There’s nothing particularly modern about traditional rural gentrification. The English roots of successful upper-middle-class urbanites retiring to newly acquired country estates with large houses and small livestock flocks are 18th century or older. Perhaps its earliest American example is Alexander Hamilton’s flight from below-Wall-Street-New York City to the Haarlem that was then the farm country of northern Manhattan Island. There, with wealth accumulated from professional career and governmental service, in 1802 he bought 32 acres of tiny Dutch farms and built his McMansion, “The Grange”, on a viewshed-surrounded hilltop where he could maintain (or not) connections with power and commerce a half-day’s coach travel to the south.
Modern rural gentrification differs somewhat from its academic definition, in that it is not exclusively enabled by the power of a passive-income economic base. It is, though, at least in the theoretical model of most of those who now practice it, a near-Jeffersonian mix of productive and profitable small-scale farming coupled with a remunerative non-farm occupation most typically in the information sector or the consulting professions, commuting to work electronically from a home office or physically on a convenience and client-driven schedule.
And there’s nothing particularly modern about gentrification’s economic clout. In both its urban and rural models, it is enabled by the newcomers’ advantages in wealth and skills, whereby they can readily afford to out-bid the locals for property and can equally readily cope with whatever regulatory barriers might be erected against their unwelcome (particularly in urban re-gentrification of down-scale neighborhoods) incursions. Particularly in recent academic (and sometimes polemical) studies of supposed violations of economic and social justice, much has been made of the new-comers’ ability and readiness to price the old-timers out of their former neighborhoods, although never (to Humble Scribe's knowledge, anyway) have there been accusations that take-overs of Georgetown, DC: Roxbury, Boston: Brooklyn Heights, NYC; or Darien Street, Philadelphia, intentionally raised the overall local “cost-of-stay” so as to, in the phrase used against realtors during the white-flight episodes of the ‘60’s, “use high-bid block-busting to stimulate old-timer departure”.
In contrast, there’s at least some evidence that the recent rural gentrification pattern in Vermont is partially connected with broad-based efforts to use a policy-based raising of the state-wide cost-of-stay in pursuit of a desired state-wide (limited and controlled) low-density and esthetically-nostalgic development pattern. The Vermont anomaly, if you will, is more than just the readiness of mostly-urban newcomers to buy into a rural/small-town state, their advantage based on above-average levels of wealth, past achievement, political skills, and business acumen. The pre-existing Green Mountain State taxation, regulatory, and general business climate, as shown in numerous state rankings and analyses, is exactly the motivating set of governmental and grass-roots forces typically responsible for the out-migration of just such folks from (perhaps more normal) states like California, Illinois, Maryland, or New Jersey. In those places, the same factors that are a draw in Vermont have been causally linked to just the opposite phenomenon: upper-middle-class exodus patterns.
Historically, in-migration of just such urbanites and suburbanites to a once-truly-rural Vermont goes back to the arrival, in the late Victorian decades, of railroad magnates like Billings (to Woodstock) and Webb (to Shelburne), but is more typically illustrated by a later generation, exemplified by the Depression-era “back-to-the-land” migration of Helen and Scott Nearing from the high-rise apartments of NYC to a small farm in Jamaica, Vermont, where they grew some green beans and wrote books about “living off the land” when not on the lecture circuit. The publishing royalties for such as “Living the Good Life,” 1954, were their major but unpublicized source of active income, and, as was unrevealed until a post-mortem biography, multi-million-dollar (in today’s currency) trust funds held by both were the major source of real passive income.
The wave of back-to-the-land immigrants changed Vermont’s demographics and politics irreversibly in the decades from 1960 on, changing a then-predominantly-rural/farm population of some 360,000 with near-zero natural increase to a predominantly-urban/jobs population of some 620,000, most having chosen to migrate in from the cities and suburbs of the East Coast megapoli to practice their own best approximations of the Nearing mix of small-scale ag, commercial enterprise, and trust-fund-check-in-the-mailbox economics ever since. Despite the pretense at making a living from the land, in economic reality the critical cash flow is pension or trust-fund-based.
That quibble notwithstanding, the socio-economics of rural gentrification haven’t changed significantly (except for average age) since the first communes and hippie-yuppie colonies sprang up across Vermont in the ‘60s. Then, their members were typically college kids taking a few years off between the undergrad and grad-school years to grow veggies organically and supposedly meet cash expenses by selling them in ad hoc farmers’ markets to locals who were already quite self-sufficient, thank you, as well as to dabble in non-farm activities ranging from sex to politics. By any sociological measure, these young adults were both wealthier (family, mostly) and more educated than the rural natives they came to live amongst. Today, the new rural gentrifiers are older but similarly well situated.
Those now selecting attractive rural counties and small towns where they can settle into the Nearing model choose places like Vermont, or like Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, both attractively small enough (in the 9000 square mile range) to enable some degree of political control. If there’s a difference between Vermont and the others, it’s only that the 34000 square miles of Virginia, say, wouldn’t tolerate a state-wide raise-the-cost-of-stay as a keep-it-bucolic-and-nostalgic strategy. The Vermont incomers, having ascended to political power in a much smaller state, have indeed put in a range of policies — some covert, like raising housing costs while depressing business prospects via regulatory opacity, and some overt, like the present campaign to reduce power supplies by a third by shutting down the state’s only nuclear power generator — aimed at dissuading “growth” in favor of sustainability. A half-century earlier, Middlebury College environmentalist/advocate Douglas Burden explained it in terms of keeping the prices of residency high enough to dissuade middle-class residency, while using land use controls and similar devices to insure “keeping Vermont unattractive to additional people.” Those willing and able to pay the heightened cost-of-stay — the Vermont anomaly — would then enjoy their rarified bucolic/ nostalgic surroundings, as Charles, Murray writes, “…in a neighborhood filled with people as rich and smart as possible” much like themselves.
There’s one other aspect of the Vermont anomaly worth noting. Neither those in state government, having watched the advance of rural gentrification and now beginning to claim credit for it and offer various “project funding” vote-purchase devices, nor those actually practicing their own modified versions of “Five Acres and Independence” (the perennial USDA best-seller text for rural-gentry wannabe aspirants for over a century) have addressed the basic conceptual conflict between two ideologies dear to up-scale exurban hearts and minds.
One is “smart-growth”, which requires a small-house/small-lot in-town, walk-to-shopping trolley-to-work urban development pattern (think Portland OR), with no housing beyond the last water and sewer lines. The other is, of course, rural gentrification, which requires at least a few acres in the countryside to grow and sell veggies while using the home office to conduct electronic non-farm profitable business that actually pays for the family’s health care and the kids’ college as arugula and cilantro almost never can. It takes a certain amount of cognitive-dissonance skill to embrace both ideologies simultaneously, but, interestingly, most of the new rural gentry are up to that intellectual task. In simplified form, rural gentrification — the farmette in the country — is for them and their similarly-situated peers and neighbors; “smart-growth” is for everyone else, dissuading those of lesser standing who might otherwise actually presume to come in alongside them to raise their own few acres of apples (and generate crop-shipping truck noises which necessitated a Vermont Supreme Court challenge) and thereby spoil not only the early morning silence but the no-visible-farm-machinery viewshed. But, when smart-growth and rural gentrification finally meet on the field of political and legal combat, practitioners of the latter will be up to the challenge. George Mason Law School professor F. H. Buckley explains why and how:
“Burdensome tax and regulatory policies will be of relative advantage to the rich and powerful, who can employ specialists to work through the maze of rules that impose traps for unwary members of the middle class.” And he doesn’t even touch on Vermont’s own preferred-ten-acre-lot recent (post-‘60s and pre-smart-growth) history, the rural development policy of choice until a new ideology came along. That’s a whole ‘nother Vermont anomaly calling for a whole ‘nother commentary.
Flickr photo: Chard in the Montpelier, Vermont State House Garden, by Waldo Jaquith.
Martin Harris is a Princeton graduate in architecture and urban planning with a range of experience in fields ranging from urban renewal and air-industrial parks to the trajectory of small-town planning and zoning in states like Vermont.