Saturday, January 08, 2005

Adverse City, Montana?

This is a pretty faulty draft, but I may as well get it posted while I work on it:

One of the sections of Diamond’s book I have read through thoroughly is the first chapter on Montana. I was struck by how much Diamond’s descriptions of the Bitterroot Valley in Western Montana reads like Northwest Michigan in extremis. Much of this chapter goes right to the point I am getting at in the title of this blog.

Like Diamond’s Montana, the Grand Traverse area in Michigan is a changing place. Where Montana once had agriculture, lumber and mining as its main industries, Northwest Michigan once depended on lumber and agriculture. Lumber is essentially dead as a job-providing industry, while in the most desirable areas agriculture is beginning to give up the ghost as well.
The problem with lumbering is simply that Michigan, like Montana is not a place for fast-growing. profit-making trees. The problem for agriculture are threefold: 1) the climate and relatively short growing season; 2) the relative remoteness of Northern Michigan from large markets where agriculture goods might be sold at best price; and 3) the rising value of land and an antiquated property tax system which demands that farmers pay property taxes on what the developed value of their land would be rather than its value as a farm.

Cherry farming used to be a mainstay of the economy around Traverse City. It is still important, but now more for the identity of the community than for the employment it provides. (We still have the National Cherry Festival each summer; our airport is “Cherry Capital Airport,” tourists still buy anything labeled “cherry,” etc.). But relatively few people work in the cherry industry or are directly dependent upon that industry for their livelihoods.

Like in Diamond’s Montana, tourism and in-migration have become the two main drivers of the economy here. Many of the jobs created by these drivers, though, are seasonal (tourism, construction), and may be low paying (tourism, service industries of various kinds). For most residents, the only prospects for secure, good-paying employment are in the medical and
governmental (teachers, civil servants) fields.

For young people who wish other sorts of employment, the only real option is to leave northern Michigan for various cities—usually close by: Ann Arbor, Detroit, Chicago; but sometimes far away: Portland, Seattle, New York. So the area experiences a great outflux of the young and
talented, first to get a university education (there is no university in the area) and then to get a job concomitant with the degree they attain.

On the other hand there is a significant influx of early retirees, semi-retirees, and full-fledged retirees who are still vigorous enough to weather and even enjoy Michigan’s severe winters. Many of these people were vacationers to the Traverse City area as children and adults. Some
of them are natives who return to the area once they gain a degree of financial independence.

there are also those of child-bearing years who move back to Traverse City in order to raise their children. Many of these people make a conscious choice to live a simpler and less affluent lifestyle when moving to TC . . .

Now some contrasts should also be made with Diamond’s Montana. In Montana, the process of change is really only just getting started, the degree of isolation remoteness is a great deal higher, and the environment seems to be a great deal more fragile than northern Michigan’s. Diamond talks about the children of Hamilton who have to drive 40 minutes to get to the
nearest mall, but Traverse City is already on its second mall, and we have all the big box stores you could possibly want. In Montana, the natives and the newcomers struggle over issues like paying for the schools, property taxes and environmental strategies. In Traverse City, old-timers—people who are natives and descended from natives—are substantially outnumbered by relative newcomers.

The “old-timer” sentiment here is usually a matter of nostalgia, not a matter of old-timers defending their way of life. Here in Traverse City, the old-timer way of life is gone and the economic basis of the old timer way of life is mostly gone.

But thought the arguments here are probably less bitter than they are in Montana, they can probably be just as intractable. While the "whole way of life" of few of our residents is at stake as we develop, the cherished illusions of many of them are. Many people have made considerable sacrifices in their lives to move somewhere that they could tell themselves was somehow "pristine" or "anti-urban." Many people moving to Northern Michigan did so to escape the cultural and economic maw of the metropolis.

In fact, they never did any such thing, but the growth of the Traverse City area in the last few decades has really driven the point home, and people are unhappy.