Berlin, Boston and the Great Equalizer

White Mountains National Forest, New Hampshire...
Image by The Library of Congress via Flickr

A few years back, my good friend Matt had a job offer to work at a company in Caribou, Maine. Caribou fits its name pretty well – it is the northernmost city in Maine, and actual caribou (that is, reindeer) used to live around there. Caribou got more than 16 feet of snow in the winter of 2007-2008.

Matt was pretty excited about the job, but I wondered how long he would last in Caribou. He’s a fairly urbane guy who likes funky restaurants and bookstores. Caribou residents prefer hunting, fishing and snowmobiling. And in fact, Matt didn’t last long. Caribou was not for him.

I was reminded of Matt during the last week, when I made one-day visits to Boston, Massachusetts and Berlin, New Hampshire. The only thing that both cities have in common is a love for the Boston Red Sox.

Many people who live in and around Boston couldn’t imagine living in Berlin, “the city that trees built.” Berlin was for many years a logging and paper mill center. As you would imagine, the city has had a long decline. Now, however, I get the sense that things are looking up.

Berlin’s advantages and disadvantages

The truth is that Berlin is a beautiful city and would attract many people, including some who now live – reluctantly – closer to big metropolises. It’s just north of the spectacular White Mountains. There are many kid-friendly attractions in the area. Of course it has the same hunting, fishing and snowmobiling options as in Caribou.

Best of all, Berlin is a cheap place to live. Many decent houses are available there for less than $100,000, including some for under $50,000. Berlin also has all of New Hampshire’s advantages for business owners.

Berlin’s major disadvantages are its distance from populated areas, overall weak economy, and poor schools. The first of these, however, is becoming less and less of a problem.

The Great Equalizer

The Great Equalizer is, of course, the Internet. It makes it possible for Berliners to work for employers that might be hundreds of miles away, or start companies that have customers all over the country.

And in fact, that is happening in Berlin. People are living there and working remotely, in many cases making more than they ever could have in the city’s traditional industries. They enjoy a standard of living that is enhanced by the generally low prices found throughout Berlin. I also know of two growing technology firms that have established in Berlin and market internationally.

Berlin does lack some off the joys of urban living, but the Internet compensates there as well. For example, Berlin doesn’t have any exotic restaurants or art-house movie theaters. It does, though, have the same access to websites offering exotic gourmet ingredients, so you can cook Ethiopian doro wat at home. And if you want to follow that up with a Werner Herzog film festival, you can get all those movies from Netflix.

What does the future hold for Boston and Berlin?

There are two kinds of reasons why people live where they live. The first are the “need” reasons – the biggest of which is work. If the kind of work you want to do can only be done in New York City, that’s where you’ll have to go. Not many jobs are that restrictive, but right now there are still many jobs that can only be found close to major population centers.

The “want” reasons are mostly cultural. If you really want to see that Herzog film in an actual theater, you’re better off in Boston. Similarly, if you live for skiing, you want to live in a city near ski areas (e.g. Berlin!)

I think the future will see more of the “need” reasons dissipate, while the “want” reasons will become more important. Thus there will, in fact, be equalization between rural areas far from population centers, and urban areas which have more of the art houses and so on.

The net effect will be population growth (and corresponding housing growth) in rural areas, and population decline in urban areas. Just consider this theory when looking at real estate purchases in both types of communities.

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