Cities that aren't cities, but have city things
July 19, 2013 5:10 PM   Subscribe

Rural(ish) towns in the U.S. that have city(ish) things. Does this kind of place exist?

I've spent the majority of my life in big cities all over the U.S., but I long to move out to the country at some point. The thing is, there's a lot of things about the city I love--access to all kinds of food, for instance. Are there any U.S. towns out there that have the best characteristics of both country and city life?

This is my needle in a haystack question. I'm hoping that somewhere out there my dream town exists. I'm willing to move anywhere in the U.S. to get to it.

This dream town would have:

1. Big, wide, open space and some agricultural freedoms that come with it (being able to have some farm animals, for instance...I'm not looking to start a dairy farm or anything like that, but a few chickens and goats would be nice).

2. A generally liberal-leaning population. It could be a liberal enclave in a red state.

3. Affordable. And by affordable, I mean not an affluent area that may have equestrian/agricultural roots (think Town & Country magazine).

4. A non-rainy climate. So...probably not the pacific northwest. Winter storms are fine, and so is high summer heat. Just...not a place where it feels like it's always raining.

5. Somehow at the same time, I'd be within a 60 minute drive of some ethnic restaurants, ethnic grocery stores and a diverse populace.

Any thoughts? These aren't strict rules, though numbers 1-3 are probably most important to me. I'd love to hear your ideas.
posted by dede to Grab Bag (64 answers total) 48 users marked this as a favorite
You can keep chickens in some areas of Chicago. And I've seen a few people with turkeys (!!!) on the South Side. Not really any wide-open spaces, though, unless you count vacant lots.
posted by deathpanels at 5:14 PM on July 19, 2013

In general, I would look for College Towns in otherwise not super populated areas to hit most of these things. My most specific suggestion just because I know the area would be the Hanover, NH area (around Dartmouth College). Affordable will vary drastically depending on exactly where you're looking, but it is very cheap if you are looking in the right place. Around the college there is some diversity, but in any community that's not there at least mostly because of the College, there is none. And worst case, it's only 2 hours from Boston.
posted by brainmouse at 5:15 PM on July 19, 2013 [9 favorites]

Oberlin, Ohio hits every one of them. Small, very liberal college town about 45 minutes west southwest if Cleveland. I lived there from 1996 until 2012. Lovely place.
posted by jon1270 at 5:16 PM on July 19, 2013 [4 favorites]

I would look at/around Boise, ID. I've only been there a couple times briefly, and it seems like there's definitely sprawly bits and Idaho as a whole is not liberal, but I think just outside of Boise you get a lot of space for your dollar, the natural places are super close and amazing, and Boise gives you some of the other amenities you are looking for. I really don't know it so I could be totally wrong but I'd say it's worth a look.
posted by jeb at 5:16 PM on July 19, 2013

The greater Reno/Carson City, Nevada area is kind of like that. Not the most cosmopolitan area certainly, but it seems to fit your bill.
posted by elendil71 at 5:18 PM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

New England towns have a lot of these things because there are a lot of rural areas that also are near university-ish areas which have the big stuff. The big downside is not rain it's winter, like five months of winter.

My town, Randolph VT (pop 4500 or so), has all that stuff. You can have chickens and/or goats (my neighbors do) and you could afford the land to get them. Not like crazy-cheap (as if you were in a tiny midwestern town) but affordable cheap. You can check the real estate, I think it's affordable. My town is lefty-ish but not groupthink leftyish. The next town is more conservative. People mostly leave people alone on social issues, but are neighborly. Taxes are high, relative to other places in the country. Within 60 minutes of where I live are the state capitol and, in the other direction, Hanover NH home of Dartmouth. Now, none of these places are what I would call diverse the way a city would be, but there are a lot of different kinds of people and a lot of different kinds of food, cultural events, outdoor things to do and movies to see (arty and blockbuster). My own town actually has a movie theater, a drive-in movie theater, an opera house, a few restaurants that are not that interesting (pizza/chinese/McDs), a steakhouse, an independent BBQ place and an "eat local" small plates place.

But I'd agree, you'd like to live outside a college town of some sort, and probably one that is a little more rural (so that you are not in a suburb). Other suggestions: outside of Ann Arbor, Ashville NC, outside of Augusta ME, upstate NY nearish to a SUNY.
posted by jessamyn at 5:21 PM on July 19, 2013

Lawrence Kansas maybe?
I like Raleigh NC too.
Athens Georgia?
Charlotte NC
San Marcos Texas
New paltz New York
Those are places that come to mind...
posted by Annika Cicada at 5:21 PM on July 19, 2013

I live in Hadley, Mass., which is a farming town stuck in between the college towns of Amherst and Northampton (it's smack in the middle of the Five Colleges), so there are good bookstores and ethnic restaurants just a few miles away, but because the town made a deal with the devil and allowed malls on Rte. 9, which makes that road look like shit (and makes people passing through think Hadley looks like shit), the residents pay half the local tax of people in Amherst, and the cost of living is reasonable. Don't know if it's right for you, but check it out. (The weather's great if you like seasons, which I do.)
posted by languagehat at 5:21 PM on July 19, 2013 [5 favorites]

Laramie, Wyoming, located in one of only two blue-leaning counties in a very, very red state. The high plains are practically the definition of wide-open, rural space, and you're only an hour from Ft. Collins, CO (and another hour more to Denver).
posted by scody at 5:23 PM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Madison, Wisconsin? Iowa City, Iowa? Traverse City, Michigan? Marfa, Texas?
posted by Miss T.Horn at 5:23 PM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

So many suburbs of Buffalo, NY fit your criteria - think Elma, Hamburg, East Aurora, etc. Buffalo itself has a lot of big-city trappings (major sports teams, art/music, shopping, restaurants) but the food scene is a bit lacking in diversity. However, you'd only be 1.5 hours from Toronto, which would scratch that itch in a big way.
posted by yawper at 5:23 PM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Ann Arbor, MI might work for you, and seconding the Northampton area. What about Madison, WI?
posted by Nickel Pickle at 5:24 PM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Please please come to the Hudson Valley area! Especially New Paltz. We have big, rolling hills; mountains for hiking; CSA farms; sustainable agriculture; apple picking; old fashioned state fairs and festivals. We also have delicious international cuisine, gluten free food, and just generally tasty stuff thanks to the proximity of the Culinary Institute of America. The population is very left-leaning and there are indie theaters and New York City is less than a 2 hour train ride away--close enough for a weekend trip.

It's neither the cheapest nor most expensive place that I've lived. I'd consider it moderate, with the quality of living taken into account. Property is relatively affordable, though taxes are high because of really awesome public schools (left leaning state, and all.)

It is the best place ever in the whole wide world.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 5:26 PM on July 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

Syracuse New York
Champaign Urbana illinois
posted by SyraCarol at 5:27 PM on July 19, 2013 [5 favorites]

Ellensburg, Washington. It fits your criteria, and it is west of the Cascade Mountains, so out of the rain. 100 miles east of Seattle, but Snoqualmie Pass makes it a two hour trip. 30 miles north of Yakima, which has all the big city stuff almost anyone would want.
posted by seasparrow at 5:28 PM on July 19, 2013

Nashville, TN
posted by kimdog at 5:29 PM on July 19, 2013

When I was looking for the same things I thought college town too, but many college towns are small towns in disguise. google "small cities," there's a little bit of a movement growing to recognize their awesomeness. I've lived in one for 5 years now, Roanoke VA. It's got everything you describe. It helps to be nearly surrounded by mountains, the topography keeps sprawl/suburbs to a minimum.
posted by headnsouth at 5:31 PM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Portland, maine
posted by anastasiav at 5:31 PM on July 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

Seconding Lawrence, Kansas. Also consider the Northwest Arkansas area around Fayetteville.
posted by ronofthedead at 5:46 PM on July 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

Santa Fe, NM hits all of these except #3.
posted by mon-ma-tron at 6:01 PM on July 19, 2013

posted by OnTheLastCastle at 6:02 PM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

posted by JoeZydeco at 6:04 PM on July 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

Missoula, MT?
posted by Area Man at 6:05 PM on July 19, 2013

You might check out Bloomington, Indiana.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 6:10 PM on July 19, 2013 [5 favorites]

Your list sounds almost exactly like my hometown: Urbana, IL. Its ethnic food kicks the ass of places like San Francisco, it's academic and liberal, and it's surrounded by farms on every side for zillions of miles, so I'm sure you can live just outside the city and have your farm animals.

The weather is pretty abysmal in my opinion (tornadoes, freezing, humid, etc.) but it doesn't rain too much. It was a good place to grow up, too, and I ended up as a "city person" due to all those city(ish) things I cannot live without that existed growing up.

I've heard Madison and Ann Arbor are similar, but I haven't been to them personally.
posted by mokudekiru at 6:18 PM on July 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

Tucson, AZ
- Many people here have a few farm animals.
- Red state, but generally liberal leaning. It's a mix so you could find what you need.
- Very, very affordable. Lowest gas prices in the country, nice houses for under $200,000 easily. Good commutes, not really any traffic. No problem finding a good plot of land within 30-40 minutes from downtown.
- Very little rain, monsoon season is fun, and the heat isn't so bad because most places have excellent A/C. Much of the year has incredibly nice weather, and it does get cold enough in winter to wear a coat, hat, and mittens. If think you'd miss snow, you can get to mountains easily but you'll never have to shovel any from your driveway.
- Lots of variety, good restaurants from many cultures (maybe not top notch but still fine), diverse grocery store options, much activity in regards to new restaurants, cultural events, community. Downtown has a lot going on lately, they are working on extending the streetcar and lots of awesome stuff is popping up.
- Lastly, it's absolutely beautiful in Tucson. You can see the mountains from just about anywhere.
posted by belau at 6:19 PM on July 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

You can find most of those things if you drive about 45-60 minutes out of Minneapolis/St. Paul. (#2 is hit-or-miss)
posted by belladonna at 6:20 PM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Fayetteville, Arkansas.
posted by Gneisskate at 6:25 PM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

I am also hoping to move to a place like this, and have my sights squarely set on Viroqua, a town of about 5,000 people in southwestern Wisconsin's ridiculously beautiful Driftless Region.

It has a distinctly liberal feel; it's surrounded by organic farms and state parks. It has an amazing farmer's market and an awesome food co-op and wonderful scenery. It's about 45 minutes southwest of La Crosse -- the nearest 'big city' -- and about halfway between Rochester, MN (2 hours east) and Madison, WI (2 hours west).

Real estate is what I would consider extremely inexpensive, there are definitely miles and miles of wide open space all around, and the weather is typical for the region (short/hot/humid summers, long/cold/snowy winters) -- so not great, but absolutely gorgeous when the season is right. The whole surrounding region feels like a secret magical wonderland.
posted by divined by radio at 6:29 PM on July 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

Seconding that college towns are a good place to look... my personal favourite: Ithaca, NY*

*Totally biased. Totally went to college here. I am a city mouse and I love Ithaca something fierce.
posted by kitkatcathy at 6:31 PM on July 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

I am not sure how affordable these places are, but...

Northampton or Amherst, MA
Ithaca, NY
Asheville, NC
Burlington, VT

The latter two are more like small cities, but they seem like towns to this Brooklynite.

Also, all are more than 60 minutes from the nearest large city, though Northampton/Amherst are about 90 minutes to Boston and Burlington is about the same time to Montreal. I'd guess the nearest large cities to Ithaca and Asheville are Albany, NY and Charlotte, NC, respectively, but I'm not sure they have much in the way of ethnic cuisine/groceries (they might, I just haven't seen it in the limited time I've spent in both).
posted by breakin' the law at 6:46 PM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Massachusetts' Pioneer Valley hits all of your marks:

1- Lots of farms. You could reasonably expect to live on the outskirts of Amherst or Northampton, or a lovely small town like Shelburne Falls, and have enough space for a few animals.

2. Very, very liberal. Many colleges/universities, big LGBT (especially the "L") population.

3. Pretty affordable, given the amenities. I've heard the job market is rough, though.

4. The weather there is standard southern New England - warm summers, cold, snowy winters, glorious falls, muddy springs.

5. Lots of pretty good ethnic restaurants, but Amherst/Northampton are pretty white. However, cities like Springfield and Worcester are close and have more diversity, and Boston is just 1.5-2 hours away (my father used to actually commute there from Boston a few times a week).
posted by lunasol at 6:49 PM on July 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

Other folks have mentioned the Triangle area of NC. The specific towns you should look at are Pittsboro (south of Chapel Hill, a potter's colony and home to lots of homesteader types and a biodiesel co-op), Hillsborough (north of Chapel Hill, a writer's colony with a number of CSA farms), and Mebane (west of Chapel Hill, lots of homesteaders).
posted by hydropsyche at 6:50 PM on July 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

Kalamazoo, MI
posted by jasondigitized at 7:05 PM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Nthing Asheville, NC or NC Triangle area (Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill), especially those areas south and west of Chapel Hill.
posted by greta simone at 7:07 PM on July 19, 2013

I live in Charlotte and my in-laws live in Hendersonville which is 30 minutes south of Asheville. Someone upthread put Charlotte itself on the list of places "that is not a city, but that has city things." Umm... the Charlotte metro area is the 30th largest MSA (city) in the US, so it's pretty big. I like living here a lot, but it's not a small town, nor does it really act like one. I suppose if you started talking to someone randomly they would probably stop and talk to you like people do in small towns, but the pace of life here is pretty fast over all.

Now, as many people have mentioned Asheville would have everything you described. But I would recommend you poke around Asheville using Zillow, because I think it's the most expensive place to live in NC. Probably followed by the Triangle.

However, I would definitely recommend Asheville. It has plenty of natural beauty, with plenty of culture. It is also a very left-leaning place in a purple state.

One place that hasn't been recommended that I recently visited and liked is Hampton Roads, VA. That area is fast becoming a large MSA, but there are probably plenty of small towns nearby.
posted by Slothrop at 7:15 PM on July 19, 2013

Nevada City, California, is a gold rush town with a thriving arts scene, decent grub, and plenty of nearby outdoor pursuits. It's a mountain town so it may not be as wide-open as you are thinking, but you can definitely have critters there. It's a little over an hour to Sacramento.
posted by oneirodynia at 7:28 PM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Someone upthread put Charlotte itself on the list of places "that is not a city, but that has city things." Umm... the Charlotte metro area is the 30th largest MSA (city) in the US, so it's pretty big.

I believe this was me. Just to clarify, I am aware that Charlotte is a large city and by no means "not a city, but has city things." I mentioned Charlotte because I believe (and correct me if I'm wrong!) it is the nearest large city to Asheville, as per the OP's question.
posted by breakin' the law at 7:36 PM on July 19, 2013

The areas near a number of touristy towns might fit the bill, like outside of Flagstaff, AZ; Moab, UT; and the Tahoe area. Those places themselves have diverse restaurants, etc., and by the time you're 40 minutes outside of them, the land prices are often reasonable.
posted by salvia at 7:56 PM on July 19, 2013

Blacksburg, Va.
Charlottesville, Va.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 7:57 PM on July 19, 2013

Seconding Madison WI, Iowa City IA, and Bloomington IN. As a capital city, Madison has more city things to offer; on the other hand, it's definitely a city, not a town at all. Iowa City and Bloomington are much smaller, but certainly have no shortage of cultural opportunities, and the rural living is closer and more affordable.
posted by bricoleur at 7:58 PM on July 19, 2013

When i read your list I thought: this sounds like where I live. I live in Ann Arbor, MI.
posted by apis mellifera at 8:17 PM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

If we're weighing towns/cities by the surrounding rural area, Iowa City and Champaign-Urbana are flat farm land and prairie. Ann Arbor and Madison have a bit nicer countryside around them.
posted by JoeZydeco at 8:59 PM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Gainesville, FL
posted by newsomz at 9:04 PM on July 19, 2013

Echoing the recommendations above for the Northampton, MA / Pioneer Valley area. It's really amazingly beautiful here, the weather is nice enough, great people. Because of the colleges, there are lots of ethnic restaurants/grocery stores/culture-y things, but it is but a very short drive to really, really rural places. (We always joke that we live not in the middle, but on the outskirts of nowhere.) Towns near to Noho or Amherst are even more rural, but again, easy enough to get to civilization. (Kind of like parts of South Jersey, if that is a helpful comparison to you; but it is much less diverse than I feel like NJ is.)

FWIW, I grew up in the NYC metro area, so very used to visiting the amenities of a huge city, and I have felt no need whatsoever since moving here nine years ago to visit Boston (which is the closest city). It's not really on my mental map as a place to go from here at all.
posted by lysimache at 9:05 PM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Bend, Oregon. It's technically the Pacific NW, but there's very little rain because it is in the high desert. I think it is exactly what you're seeking.
posted by katie at 9:19 PM on July 19, 2013

Burlington, VT?
posted by arnicae at 11:12 PM on July 19, 2013

I came in here to see if Tucson had already been recommended. It has, and the poster was correct. Tucson has a great left-leaning feel (though not as left-leaning as, say, Seattle or even Austin), good restaurants, and a very very very low cost of living.

I can't recommend it enough. I have to leave now for my career, but I seriously think I'll retire here someday, if it doesn't change too much by then (;

Although, in general, it sounds like you're looking for what is usually called a "college town".

Lots of students provide incentive for cheap but still good dining. Universities, especially public ones, attract lots of international students and professors, which in turn attract lots of international restaurants.

But man, looking at your list of 1-5, Tucson fits every bill.
posted by Precision at 11:20 PM on July 19, 2013

I've lived in Madison for the last four years and refer to it as The Promised Land. It's great here.

Reasons why it is great here: farmers' markets, CSAs, you can raise chickens in town, generally lots of opportunities to be involved in agricultural foodie-ness; good restaurants; ridiculously affordable; very bike-able, some neighborhoods pretty walkable; nice outdoor spaces (tons of parks, a beautiful arboretum, lovely free public gardens); liberal politics (but you have to watch Wisconsin self-destruct around you which can be pretty depressing). In general I really like the people here -- they're really into the things they're into but totally down to earth.

Also I don't know if you have or want kids but this is a great place for families. The schools are good and there are a million wonderful free activities.
posted by gerstle at 11:41 PM on July 19, 2013

Athens, OH. Campus of Ohio University (not to be confused with Ohio State up in Columbus). A nice little town with some good restaurants, an arts scene (both in Athens and nearby Nelsonville) and about an hour's drive from Columbus.
posted by essexjan at 1:32 AM on July 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

I would second Fayetteville, AR, but I don't want more people moving there. And also, it's not really like a big city. It does have a limited amount of ethnic restaurants and some high end groceries, arts, etc., but it's not the same as living in or near New York or Chicago or even Nashville. It's still a small town, despite the bigness of the population. It is also not really liberal, except right near the university. (I lived there for 8 years -- LOVE IT, but I know so many people who moved there from big cities like Boston or Los Angeles and just would never consider it the answer to this question).

That said, I would recommend Nashville, TN; Lexington, KY; Louisville, KY; Research Triangle, NC; outside Atlanta; outside St. Louis; outside Kansas City. Maybe Tulsa, OK.

Honestly, I think your best bet is to find a big city you like and scope out the areas surrounding it. You probably won't find rural living in Chicago, but you also won't find big city living in Oberlin, Ohio. It's a trade off -- you can drive a bit to get to the attractions, or you can live in the middle of them and have less green space.

Good luck! I'll be watching this thread (those are my dreams, too!)
posted by mrfuga0 at 5:29 AM on July 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

It seems like those are very general criteria. With 51 answers, you might want to narrow things down a little.

1. Open spaces as in plains? Or do you just mean having an acre or two on any terrain?

3. Not town and country, but that still leaves a wide range. $100,000? $500,000? And for how much land? Can you build, or do you want to buy an established farmstead with a house? Or do you want to rent?

4. Climate -- do you want to grow plants to go with those chickens? Anything you have your heart set on? Do you want a long growing season? Are you sure you are fine with 125 degrees in the summer, or is that too much summer heat?

5. Any specific type of ethnic restaurants, ethnic grocery stores and a diverse populace? Would you be happy with just a few ethnicities represented by your restaurants, or do you want to be able to eat food from nearly anywhere in the world? There are a lot of small towns out there with ethnic restaurants. How diverse do you want the populace to be, and is there a particular group of people/ethnicity/background in specific country you'd want to be present?

What sort of population would you like the town to have? 5.000 people will be a very different environment than 100,000.

Do you need to find a job in this town?

What do you consider the best characteristics of city life to be?
posted by yohko at 6:14 AM on July 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Flagstaff and Bend both fit the bill.
posted by katie at 8:49 AM on July 20, 2013

You want Phoenix. Liberal enclave in a (very red) state.

Great climate (if you don't mind triple-digit summers). I live in the north central part of town. A mile to the west there is a Sprouts natural foods grocery store and an independent bookstore. One mile to the east of me there is a horse farm. Twenty minutes away in Tempe you have plenty of ethnic restaurants and everything else that accompanies a college town. And two hours away is truly, truly God's country (if you believe in that sort of thing.)
posted by nubianinthedesert at 10:52 AM on July 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Fourthing Fayetteville, AR.
posted by aerotive at 11:05 AM on July 20, 2013

nthing the Pioneer Valley of MA.
posted by silby at 11:56 AM on July 20, 2013

Another vote for Bloomington, IN. It hits all your requirements. I went to IU and loved Bloomington.
posted by SisterHavana at 12:00 PM on July 20, 2013

Oberlin OH hits all your requirements except the weather. Oberlin gets 60 clear days a year. Not all of the other 300 are rainy or snowy, of course. But it can be very grey for long stretches. I still think it fits your requirements really well.
posted by bardophile at 12:47 PM on July 20, 2013

Davis, California. I also like Nevada City.
posted by jenfullmoon at 1:09 PM on July 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Blast you people for repeating Fayetteville! (Fine, it does answer the question - but from now on everyone else has to discover it on their own .)
posted by Atreides at 6:50 PM on July 20, 2013

The Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti/Dexter/Chelsea (Washtenaw County, Michigan) area.

Before we moved here from Chicago, we drafted up a nearly identical list to yours. The "perfect place" would have affordable housing stock, easy access to the outdoors, and a short commute to culture.

Suffice it to say, the Ann Arbor area met all of our requirements. In spades. A thriving cultural center surrounded by rural forest and farmable townships.
posted by shiggins at 11:05 PM on July 20, 2013

Seconding Athens, Georgia.
posted by tiger tiger at 3:01 PM on July 21, 2013

Grand Rapids, MI might fit the bill. Housing and rent are super cheap (much more so than Ann Arbor), such that you can live within walking distance of downtown and Eastown (a fun collection of shops and restaurants), or buy a couple acres in a woodsy suburb. Look northwest of downtown; a couple friends of mine own a house with some land at Covell and 7th, but can bike downtown.

It's a city with a small town feel. There is an arts scene, but it's small enough that you see the same people everywhere. The food is great, there's a big farmer's market, the city is liberal and bike-friendly, and everything is cheap.
posted by Turkey Glue at 10:22 AM on July 26, 2013

There are gems of towns fitting not just some, but all of your requirements near New York City. They are the best of both worlds as you seek, at time you will feel the Big City was just in your imagination. Start with the Hudson Valley.
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