"Where Millennials Can Make It," my series exploring nine U.S. cities with a lot to offer young people, really seemed to hit a nerve when it launched two weeks ago. The series intro was retweeted by everyone from mayors to MTV. The Internet is bursting with city pride—and not only from the places on my list.
"List-making courts outrage," tweeted Washington Post reporter @MrDanZak. "So let me say that it's ABSURD that #Buffalo isn't on this list of #Millennial cities." St. Louis got some love from @tinyswordsman, who thinks "#STL fits the bill perfectly." And @shannonjaax employed the series prototypes, making the case that "Kansas City [is] definitely a SPFBF"—Small Pond for Big Fish—"and TLBTT"—Town Luring Back Its Townies. Other cities the Internet informed me that I missed: Philadelphia, Des Moines, Grand Rapids, Colorado Springs, Reno, Phoenix, Tucson, Oklahoma City, Columbus, Fargo, North Carolina’s research triangle, and many, many more.
Some commenters appreciated that I went off the radar—"Glad to see some smaller, less trendy cities mentioned!"—while others reminded me to "look past the U.S." to places like Spain, Germany, Eastern Europe, China, Costa Rica, and Brazil. (As soon as I score that bottomless traveling grant, I guarantee I'll go global!)
Still others complained, much to my horror, that I’d concocted a "hipster" list. One particularly impassioned commenter, Ray, wrote that "[h]ere, in this country, the majority of us are struggling to survive--not achieve creative self-actualization in a working-class chic colony of tattooed waifs with millionaire parents … So yes, by all means, move to the Rust Belt to bolster your poverty credentials and start a vegan, fair-trade, gluten-free microbrewery/espresso shop which operates at a loss every year." I gotta hand it to Ray for managing to pack in so many stereotypes in one paragraph, but I spoke to a much broader range of people than a collection of “tattooed waifs with millionaire parents.” In fact, my editor and I decided to avoid using the dreaded "hipster" at all costs. (I slipped once when describing Austin in San Antonio's entry. Sorry!)
Still, Ray hits on an important point: What does it mean to describe a city where young people can "make it"? I mentioned in my intro that many—though not all—of these thriving young communities were closed off from struggling, and often non-white, parts of town. Commenters didn't hesitate to remind me that these cities don’t work for everyone; Kayman wrote under the Houston entry that “there's nothing redeeming in my opinion about Houston as an advanced-degree-holding black LGBT male. To me, Houston seems like a more vanilla and less diverse version of Atlanta for a black LGBT … I have still experienced one too many cases where my black face has felt too out of place in Texas' major cities.”
But I have to give credit where credit is due. For many of the twentysomethings profiled in these pieces, like D.S. Kinsel in Pittsburgh or Ramiro Rodriguez in Albuquerque, fulfilling activist, anti-poverty goals are a major part of "making it." And in places like Jersey City and Jackson, the twentysomething scene was genuinely integrated, class- and race-wise. For every city plagued by segregation and a deep wealth gap, there are young people trying to turn things around.
Of course, none of these profiles were 100 percent positive; I tried to be candid about every city's quirks and downsides. Some people even thought I was being too generous: One Pittsburgh native wrote that if you don't work in “eds and meds,” you may “find the city mostly gives you a confused shrug.” A Houstonian assured me "the traffic is terrible, the 'cowboys and mega-churches' just want to suck all the life out of you and everything so extremely expensive."
I was also accused of judging San Antonio too harshly. SAT dwellers seemed to be particularly offended by my assertion that the city is "not cool" (which I didn’t mean as an insult). "We are more than a budget friendly, street taco destination, where we ardently seek out Planned Parenthood," wrote Kevin M. "I couldn’t help but wince at the journalist’s boring and unsophisticated description of our social scene," wrote Rachel Holland on The Rivard Report’s web site. "Unfortunately, author Nona Willis Aronowitz missed some of the liveliest and most charming parts of San Antonio during her visit." Kelly Alves argued that San Antonio’s diversity makes it cool: “With its mezcla of Hispanic, German, and Southern Anglo cultures, San Antonio is considered one of the 'four unique cities' in the United States…don't know about Miss Nona, but I find THAT to be seriously cool."
Sometimes I got called out for unfairly tethering a city to its larger neighbor. Unlike Jersey City, which seemed to accept its characterization of the "sixth borough," not every Milwaukee resident appreciated being compared to Chicago. "Milwaukee is a great, underrated city," wrote Seth. "No need to write about it in reference to Chicago. Let it stand on its own." I ended up categorizing Milwaukee as a gem-next-door because that's what many MKE residents did during our interviews; it's hard to ignore the gigantic city a mere 90 minutes away from you. Commenter Cass conceded that point—"Milwaukee natives, I believe, absolutely have a 'second city' complex" but reminded me of Milwaukee’s status as politically significant, starting with its status as a "hub of American socialism." Point taken.
I’ve really appreciated everyone’s comments and feedback these last two weeks—thank you for paying such close attention. If there are any other cities you think I missed besides the ones above, leave them in comments. I may just save up for a sequel.
Top image (clockwise from top left): Houston, Texas; Cleveland, Ohio; Jersey City, New Jersey; and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. All photos by Aaron Cassara.