13 Sep City vs. country: Christopher Ingraham’s book “If You Lived…
For many New Yorkers, the practical choice is upstate. For other Americans it’s out West, or New Mexico, or West Virginia. For me it’s back home in Vermont — the dreamy bucolic place I keep vague hopes of someday moving to, with no commutes and charming affordable homes whose promise of “outdoor space” isn’t limited to a fire escape.
For Christopher Ingraham, a data reporter for the Washington Post, it was the “worst” county in the United States. In 2015, Ingraham was cramped in a too-small home with his wife and twin toddlers in the Baltimore suburbs, commuting for three hours a day to his job in DC, where he wrote a blog post ranking the best and worst counties in America using data on “natural amenities” like mountains, shorelines, and average temperatures. On the bottom of the list was Red Lake County, Minnesota, and within a year he’d be living there.
Now he has a book about it: If You Lived Here You’d Be Home By Now, published September 10, argues that over the past few decades cities have become inhospitable to middle-class families due to rising costs and stagnating wages, yet people still cling to them because employers demand they do.
Moving to a town of 4,000 people, of course, isn’t an option for everyone, nor is it a choice that most people would make. But he’s not the first one to do it: Earlier this spring, Michele Anderson wrote an op-ed in the New York Times called “Go Home to Your ‘Dying’ Hometown,” in which she said that being a “homecomer” made her a better, more engaged and less selfish citizen. In 2017, Hillbilly Elegy author JD Vance argued that moving to middle America would save it, both economically and existentially. Lyz Lenz in Vox, however, noted that in some cases, only certain people — white, straight, and cisgender — actually are welcome to “go back where they came from.”
Ingraham notes some of this in the book, where he wonders whether the close-knit community made up of 93 percent white people would be quite as welcoming if he’d been black, which also made him reevaluate some of the racism he’d seen while growing up in upstate New York.
We spoke about everything that goes into making a cross-country move from a metropolitan suburb to a town where the nearest Whole Foods is 300 miles away, and why employers must embrace remote work if they want their employees to live happier lives (Ingraham was able to keep his job at the Post). And also why those who do make a similar move should take note: You have to pay for your own garbage removal.
This started when you wrote a blog post for the Washington Post on the best and worst places to live in America, and Red Lake County, Minnesota, was at the bottom of that list. Walk me through how that came about.
I stumbled across this data set ranking every county in the United States on physical characteristics that make a place a nice place to live. At the very bottom of the ranking was this little place in Minnesota that I’d never heard of called Red Lake County.
I Googled it to try to find some information to include, but I couldn’t. The county website had a calendar that hadn’t been updated in like, two years. Their fun fact — this was their claim to fame — is that they were the only landlocked county in America surrounded by just two adjacent counties, which is objectively hilarious.
I kind of threw that in a throwaway line about, “this is the worst place to live in America, according to this USDA ranking,” and we pubbed the story. Almost immediately, I started getting Minnesota hate mail, but they were very polite about it. Local media outlets started picking up on it. Amy Klobuchar was harassing me on Twitter or Facebook for half an afternoon.
Meanwhile, the irony is that you’re writing about this so-called worst place in America, but in the first chapter you talk about one commute in which you spend four hours trying to get to your office — in August, in Washington DC — before you just give up and spend a hundred dollars on an Uber back to your house.
My wife and I had 2-year-old twins. We were living in a 950 square foot row house. I was commuting three hours every single day for work. We had no time, no money, no space, and were trying to figure out what to do.
We couldn’t move closer to the city to the shorten the commute because the housing was too expensive, and we didn’t want to move farther away because I was already commuting three hours. There was literally no option for us in the metro area. I was on high blood pressure meds. I was on antidepressants. I was drinking a lot. It was just misery.
My mom was the one who finally suggested, “Why don’t you guys go pick up and move to that nice little town in Minnesota that you wrote about?” We laughed at first, but after a while we started looking at numbers about housing prices and commutes and things like that, we convinced ourselves that it would be fiscally irresponsible to not move to Red Lake County.
Why do so many people sacrifice their mental and physical health to live in cities?
It’s obviously for the jobs. Back in the ’60s or ’70s, living in big cities and metro areas, it worked out better for everybody, because yes, things were getting more expensive, but salaries were growing back then, too. But starting in the ’70s, salaries start to stagnate. From an economic standpoint, cities are a much better bargain for companies than they are for the workers who have to work there, who bear the brunt of all the commuting and the high cost of living.
I wish that as a society we were more open and ambitious about telework. There are so many jobs, especially white collar office stuff, where you don’t need to be…