Saturday, January 9, 2010

Country Chic, Part II – Transforming Rural Character into a Hot Commodity.

In part one of this essay, I explored how the successful business, Trader’s Point Creamery, has become an archetype for the character of the community of Trader’s Point, a large spread of rolling wooded countryside still sitting squarely within Indianapolis city limits. This is a part of the city that, while affluent, has relinquished lot of its attractiveness to the suburbs, where the cost of living is lower but public services are often superior. Trader’s Point is certainly not an urban neighborhood, but it also isn’t really suburban or even exurban in character. What is it about the area makes a business like the Creamery so popular, even as homes here often remain on the market far longer than they would immediately outside of Marion County?

Trader’s Point Creamery, by emphasizing its 100% organic, grass-fed product line, has appealed to the well-heeled, educated, fundamentally urban populace nearby that defies the farm’s rural surroundings. The area’s idyllic setting is more distinctive than it otherwise might be, precisely because it sits in the boundaries of a large city. Though a dairy farm could easily occupy a plot of land anywhere in Indiana, the affluent clientele nearby has enhanced the likelihood of the Creamery’s success. In spite of the idyllic setting of country estates nestled on gentle slopes, Trader’s Point rests in a part of Indianapolis that continually loses out to neighboring suburbs such as Zionsville, where the school system has been ranked among the top ten in the nation.

Having scrutinized Trader’s Point carefully enough, I now can boldly make what may seem to be my flimsiest association yet: a comparison to the state of Vermont. Only a few stretches of Indiana—particularly those in the southwest part of the state—can claim the majestic topography that pervades in the Green Mountain State. Though a bit of an anomaly in central Indiana, an enterprise such as Trader’s Point Creamery would fit in perfectly in New England’s most landlocked corner. Vermont operates like a statewide rural heritage corridor, from its outlawing of billboards along interstates to its numerous microfarms tucked in the valleys amidst muscular hills. Think of all the food products that come from Vermont. Aside from the most high profile, such as Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream, the state boasts national recognition in Woodchuck Cider, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, and Cabot Creamery (“America’s Best Cheddar”), let alone all the roadside maple syrup stands. The state’s prominence as an exporter of specialty agriculture products seems all the more impressive when one considers that: 1) the state of Vermont’s population is less than the city of Indianapolis; and 2) most of the land of this sixth smallest state is horrible for growing things. Part of the reason Vermont’s hills seem so pristine is that the tree canopy conceals the remnants of abandoned farms from centuries ago, when the first New England settlers gave up on the land after learning about the fecund soils in the Midwest. A number of Indiana farmers can claim New England ancestry.

So how did Vermont achieve such a firm footing in the specialty foods market? A trip to one of the many picture-perfect towns in the state, such as Brattleboro, offers more than a hint. I haven’t come across any evidence that would suggest that Vermont has a particularly stronger Main Street Association than other states, but you would certainly think it from a visit. A disproportionate number of these towns are tourist magnets, with well-preserved architecture along the Main Streets that host a variety of shops, nearly all of which could pass as “eclectic local retail”. Brattleboro, a town of 12,000 (and the seventh largest in the state!) featured, upon my last visit, numerous art galleries, an Indian restaurant, a vendor of hemp products, and a Marxist bookstore. No, it’s not a college town. It’s also not unique to Brattleboro.

The state capital, Montpelier, is an even smaller community of only about 8,000 people—the smallest state capital in the country. No doubt it attracts a well-educated work force through the demand for skilled government jobs, but plenty of other state capitals have the same requirements, yet they cannot boast such an impeccable and visibly posh downtown: The town—calling it a city would be inaccurate under any measurement, even if it legally is one—proudly claims itself as the only state capital in the nation without a McDonald’s. I cannot recall seeing any national chains along the main street, in fact. Downtown would probably embody the quaint New England archetype, except that most places one thinks of as quaint lack Montpelier’s undercurrent of political subversion:
I’ll confess that some of this was a bit too precious for me. Is it realistic for a town this small to have street musicians, a film festival, a transit authority, and a food cooperative? Clearly it is in Vermont. (I’ll concede that Montpelier is part of the larger Montpelier-Barre Micropolitan Area of about 50,000 people, and that Barre, a similarly sized town 5 miles away, is nowhere near as prosperous, but most of the people are spread far from these two nuclei. And population within Montpelier city limits is inconceivably urbane.)

With a town like Montpelier as its capital, it should come as no surprise that Vermont’s largest city is paradise for bourgeois bohemians.
Under 40,000 people, Burlington is very much a college town, hosting the flagship campus of the University of Vermont, among others. Lake Champlain in the background of the above photo provides a clear demarcation of the western edge of town, from a variety of vantage points. My impression during my brief visit was that the city’s vibrancy betrayed its size; one could hardly tell it was so small from how many people one might see out on a Saturday morning. It remains one of the few cities that can boast a successful, fully pedestrianized Main Street. And of course such a town wouldn’t be complete without its bustling weekend farmers’ market:

This survey of Vermont is about as superficial as they come, and it admittedly leaves out some of the grittier parts: St. Johnsbury has not enjoyed the prosperity of other communities its size in the state; nor has the aforementioned Barre; and Rutland, from what I hear, has seen better days. But for an overwhelmingly rural state, in which the largest city is the smallest large city out of all fifty, Vermont possesses a streak of worldiness normally associated with urban living—and its residents have shown an uncanny ability to expand the prominence of its limited agricultural output well beyond its modest borders.

An equally facile survey of the state’s recent history provides more than enough evidence to explain how it got this way. Always the most rural state in New England, it is also among the few states to have functioned as an independent sovereign government for some time prior to admission in the union. Its population remained basically unchanging, averaging around 350,000 inhabitants, from around 1900 until 1960. Only in the swinging sixties did the state blossom in growth, reaching 600,000 shortly before the new century. More recent population estimates suggests that the growth rate has leveled off considerably. While Vermont has always allied itself with independent parties to a greater degree than most states, its national identity overwhelmingly aligned with the Republicans throughout most of the 20th century—until the population boom. In 1992, the state supported Democrat Bill Clinton (for the first time since Lyndon Johnson’s sweeping national defeat of Barry Goldwater) and it has edged further toward Democrats ever since, giving President Obama one of his strongest winning margins in the country.

It hardly takes a rocket scientist to deduce that the steady stream of newcomers to Vermont from 1960 to 1990 have influenced the state’s political culture. Many affluent New Yorkers and Bostonians, seeking a rural alternative to crime and urban gridlock, found respite in Vemont’s inexpensive verdure and settled permanently in and around the state’s numerous depressed mill towns. They brought with them prestigious degrees, hefty disposable incomes, and urban communitarianism. No doubt other NYC expatriates settled in the remote corners of upstate New York, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Maine. But only Vermont was so sparsely populated that a gain of 250,000 could virtually double the state’s population and formidably alter its political leanings. The state has remained racially homogeneous but has swayed its legislature toward a culture that regulates urban growth strongly while emphasizing the aesthetic integrity of its towns and small cities. The result is a state with a higher cost of living than one might expect for so little industry, but a fairly consistent identity of mountainous countryside interspersed with manicured dairy farms and tidy fields amidst the few patches of arable land.

What, one may ask, does all of this have to do with Trader’s Point in Indianapolis? Loosely speaking, Trader’s Point is the Vermont of the Indianapolis metro. Its current character is largely fueled by an urban affluent diaspora that has instilled it with a blend of prosperous farmsteads and estates, where the wealth of the proprietors largely depends on their proximity to a larger urban market. This fusion of rural and urban elite undoubtedly has helped spawn a Rural Preservation District, and it affirms the identity of a smart boutique agribusiness such as Trader’s Point Creamery. One could even argue that the character of a pristine Vermont town finds a Midwest incarnation in the picturesque suburb of Zionsville, outside Indianapolis limits immediately to the north of Trader’s Point.

By most other metrics, an analogy between Trader’s Point and Vermont is a stretch, and others could justifiably refute my argument. Vermont is a state with political autonomy, made up of multiple jurisdictions that also enjoy relative independence. Conversely, Trader’s Point has no political identity outside of the Rural Historic District and an association of neighborhoods, which proffers only a small amount of authority to community’s residents. But perhaps the biggest difference between the two is the racial and ethnic composition: Vermont to this day remains overwhelmingly white, with the race comprising almost 96% of the population according to recent Census estimates. Conversely, Trader’s Point sits within Pike Township, the northwestern corner of Indianapolis. Once a bastion of white affluence, Pike’s minority presence is significant and growing. The census tract that comprises the majority of Trader’s Point is less than 80% white, while the more densely settled southern half of the township (south of Trader’s Point) is closer to 50% minority, with a growing presence of middle and upper-middle class African Americans, Latinos, and southeast Asians, as well as recent Burmese refugees from the Karen and Chin ethnic groups. Meanwhile, the Metropolitan School District of Pike Township has shown evidence in recent years of a strained response to the influx of minorities and foreign-born: though the township as a whole is still majority white, the school district is not. Pike High School, once as homogeneous as the district it served, now consists of over 80% racial minorities.

With that big of a discrepancy between the racial composition of Pike Township (over 50% white) and the student body of its flagship public school (only 18% white), something is clearly amiss. A little over a decade ago, I knew people who enrolled at the school at a time when it was about 50% white; clearly that number has plunged since then. Without investigating individual student samples, one can nonetheless easily speculate that two things are happening: the white families in Traders Point and throughout Pike Township are sending their kids to private schools, or they are finding ways to “cheat” the catchment areas by placing their children’s residential address with a grandparent or cousin, so that the kids can enroll in one of the neighboring districts with superlative academic records. (Most surrounding districts—Washington Township in Indianapolis, Zionsville, Brownsburg, or Carmel—are among the top ranked in the state, if not the nation.) While it is possible that sheer racial prejudice alone is diverting many of the white families away from Pike Township schools, it is equally likely that the school’s resources or under duress due to a growing non-English speaking population, or from less affluent families in the southern part of the township—which does have some visible poverty—who may have lower academic aspirations, thereby lowering the graduation rates and mean test scores for district. Meanwhile, families with the wherewithal to send their kids to superior schools nearby will not hesitate to do so.

Thus, Trader’s Point and Pike Township are faced with a predicament. Middle and upper-middle class white residents have lost faith in the school district, which, as I have blogged about before, exerts an inordinate impact on the desirability of a location . Pike Township could find its preeminence as a wealthy corner of Indianapolis eroding if the neighboring suburbs offer more or less a similar way of life with the primary difference being in the perceived quality of the schools. Chances are strong that the township’s racial shift, from approximately 90% white in the 1970s to barely 50% today, derives less from minorities moving into new housing developments than from whites leaving the area altogether. Diversity in and of itself should not be a problem—and most likely isn’t a problem to most of the residents of Trader’s Point—but declining schools don’t impel new families with high incomes to move there, and a sour reputation can lower property values, thereby resulting in an overall diminution of the tax base. The reputation of Pike Township public schools is the key concern here.

That’s where businesses like Trader’s Point Creamery can prove far more critical than their proprietors ever had intended. The dairy farm has galvanized the identity of Trader’s Point for its residents and the outside community, as well as organic yogurt aficionados across the nation. What the surrounding public could easily perceive as mundane semi-rural outskirts now has a discernible name, and, thanks to last year’s passage of the Traders Point Rural Historic District, identifiable boundaries. Its rolling hills and abundant tree canopy—about a tenth of Pike Township comprises the over 5000-acre Eagle Creek Park—could almost place it somewhere in southern Vermont (okay, so it’s not quite that hilly), but it rests in the limits of a large city. The posh rural character that some might criticize as sprawl may be one of Trader’s Point’s saving graces—with the presence of other specialty farms or trades that cater to an affluent, educated, eco-friendly clientele, the community may be able to overcome the stigma of a floundering school district by adapting to its growing diversity so that it remains a broadly attractive place to live, perhaps even because of its diversity. Clearly it’s not the same as every patch of rural Indiana; its far too multicultural for that. I find it a shame that the Creamery lists Zionsville as its mailing address on the website, even though it’s clearly in Indianapolis. Perhaps the Zionsville post office is closer, but I can’t help but think that even the folks at the Creamery might see Zionsville as a more “sellable” location than Indianapolis with its inner-city poverty, even though Trader’s Point is far removed from it all.

My recommendation here no doubt demonstrates the wobbliness of my Trader’s Point-Vermont analogy. Vermont as a state is hardly affiliated with any major city beyond the New Yorkers’ vacation or retirement homes, and even as it has become the nation’s most clearly identifiable bohemioracy, it has not in general needed to address racial and ethnic diversity. (The biggest ethnic tension in Vermont, from what I hear, is the political disharmony between the tenth-generation Vermonters of rural sensibilities, and the somewhat sneering cosmopolitanism of the urban newcomers. But both groups are white.) However, what Vermont has achieved through its cheeses, syrups, coffee roasters, and
highest craft-brewery-per-capita ranking of any state in the nation is to transform its specialized agriculture into an engine for tourism and cultural consumerism. One friend of mine claimed that several other organic goods vendors have co-opted Vermont as a brand, dishonestly claiming to come from the state because it will better sell to the trendy white liberals than if it came from, say, Kansas.

And that’s where Vermont’s success translates to a creative dead-end for both Indiana and the Midwest at large. Our farm acreage is vaster than anything New England can hope for. Removing Maine, the remaining five states of New England (Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts) are smaller than Indiana as a whole, and Indiana is the smallest contiguous state west of the Appalachians! Clearly the Midwest is known for its superlative farmland, and some of the states have been able to forge an identity for an agricultural export or two: Wisconsin remains America’s Dairyland (with cheese shops around every corner); Nebraska’s meatpacking centered around Omaha Steaks has elevated it to a specialty good beyond the titanic presence of Con-Agra; and Indiana has quietly asserted itself as the epicenter of popcorn. But the general perspective both Midwesterns and the nation have of their landscape is endless fields of one or two crops. Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa suffer a just stereotype of corn, corn, corn, soybeans, corn, soybeans, corn. Hardly the same level of eclectic output one sees coming from tiny little Vermont. I’m hesitant to assert that federal agriculture subsidies contribute to this, because I’m not well-versed enough in how they fully operate. However, this chart indicates that the Midwest receives the lion’s share. And these subsidies surely help explain why nearly a fifth of the country is devoted to cornfields, when a single state’s crop alone could likely feed most of the nation, if not the world. Could such subsidies stifle the creativity of Midwestern farmers, reducing them to churning out mind-numbering surpluses of corn at the expense of more innovative marketable goods? Perhaps one of the Midwest states will find a way to turn high-fructose corn syrup into a prestigious gourmet item, the way Ben and Jerry can now charge $5 for a cone. Or maybe that can just get Ben and Jerry to fill their Cherry Garcia with corn syrup. No thanks.

Vermont is replete with the likes of Trader’s Point Creamery. If the state’s relatively modest capacity for agribusiness translates to a smaller net recipient of federal farm subsidies, the low dependence on federal aid may help unleash the sort of creativity that makes it the epicenter of boutique organic farming. Clearly the nation cannot depend on Vermont alone for sustenance, but Vermont can certainly use its hyped-up pastoralism to bring in the tourists, even when at least 30 other states have greater agricultural capacity. The culture that supports places like Trader’s Point Creamery may be abundant in Vermont, and I wouldn’t begin to suggest that Indiana should try to mimic the state—I’m not trying to champion or condemn Vermont’s politics and demographics. But ingenuity that turned Vermont’s dying mills and struggling dairy farms into a stylish commodity is the same force that inspires the good folks at Trader’s Point Creamery. A little bit more of that élan could breathe new life into Midwest rural culture, or a deceptively unique place like Trader’s Point.