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How young liberals' moves to Red America may temper political divides

A shift in thought

More young people are relocating to smaller Midwest cities where their salaries go further and their voices can be heard. In conservative enclaves, more mixing with coastal liberals could begin to have a moderating effect on partisan politics. 

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Krista Badiane, a sustainability consultant and Duke University graduate, is raising two daughters with her Senegalese husband in Grand Rapids, Mich. Though she always imagined herself settling on the East or West Coast, she says it would be hard to re-create the quality of life they have in Grand Rapids.

Christa Case Bryant/The Christian Science Monitor

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Aaron Ofseyer may be the only person who moved here from the West Coast for the weather.

Mr. Ofseyer is a TV meteorologist, so when a good job came open in Grand Rapids, he left home in Eugene, Ore., drove across the country through January blizzards, and looped around frozen Lake Michigan to start a new chapter.

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Ofseyer and his wife, Anne Rosenbaum, planned on staying a few years, but eight years later they’re still in Grand Rapids. They’ve bought a house, had two children, joined a synagogue, gotten library cards, and are regulars at cultural events.

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Like many transplants from costly coastal cities, they find Grand Rapids to be welcoming and affordable. Settled by Dutch Reformists known for their work ethic, it has a well-funded art contest, bustling restaurants and breweries, and brick-paved streets decorated with gay pride flags, all of which has made it a Midwestern magnet for Millennials whose ranks are growing faster here than in Boston or New York.

Ofseyer and Ms. Rosenbaum also like the diversity of political viewpoints that gets them out of their liberal bubble. When they eat out in hip neighborhoods, they sometimes look over to see fellow diners praying or holding a Bible study group.

“We’re forced to confront people who are different than us ... (and) even though politically you might have a different frame of reference, there’s way more that unites us than divides us politically,” says Ofseyer, who adds that one of his best friends at work is conservative.

“I think it’s refreshing and it’s great, and it’s what I want my kids to be exposed to – all different types of people, and people who might make them uncomfortable,” says Rosenbaum.

Across the country, young professionals are carving out a new niche in second-tier cities where their wages go further. Most are seeking a more affordable lifestyle, as well as a stronger sense of community and the opportunity to make more of an impact. That this movement is largely from Democratic-run cities to conservative corners of the country raises questions over what political values may emerge, and whether it’s possible to find common ground in a hyper-partisan era.

A U-Haul truck sits in the driveway of a home in the Heritage Hill area of Grand Rapids, Mich., June 14, 2018, a neighborhood that was once home to the city's lumber barons. In recent years the city has become a Midwestern magnet for millennials, with their ranks growing twice as fast here as in the New York metro area.
Christa Case Bryant/The Christian Science Monitor

An optimistic view is that a blue exodus to cities like Grand Rapids, the power base of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and her wealthy family, brings in liberal young professionals that prize openness and diversity and seek to spread those values. In turn, they may come to appreciate more traditional values as they put down roots and become homeowners. As 70-million-plus Millennials gradually edge out their elders, those interactions could eventually temper the culture wars that obstruct problem solving on national and local issues.

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"People are starting to look at what you might call beta cities – Grand Rapids; Madison, Wisc.; Des Moines, Iowa.; and Orlando, Fla. – places that, in my generation, young ambitious people didn’t go,” says Joel Kotkin, executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism.

“It’ll be interesting to see whether we see a new politics, which combines some of the social values of the blue states with some of the cultural beliefs of the red states,” like religion, community, and self-sufficiency, he says.

Digital sorting and church schooling

While Grand Rapids’ small urban core is solidly liberal, the surrounding Kent County went for Donald Trump in 2016 by about 9,500 votes, a smaller margin of victory than Mitt Romney’s in 2012. More young liberal votes could tip the balance in future elections.  

But Jim Russell, a geographer who has tracked young people moving to Rust Belt cities, is less convinced that current population dynamics will change the political calculus.

For one thing, big cities in right-leaning states, including the Midwest swing states that Donald Trump won, are already largely Democratic. The Grand Rapids metro area is a rare exception, offering more opportunities for liberal transplants mixing with local conservatives – but even there, it can be easy to self-select in a blue urban center surrounded by conservative territory. Plus, regardless of how diverse one’s community may be, social media makes it increasingly easy to digitally sort into like-minded tribes.

Food trucks do a brisk business at lunchtime in downtown Grand Rapids, Mich., outside the city's art museum on June 14, 2018. The city holds an annual art prize worth $250,000.
Christa Case Bryant/The Christian Science Monitor

“I was surprised to find such a large blue bubble in Grand Rapids​, and would say the majority of our friends fall within that bubble,” says Krista Badiane, a sustainability consultant and Duke grad who grew up in the Detroit area and is raising two daughters with her Senegalese husband, an aerospace engineer.

If they were to relocate to a coastal city like Seattle, Ms. Badiane says she would be relieved to be back in a liberal bubble – but also knows it would be nearly impossible to recreate their quality of life. 

One of the many cost differentials is private education. Rachel Scott, who quit her Wall Street job as an executive at Deutsche Bank to move here for her husband’s job, was pleased to find a private school here with a Spanish immersion program that was only $6,500 per year. The only thing was, it was a Christian school.

“At first, I thought, aw, no – I tried to get away from it,” says Ms. Scott, who sent her more religious husband to check it out and see how “churchy” it felt.

They decided it was a good fit for their son, who now comes home with questions like, “Will I go to heaven?” and “I think I love God and Jesus more than you, is that OK?”

Scott tells him it is. “I think it’s important for my son to have a relationship with God, but I didn’t want it to be shoved down his throat,” she says.

As an African-American with liberal views, she finds herself engaging in frank conversations with conservative colleagues. At a recent lunch, she heard from ardent Trump supporters who told her they would never vote for someone who supports abortion and that they considered President Obama the worst in US history.

In the past, she would have characterized such people as racist. “But these are people I actually like. They report to me,” says Scott. “I want to learn more.”

Who migrates to Rust Belt cities 

Among America’s largest 100 metro areas, Grand Rapids is growing its young adult population faster than Boston; Washington, D.C.; and Silicon Valley – and twice as fast as the New York City metro area, according to a January 2018 report by Brookings demographer William H. Frey.

Mr. Russell, a senior research fellow at the Center for Population Dynamics at Cleveland State University, doesn’t take issue with Mr. Frey’s work. But he has doubts about the theory of a youth exodus from top-tier cities and warns against conflating population change with inward migration – i.e. a growth in a city’s population of 20-somethings could simply be local teenagers moving into a new age category. Moreover, most young people relocating to Rust Belt cities grew up there.

Among young professionals who do migrate, there is a strong desire for community, says Anne Snyder, a writer and scholar who studies civil society in small and mid-sized cities. Their formative years were shaped by disillusionment with politics and distrust of institutions such as marriage.

“I think Millennials are just so hungry – hungrier than their predecessors were – to experience the sense of belonging that I think is a timeless need and desire, and have not wound up finding it in their national political expression,” says Ms. Snyder, a millennial herself.

That makes the social-media generation less ideological and eager to make a practical contribution wherever they live. “The things that matter most are serving your community, people in the flesh,” she says.

Scott, who is just a few years out of the millennial age bracket, shares that desire. She says she feels like she can make more of a difference in Grand Rapids. “Because it’s a smaller city, I can go up to the CEO and say, ‘I’d like to be on your board.’ In New York, I’d be talking to the secretary’s secretary,” she says. 

Similarly, Badiane is on the board of West Michigan Sustainable Forum, an opportunity that she says may not have come along for years had she lived in a larger city.

Supporting arts and culture  

Another transplant in a civic leadership role is Jori Bennett, who runs ArtPrize, the city’s art competition. Originally from northern Michigan, she was living in California when her husband passed through Grand Rapids on business. “He called me and said, ‘Jori, there’s art everywhere, and there’s no traffic – we’re moving to Grand Rapids,’ ” she says.

ArtPrize, which was launched by Rick DeVos – a son of Betsy DeVos – a decade ago, is an art competition open to anyone. A $250,000 prize is awarded solely on the votes of the general public. (There’s a separate award judged by art connoisseurs.) It has become a huge draw for the city, which also puts on opera, ballet, and Broadway shows, much of it underwritten by the philanthropy of DeVos, the Van Andel family, and other stalwart conservatives.

Philanthropy is an integral part of Grand Rapids’ culture, says Tim Mroz of The Right Place, a regional business development agency. “The big challenge is – most of our large philanthropists are of a passing generation, so the question is who is going to pick up that torch?” he asks.