Once upon a time, Americans seeking an enlightened place headed straight for Paris or Greenwich Village, San Francisco or Kathmandu. But recently the American landscape became more diverse: Seattle, for example, has emerged as a vital music capital, Vermont as a stronghold of progressive politics, Boulder as a center for Eastern religion. Now it’s possible to find innovative, culturally advanced towns all across the continent.
Alabama ~ Birmingham: A notorious racist past, now being mended by organizations like the Civil Rights Institute and the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.
Alaska ~ Homer: Home of National Public Radio commentator Tom Bodette, numerous artists, many environmentalists, a lot of fishermen, some fundamentalists—all friendly to one another.
Arizona ~ Bisbee: Six thousand people and six coffeehouses. Think Aspen or Sedona 30 years ago.
Arkansas ~ Fayetteville: Biscuits and gravy for breakfast, and a Danish-style ecovillage in the works. Go figure.
California ~ Arcata
Colorado ~ Boulder: Paradise—if you can afford a $250,000 house (the median selling price). Progressive politics. Mountains outside your door. . . . And, don’t forget, the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics.
Connecticut ~ New Haven: A real city with real problems beyond Yale’s Ivy walls, but also a willingness to work on them, as seen in the city’s pioneer efforts in community-oriented policing.
Delaware ~ Newark: In a state still ruled by DuPont, a relaxed college town that manages to escape the corporate cultural straitjacket.
Florida ~ Tampa: Ranked number two on Girlfriend magazine’s list of best lesbian places to live. Strong community organizing is bringing a progressive voice to local politics.
Georgia ~ Athens: A vibrant cultural life that goes beyond the famous rock band REM. Probably the largest number of live-music venues per capita in the country.
Hawaii ~ Kamuela: A tolerant, warm-hearted, multiracial community on the Big Island. Center of the renaissance in native Hawaiian culture.
Idaho ~ Boise: Friendly, walkable, green city, where bald eagles can sometimes be spotted within the city limits.
Illinois ~ Bloomington: Signs saying “Not in Our Town—No Racism” posted at every entrance to the city and on every municipal vehicle. The city sent a delegation to Mississippi to rebuild a burned black church.
Indiana ~ Bloomington: Slackers, activists, students, and a kaleidoscopic calendar of arts events.
Iowa ~ Iowa City
Kansas ~ Lawrence: A lively, unpretentious, and multicultural college town that is said to be the largest city in America without a city-edge shopping mall.
Kentucky ~ Berea: Home to Berea College, which was founded by abolitionists in 18TK as an integrated school, and to many artists.
Louisiana ~ Lafayette: A hearty celebration of Cajun music, food, culture, and language—both black and white. Bon Ton Roulet.
Maine ~ Portland:
Maryland ~ Takoma Park: Not your typical suburb. A truly comfortable multiracial, mixed-class, gay-friendly environment next door to Washington, D.C.
Massachusetts ~ Northampton: A picture-perfect New England main street. One of the first pro-feminist lingerie stores in the country. Need we say more?
Michigan ~ Ann Arbor: Noted for tolerance and a lively cultural scene (though it hasn’t held on to its ‘60s values as well as Madison and Berkeley have).
Minnesota ~ Minneapolis-St. Paul: Malignant sprawl at the edges and shamefully poor public transit, but Robert (“Bowling Alone”) Putnam says no place in America has more civic spirit than the Twin Cities.
Mississippi ~ Oxford: An interesting, artistic flair lent by Ole Miss and the local Faulkner industry.
Missouri ~ Columbia: Downtown revival sparked by hippie-run businesses, while boring chain stores are mostly relegated to the west side of town. Biggest mosque in the Midwest.
Montana ~ Missoula: Number 11 on our list. The progressive New Party is just shy of a majority on the city council. Former mayor is an Utne visionary.
Nebraska ~ Lincoln: Visible progressives and advocates of sustainable agriculture, though civic involvement here still means rooting for the ‘Huskers.
Nevada ~ Carson City: Stunning mountain scenery and relatively little gambling culture.
New Hampshire ~ Portsmouth: Strong on civic involvement, and a dazzling record of historic preservation.
New Jersey ~ Trenton: A dying industrial city that reinvented itself through ambitious revitalization of its neighborhoods.
New Mexico ~ Santa Fe: Trendy and expensive, but abounding in alternative offerings, artistic energy, and indigenous culture. Now addressing the issue of affordable housing.
New York ~ Ithaca:
North Carolina ~ Durham:
North Dakota ~ Fargo: A tidy town with an almost European sense of public culture—great library, great parks, and the Plains Art Museum, which trucks art around to small towns.
Ohio ~ Athens: A college town stuck in the ‘60s, which is not such a bad thing at all. There’s strong resistance to strip mining and logging in nearby hills and national forests.
Oklahoma ~ Norman: Infused with the populist Oklahoma spirit that inspired Woody Guthrie, which rose up here to promote green spaces and limit sprawl.
Oregon ~ Portland:
Pennsylvania ~ Pittsburgh: A tradition of labor activism that crops up in other political arenas—more than 2,000 marched at a recent police accountability rally. Ranked very high by American Demographics magazine for civic engagement.
Rhode Island ~ Providence:
South Carolina ~ Charleston: Under Mayor Joe Riley, the nation’s leading model of historic preservation, with sympathy for the needs of poor people as well.
South Dakota ~ Sioux Falls: Highest percentage of working women in the U.S. Home to the only gay bar in the state.
Tennessee ~ Chattanooga:
Texas ~ Austin: Still the liberal bastion of Texas, the countercultural Mecca of the South, and the alternative music capital of the U.S., but suburban sprawl threatens to bring the whole place down.
Utah ~ Salt Lake City: A beautiful, walkable, safe (no Mormon street gangs) city that has taken on a more tolerant, less parochial feel in recent years.
Vermont ~ Burlington:
Virginia ~ Arlington: Snidely referred to in the state capital (along with Arlington) as the People’s Republic of Northern Virginia. Wonderful old architecture.
Washington ~ Seattle: Smug—but with some justification.
West Virginia ~ Morgantown: Where a 90-year-old university student recently led the fight to diversify local cable programming and bring Black Entertainment Television to town.
Wisconsin ~ Madison:
Wyoming ~ Laramie: A university town two hours from Denver and minutes from a national wilderness area.