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The End of “Best Places to Live”

Credit: Shaun O’Neill

It’s time to call an end to sites like “Best Places to Live” or any other listicle that attempts to rank cities. 12 years ago, I made one of the best decisions of my life, by moving to Austin, sight unseen, simply because it was on a list like that. In 2006, Austin was notable for having lots of parks, bike lanes, and college graduates, but also a low cost-of-living. It even billed itself, “The Live Music Capital of the World.” But now it is full of traffic, and all of the musicians have been priced out of the city core. Austin is now known as a bachelorette party destination and for being the leading candidate for Amazon’s second headquarters.

What was once the “Live Music Capital of the World” is now known as a bachelorette party destination and the leading candidate for Amazon’s second headquarters

This essay isn’t meant to be a trite, “Woe, my city isn’t like it used to be” sob story. Rather, this is meant to be a “Woe, all cities aren’t what they used to be” story. I felt like a genius for having blindly relied on Sperling’s, which is like the Yelp of cities. But my success then kicked off a decades-long quest to find the next El Dorado, the mythical next Austin:

  • Asheville, NC
  • Berkeley
  • Boulder, CO
  • Brooklyn
  • Kansas City
  • Las Vegas
  • Los Angeles Arts District
  • Manhattan Beach, Los Angeles
  • Marfa
  • Monterrey, CA
  • Nashville
  • New Orleans
  • New York
  • Palo Alto
  • Petaluma, CA
  • Philadelphia
  • Phoenix
  • Portland
  • Reno
  • Salt Lake City
  • San Antonio
  • San Diego
  • San Francisco
  • Scottsdale
  • Santa Fe
  • St. Louis
  • Toronto
  • Vancouver

These cities have in common:

  • Southwest Airlines
  • Co-working spaces
  • Cachet or “up-and-coming” status

All of these cities have outperformed the real estate boom of the last ten years, having been part of the urban revitalization trend that Austin and Portland spear-headed twenty years ago. They all have added bike lanes, gastropubs, and artist lofts as a way of attracting the “creative class,” and it has worked wonderfully. And yet, as the 2009 Recovery got underway, I found El Dorado more and more elusive, if not downright impossible to find.

Even though I did well in real estate, Austin got worse according to my original metrics. Cost-of-living went through the roof, and the charm of the gritty artists was lost as they got pushed out of the city center. But what was more troubling was that every other city I scouted followed the Austin pattern. Cost-of-living in all of the above cities is now insane. Downtown condos in Vancouver that were once $100,000 in 2010 shot up to $1,000,000 thanks to Chinese money. The same thing happened to the Bay Area, which pushed well-heeled techies to move inland. Smaller cities, like Boulder, with their legions of attractive yoga teachers, captured these coastal yuppies, who then pushed bungalows up to half-a-million-dollar price ranges.

On top of high housing prices, a monoculture has set in everywhere. Distressed wood appears in every coffee shop. Outlandish hipster fashion has given way to a mock-hipster aesthetic in the form of Tom’s shoes and Ray-Bans. Fixed-gear bikes, stand-up paddle boards, and handlebar moustaches have all became ubiquitous.

There was a time when you couldn’t Google “best places to live.” Now that everybody does it, there are no more “best” places

Ironically, the cause of this countervailing trend is people like me. Techies have more mobility thanks to the advent of remote work culture, and tech-friendly cities have more visibility thanks to blogs and review sites. There was a time when you couldn’t Google “best places to live.” Now that everybody does it, there are no more “best” places.

The town I ultimately moved to, Reno, NV, was a hidden gem, or so I thought. When I visited last summer, in 2017, I made a plan to move there six months later. When I finally got here, I found that all the suitable apartments were gone and rents in the areas I was looking for had gone up 25–30% in just those six months!

This exhaustive — and exhausting — search has changed my approach to city-hunting. First of all, reviews are dead. Many of the cities try to game these Best Places-type lists, by sending their urban planners to these conferences to study their criteria.

Second of all, every feature of every city has a trade-off. If there is no traffic, there are fewer things to do. If there is a vibrant nightlife, there is also more crime. If there is a highly-educated populace, there is also a high cost-of-living. If there is a low cost-of-living, there may not be much economic activity. The key is to find the right fit. From now on, I’m going to take the good with the bad, the sweet with the sour, and don’t think I can be a genius or find a hidden gem, just because I know how to use the Internet.