Who's Your City: Chapter 1
THE QUESTION OF WHERE
I’m not easily shaken. I like to think of myself as a guy who can take just about anything in stride. But when I was asked to appear on the Colbert Report in July 2007, I felt
my stomach drop. Just a few months prior, I’d told my wife, Rana, how nerve-racking it would
be to do an interview with Stephen Colbert. It’s the one show that puts butterflies in my
stomach. His technique of disarming mindless punditry through smart and edgy commentary is brilliant, but tough to fend off. He has an uncanny ability to stay in character—that now-famous bloviating right-wing talking head who grills his guests at a rapid-fire tempo, leaving them dumbstruck. I’m a regular watcher of the show and big fan, so I’ve seen how embarrassing it can be for guests who can’t keep pace. But after some persuading
from Rana and my team, I decided to give it a shot. I took along some backup. Rana, my colleague David Miller, and his wife, Emily, all accompanied me on the high-speed Acela train from Washington, D.C., where we then lived, to New York and eventually to the studio. Waiting in the green room, I was pumped up by energizing conversation with my friends and some Colbert Report staff. We were quite the contrast to Stephen’s other guest, Senator Ben Nelson, who was prepping with his Hill staffers across the hall. At one point, the producer had to close the door to our green room to contain all the noise we were making.
As the minutes ticked by, my heart began racing. I started to sweat, and I couldn’t help pacing the dressing room and the hall outside. I felt so nervous that when an assistant producer came
over to brief me on the segment, I was literally speechless. That may have made them doubt their choice of guests. Stephen came in quickly to say hello. He reminded me that while he was
going to stay in character, I should focus on playing it straight and getting my ideas across.
After makeup, they sent me out into the studio. The whole place felt electric. Then the music cranked up, blaring the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen.” Great choice. It brought back the heart-thumping feeling I’d had long ago, playing lead guitar with my band.
It’s now or never, I said to myself. I planted my feet, took several deep breaths, and with the music pumping, found my zone. I reminded myself to have fun, and to make sure Stephen and
the audience knew I was in on the joke. It wasn’t hard to relax during Stephen’s introduction to the segment. I was busting a gut just listening to him start:
“For all the good news, there was some bad news last week. The National Association of Realtors forecasted that the slump in home sales and prices would be deeper and last longer than previously expected, all the way into 2008. . .
“But a disturbing new study has found a solution to the housing slump: Live next to gay people. The study’s author measured changes in income and property values using something called the Bohemian-Gay Index. “Now while that may sound like another name for the San
Francisco phone book, folks, it is BAAAD NEWS! This study found that artistic, bohemian, and gay populations increase housing values in the neighborhoods and communities they inhabit.
According to that, I guess people these days want a house with a view of some goateed beatnik playing his bongos while he smokes a clove cigarette and chisels a sculpture of k. d. lang. “The theory is that tolerant communities, where homosexuals are likely to reside, nurture an open-minded culture of creativity, which can lead to innovations like Google, or YouTube, or
ShirtlessHunksBaggingGroceries.com. “Well, personally, I don’t believe that the value of my twelvebedroom Tudor will go up just because a couple of opticians move in next door. Oh yeah, a lot of opticians are gay. . . .” He introduced me to the audience, and then we were off.
“Should I be following gay people around to see where they’re living?” Stephen asked. When I answered, “Yes,” he shot back, “Good. I do it already. Now I have a reason.” After three to four minutes of back and forth, he ended the segment with this zinger. “You know what I think, sir? I think you are a gay, bohemian artist who just wants to sell his house.”
To which I replied, trying as best I could to keep from laughing, “You know, we just sold our house on Sunday, my wife and I, to move to Toronto!”
Colbert had zeroed in on a controversial finding of my research: the relationship between housing prices and concentrations of gays and bohemians. Is it possible that a single
factor—like a certain group of people —could make or break an area’s housing market, much less determine its economic potential or its residents’ happiness? True to his character, Colbert
scoffed at the idea that he should be following gay populations around in order to find the best housing markets or most creative labor markets.
But the point had been made. Where we live is increasingly important to every facet of our lives. We owe it to ourselves to think about the relationship between place and our economic future, as well as our personal happiness, in a more systematic—
if different— way.
The Biggest Decision of All
If someone asked you to list life’s biggest decisions, what would you say? If you’re like most people, you’d probably start with two things.
The first, I call the “what factor.” Most of us will say that one of the key decisions in life is figuring out what you want to do for your career. Even if money can’t buy happiness, many people believe that doing work you love is likely to give you a prosperous and fulfilling life. My father drilled that notion into me. “Richard,” he would say, “you don’t have to end up in a factory like me, working hard and punching a clock for modest pay. You need to be a lawyer or doctor, so you can do something important and make good money.”
Many would add that an essential prerequisite to financial and career success is getting a good education and attending the right schools. Graduate from Harvard, MIT, Stanford, or Princeton,
so goes the theory, and the rest will take care of itself. A good education is the means to a great job, a solid financial future, and a happy life. My parents, like so many others, were education fanatics. Even though they struggled to make ends meet, they put my brother Robert and me in Catholic school—which required not only tuition but also regular contributions to the local parish—and impressed upon us day and night the importance of studying hard, getting good grades, and going to college. They inspected our report cards and gave us rewards for good marks. Like so many other hardworking and devoted parents of modest means, they saw education as the key to upward mobility. Others, meanwhile, will argue that while jobs, money, and schooling are surely important, the most critical decision in life is picking the right life partner—someone who will support you in all your endeavors and love you unconditionally along the way. Those who study human psychology agree: Loving relationships,
their studies find, are key to a happy life.
1 My mother knew this intuitively. She turned down many college-educated suitors to marry my dad, a factory worker and World War II veteran with an eighth-grade education. “Richard,” she would say, “it was the best decision of my life by far. Sure, some of those other guys made more money. But love is what is really important. I was madly in love with your father every day of my entire life.”
Without question, both of those decisions—the what and the who—mean a great deal to our lives. But there is another decision that has an equal, if not greater, effect on our economic future, happiness, and overall life outcome. The question of where.
Maybe this seems so obvious that people overlook it. Finding the right place is as important as—if not more important than— finding the right job or partner because it not only influences those choices but also determines how easy or hard it will be to correct mistakes made along the way. Still, few of us actually look at a place that way. Perhaps it’s because so few of us have the understanding or mental framework necessary to make informed choices about our location.
The place we choose to live affects every aspect of our being. It can determine the income we earn, the people we meet, the friends we make, the partners we choose, and the options available to our children and families. People are not equally happy
everywhere, and some places do a better job of providing a high quality of life than others. Some places offer us more vibrant labor markets, better career prospects, higher real estate appreciation, and stronger investment and earnings opportunities.
Some places offer more promising mating markets. Others are
better environments for raising children.
Place also affects how happy we are in other, less palpable ways. It can be an island of stability in a sea of uncertainty and risk. Jobs end. Relationships break up. Choosing the right place can be a hedge against life’s downsides. I hate to dwell on the negative, but you need to think about this. It’s always terrible to lose a job, even worse to suffer a breakup with a significant other. As bad as those are, however, they are substantially worse if you also happen to live somewhere with few options in the job market or the mating market. It’s exponentially easier to get back on your feet when your location has a vibrant economy with lots of jobs to choose from, or a lot of eligible single people in your age range to date.
The point is, where we live is a central life factor that affects
all the others—work, education, and love—follow. It can make
or break existing work arrangements and personal relationships.
It can open new doors. And regardless of what kind of life we
envision for ourselves—whether we aspire to make millions,
have a family, or live the way of a bachelor—choosing where to
live is a decision we all must make at least once. A good number
of us will make it multiple times. The average American moves
once every seven years. More than 40 million people relocate
each year; 15 million make significant moves of more than 50 or
The stakes are high, and yet, when faced with the decision of
where to call home, most of us are not prepared to make the
right choice. If you ask most people how they got to the place
they live now, they’ll say they just ended up there. They stayed
close to family or friends, they got a job there, or more commonly,
they followed an old flame. Some don’t even see that
there’s a choice to be made at all.
Still, the miracle of our modern age is that we do have a
choice. For the first time ever, a huge number of us have the
freedom and economic means to choose our place. That means
we have an incredible opportunity to find the place that fits us
best. But this remarkable freedom forces us to decide among a
large number of options. Today there are many types of communities
out there, all with something different to offer.
The key is to find a place that fits you—one that makes you
happy and enables you to achieve your life goals. For some
people, career and wealth are big components of their happiness,
but that is far from everybody. Many of us know people
who left good jobs and prosperous careers in law or engineering
to do something they truly love. Others move back to their
hometown after college to help run the family business or to be
closer to family and friends. These people usually know very
well what they are giving up, and they make their choices
knowingly. They prefer family and community to wealth. And
many people are very happy where they are. These people may
well know the real value of community better than others.
What they value about place is the opportunity to live their
lives in the towns and among the people already familiar to
The thing to remember is that when it comes to place, like
most other important things in life, we can’t have it all. There
are real tradeoffs to be made. Many people who move for their
careers will give up the joy of being near family and lifelong
friends. Those of us who choose to stay close to family and
friends may give up economic opportunity.