COLUMNS


Rural Gentrification

Latest Label for Traditional Trend
By Martin Harris Jr.


The land-use fraternity - planners, zoners, academics, writers, economists and demographers - has always had a somewhat unpleasant historical blindness habit of declaring old practices new by means of changing labels: thus the once cutting-edge "ciudad lineal," or linear city, theorized into reality by Spanish planner Arturo Soria y Mata at the turn of the 20th century, ordered into on-the-ground design for new city Magnitogorsk by Soviet planner Nikolai Milyutin in the 1920s, and glorified as the ancient British "lineal village" in the 1930s by author Lewis Mumford, soon fell into post-World War II disrepute as expert-derided "strip development." Suddenly there's a brand-new "smart-growth" theory that a new generation of planners calls transit-oriented development (TOD) and argues that even the most stubborn of suburbanites or exurbanites should be forced off their drive-to-work habits and enticed to live in apartments or row housing within walking distance of commuter rail stations. They might have recalled just such construction from the '20s and '30s near suburban rail stations like Scarsdale, N.Y., Brookline, Mass., or Downingtown Pa. Now the fraternity (full disclosure: your humble scribe has been a practicing member, off and on, over recent decades) has invented "Rural Gentrification" (RG) for its recent sudden realization that significant numbers of successful Americans who can afford to do so abandon their city apartments for a place in the country.

Preceding the modern RG was a different, and mostly expert-deplored RG: urban Re-Gentrification. The earliest well-known example was the politically well-connected (Kennedy Administration) hangers-on who, starting in the early '60s, converted the District of Columbia's slum neighborhood of 19th century row housing Georgetown into decidedly upscale quarters by buying out the impoverished locals, moving in, renovating and turning the enclave into something approximating author David Brook's label of "Latte Town," any newly formed enclave of affluent and well-educated movers and shakers choosing to occupy old (or new) quarters they find aesthetically satisfactory in convenient conjunction with their information sector or political sector day jobs. Later examples - Brooklyn Heights in New York City, Roxbury in Boston, Darien Street in Philadelphia, are just a few - came under strident social justice criticism for using purchasing power to "gentrify the poor locals out of their properties." There was a far-older RG as well; the 18th-century practice of successful English merchants retiring to newly acquired country estates that they then adorned with large houses and small livestock flocks. The earliest U.S. example: the 1802 flight of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton from below Wall Street to the far northern rural farm reaches of Manhattan Island's Harlem, buying out a score or so of tiny Dutch farms to assemble a 32-acre hilltop estate - The Grange - from which viewshed-surrounded manor he could, if he wished, endure the half-day coach trip south to his former power and commerce bases in what is now called TriBeCa.

The new RG is somewhat different, not in its foundation of purchasing power based on previously acquired wealth (indeed, in recent academic studies of the new RG, it is now technically defined by the extent to which its passive-income tax stats have altered the income profile - less active-earned, more passive-unearned - in counties across the nation), but in its declared allegiance to a near-Jeffersonian model with one economic foot planted on the home (mini) farm, while the other is based on some nonfarm business or profession, home office or town shop based. That strategy was valid, of course, for the real Jeffersonian agrarians of the early Republic, but a century later it was a posed pretense by the likes of the first self-styled back-to-the-landers like Helen and Scott Nearing, New York City high-rise apartment dwellers who, in the depths of the Great Depression, abandoned the glitter of Gotham to grow green beans in Jamaica, Vt., and write about their claimed economic success in "living off the land" by supposedly selling their veggies in then-almost-nonexistent farmers' markets to neighbors who already grew their own and really lived off the land.

It later turned out that the sales of such Nearing-authored books as "Living the Good Life" (1954) and their paid appearances on the lecture circuit, where they preached a rural self-sufficiency they didn't actually practice, were their real sources of active/earned income, and multimillion-dollar (in today's currency) trust funds for both Helen and Scott were the passive/unearned income that really paid the bills and bought the not-local seafood and white wines. Even so, theirs was the standard "rural gentrification pattern" for urbanites of above-average status in wealth and talent to abandon Metropolis for the countryside, as New York City-born (1895) urban planning scholar and author Lewis Mumford did in 1936, departing close-in suburban Flushing for a mini-farm in Dutchess County, in the then-remote northern New York City exurbs, where he continued to prosper from authorship and consulting while radiating an image of personal rural self-sufficiency. That pattern began to change in the '60s.

In that decade, a nationwide back-to-the land movement surfaced in the shape of communes and settlements of mostly college-age children of urban and suburban families, above average in wealth and status, taking a few years off between their undergraduate and grad school years in more serious efforts to raise table crops for subsistence and sale, and giving rise to the subsequent organically produced, locally grown, humanely raised, superior in quality and taste modern alternative to the traditional commercial farm-to-supermarket retail food business. Since then, that once-venerable early conventional-foods supermarket, the A&P, has gone out of business, while the new alternative supplier, Whole Foods, has prospered mightily by catering to the roughly 20 percent of the nonfarm-based retail food market which now embraces the modern alternative. And, it has expanded beyond farmers' markets, even though these have greatly expanded in numbers and offerings in recent years. Even such more conventional retailers as Hannaford's, Food City and Kroger's now have dedicated aisles for organic and local, most typically buying from small-scale local growers who most typically fit the "new rural gentry" model, and most typically make modest profits from their semi-Jeffersonian enterprises precisely because their production sells for a premium over commercial at retail, enabling them to earn a premium over wholesale at the farmgate. Taken as a whole, this new mostly rural gentry sourced 20 percent has substantial present, and even more potential, economic clout.

That's because food spending by the 98 percent of the U.S. population defined by the Census Bureau as nonfarm, even though its percent of total disposable household income spent for food has shrunk substantially over the history of the Republic, is still at about 10 percent, behind only housing and taxes as one of the larger necessities in the household budget. And nearly half the households no longer pay income taxes. The numbers are opaquely complex for larger states, with large urban populations and economies heavily weighted in nonfarm directions: when Whole Foods establishes a nearly big-box-size store in downtown Detroit, catering to upper-middle-class office workers in the downtown urban-renewal Renaissance Towers area and buying its produce from rural gentry organic mini farms on the metropolitan fringe, you can see how complex the economics are. It's more doable for a defined region of a large state, for example, the Shenandoah Valley of western Virginia, if you can figure out how to use the data from counties half in the region and half out, and most doable when the stats come from a same-size (in population and square miles) small state like Vermont, where the data aren't so confused by big city and big business statistics and are more easily inspected.

The Shenandoah Valley is a far better example of an obviously successful rural gentrification model, with its central corridor of the older Lee Highway and the newer I-81 serving a string of industrial parks and small towns along its entire 200-mile in-state length, and the same pattern of small farm and nonfarm land use on the rest of the nearly 9,000 square miles, it offers to its 600,000 or so of resident population exactly that mix of small-scale custom ag and medium to high-tech employment essential for the Jeffersonian rural gentrification model to succeed. Unlike Vermont, there's no institutionalized government or voter hostility to new business development, the subdivision of obsolete large farms into smaller units, or the construction of county airports, industrial campus zones, or rail and highway improvements needed by industry, but the Vermont data are easier to use.

The numbers vary slightly between sources, but (Census Bureau data for 2010) there are almost 257,000 households in Vermont, making up a total population near 620,000. The median household income is almost $52,000. If these domestic units match the national averages and spend 10 percent on purchased food, that's an annual $5,200 per household, or just over $1.3 billion. If Vermont matches or beats national averages (likely), the 20 percent of that 10 percent that goes or could go to organic/local could be $260 million, which would make it (impossible for a larger and more urban state) one of the larger items in the Gross State Product, which totals $22 billion, smallest in the nation. By way of comparison, per USDA stats, present agriculture earnings (net farm income) in Vermont are $157 million, while the total value of farm production, most of which goes out of state at wholesale prices, is over $700 million. For such exports, all value-added beyond the farmgate (and the average multiplier for agriculture as a primary industry is x5) are earned, spent and saved beyond Vermont borders as well. In contrast, all of the 20 percent spent locally is also value-added locally, thereby contributing measurably and substantially to the state's economic vitality. The immeasurable contribution is the economic rescue of the agricultural countryside, argued by aesthetically minded advocates as the key to success in such sectors as tourism, bucolic viewsheds, working landscapes and intangible quality of life.

As the ongoing success of the Shenandoah Valley rural gentrification pattern illustrates, it has a mix of components. It needs, if it isn't to depend, like earlier RG patterns, on retirement and trust fund income as the essential backup to (sometimes inadequate) mini farm income, nearby nonfarm jobs in industry and commerce. It needs a nearby somewhat upscale food-buying population prepared to pay the price premium for the more labor-intensive organic, small-scale and niche market production of RG enterprises. And it needs government and voter support, not hostility. Antibusiness, no rural development, "smart-growth," anti-large-lot-sprawl and no infrastructure support ideologies are all obstacles. It's been pointed out by such authors as F.H. Buckley that the sort of successful folks who now enlist for Rural Gentrification are typically, by background and experience, uniquely equipped to turn such regulatory and political difficulties to their advantage. We shall see.

The author is an architect and former farmer.