In late November – just a couple of days before Thanksgiving – my family and I uprooted ourselves from the Atlanta suburbs, and moved 1,200 north to New Hampshire. A strange move, wouldn’t you say? In fact, some may say it’s even downright un-American: we moved from the South to New England. After all, everyone else seems to be heading the other way.
So why did we do it?
We’re a Little Bit…Different
We don’t exactly fit the profile of the typical American family, if such a mythical composition even actually exists. For starters, I’m a blogger – that’s my primary occupation. Though I worked in the corporate world for number of years, I am not a corporate person. For that matter, I’m not an organizational person at all.
My son is a video editor – there’s no corporate in his universe either. And what would you say about a family that has a preference for rats as pets? The Brady Bunch we’re not.
In much of the Sun Belt, conformity seems to be the rule. At least that’s the case in suburban Atlanta. I have a theory about this. I think that people, from different parts of the country – often the northern states – move to the Sun Belt to start over in life. That do-over often results in constructing a life that looks curiously similar to everyone else in the area, like a kind of mass homogenization. It’s easy to do in the Sun Belt because everything is relatively new and standardized, and the traditional local cultures have largely been pushed out in favor of rapid growth.
It’s almost as if people are leaving their old selves behind, and trying to blend neatly with the predominant culture. In Atlanta at least, and much of the Sun Belt from what I’ve seen, it’s fairly easy to do. Atlanta is filled with thousands of largely similar subdivisions, made up of largely similar homes. People overwhelmingly tend to hold corporate jobs, drive similar cars, and encourage their children to participate in the same activities as other kids.
From what I can see, there’s not a whole lot of room there for the kid or even the adult who is a non-conformist. Don’t get me wrong – I was happy living in Atlanta – but I also knew I was out of step with the predominant culture there.
Though that type of conformity was something that I aspired to as a younger man, both my wife and I came to dislike it intensely as we got older. Now that our kids are young adults, we don’t think that it’s the best environment for them either. My son agrees. And my daughter…the jury is still out.
Family and Familiarity
My wife and I are originally from New Jersey, and we have always harbored the notion that someday we would return. Not necessarily to New Jersey, but to some other state up north. Both her family and mine reside almost entirely in the Northeast. We have family here in New Hampshire, but most live in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. And though we are 300 miles away from those states, we’re a heck of a lot closer than what we were in Georgia. Family is important, and seems to become even more so as you get older and realize the brevity of life.
There’s also the familiarity that we had known so well in the Northeast. Though we were perfectly willing to leave it all behind and move to the South more than 20 years ago, that familiarity remained with us. It’s amazing how you yearn to return to it as you get older.
We came to miss the pronounced changes of the seasons, the brilliant fall foliage, the closeness of both the mountains and the beaches, and the cornucopia of ethnic foods.
We also missed the people. The Northeast has always been a stomping ground for very diverse people types. I’m not referring to ethnic differences, though I’m not excluding it, but more like lifestyle and career diversity.
In Atlanta, most people seem to work in corporate America. There are plenty who do the same in the Northeast, but there seem to be a lot more who work outside of it. More people seem to be self-employed, to be artists, to be shop owners, to be independently wealthy, to work on beach boardwalks, and all kinds of unconventional careers. That all seems more appealing now than it did years ago.
In the Sun Belt, people live in subdivisions, condominiums, and in large garden style apartments, the vast majority being relatively new. In the Northeast, people live in apartments over downtown storefronts, in restored Victorian homes, in beach bungalows, in attics, in basement apartments, in garage apartments, in refurbished factory buildings, and even in carriage houses. There’s diversity in everything. And the people themselves – that’s a post for another day.
We Missed Quaint – A Lot
One of the big reasons why people move to the Sun Belt is to escape the fact that much of the Northeast is old. Old as in much of it was constructed before World War II, and a good bit of it goes back as much is 200 years before that. The appeal of the newness of the Sun Belt is a major draw.
But that newness tends to exclude something that’s very important to us as human beings, and that’s culture. The old towns and cities, though many of them are well past their prime, reflect the continuity of civilization, American civilization in particular. That doesn’t exist and can’t be reconstructed in the endless miles of new construction in the suburban Sun Belt.
There are towns here that are 100 or 200 years old or more, and have accumulated a lot of history. They are built around town squares comprised of nearly ancient churches and commercial buildings, that represent the nucleus of community life. The buildings of the towns themselves are historic, and have a charm about them that doesn’t exist in newer areas of the country.
Living in these communities, or simply spending time in them, is almost like putting on a beloved old shirt – it doesn’t necessarily look good, but it just feels so good when you’re wearing it. And for what it’s worth, many of those old communities have been rehabilitated, and look pretty darned good too.
My Opinion: The Sun Belt Isn’t as Attractive as it Once Was
20 or 30 years ago the advantages of living in the Sun Belt were a lot more obvious than they are now. People left the north to take advantage of a lower cost of living, lower taxes, and more abundant employment.
But a lot has changed over the years. For one thing the Sun Belt is a lot more crowded than it used to be. When my wife and I moved to Atlanta the metro area had just over 3 million people. Right now, it’s close to 6 million. That’s lot more people and a lot less room. Much of the Sun Belt is now as crowded or more crowded than the northern states that millions of people left behind.
With that population explosion has come chronic traffic problems. It reached the point where nearly anywhere we wanted to go, at nearly any time of the day, had us stuck in traffic for at least part of the trip. More cars, more shopping centers, more subdivisions, and more traffic lights equal gridlock. That results in a deterioration of the quality of your life, because it’s something that you have to face virtually every day.
The flood of people into the area has also led to a weaker job market. In fact the Atlanta area has consistently had a higher unemployment rate than the nation in general. That’s ever since the dot.com bust of the early 2000s. But people are still flocking there looking for employment nirvana.
Taxes have risen substantially. The sales tax was around 4% when we moved to Georgia, it’s now 7%. For what it’s worth, New Hampshire has no sales tax. Georgia’s income tax caps out at 6% (at an income of just $20,000); New Hampshire has no income tax, and I think Pennsylvania tops out at 3%. And real estate taxes have been increasing as more of suburban Atlanta incorporates and develop their own municipal systems. By contrast, Areavibes.com gives Manchester, NH, a rating of 73 (“Very Livable”) based on a number of factors including cost of living, crime, education, employment, housing and weather.
Something else we noticed over the years was a rise in suburban crime. This has been chronicled throughout the Sun Belt and it’s certainly true in suburban Atlanta. People who moved to the Sun Belt didn’t move into the cities, but rather to the suburbs. This is causing rapid urbanization and bringing big-city problems, including crime.
The Summer Heat: The Sun Belt’s Dirty Little Secret
One of the main reasons people move to the Sun Belt is to escape the northern cold. That is not without a price. The mild winters are a true delight, but summer is payback. In our experience, the South turned out to be much hotter in the summer than we were led to believe.
The published numbers on summertime in Atlanta has peak temperatures in the upper eighties during July and August. In more than 20 summers, my experience is that average afternoon temperatures during the peak months is more like low to mid nineties. Overnight lows are well into the seventies, and humidity runs near 100%. Nighttime cools down only a little, and you can’t sleep with the windows open – even at night it’s still too hot and there’s no breeze. You’re locked in an air conditioned house from early May to early October.
Humidity is a story all its own. While the first six months of the year are fairly dry in Georgia, the humidity gets progressively higher once you get past Fourth of July. By late July it’s unbearable. In combination with the fact that there’s close to no wind during the peak summer months, summers are oppressively hot. By August, even going to the pool isn’t much help, because the pool turns into bathwater.
The same cabin fever that you get in the northern states during the wintertime hits in the Sun Belt, only it hits in the summer months. It’s simply too hot to go anywhere or do anything that doesn’t involve air conditioning – not to mention the toll that heat takes on your car. And Atlanta is hardly the hottest place in the Sun Belt.
I suppose that some people prefer extreme summer heat to extreme winter cold, but I’m not one of them, and neither is my wife. But as I said earlier, we’re kind of different. I’ll take extreme winter cold and mild summers, over the opposite any day.
Sometimes You Just Need to Make a Change
Sometimes you just reach a point where you need to make a change in your life. There may be no single reason for doing it, but we understand that change can bring about welcome benefits. It becomes something that you want to do from time to time. My career as a blogger provides the type of career mobility that makes this kind of move possible, enabling us to relocate from a large metropolis to a much smaller city in a more thinly populated area. Have laptop, will travel.
I realize that a lot of people want nothing more than to live in the same house, in the same community, and work in the same career for their entire lives. But in my family, we’re not wired that way. Periodically, we just need to make some changes. There’s something exhilarating about overcoming the challenges that change brings, and it never gets old.
The name of this website is Out Of Your Rut, because sometimes that’s exactly what you need to do in order to improve your life. I don’t know what the future holds, but so far this move to New Hampshire is looking pretty promising.
If you live in the Sun Belt, or would like to someday, have you ever considered that the Sun Belt isn’t quite the place that it once was? Do you ever yearn to live someplace different? What’s stopping you from going?