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Fleeing Los Angeles for Harrisburg

• July 02, 2013 • 6:39 PM

Postcard depicting Market Street in downtown Harrisburg as it appeared in 1910. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

Ironic migration: An emerging trend in which talent leaves some of the most unexpected places.

Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, that is. Los Angeles doesn’t need a state like Angelina doesn’t need a Jolie. That explains a lot of residential relocation. You go where you know. Well, the tables have turned:

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 L.A., 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.

Some scholars might call Melville’s journey a failed migration. I see an emerging trend, ironic migration. Talent is leaving unexpected places:

“This is remarkable,” OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría said at a news conference in Brussels. “Now we are talking about migrants from other OECD countries leaving home for a better life.”

OK, why is leaving an “OECD” country remarkable? OECD countries are the haves. No one abandons Havesville, ever. Los Angeles, California, is a Havesville. You move to Havesville to improve. Havesville doesn’t suffer from brain drain, until now. Escaping New York City, New York for Cleveland:

Last month, artists Michael Di Liberto and Sunia Boneham moved into a two-story, three-bedroom house in Cleveland’s Collinwood neighborhood, where about 220 homes out of 5,000 sit vacant and boarded up. They lined their walls with Ms. Boneham’s large, neon-hued canvases, turned a spare bedroom into a graphic-design studio and made the attic a rehearsal space for their band, Arte Povera.

The couple used to live in New York, but they were drawn to Cleveland by cheap rent and the creative possibilities of a city in transition. “It seemed real alive and cool,” said Mr. Di Liberto. …

Mr. Di Liberto and Ms. Boneham, who first moved to Cleveland from New York in 2006, pay $595 a month in rent in their new house. After they make monthly payments for a year, the rent will roll over into a fixed mortgage towards the house’s $104,000 cost. Three of the couple’s friends, fellow artists and musicians, are now looking to buy foreclosed houses in the neighborhood.

As “failed” migrant Melville stated, “I make about the same amount that I did in L.A., but I can survive off of it.”

The gist of the Harrisburg tale is one of retention. For young adults, the economy sucks everywhere. There is no frontier. The grass isn’t greener:

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.”

TMI. If we know too much, then we won’t go. Los Angeles, California, or New York City, New York, is too expensive. You won’t make it there, or anywhere. Might as well stay put.

The truth about migration, it is more Midnight Cowboy than Girls. Like start-ups, most ventures outside of your hometown are failures. The Rust Belt, a place to be when things are going to shit.

Jim Russell
Jim Russell is a geographer studying the relationship between migration and economic development.

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