54 Comments
Apr 21Liked by Joshua P. Hill, Spirit of Solidarity

I linked to my piece from last year about Whitefish, Montana (where I live), in the posted Note of this piece, but anyone who cares about these issues should definitely be following the work of Kathleen McLaughlin, who lives in Butte and is an experienced journalist writing about these issues in ways few other people are (besides you two!). Here is her interview with Ryann Pilgeram about gentrification in rural Idaho: https://kemc.substack.com/p/pushed-out-in-the-american-west

My mother is from a ranch near Geraldine (in the wheat-growing region of eastern Montana), which had a population of around 400 when she was born. Its population is currently 207. This is a very good piece! I appreciate your attention on these regions.

Expand full comment
author

Love both your and Kathleen's stuff. I also live and write from western MT, would love to connect sometime!

Expand full comment
Apr 21Liked by Joshua P. Hill, Spirit of Solidarity

That'd be great! I am headed down to Holland Lake for a few nights, but if you want to message or email me we can work something out later :)

Expand full comment
Apr 21Liked by Joshua P. Hill, Spirit of Solidarity

Butte is such a weird case study right now, because our home prices have gone up at the same rate as Bozeman's, but there's been no growth in new jobs, amenities or much of anything. The historic uptown remains full of boarded up buildings bought up by Texas developers (and Bozeman property speculators). People still have to drive at least an hour for specialized medical care or Costco shopping, but it's on the verge of unaffordable here because it's become a haven for so many folks priced out of Bozeman and Missoula. Rural gentrification looks different everywhere, but it's all part of the same beast.

Expand full comment
author

Yes, my friends and I all love Butte, and I do know a few people who have moved there, or have a pipe dream about it, since we can all hardly afford to live in or around Missoula anymore where we went to school. But just like you said, prices are oddly high for a place without the other signs of wealth coming in. Makes so much sense that property is being bought up in anticipation of people turning to Butte, priced out of other cities. It makes me really sad to think about Uptown Butte turning into downtown Missoula at some point, would be so cool to see a revitalized Butte, but for the people there already. Constantly trying to talk about preventative measures in these places, glad people with a larger platform such as yourself are able to.

Expand full comment
Apr 21Liked by Joshua P. Hill, Spirit of Solidarity

As someone who was priced out of Missoula in 2020, I totally get it. I'm also much less suspicious lately when people tell me they love Butte (nobody would have said that 20 years ago), but for all its faults, it's still authentic - for now.

Expand full comment
author

Yeah, I think a lot of us from across MT are defensive when people fall in love with the place and get really into it - people really are desperate for culture and history and meaning I think.

Expand full comment
Apr 21Liked by Spirit of Solidarity

Oh, I am going to check out all of this. I’ve been sitting here all morning discussing gentrification and rent control with my 22 yo. Thank you!

Expand full comment

It's such a different world for our kids, isn't it? My sisters and I were talking a couple years ago about how we don't expect our kids to ever be able to afford places of their own, maybe not even to rent. I hope things change. It's hard to realize how much worse inequality has gotten in such a short amount of time.

Expand full comment

Many of the ski towns in Colorado the employees have to live elsewhere and commute.

Expand full comment

We have that here, too, but even the towns within commuting distance have gotten inaccessible. It's insane. There was a point a couple summers ago when I said to someone that Whitefish is being run by 14-year-olds (both of our sons were 14 and working at local restaurants, hers as a cook), and she said, "Yup. Their housing is subsidized." And she was right. They don't have to pay rent. Wages here have gotten pretty high, comparably, but can't get anywhere near what's needed for most people to live on.

Expand full comment

So sad. The common man priced out of aesthetically pleasing places to live. Just one more notch in the belt of discrimination and systemic class oppression.

The only way to counter that dynamic is for the working class of the community to demand fair compensation. As a resident of Santa Fe for six years, I paid my installation and maintenance crew $35 an hour, mid 90’s. Most were native locals and contributed to their family monthly budget. As a site designer and one time certified landscape architect, I’ve charged $350 an hour for my services ever cents. I am long past due for an increase.

I have no idea what the compensation package is for your kids, but in my mind, in a place like that $25 an hour should be the absolute lowest compensation. Rising steeply from there. A three day general strike would accomplish those goals if solidarity the dynamic.

It was my way of farming the city, I guess .

Expand full comment

Well, there's also different tax structures and landlord incentives. Henry George wrote at length about the wealth inequalities created by exclusive land ownership as long ago as 1879. But definitely wages need addressing! Starting here for dishwashers is $18/hour. But for small businesses, too, it's difficult when their own leases keep increasing. The most stable businesses I know who can pay the highest wages own their buildings, not a common situation.

Expand full comment

Like HUD, some ‘rent to own’ mandates would help. No different than the proletariat subsidies to the wealthy snd corporations. Both residential and commercial!

Expand full comment

Antonia, I’ve only been to Whitefish once. But I loved it—in such a way that I feel an abiding affinity for the town and surrounding area. What a delight to learn this is where you’re writing from. ♥️

Expand full comment

I'm so glad! I do love it. The wealth has become pretty crushing, but I also know the core of what makes the community "community" is working hard to try to shift things. It might not succeed, but it means something to see it at work. 🧡

Expand full comment

Was about to tag you, but of course you're on it already!

Expand full comment
Apr 21Liked by Joshua P. Hill, Spirit of Solidarity

I lived in North Idaho from the late ‘80s until around 2008 and I loved it, until it wasn’t safe for an lgbtq family. I had my eldest kid there, I had family that had been there for generations. We loved the land and our communities. As more and more folks fled from all over the prices increased. We left out of necessity and for my families safety. I don’t think I could afford to go back if I wanted to, the prices have gotten so incredibly high for everything. Even just to rent. Your piece is spot on for all of those areas. So many memories

Expand full comment
author

Another huge issue with a lot of states out West - a real turn to the Right in the past few decades especially. There's a lot more to that of course, but it's really noticeable, and there's a lot of grief in seeing that change and having to make decisions about leaving places we love. Thanks for sharing.

Expand full comment

It makes perfect sense. That is the rape the resource crowd threw and through. They should be able to pay a dime on the dollar to graze cattle on federal land, go tear up by original equal habitat with their four wheelers, dune buggies and what not fossil fuel burning machines, receive mineral right payments for extraction of fossil fuels on their land but are completely against subsidies and renewable energy, don’t you know…..?

Expand full comment

Unbelievable to me that we have allowed nut jobs and see a crash to occupy some of the most beautiful regions in our country. The Mormons control Utah, the white supremacist nut jobs in northern Idaho among many other smaller regions of the country. Pity the fool that tries to gentrify the Mississippi Delta. I promise you, the Cajons won’t have it

Expand full comment
founding
Apr 21Liked by Joshua P. Hill, Spirit of Solidarity

Thanks for these insights! In Iowa City, in addition to the factors you mentioned, consistent public support for affordable housing helps: https://www.icgov.org/government/departments-and-divisions/neighborhood-and-development-services/neighborhood-services/community-development/affordable-housing-resource-center

Expand full comment
author

Wow, this is a lot more comprehensive than I've seen in other places. I wonder what made Iowa City really invest in this when other places haven't yet?

Expand full comment

Possession of morality. Ethical existence. In other words, decent human beings.

Expand full comment

In retrospect, it might be something as simple as hatred of Chuck Grassley…..

Expand full comment
Apr 21Liked by Spirit of Solidarity

Greed kills.

Expand full comment

So does consenting to a codependent Coconspiring trans global crime syndicate as your federal government

Expand full comment

Great essay. I've seen a lot of this too, living and traveling in various rural areas west of the Rockies for the last decade, mostly in the states of Oregon, California, Nevada, NM and Colorado. Totally agreed that rural gentrification is not getting enough attention. I read somewhere recently that homelessness is increasing at a faster rate in rural areas than in urban areas, but is less visible because of the lower density and access to public land. I've also run across a handful of campgrounds on public land that seem mostly inhabited by disrupted locals, not tourists.

Last year I lived mostly in Paonia, Colorado, which is located on the West Slope, just before the east-west roads start winding up into passes through the Rockies. It's a farming community with an impressive local food scene and was mostly hippies and rednecks since the 1970s, but has been gentrifying rapidly since COVID, when (according to locals) remote workers from the Front Range started coming in to escape Denver. "They say they don't like where they're from but now they're trying to make it like that here," was a common refrain. Housing prices are certainly going up there, though there are still affordable options (including work/trade) for people involved in seasonal agriculture work, which is how I was able to stay there. It was a pleasant town, where strangers say hello to each other on the town's main street, which had very few empty storefronts. (Fun fact: the high quality publication High Country News started in Paonia.)

What I saw and heard there was already familiar to me from other small towns I've gotten to know over the last ten years all over the west. It's exactly as you said: there are dried-up, blowing away places and then these gentrified places. Elsewhere on the West Slope there were examples of both. There were also addiction issues in many of the non-gentrified places.

Looking at the old boom towns, I have sometimes thought, well, why should there be a town here anymore? I have thought about it in terms of the previous human practices in much of the West, which were often migratory. Such lifestyles weren't aimless wandering, but were focused on being in particular places or regions because of their seasonal bounties. So, you'd make Berry Camp up in the hills in late summer, harvesting and drying fruit for the rest of the year. Or in the spring you'd be down in the wet valleys for Root Camp, digging tubers. Or in another part of the hills in fall for Acorn Camp, collecting nuts. Etc. There would be no point in living all year at Berry Camp. You show up when the berries are coming on and leave when they're on their way out. (I had an *amazing* time picking and processing Saskatoon berries on the Grand Mesa in Colorado last summer! I dried enough berries that I can have them with my breakfast oatmeal every single day!)

Now, mining for example is an entirely different activity from these. It's all about depletion, not measured harvesting and careful tending. But it is also about being in a place to take advantage of a "resource." As with Berry Camp, when that resource is played out, the reason for being there is gone. But our industrial civilization is no longer migratory (though agriculture still depends on seasonally migratory populations, with such workers suffering abuse). Collectively, we don't have an answer for what to do when the gold runs out, other than to move on if you can, which many people can't.

What to do about this? I don't know, but I feel like it's worth pointing out that places of habitation do need purposes.

As you rightly point out, universities provide a year round "resource" (notwithstanding the smaller summer populations) so there's a permanent purpose.

This has already gotten long, but back to Paonia. Having spent months listening to people complain about newcomers, I had an idea for a graphic that could make an important point: The town has a famous "Welcome to Paonia" sign and I pictured a single panel cartoon with that sign, and then some indigenous Utes added to it, as if arriving, with a speech balloon above them saying, "We hear you've got concern about 'newcomers.' We'd like in on that conversation."

The Ute territory of the West Slope was only stolen in the 1880s. It's a recent event, really. Paonia hasn't been there that long. The famous agriculture of the area is only possible because of massive disruption (like draining wetlands) and an extensive ditch irrigation system that not only diverts water, but also salinates the water downstream, because irrigation water applied to fields picks up salts as it passes down into the water table and thence back into the rivers. This is the northeastern corner of the Colorado River basin, and people are doing this everywhere throughout the basin, so by the time the Colorado River reaches California, its level of salinity has become so high it actually damages crops there. So how "sustainable" is Paonia in the long run? Not very. It's a longer lasting Berry Camp than the mining camps that preceded it, but it's still problematic.

So, in a society where migratory living is not currently possible (if ultimately preferable or inevitable in the big picture future) what do we do now about the people being priced out of their homes? Clearly, whatever we can, and the story you related about the tenant's union was inspiring. The rich are definitely going to have to be pressured to not be dicks.

Expand full comment

Well stated. Wonderful reply.

I do think it’s a parent to anyone who sees what they’re looking at that we should grow food where it rains.

The only positive I can see in any of this is the nouveau riche might just clean up the water poisoned by fracking on the western slope. Maybe

Expand full comment
Apr 21Liked by Spirit of Solidarity

Tenant advocacy will be needed. It seems that we are to become a nation of many renters as private equity firms continue to expand their ownership. I lived in a small town on the Delaware River in NJ. I recall old people who remembered parents who had worked in the paper mill. Some Irish families traced themselves back to the time of railroad construction in the late 1800's. Our town's people were of various income levels. I know no one under the age of forty who grew up in the town and is able to build a life there separate from a parent.

Expand full comment
Apr 21Liked by Spirit of Solidarity

Similar happening in Britain. Lovely picturesque places are full of “second homes” and the locals can’t afford to live in a place where there lives are, yet because the second homers are there infrequently, most of the time the places are virtually ghost towns.

Horrible.

Expand full comment
Apr 22Liked by Spirit of Solidarity

On the morning of the first eviction

They carried out the wishes of the landlord and his son

Furniture's out on the sidewalk next to the family

That little piggie went to market so they're kicking out everyone

Talking about process and dismissal

Forced removal of the people on the corner

Shelter and location

Everybody wants somewhere

The elected are such willing partners

Look who's buying all their tickets to the game

Development wants, development gets, it's official

Development wants this neighborhood gone so the city just wants the same

Talking about process and dismissal

Forced removal of the people on the corner

Shelter and location

Everybody wants somewhere

Everybody wants somewhere, somewhere

Everybody wants somewhere, somewhere

Everybody wants somewhere, somewhere

Everybody wants somewhere, somewhere

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nSJFEkSWbro

Expand full comment
Apr 21Liked by Spirit of Solidarity

I appreciate how you described being in these towns, and that you mentioned Laramie and Iowa City as examples of not-quite-perfect but nevertheless better alternatives to the gentrification happening in so many areas. I've been hearing a lot about digital nomads and how this is getting bad in other countries where people still earn their salary in U.S. dollars and displace locals even more easily than they do here. It's honestly horrifying.

Expand full comment
author

Wow, fascinating (and as you say horrifying) international dimension of the same root problem.

Expand full comment
Apr 21Liked by Spirit of Solidarity

What happens when the wealthy push all the service & public workers from their luxery havens & have no one to wait on them anymore? I believe this is what caused San Francisco's homeless problem because many of the homeless work but can afford to live there.

Expand full comment

They will bring back slavery or indenture

Expand full comment

They have to commute. Look at the ski towns in Colorado and elsewhere.

Expand full comment

And if the commute becomes unaffordable as well? Again, referencing SF, people live in their cars in parking lots because they outlying arrears are also unaffordable because "essential" workers are not being paid liveable wages in the bougie areas.

Expand full comment

It is already in untenable situation.

Expand full comment

Thank you for this piece. It’s great to find someone writing on these important topics.

Expand full comment
Apr 22Liked by Spirit of Solidarity

This is much of a Coastal Maine too! The island where we live is full of second homes, and locals can’t afford to live on it anymore. At the same time there is a shortage of labour because people who do service jobs can’t afford to live where they work. We aren’t local so I feel like we’re in some ways part of the problem, even though it is our actual home not our holiday home.

Expand full comment

Laramie sounds a lot like Exeter in the UK. Saved from decay by a university which brings jobs, young people, bars, clubs, restaurants, and housing.

Expand full comment
Apr 21Liked by Spirit of Solidarity

Much the same happening on this island in Puget Sound. I can see Nordstrom, Beecher's cheese, and Boeing houses from my window. Costco is in the next bay up, where we swim. Microsoft a little further up the island. Everything is being bought up as a second home or AirBnB by folks who complain that they can't find an open restaurant or a plumber.

Expand full comment
Apr 21Liked by Spirit of Solidarity

Good post. At any given time property values and town amenities reflect local supply and demand. The college towns have fared well and will continue to as long as their “industry” of in-person education prospers. If that goes away then undiversified towns will wither (absent subsidies). My advice to young people would be to locate in well diversified metro areas.

Expand full comment
author

So then I think the question is, how do we as the people go about doing our best to try to insulate our places from withering or gentrifying. Definitely things we can do to try to keep or make more places more livable.

Expand full comment

If you can, try to make your local economy stronger and more robust.

Expand full comment
Apr 21Liked by Spirit of Solidarity

I live in rural Southern Indiana. We are fortunate that the growth of our little town of Charlestown is growing and growing . Business ,homes and medical facilities are being upgraded. The strangle hold that the monied interests have on real estate is a plan to push the poor farther and farther away from facilities that are the lifeblood of these communities. We still have water that is full of toxic chemicals. I can imagine areas where tiny houses are being built in mass to put the old people in

Expand full comment