Do you know of any funky, progressive towns or cities?
January 1, 2009 10:36 AM   Subscribe

Help me identify progressive, funky towns and small cities in this Good Ol' U S of A.

I'm thinking in a range of 5,000 to 100,000 for population, but can be more if the city is really cool and there is substantial space outside of it.

My ideal town/city...

IS PROGRESSIVE. That means some yogis, artists, and liberty-seekers. Hopefully racially diverse but not mandatory.

HAS PLENTIFUL FRESH FOOD AVAILABLE. Farmers markets and local butchers are our friends.

HAS GOOD SCENERY. Maybe mountains, maybe greenery, maybe cool desert views. Places to hike and get outdoors, road cycling is great too.

HAS A DECENT CULTURAL SCENE. With small galleries or museums, and probably will have good bars and music. Definitely has to have a few decent ethnic restaurants (Thai, Indian, Ethiopian, etc.).

HAS A COOL HISTORIC ELEMENT. Old buildings rock, and I like the vibe of some history.

ISN'T TOO DAMN CROWDED. I like to be able to move around, and drive without worrying about The Man and The Multitudes. Yeah, I don't know what that means exactly, but know when I'm in a big city I'm always glad to get out.

LOW-ISH CRIME RATE. I lived in an amazing place once but the crime rate was out of control. Couldn't hang. I like to be able to take a walk without worry about some crackhead pulling me into the bushes.

So far I've thought of Taos, Asheville, and Burlington. Are there others out there? Help me find them! Bonus points if they are roughly between Houston and D.C.
posted by letahl to Society & Culture (81 answers total) 93 users marked this as a favorite
Charlottesville, VA (no I don't live there)
posted by jay dee bee at 10:43 AM on January 1, 2009

The obvious choice seems to be...well...most college towns. List here.
posted by aswego at 10:47 AM on January 1, 2009

You've found Asheville... it's fantastic, and I'd live there if ATL wasn't where I have to be right now. It sounds like you're looking for a college town - like one home to a small liberal arts college.

Also: Chapel Hill, Paducah, Chattanooga, Portland ME...
posted by sadiehawkinstein at 10:48 AM on January 1, 2009

Ithaca, NY
posted by skwm at 10:51 AM on January 1, 2009

Also in Virginia, Floyd is a nice little town. Nestled in the mountains, almost right next to the Blue Ridge Parkway. There's pretty much no crime rate, lots of farms (and local butchers), it's kind of like a hippie town. Not any ethnic restaurants in the town exactly, but you're close to Blacksburg and Roanoke which have those available.

Note: I don't live there, but my best friend does and I visit pretty often.
posted by kerning at 10:52 AM on January 1, 2009

I have read that Chattanooga is the "next Asheville." Buy your property there now.
posted by jayder at 10:54 AM on January 1, 2009

Boulder, CO fits your bill.
posted by Bookhouse at 10:54 AM on January 1, 2009

Northampton, MA. It's not between Houston and DC, though.
posted by lassie at 10:55 AM on January 1, 2009 [2 favorites]

so you're looking for a santa monica but smaller and without venice and century city nearby?

consider monterey, ca and surrounding areas.

I also once spent a whopping grand total of two days in oxford, mississippi, which was very nice to a liberal person like myself. lots of nice restaurants, bookstores and an old university, lovely architecture, fresh farm food. it seemed like an oasis of liberalism and open-mindedness in an otherwise conservative state until I figured out that the university I just mentioned was the notorious old miss and one of the main buildings right at the town square was home base for a really disgusting lawyer who got a lengthy new yorker profile about his corruption problems some time last year.

my point is that I don't know if I'd like oxford if I looked beyond the surface but that it looked very nice while I was there.
posted by krautland at 10:56 AM on January 1, 2009

Sebastopol, CA.
posted by HotPatatta at 11:01 AM on January 1, 2009

Madison, WI. A little bigger than you are looking for, but pretty spread out so it doesn't feel big.
posted by mjcon at 11:02 AM on January 1, 2009

Athens, OH
posted by shesbookish at 11:04 AM on January 1, 2009 [2 favorites]

Ojai, CA it okay if the town is very well aware that it is the things you mention?
posted by kmennie at 11:04 AM on January 1, 2009

both Bozeman and Missoula in Montana are great. Bozeman has an amazing food co-op and isn't far from Yellowstone.

also, Port Townsend, Washington.
posted by beccyjoe at 11:05 AM on January 1, 2009

Also not between Houston and DC, but Montpelier, VT fits your bill. I just moved to Barre (about 15 minutes away) and am loving it here. We moved from Brooklyn and it's got the awesome of NYC, but on a (much) smaller scale.
posted by youcancallmeal at 11:09 AM on January 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

Well, I live in Chattanooga. It definitely has some elements of what you're looking for, and if you don't mind being part of the counterculture rather than the predominant culture, it's a good place to be. We have a progressive movement, primarily centered around the downtown area, that has the farmer's markets, museums, artists, ethnic restaurants, etc. that you crave. It's a lovely city, with lots of mountains/rivers/parks, and the crime rate's quite good. A lot of people around here don't lock their houses/cars.

However... we are not "the buckle of the bible belt" for nothing. The population is overwhelmingly red both in voting preferences and neck hue, and the further away you get from downtown, the more dueling banjos you will hear. I have some friends here that used to live in Seattle, and they're perennially frustrated by the city's limitations. If you're looking for the like-minded, you will have to do some work to find them.

Still, I've lived here almost all my life and I love it here. If you end up genuinely considering the Noog, mefimail me and I'll point you at where the funk can be found.
posted by Gianna at 11:10 AM on January 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

Burlington, Vermont (and many other smaller towns in VT - Montpelier and Brattleboro, for example)
Portsmouth, New Hampshire
Portland, Maine
Northampton (and environs), Massachusetts
posted by Rock Steady at 11:10 AM on January 1, 2009

Eureka Springs is a lot like you described.
posted by Ugh at 11:11 AM on January 1, 2009 [2 favorites]

Brattleboro seconded
posted by k8t at 11:24 AM on January 1, 2009

Gainesville, FL. The crime rate might be a little high for your liking--I don't go walking around alone at night, but my male friends do--but otherwise it has everything you need.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:27 AM on January 1, 2009

Athens, GA
posted by ick at 11:31 AM on January 1, 2009

Madison WI - home of the Onion, and last bastion of old-school heartland progressivism
Columbia MO - my Republican sister hates that they de-crimmed pot, and my ex-marine friend loves all the cliffs and trails to climb and hike. Plenty of road-biking too; the Tour of Missouri is now the second-highest ratedroad race in the states. As for music, COlumbia is the "three-hour-away town" Uncle Tupelo spoke of, and I'm continually dismayed at how many bands hit Columbia and skip us here in St. Louis. Also: Shakespeare's Pizza, where I learned how to drink Guinness with 'za.
posted by notsnot at 11:39 AM on January 1, 2009

Oberlin, Ohio, though it's a bit weak on scenery... or maybe I'm just too used to it.
posted by jon1270 at 11:42 AM on January 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

I would definitely have to agree with Madison, WI. Madison is very progressive, full of beautiful lakes, has a great bike trail system, and you have easy access to both the north woods of Wisconsin and cities like Milwaukee, Minneapolis/St. Paul and Chicago.
posted by TrialByMedia at 11:44 AM on January 1, 2009

Seconding Athens, GA. A good way to get a feel for the town is by reading Flagpole Magazine.
posted by PueExMachina at 11:45 AM on January 1, 2009

Boise. Progressive is relative to Idaho, but this flaming liberal found the city quite welcoming and livable.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 11:47 AM on January 1, 2009

Thirding Madison WI, they've got an amazing farmers market, great politics, nice people, and lots of stuff to do.
posted by foodgeek at 11:47 AM on January 1, 2009

I haven't been back to Savannah, Georgia, in five years, maybe 10, but *whoa* does it earn a place in the richest ground of a person's memory. Oh, I'll go back there someday. To live, lay down stakes. Anyhow, whether or not you've watched the movie, John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil does a first-rate job of capturing what it's like to be--to walk, to breathe deeply--in Savannah, Ga. And why, since early American history, folks have been drawn to its fertile earth and seaside locale.
Given an option, I'd be there now.
posted by justrobin at 11:53 AM on January 1, 2009

Salida Colorado will fit your bill... They are so progressive that you can't even walk your dog at the park in Salida (seriously). Talk about PC...
posted by olddogeyes at 12:00 PM on January 1, 2009

Northampton, MA / Amherst, MA
posted by misterbrandt at 12:03 PM on January 1, 2009

I was able to visit Duluth, MN for the first time this spring. Having spent a lot of time in Asheville, I got the vibe that this was one of the Ashevilles of the north. There's really neat history and natural scenery, but also lots of local flavor in the same vein you're looking's an interesting contrast to the industrial history and culture that is also present. It's a really fun town!

And of course you'll always find me voting for Asheville. If I could live there, I would.
posted by bristolcat at 12:08 PM on January 1, 2009 [3 favorites]

Bloomington, Indiana nails all of them except the historical one.

Better "culture" than any comparably-sized town I've ever seen, been too, or heard of. Flamingly liberal (there is a monthlyish war protest on the town square). The farmer's market is really good. Crime rate is what you'd expect for a small midwestern town.

The food there is amazing -- short drive to Indy, which isn't great as big cities go, but it should sate your needs for big city stuff when they arise.
posted by toomuchpete at 12:09 PM on January 1, 2009

Savannah, Georgia, in five years, maybe 10, but *whoa* does it earn a place in the richest ground of a person's memory.

Crime is a little high and has conservative elements among it's progressive feel, which can harsh your mellow at times. Still can be fun though.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:27 PM on January 1, 2009

Eugene, Oregon, fits the bill and is, of course, a college town. Oregon is not super-diverse but Eugene is a little better simply because the college brings people from all over.
posted by amanda at 12:29 PM on January 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

San Marcos, TX is where a lot of the Austin art-scene refugees are ending up.
posted by batmonkey at 12:55 PM on January 1, 2009

I think you want Portland, Oregon in 1992.

Which of these cities is actually affordable?
posted by mecran01 at 1:16 PM on January 1, 2009

Potsdam, NY. It's a college town (SUNY Potsdam, Clarkson University, St. Lawrence University). It fits almost all of your criteria, except that the locals tend to be pretty conservative. But since the non locals (students and professors who are overwhelmingly liberal) outnumber the locals it was never a huge problem. As for racially diverse, it's certainly more racially diverse than most of Northern New York, but less so than a large metro area like NYC. But it's got great music, theater, always something going on at one of the universities, like exhibits and such. Good bars (and a few dives). It's in the middle of farm and Amish country so there are farmer's markets and produce stands galore. Old buildings, check. Plus it's a small town, you can walk practically everywhere and the population is smallish. About 10,000 permanent residents, but that swells to about 19 - 20,000 when the colleges are in session. The town itself is beautiful with many parks right on the Raquette River, but nearby are the Adirondacks and all that beautiful scenery. The crime rate is low considering all the colleges, but when I was there, 1998-2004, there was one date rape, and one random assault. Those were the biggest crimes I can remember from my six years living there.
posted by katyggls at 1:19 PM on January 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

You just described Bellingham, Washington (college town where I grew up and completed my undergraduate degree) perfectly. The city motto is "The City of Subdued Excitement."

IS PROGRESSIVE: Residents are mostly a mix of aging hippies and young college students. There is a Friday afternoon peace rally outside of the federal building downtown that has been happening every week for literally decades. When protesters set out to take over the freeway to protest the Iraq War, not only did the police not stop them but they ensured the protesters' safety by providing traffic and crowd control. My mother and friends still living there reported that downtown and nearby neighborhoods turned into a giant spontaneous street party on election night after Obama's win was announced.

HAS PLENTIFUL FRESH FOOD AVAILABLE: Has both a weekend farmers' market and a large community food co-op of organic and other health foods.

HAS GOOD SCENERY: Great scenery, tons of outdoor activities. Bellingham is sandwiched between Puget Sound (very close to the San Juan islands) and the Cascade Mountains (the nearest is Mount Baker, which has a very popular ski resort). Every year Bellingham has the "Ski to Sea" festival which includes a race that starts out skiing and ends up sailing.

HAS A DECENT CULTURAL SCENE: Galleries, good bars, live music, ethic restaurants -- check. Also a *ton* of bookstores. The two main neighborhoods you want to check out for these things are downtown and Fairhaven.

HAS A COOL HISTORIC ELEMENT: Lots of historic old brick buildings in downtown and Fairhaven, and tons of 100+ year old Victorian style homes in the nearby residential neighborhoods.

ISN'T TOO DAMN CROWDED: The only crowding/traffic I ever encountered was in north Bellingham, which is the newer part of town with the mall and shopping centers. North Bellingham is far from everything else you seem to be interested so you could just avoid that area to avoid the traffic.

LOW-ISH CRIME RATE: I've always felt safe there (and in fact used to walk or hitchhike everywhere without any problems). In the neighborhoods I lived in, I think most calls to the police were for loud college parties with underage drinking instead of for any serious crime.

Damn. Now I want to move back there.
posted by Jacqueline at 1:28 PM on January 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

A few more small population places that fit the bill...
Arcata or Eureka, CA (both in Humboldt County)
Breckenridge, CO
Manhattan, KS
Evanston, WY

seconding Madison, Yellow Springs, and Lawrence
posted by carmicha at 1:33 PM on January 1, 2009

Frederick, MD

Only thing that doesn't fit the bill is the museum part but that's an hour metro ride away into d.c if you're really jonsing for that.

Some of the best restaurants in the DC area are in downtown Frederick. There are a few great Thai places and an Ethiopian place that even my San Fran friends find impressive.

I don't know how "funky" it is but it's a nice place to live, in a valley, lots of great mountain and trails around. It's also very close to many other large cities but isn't super congested traffic wise in the city itself.

I've lived a lot of place and ended in Frederick many times; I think I'll always keep a house here as a home base.
I'm looking to move to Austin, TX though or somewhere else for a change myself.

Good luck! I hope you find a great place to call home.
posted by zephyr_words at 1:35 PM on January 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

I grew up in Madison, WI and loved it. The other city I've been happy in that hasn't been mentioned is Iowa City (it's just so damn cozy and the bookstores are great). N
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 1:50 PM on January 1, 2009

Marquette, MI
posted by at 1:51 PM on January 1, 2009

I recently read about a game designer who chose a place to live by cross-referencing towns with farmer's markets against towns with low housing prices. Seems like as good a method as any. I'd check out Local Harvest for suggestions and compare to the above listed college towns to narrow things down. He ended up in Postdam, NY, which is where I live and where katyggls recommended.
posted by saffry at 1:57 PM on January 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

You know, you could do most of what you want in western NY, just not all of it in the same town.

Progressive / funky: well, sort of. Allentown in Buffalo proper is that. The funk and progressivity is mixed with a certain postindustrial despair, but hey. Amherst is sort of liberal, but not really progressive and more or less devoid of funk.

Plentiful fresh food: OMG. The corn here is unbefuckinglievable, and some of the local grocery stores contract with local farmers so you don't even have to wait for market day. We live a little bit outside Buffalo proper in a 1940s suburb and have a butcher shop at the end of the street.

Good scenery: Well, it's green here in summer, which is pleasant and cool. There's not really any topography until you get to the escarpment north of the metro area or outside of town to the south and east where there are big hills or bijou mountainettes.

Decent cultural scene: between the music and theater stuff going on in Buffalo and the stuff that UB and Buff State bring in, sure.

Cool historic element: WNY was in its prime in the late 1800s through 1940s, so a lot of stuff around here dates from those glory days. If you go outside of town, it's not hard to find homes+land from the 1850s or earlier.

Uncrowded: uncrowded is the word for WNY. The population of the area is smaller now than it was in 1970, and the population of Buffalo itself is only around half. Getting around the area is ludicrously easy since most the road network was built in anticipation of a population probably twice what actually exists.

Low crime rate: not in Buffalo. But in most of Amherst (except the bits right by UB south campus), it might not be smart to walk around at 2AM naked and carrying bags of gold. Amherst is stupidly safe, consistently in the top 5 safest towns of any size in the US.

And you didn't ask, but:

DIRT CHEAP. Especially compared to Burlington or Taos. Housing here is next to free. A nice little 3 bedroom house from the 20s or so with a bit of funk to it and built like a brick shithouse might run you $75-100K in nicer-but-affordable parts of Buffalo, or $100--150K in much of Amherst, with other areas of the metro area in the same general vicinity.

Also, Canada is next door if you like that sort of thing.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:21 PM on January 1, 2009 [2 favorites]

Duluth is a little bit nicer every time I visit it. And although it does have higher education, it's not strictly a "college town". Pop roughly 80 thousand off the top of my head, with another 35 thousand or so across the bridge in Superior, Wisconsin.

Downside: can get insanely cold. And snowy, being next to Lake Superior. And icy, with steep streets pointing right down the bluffs toward the shore. However, summers can be "air conditioned" and fantastic.

That means some local food is very seasonal, too: apples, berries, etc. If you get a green salad in February, it was trucked in or (maybe!) grown under glass. Local meats and cheeses are good.

Racially diverse up there can mean Native American, by the way. Historically, the city and the nearby Range (mining areas) attracted people from a variety of European destinations: Slovene, Italian, Finnish. Nowadays you find a good mix of people in the city like you'd expect anywhere. The farming country directly to the south, however, is intensely Scandinavian.

You can't beat the outdoors up there. Hiking, skiing, canoeing, biking, northwoods scenery and nature for miles and miles. Over the last few years, resort-ish or lakeshore property has bubbled up in price, sadly--no idea how much it might have fallen in the last few months. But even renting a Duluth apartment for cheap still puts you close to pine trees and fresh air.

No idea how many yogis you'd run into. Environmental types are pretty well represented, though, as are artists and craftsmen.
posted by gimonca at 2:26 PM on January 1, 2009 [5 favorites]

I'll second Marfa, TX and Oxford MS.

I'll add:
Alpine, TX

And the following which have strong small progressive communities within. Someone upthread said: 'if you don't mind being part of the counterculture and not the dominate one...' same applies to the following:
Lafayette LA
Memphis TN
Tulsa OK
posted by dog food sugar at 2:40 PM on January 1, 2009

I do not dig the Asheville vibe at all. I get a depressing sense of foreboding every time I'm in Asheville, sorta like Athens, GA. In that area of the country I'd highly recommend Greenville, SC. Much the same (some 50 miles southeast) but an even more exciting arts community, great eats and not so 'white', wealthy, and sanitized.
Re Oxford, MS. Check into Taylor as well. It's a swell little burg a few miles outside the 'city'.
posted by dawson at 3:06 PM on January 1, 2009

Fayetteville, AR. But you don't want to leave its cozy parameters because outside of it everything sucks.
posted by ttyn at 3:29 PM on January 1, 2009

Seconding Bloomington, IN. If you want a flamingly liberal town with a strong arts community and lots of authentic ethnic foods, this is the place. One of our streets is, for several blocks, nothing but houses converted into delicious ethnic restaurants.
posted by Pope Guilty at 3:38 PM on January 1, 2009

Speaking specifically about the road biking - Madison is great. Some sort of old law requiring secondary roads to be paved (as opposed to gravel) to improve transportation to/from the dairy farms resulted in fantastic road cycling routes all around. Often you'll be on a ride and see way more cyclists than cars. I live in Madison and we're literally just minutes (by bike) to some nice rural routes, and many others require just a little more thru-town riding to get to.

There are a lot of small towns outside Madison with cool little restaurants & taverns to stop in and refuel on a ride, and a winery or 2 that fit nicely into a 50-ish miler, if you're so inclined.

We've got all the other stuff you mention as well - great ethnic (and other) restaurants, good music scene (both local and touring acts coming through, drawn by the University crowd).

We don't earn the between-Houston-and-D.C. bonus points, though, and winters here are pretty sucky.

Feel free to MeFi mail me if you'd like to know more about Madison, or just post here. We've lived here almost 8 years now and like it a lot.
posted by altcountryman at 3:52 PM on January 1, 2009

Providence, RI.

Really, once you get past the gritty exterior, there's a LOT going on artistically. You're never more than 30 miles from the Atlantic (hence why RI is the "ocean state") and there are some terrifically beautiful beaches. It's small enough to walk from one side of town to the other in less than an hour, but feels big. The public transportation is decent enough that you don't *need* to own a car. There are farmer's markets regularly in the Armory District, which is chock full of old Victorian houses. I lived in the Armory for two years and loved every second of it. Hudson Market has the best sandwiches known to man.

RISD and Brown provide a lot, but there's also a hell of a lot of more grassroots sort of artsy/cultural things going on - AS220 is a local gallery that gives a space for any Rhode Island artist to show and has music/poetry every night of the week. The Steelyard is a studio that offers classes in things like welding and stained glass making, in addition to providing studio space for artists.

I <3 the PVD.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 4:06 PM on January 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

I like Duluth, MN as well, but you have to be able to hang with the winter.

It's across the border from Superior, WI. It has two universities, U of M-Duluth and UW-Superior.

If you like skiing, camping, hiking, the water, it's a great place. The scenery is beautiful, and I'm from CO so I would know.

I think the weather keeps it from really qualifying for your list, but it might be something to ponder, anyway.
posted by sondrialiac at 4:10 PM on January 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

Seconding Charlottesville, Va. Truly a great place to live.

Also, with respect to Amhert NY, I have relatives living there who do enjoy it. They grew up in Buffalo. I am not so sure an outsider would thrive there. But, it is a really nice town.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 4:33 PM on January 1, 2009

I'll second grapefruitmoon's vote for Providence. I lived there for over 15 years, until I moved to NYC. It's got a small village vibe to it, and it's extremely progressive as far as the creative arts go. For a good chunk of that time I also did not have a car, and it was never an issue. The crime rate might put you off, but my quality of life there (on very little income usually) outweighed that trade-off. Excellent food and cultural activities, and ethnically diverse, interesting folks. As a special bonus, there was always something jaw-droppingly weird going on in either politics or organized crime, usually both as they were far from mutually exlusive. This, coupled with the ongoing RISD student hijinks and Brown student stunts, you will have a chance to get in touch with your inner love of the surreal.

Good to hear the Hudson Street Market is still going strong- "eat it all day long". I lived a half block from there for many years.
posted by stagewhisper at 4:44 PM on January 1, 2009

Davis, CA meets most of your criteria:
IS PROGRESSIVE. They don't call it the People's Republic of Davis for nothing.

HAS PLENTIFUL FRESH FOOD AVAILABLE. Farmers markets - yes, local butchers - not sure.

HAS GOOD SCENERY. The scenery sucks. You're in the middle of a flat, agricultural valley.
* Places to hike and get outdoors, road cycling is great too. Tahoe and the Bay Area are each 90 minutes away and have more hiking than you could every do in a lifetime. Yosemite Valley is 3 hours.
* Davis is one of the best cycling cities in the country and has the weather to go with it.

* With small galleries or museums Galleries, yes, but not a lot of museums. Sacramento (15 minutes) has a few and the Bay Area (90 minutes) has plenty.
* Probably will have good bars and music. Bars - not a ton and the ones that are there are primarily centered around the college students. UC Davis is not a party school.
* Definitely has to have a few decent ethnic restaurants (Thai, Indian, Ethiopian, etc.).
I don't know the restaurant scene that well, but you can certainly get all of those in Sacramento.

ISN'T TOO DAMN CROWDED. - Davis is pretty uncrowded and it's very easy to get around via bicycle.
LOW-ISH CRIME RATE. - Very low crime rate in the city.
posted by cnc at 5:03 PM on January 1, 2009

+1 for Lawrence KS, Madison WI, and Iowa City IA...
posted by genehack at 5:16 PM on January 1, 2009

If you asked four months ago, I would have said Galveston, TX. I lived there several years. Arts, yes. Progressive and diverse, yes. Scenery, yes. History to the max. Did I mention fifty miles from Houston? The big city is close, but isn't at your door.

However, it's a very challenging place to be since the hurricane. I've been back to visit old friends just once since Ike hit. So much needs to be reconstructed, and there's no telling what the town will evolve into.
posted by Robert Angelo at 5:43 PM on January 1, 2009

re: Providence, RI

The crime rate might put you off, but my quality of life there (on very little income usually) outweighed that trade-off

The crime rates there are less daunting than they used to be.

It's a bit bigger than you described, but really has a small-town feel. And it's progressive without being irritatingly counter-cultural/pretentious (like some of the other "progressive" towns listed above).
posted by DesbaratsDays at 5:43 PM on January 1, 2009

+1 for Duluth. i live here and it actually has *3* universities if you count Catholic St. Scholastica. also has a tribal college and a community college. so yeah, culturally it does pretty well for its size.

IS PROGRESSIVE.: lots of what i call eco-yuppies or eco-jocks, but also loads of freethinking backwoodsy sorts. mayor is Dem and he's probably going to stick with it--& he's fairly popular even though the town's headed toward *very* hard times. can be backwards sometimes--some people get frustrated with the stodginess of the old-school elite, but they're a dwindling minority.

HAS PLENTIFUL FRESH FOOD AVAILABLE: check. two farmer's markets, a nice new Whole Foods co-op (not *the* Whole Foods) and a few mainstream grocers trying for your organic dollar. there's also at least one bulk buying club and other ways to get local produce. space for gardening.

HAS GOOD SCENERY. gorgeous. 1 hr from true wilderness; more green space/parks per capita than any town in the lower 48. nearly everyone can see the Lake, and miles and miles of public beach or lakefront. my brother always comments on how beautiful the city parks are--they all seem to have their own waterfall. and the Superior Hiking Trail now traverses the city at the top of the hills. but yes, you must love winter to live here happily.

HAS A DECENT CULTURAL SCENE: the usual university influx of culture plus many small venues both alcoholic and non, and a vibrant DIY art and music scene (waxing and waning.) unfortunately, the populace only seems to be able to support one or two of each ethnicity's restaurants. i'm crossing my fingers that soon we'll get an Ethiopian/Somali restaurant (as they're plentiful in both Winnipeg to the north and MPLS-SP to the south).

HAS A COOL HISTORIC ELEMENT. both working class and the mansions of 19th century captains of industry. Bob Dylan born here. Sinclair Lewis spent time writing novels here. many cool buildings, but there's some worry about developers getting too big for their britches. we hold out hope that the downturn in the economy will keep them in check. actually the history here is one of my main hobbies turned career.

ISN'T TOO DAMN CROWDED. i can drive to work from the edge of town to downtown in 8 minutes between 8 and 8:30. i laugh when locals complain about having to wait twice for a light. it is a long city--about 40 miles--but it can be traversed easily at any time of day or night. public transport is not like a big city, but not too bad either (though it doesn't run all night.)

LOW-ISH CRIME RATE: is increasing with the unemployment rate, but still very low. we have on average 1-2 murders per year. muggings happen in some areas of downtown. and our town is one of the first to use

the biggest issue about living here is the need to be creative in your ability to find work. the happiest people seem to be those who are going for the "simple life" or people who are entrepreneurial.
posted by RedEmma at 5:51 PM on January 1, 2009 [2 favorites]

Fifthing Northampton, MA. It's a small city with an abundance of earthy resources. There are several local farmer's markets and many of the chain grocery stores carry locally grown food as well.

I live outside of NoHo and am quite pleased that my back yard is woods and that we routinely spot wildlife (foxes, bears, deer, turkeys etc) in the area. There are a number of smaller towns surrounding it that are more rural (aka, Hill Towns).

Being in a region with 5 local colleges brings in a fair amount of culture.

Except for the DC/Texas thing, I believe that it meets all your criteria. You might also read Home Town by Tracy Kidder, you know, as research. I have not read it yet, although I have been told there was a certain amount of backlash from the local gay community since they were not represented, prompting the production of "Homo Town" t-shirts."
posted by plinth at 5:56 PM on January 1, 2009

Cosign Providence RI, it's a cool place to live, as long as you don't mind the weather. A lot of very progressive types there. Cost of living not as cheap as probably a lot of other towns on this list, but.. local arts scene is good (see the Black Rep theater/cafe downcity, AS220, stuff going on at Brown and RISD), noise rock (LOTS OF NOISE!), beautiful architecture, general Rhode Island weirdness basically. I don't think the crime is that bad, there are break-ins and some muggings type stuff but nothing like it is in most major US cities.

It is pretty diverse too - there are a lot of immigrants from Cape Verde, also from Guatemala, Dominican Republic, etc., many people with Portuguese background, Armenians.. really people from all over the world.
posted by citron at 6:25 PM on January 1, 2009

Hmm, I can't believe people haven't mentioned Park City, UT yet. Although housing in PC proper can be pricey, you can find pretty good deals outside town. Beyond that it fits most of your other criteria.

IS PROGRESSIVE. Absolutely. It's as blue as it gets in Utah, voted overwhelmingly for Obama and the locals are viewed by the rest of Utah as liberal nutballs.

HAS PLENTIFUL FRESH FOOD AVAILABLE. Farmers markets and local butchers are our friends.


HAS A DECENT CULTURAL SCENE. A million cultural things going on at any given time.

HAS A COOL HISTORIC ELEMENT. Old mining town, anyone?

ISN'T TOO DAMN CROWDED. Is only really crowded during the ski season holidays.

posted by pcward at 6:52 PM on January 1, 2009

Also, with respect to Amhert NY

I didn't mean to recommend Amherst exactly. Amherst is pretty damn far from funky or hip.

More that most all of the requested bits were somewhere in WNY. Along with some snow.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:21 PM on January 1, 2009

Another vote for Athens, GA
posted by Windigo at 7:45 PM on January 1, 2009

+1 for Duluth. I live in Minneapolis and get up there as much as I can. Stunning nature, interesting history, and the cold weather keeps the assholes away.* I consider moving there from time to time.

*Just kidding!
posted by look busy at 7:48 PM on January 1, 2009

Here's a suggestion for a region, rather than a specific town - the Upper Valley of VT and NH. Some towns in the region - Norwich, VT, Lebanon, NH, Hanover, NH (home of Dartmouth), Quechee, VT, Woodstock, VT, etc..
posted by gudrun at 9:11 PM on January 1, 2009

+1 for Bellingham, WA. I also went to college there and lived there after school for some time. Incredible beauty, friendly people, progressive mindset, and hey - it's nestled between Vancouver BC and Seattle...can't beat that.

Also +1 for Bozeman, MT. Such a beautiful place!
posted by karizma at 10:23 PM on January 1, 2009

Santa Cruz, CA... if you can afford it!
posted by secretseasons at 1:10 AM on January 2, 2009

I grew up near Duluth and always considered it somewhat of a shithole.

I've lived in Madison, Austin, and Portland, OR all were extremely preferable.
posted by mimo at 11:28 AM on January 2, 2009

New Hope, Pennsylvania. I live in NJ, the gf lives right almost to the border of PA next to this town. It's very progressive, big Obama supporters. A lot of 'starving artist' types. Yoga, tea shops, interesting galleries, playhouse etc. You'd probably love it.
posted by PetiePal at 12:49 PM on January 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

Another vote for Bellingham - great town and you can't beat the Pacific NW for scenery.
posted by Ostara at 1:38 PM on January 2, 2009

+1 for Bozeman, MT

IS PROGRESSIVE. OK, not so much on the racial diversity (though there's a sizable minority of Native Americans). However, the politics are fairly liberal, and there are a goodly number of "alternative" activities (yoga classes, drum circles, etc.).

HAS PLENTIFUL FRESH FOOD AVAILABLE. Heavily agricultural area with farmer's markets.

HAS GOOD SCENERY. Yeah, this is no contest. Nothing like waking up and seeing the mountains outside your bedroom window. There's a large cycling community, both road and mountain.

HAS A DECENT CULTURAL SCENE. The Emerson Cultural Center has exhibits and events every week.

HAS A COOL HISTORIC ELEMENT. Historic photos of downtown. There are also plenty of restored Victorians around town.

ISN'T TOO DAMN CROWDED. You can ride your bike for 20 minutes and be virtually in the middle of nowhere.

LOW-ISH CRIME RATE. The WORST police reports for NEW YEAR'S EVE were as follows: a motel employee stole $10, Christmas decorations were vandalized, a license plate was stolen, and an underaged kid tried to buy beer. I am a very petite female and I never hesitated to walk alone at night.

I'd move out there again in a heartbeat.
posted by desjardins at 1:44 PM on January 2, 2009

Durango, CO.

This is my favorite town in Colorado, and I have been to quite a few places there. In my opinion it blows away Boulder.

It's a small town but not too small. Crime is quite low (the crime reports in the newspaper are hilarious). And it is literally right in the mountains, unlike Boulder/Denver.

Some fantastic scenery and miles and miles of hiking. The Colorado Trail ends in Durango, so you could literally take a trail all the way from Durango to Denver if you wanted. Lots of mountain biking and road biking as well.

If I had more time I'd provide some links as well, but you can MeMail me if you want more information. - Here's a picture I took from my cell phone camera.
You might notice the train tracks:
"This historic train has been in continuous operation for 126 years, carrying passengers behind vintage steam locomotives and rolling stock indigenous to the line. Relive the sights and sounds of yesteryear for a spectacular journey on board the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad."
posted by PaulingL at 2:16 PM on January 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

University City, MO

It's a suburb of St. Louis. Personally, I enjoy going there more than downtown St. Louis.

My second pick is Columbia, MO.
posted by sixcolors at 5:57 PM on January 2, 2009

Holy crap. I go offline for two days and all paradise breaks loose. This will definitely take me some time to work through, and places to visit on my road trip! Thank you, Mefites, for all your insights!
posted by letahl at 6:22 PM on January 2, 2009

+1 for Davis, CA

I can add that there are local butchers. And the crime rate is virtually non-existent. In the five years I lived there, I never locked my doors or my car.
posted by special-k at 1:07 AM on January 3, 2009

Pittsburgh, Pa. Love the skyline and all of the culture.
posted by Dasmall07 at 11:56 AM on January 3, 2009

Claremont, CA (not incredibly racially heterogeneous, but pretty much everything else)
posted by lalochezia at 2:59 PM on January 3, 2009

"What is: Ann Arbor, MI?"

Fits all the criteria except for scenery, but only during the winter. It's gorgeous during summertime. And it's gorgeous during winter too, if you happen to like snow.
posted by soonertbone at 4:25 PM on January 7, 2009

Definitely Iowa City, IA. It's like Madison, WI, only it fits within your population parameters. Three farmer's markets within 5 miles of each other, natural foods co-op, nationally renowned bookstore, liberal values, great pedestrian culture, blah blah blah.
posted by scarykarrey at 2:10 PM on January 15, 2009

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