After 24-year-Old Sam Melville graduated from a small arts school 20 minutes outside of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, she made a beeline for Los Angeles, where she hoped to make it in the film industry. She scored a production internship and was excited to put her film degree to good use. But she spent most of her time working at a frozen yogurt shop 30 hours a week for minimum wage, a night job that was an hour-and-a-half bus ride from her house. She was scraping by, but her career was going nowhere. She didn’t have time to meet anyone. And she certainly didn’t have time to work on her own projects.
A few months later, she decided to move back to Harrisburg.
“I knew I’d have a social life there, and I knew it was cheap,” Melville said. Now working at a sandwich shop, “I make about the same amount that I did in LA, but I can survive off of it.” She’s about to sign a lease for a spacious house in Harrisburg with two other people for $850 a month, total—much more affordable than the $600 she was shelling out for a tiny room in Los Angeles on her own.
I went on a month-long road trip reporting on how young and broke people are faring in cities outside the traditional post-grad destinations like New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Washington, D.C. Most of these places, like Detroit or New Orleans or Pittsburgh, are either actively wooing young people or acquiring them organically. But over the course of my tour, I discovered smaller places like Harrisburg, where there is no sudden influx of young, creative twentysomethings. Rather, for the first time in decades, Harrisburg is keeping its young people.
Like many Rust Belt cities, Harrisburg has experienced major brain drain—the mass exodus of educated young people from post-industrial cities to the coasts or the Sunbelt. On average, Pennsylvania has lost 20,000 18-to-24-year-olds a year since the 1960s. Growing up and getting out has simply been the expectation. “Well, you’re not supposed to be here. This is not the place for you,” Kari Larsen, a 26-year-old lifelong resident of central Pennsylvania, remembers being told when she complained to adults about the area’s stagnant culture. But thanks to the crappy economy, fewer young people are leaving the scene. After decades of steady loss, the 2010 census revealed a slight increase in the number of 24 to 35-year-olds in the wider Dauphin County area compared with 2000. The reversal in Harrisburg reflects a wider trend: Millennials are 40 percent less likely to move out of their home state than young people were in the 1980s.
For places like Harrisburg, retaining young people has its benefits. The brain gain is visible on the city’s streets. A new, locally-sourced coffee shop called Little Amps is full of young people wearing flip flops and messy ponytails at 11 a.m. on a weekday. It opened up a few blocks away from the MakeSpace, a new community arts center. Stash, a vintage clothing shop, is also new. Olde Uptown’s beautiful brick buildings are now dotted with plaques from the Historic Harrisburg Association, touting newly completed restorations. The Midtown Scholar, a sprawling bookstore owned by mayoral candidate Eric Papenfuse, recently moved to a larger location.
The gentrification is low-grade by necessity; Larsen jokes that the price point stays reasonable because “everything out here is still breakfast for 75 cents.” Still, a turn is palpable, and it’s being propelled by a bunch of stir-crazy townies who know how bad it is everywhere else.
I have no promise that if I leave, I’ll find a better situation,” says 29-year-old Liz Laribee, who moved around as a kid but ended up in Harrisburg in 2006 to take a gap year at a community house and never left. “My thought is, if things are going to shit, then you might as well stay where you are and try to make it something else.”
Laribee is giving me an informal tour of the MakeSpace, which she co-founded and now directs, while Melville, Larsen, and a dozen other twentysomethings sip Heinekens and Red Stripes in the dining room. The idea for MakeSpace sprung from Occupy. When that movement swept the country, Laribee was working at Midtown Scholar, which hosted some of the group’s events. She started attending their meetings. When Occupy later spun into smaller focus groups, Laribee posed the possibility of an arts center. Five months later, she and a few others took over an abandoned ramshackle house in Harrisburg’s Midtown neighborhood and starting fixing it up with a budget of zero. The house hosts meetings, parties, six concerts a month, and a monthly gallery reception.
It’s rough around the edges—wooden slats peak out of the walls. Laribee still has nightmares about the “ugly ceiling.” An entire side of the gallery space is deliberately unfinished, its crumbling pea-green plaster sealed with a layer of polyurethane. But it’s warm, whimsical, and covered with art—some from the seven artists paying $85 a month for their studio space at MakeSpace, some donated by high school kids and other community artists. The walls of a back room are covered with dizzying words and images in black-and-white paint, an autobiographical installation by local artist Stephen Michael Haas. (The room is still too dilapidated to use for a studio, so the MakeSpace let Haas run wild in the meantime.)
As I chat up Laribee and her friends, I realize the Harrisburg kids aren’t like the entrepreneurs and lifehackers I’ve met in bigger cities. They are glibber. More self-deprecating. A little more honest about why they’re remaining in a place like Harrisburg, which, as one person drinking in the dining room put it, is “like, internationally known for being broke.”
“I’ve been [in Pennsylvania] my whole life,” Dan Webster, 26, tells me. Webster works part time as the managing editor of a community newspaper and splits a $500/month apartment with his girlfriend. “[Staying] hasn’t necessarily been my wish … For me to just uproot and move to New York wouldn’t be the wisest thing at this point. The idea of being a journalist and being an editor is prominent in my mind and that’s a great place to be, but the expenses are astronomical.”
Larsen, too, admits she stayed in town because she “was stuck—but then I thought like, well, I have to make the most of this. My debt is not extraordinary, but it’s enough that I’m not going to put myself at a greater disadvantage.” Larsen’s comments line up with the findings of study after study—that when it comes to money, Millennials are risk-averse, and for good reason.
Webster, Larsen and the rest don’t paint a rosy picture of Harrisburg; they’re blunt about the crime, pervasive sinkholes, and paltry city budget. They also acknowledge that it’s hard to “grow beyond the bounds of Harrisburg.” But they’re grateful for the freedom the city affords them to take small, local risks. And they’re comforted by the knowledge that a minimum-wage job can pay the bills, at least for a young person without children. That’s not to say they’re happy with the status quo—most of them are outraged by wage stagnation and the new economy’s precarity (a lot of them are Occupiers, after all)—but they’re happy they’re not drowning financially and able to pursue fulfilling projects.
For some, like Laribee, those projects have become their bread and butter. The night before, she’d shown me a clothesline full of drawings on corrugated cardboard, which began as an experiment and now sells for $100 a pop. She lives around the corner from the MakeSpace, in a house with five people. She pays $180 a month in rent.
“That’s why I can survive on cardboard,” she says.
Nona Willis Aronowitz is a journalist and Pipleine fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. Reprinted from The American Prospect (July 1, 2013), a monthly magazine covering politics, culture, and policy from a liberal perspective.