Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Small Towns and Big Cities

Happy New Year! We are back in New York after traveling to see family over Christmas. It is is great to go away, and it is also great to come back home.

We were in a small mountain town for ten days, and it was very nice. Small towns are so much more livable than they were even twenty years ago. The town is filled with good restaurants of all kinds and cuisines - perhaps not as good as New York, but not bad and much cheaper. Standards have leapt ahead in recent years.

The supermarkets are vast. We love Freshdirect here in the city, but going to those big Safeways etc felt a bit like communist era visitors to the West looking at acres of food with big aisles. You can get pretty much anything even in the sticks now. The cost of living is very low, with Walmart dragging down the price of basics.

And that is before you count instant connection with the Internet and cable and Kindle downloads. We can read the Times updated to the second in a place where you would never have seen a paper copy before. It used to be living far away from a good bookstore was a hardship. Now almost any book you want is instantly downloadable, or can be delivered within days. And the town in question has a magnificent second hand bookstore as well.

We're still happy to come back to our little apartment perched in a tower. But sometimes I feel we pay a lot to live in the big city. Perhaps the relative advantage of cities is changing again.

Of course, relative advantage is always changing. People fled downtowns for the suburbs in the postwar years, escaping apartment blocks for houses with big yards. But many still want to be within commuting distance of major cities. Despite predictions of telecommuting revolutions, jobs still cluster in the major urban centers, with property prices to match.

It has been going on a long time. The fact you can buy enoki mushrooms in a small town is a small change compared to the coming of the railroad in the nineteenth century or radio in the early twentieth. But it still feels as if the relative sophistication of the metropolis is fading.

One theme of this blog is we are approaching material abundance, indeed material saturation as a society. In fact, we tried to hint to relatives that we didn't really have room for more stuff this year as gifts, so memberships, subscriptions etc were great as an alternative. ( We got stuff anyway.) Consumption naturally shifts towards intangibles - culture, relationships, vitality.

But many of these intangibles are spread in different ways.The level of material and cultural services even in remote places is now very high. You may not have the Met Opera, but the local cinema was advertising live HD broadcasts from the Met Opera.

It used to be you would escape stultifying repression in small towns for the anonymity and freedom of the city. But that difference has narrowed too.

Cities if anything have a slight deficit in terms of material standard of living. The main advantage they still have is cultural vitality. But even that can be priced out by soaring real estate prices.

It is now easier to take your life with you anywhere. Digital goods are omnipresent anywhere with a fast connection. I wonder if that will ultimately change property calculations.

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