Monday, March 24, 2008

Why I Like Columbia, Missouri

Many academics do not live in the town of their choosing; those who do are extremely lucky. My husband and I ended up in Columbia, Missouri, quite by accident: this is where he landed a job right out of grad school, and I eventually followed. This story is typical for most of our academic friends here, but from that point the stories diverge, generally falling into two categories: those who like it here (a little or a lot, depending) and those who do not, and who complain about it loudly and/or frequently.

Me, I fall into the first category. My affection for Columbia has grown over the years, but I have always liked it. Among the cynics who dis Columbia, there’s an implication that if you like Columbia, it could only be because you’ve never lived anyplace good and therefore you can’t be expected to have a reliable or accurate opinion. You must be hopelessly Midwestern, hopelessly whitebread, or hopelessly uncultured. Although I don’t believe that I fall into any of those categories, I will try to explain why I like Columbia.

Maybe it has something to do with that widely suspect term “authenticity.” What I mean is that it’s not imitative. Columbia is its own place, it doesn’t try to be like any other place. It hasn’t been coopted by corporations and chain stores, at least not downtown (unlike Ann Arbor, Michigan, another notable college town – more on that in another blog entry). Columbia has a real grass-roots peace movement; one of the coolest storefronts in town belongs to the Peace Nook. Being in the middle of an agricultural state, we have at hand lots of small farmers who offer local, organically grown produce, both at our farmers' market (8 months out of the year) and local health food stores. It’s not a small town, but if you live here long enough it starts to feel like you know everyone. (And yes, I’m arguing that that’s a good thing.) It’s small enough that one can avoid having a long commute to work and there’s not much of a traffic problem or parking shortage. There are lots of wilderness areas where one can go hiking or even camping without having to drive too far. Affordable houses. Good schools.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not arguing that Columbia’s the greatest place on earth, or that it’s better than living in a big city. It does not have all the amenities of a larger city, but neither does it have all the problems. I speak from the experience of having lived in Los Angeles County for 14 years (1988 to 2002). When I met my husband I was living in Santa Monica, in a one-bedroom rent-control apartment two blocks from the beach, in an unbelievably charming courtyard complex straight out of a 1940s Hollywood movie. I could pick lemons from our three lemon trees, dry my laundry outdoors on the clothesline year round, go to the beach any time without worrying about where to park, have access to literally thousands of restaurants, great music, theater, opera, film, etc. etc. etc. I had not one favorite sushi restaurant but four (though there were sushi restaurants practically on every other block, just like yoga studios). I had access to fantastic farmers' markets 3 days a week, year-round. I miss all that, but I don’t spend my days in Columbia bemoaning the fact that it’s not Santa Monica.

In the beginning there were only two things I didn’t like about Columbia: the distance from the airport (100 miles to the St. Louis airport, even further to the Kansas City airport) and the lack of any decent movie theaters. (When I started coming to Columbia there were two movie theaters, and they both showed the same movies!) Then the Ragtag Cinemacafe opened in 2000, solving the second problem.

I have to confess, I’m very catholic when it comes to places. I like a lot of them, too many to have a single favorite (though admittedly if I could live anywhere in the world I would go back to Santa Monica). My experiences of cities are like love affairs – I remember the heady excitement I felt in Chicago, my first experience of living in a city; my first visit to Los Angeles, which inspired my leap of faith; my first visit to Rome, which made me want to move there (I didn’t); my year in the Detroit area (2002-2003), which was full of unexpected adventures. Columbia is the smallest city I’ve ever lived in, and I like the sense of community here, both for myself and for my son.

Maybe it’s because I don’t feel especially attached to my hometown that I am open to new places. I grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, but only after a wrenching divorce took me away from the place of my earliest memories (Beaumont, Texas). Instead of a nostalgic longing for my hometown, I have a sentimental attachment to my grandmother’s hometown: Woodstock, New York. She lives in the house that her father built in 1954, where my great-grandmother died at the age of 103, just a few minutes’ walk from the town center. When I’m in Woodstock I believe passionately that if I could live anywhere in the world it would be there. I got married there in 2003. I’ll probably never have the opportunity to live there.

Columbia isn’t close either to Santa Monica or to Woodstock; in fact it’s equally inaccessible to both places. Bummer. But maybe since it’s right in between my two favorite places in the world, I can see that as a good thing too.

(Update posted April 3, 2008:)
On March 19, 2008, Forbes magazine ranked Columbia, Missouri, as number 4 in its list of "Best Small Cities for Business and Careers." (In the top 3 spots are Sioux Falls, SD, Iowa City, IA, and Bloomington, IN.) The rankings are based on nine criteria: Colleges, Cost of Doing Business, Cost of Living, Crime Rate, Culture & Leisure, Educational Attainment, Income Growth, Job Growth, and Net Migration.

On February 7, 2008, Forbes magazine ranked Columbia, Missouri, as number 11 in its list of "America's Smartest Cities." With a population of 153,706, 40.81 percent of people aged 25 and older have a bachelor's degree or higher; 4.16 percent have a Ph.D.; 3.86 percent have a professional degree; and 88.83 percent have graduated high school.

On December 12, 2007, Forbes magazine listed Columbia, Missouri, as one of the "Top 20 Places to Educate Your Child." The rankings are based on five criteria: School Support (Columbia got a B+), Private School Options (C+), Library Popularity (A+), College Town (A+), and College Options (A). Columbia is one of the smaller cities on the list. If you want to know how popular the library is, ask my 3-year-old son, he gets excited every time we drive past it, and it's his most requested place to go -- even more than the carousel!

The September/October 2003 issue of Organic Style Magazine listed Columbia as one of the top "Healthy Cities" in the nation.

The September/October 1998 issue of Consumer's Digest Magazine listed Columbia as "one of the best and most affordable retirement sites in the country" (according to the Columbia Chamber of Commerce).

November 1999, Money magazine ranked Columbia, Missouri, as one of its six "best places to live" in the United States. Also in 1999, Columbia was voted runner-up for Best Small City in America. In fact, Money magazine had its eye on Columbia as far back as September 1990, when it ranked Columbia number 5 in the nation's "best places to live" -- even more surprising given that the other 4 cities were all on the West Coast, 3 of them in Washington State. The suspicious thing about Money's lists, though, is that they issue these lists every year, but the cities on those lists are different every time. For 2006, Columbia made the Top 90 Best Places list, but falls somewhere around 76 on that list.


Unknown said...

I totally appreciate this post. It's thoughtful and it really hits on some similar feelings I have. Actually, I don't care much for Columbia, but I care SO much LESS for the second type of person (academic, usually) that you describe. Academic folks tend to have a dislike for their environs, and I increasingly find it bordering on the chauvinistic.

Anonymous said...

Hi Beth,
Columbia sounds like my kind of place. In researching where to emigrate TO, we were looking for so many of the characteristics you describe, and particularly the opportunity NOT to live in a mega metropolis, with all its associated hassles, which for us is a big change. It takes confidence to live in a smaller environment and accept that there will be fewer places to hide...

comoprozac said...

You asked me to read it. My Top Ten thoughts...

1. You forgot to mention that Columbia is really white. I like a little diversity in my cities.

2. Knowing everyone in a small town is not that great. Trust me.

3. Columbus, OH was ranked higher in where to educate your children. I didn't take the time to check the other lists.

4. I do not consider anyone who likes this place to be "uncultured". I just disagree with them. Am I not allowed to do that?

5. Grass-roots peace movement? The people who stand by the post office every Saturday?

6. "It hasn’t been coopted by corporations and chain stores..." I know you added that downtown bit, but come on. Wal-Mart owns this town, literally.

7. The farmers market is good.

8. Santa Monica sounds nice.

9.Many of those best city lists were written last century. I don't trust anything Forbes has to say.

10. 100 miles is a little ridiculous to have to drive just to board a plane, don't you think?