural inhabitants.

City living is fairly synonymous with a fast pace, sometimes even chaotic, life. Rural environments, just through their inherent configuration, negate these characteristics and offer residents the opportunity to decelerate their lives. With mental health disorders like anxiety on the rise, the benefits of rural living become more powerful than just being someone’s personal preference. Stepping back from the chaos of the city and the sensory strain – constant sound, smell, and sights – can help young adults enjoy life in a different, slower way.

North Adams can attribute their current fame to the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, known more commonly as MASS MoCA, the largest contemporary art museum in the country. Similarly, Marfa, Texas has become almost synonymous with Donald Judd, a critical figure in art’s post-war, minimalist movement.

15 Untitled Works in Concrete, Marfa, TX. Photo by Connor Orlando

15 Untitled Works in Concrete, Marfa, TX. Photo by Connor Orlando

Marfa, founded in the 1880s, was originally a railroad water stop. After living in New York and becoming frustrated with the constraints imposed by museum curators on his installation pieces, Donald Judd left and headed for Marfa. There, he founded the Chinati Foundation which was created with the intention of preserving and presenting work by selected artists – originally John Chamberlin, Dan Flavin, and himself but later expanded to include others. Situated on 340 acres of land, the site includes some of Judd’s most notable works, 15 outdoor works in concrete and 100 works in mill aluminum. The site of Chinati was formerly the US Army’s Fort D.A. Russell, a site that served the US government during various conflicts including the Mexican Revolution. D.A. Russel became a camp for German prisoners of war, and housed up to 200 men until they were released following the Victory of the Allied Forces. In 1949 the government sold the property to the City of Marfa.

The locals feel bittersweet about what the [Marfa] transplants have brought them – recognition and a future for the town, but not so much a future for them, or their families who will survive them

The town is having some trouble with rising property values, because of the name Marfa has created for itself, it’s facing it’s own round of gentrification. The school district is suffering, property taxes are rapidly rising, and affordable housing options are few while the demand is high. Johnny Williamson, a Marfa local, says, “It used to be that when a kid graduated from Marfa High School, the best thing you could give 'em was a one-way ticket out of town. Now we have a lot of young people here from New York or California, and I don't know where and how they live.” The locals feel bittersweet about what the transplants have brought them – recognition and a future for the town, but not so much a future for them, or their families who will survive them.

Prada Marfa, Valentine, Texas. Photo by Connor Orlando

While the dichotomy between the “cowboys and artists” may seem like it could create tension, it seems it has found a way to maintain balance through the years. Johnny Calderón, 72, who has lived in Marfa since 1944 celebrates what Judd did for the town, even though he realizes the “Marfa of his youth” will very soon just be a memory. He says, “He [Judd] did a lot for this town. There was quite a bit of friction between the art people and the ranch people back then, but I don't think there is anymore.”

While these places seem like magical, mystery-lands, they do have their flaws. First, being young in a place that has just started attracting young people can be problematic for making friends, or forming relationships. Often people come and, when they can’t find work or realize they are missing things from urban life, return to where they tried so hard to leave. This constant stream of people coming and going adds to the difficulty in forming and sustaining close relationships.

Ballroom Marfa, Marfa, TX. Photo by Connor Orlando

Additionally, neither place is very pedestrian-friendly and usually will cause you to rely on vehicular transportation if you want to move around efficiently. Unfortunately, owning a car is a luxury many young people – especially those moving to rural places and probably taking pay cuts – can’t afford. This results in people walking or biking, to make their way around these towns. While this may be a by-product of being so far away from population centers in general, the entire urban plan of each place is spread out.

North Adams and Marfa attract people from all over to flock rural, hidden, places – helping to grow and establish their names.