- The Covid Pandemic has helped Americans think broadly about place and identity, while making remote teams more manageable
- Smaller towns and cities offer diversity of thought, culture, and economics that the Capital doesn’t always provide
- Pesch’s main office in Washington continues (and is growing), but several team members also live outside the city to provide context and culture from the broader U.S.
My wife and I recently acquired our first pieces of Capital-A Art: three prints by Herman Leonard, the late legendary photographer. We first came across Leonard’s work — splendid candids of mid-century musicians in their prime — during coffee dates. We’d stroll from our glassy K Street apartment down to the National Portrait Gallery and soak up the man’s photography. But what brought us to those prints matters less than where they will hang now: not on the walls of our big city apartment, but in our newly built bungalow on a quiet street surrounded by giant pines in North Alabama.
We moved to Washington, DC in 2015 so I could earn a Master’s Degree at Georgetown and better serve my East Coast clients. My wife landed a communications job at a prominent law firm and went on to join a giant policy advocacy organization. It was an opportunity to meet and work alongside people whose faces dominated the news; many were making a real difference in the world. But we finally came to the conclusion that there was more real life in those photos than in all of the dealmaking and cocktail partying we witnessed in Washington.
Our life in Washington was a powerful reminder that policies and decisions made in cramped rooms can impact the lives of millions.
The reality is that young professionals are fleeing America’s big cities. Vacancy rates are skyrocketing in the country’s poshest markets and search volume for apartments is down by a third in marquee cities like New York and San Francisco.
Pandemic Brings Real Benefits for Remote Workers
The Covid-19 pandemic wasn’t just a reminder that close quarters living at exorbitant prices is unsustainable through bad times, though it is. The pandemic’s real impact is the way it has forced American workers into telework while unlocking a related opportunity to live in America’s great and diverse middle.
This is not to say that D.C. is a place without substance or that the work being done there is insignificant. Our life in Washington was a powerful reminder that policies and decisions made in cramped rooms can impact the lives of millions. But even members of Congress go back to their homes each week to hear what their constituents have to say — and I believe that those local conversations are the most significant.
Moving to Alabama struck the perfect balance for us. Instead of coming to the heartland only to listen for a week or weekend, we moved here to live among the people that our clients want to serve and to get to know them. It’s easy for us to get back to D.C. All we have to do is take a 90-minute flight into Reagan Airport, and another half hour after that we can be at Pesch’s downtown office, advocating for the needs of our clients and connecting with reporters and decision-makers. This is exactly what so many other young people are recognizing. We don’t have to live in a bubble to make a difference.
The internet has come for many industries. Now it’s coming for America’s coastal cities. The point is not that technology and internet speeds make telework from the heartland very possible, though they do. The point is that consultancies like mine are actually better off outside giant coastal cities. We serve our clients when we’re surrounded by three types of diversity that small towns do better than big cities: diversity of thought, culture, and economics.
Smaller Cities Can Have Greater Diversity
Diversity of thought is woven tightly into smaller communities and cities. Different people live and work side by side, and the silos that big cities offer simply don’t exist here. Huntsville, Alabama is in conservative Madison County, sure — and the 2016 election cycle saw the county vote 54.8% Republican. But the District of Columbia went 91% Democrat. Which area is more diverse? And it’s not just political preference; it’s behavior. The hard right conservative in McLean, VA and the woke young socialist in Washington’s Shaw neighborhood might go at it hammer and tongs on Twitter, but they’re both doing it on Twitter — a platform that four out of every five Americans do not use at all.
Diversity of culture might draw the sharpest challenge, but it exists, and in a more comprehensive form here in middle America than in bigger cities. The young professional class in cities like Washington, D.C. is almost totally homogenous. They grab coffee at the same cafes and eat their salads in the same salad bars. They cluster inside the same neighborhoods, wear the same clothes. They can do this because they have their own tribal unifiers, unmoored from others’ cultures. When there are fewer culture drivers, participation in them becomes more diverse by necessity.
These places are where history matters and families are raised.
Part of this diverse culture centered on fewer touchpoints is local pride, and part is an affordable economics that allows real cultural participation by the community. My new hometown’s minor league baseball team is the Rocket City Trash Pandas. The team has yet to play a single inning, its debut season killed by Covid-19. But the Trash Pandas have outsold every other minor league team when it comes to swag. There’s local pride here, and shared cultural participation. Everyone from roofers to bankers to barbecue barons swing by the new ballpark. I want my daughter to grow up with this rootedness, to experience this grounded life. And I’m not the only one.
This is how Americans live. They have roots. There are transplants in these cities, to be sure — but the natives far outnumber them. These places are where history matters and families are raised. They’re not a transitory rest stop on the elite superhighway like Washington or Stanford or Midtown.
The many nonprofit and advocacy organizations I work with are interested in Americans, people they don’t always understand. These groups need a connection with the country. Each might be focused on some subset of policymakers and decision makers in Washington, but they need communicators who are planted out here in the nation.