COVID-19 has fundamentally changed where we live and work, how we socialize, and what we do to earn a living. The pandemic, like past microbial and economic plagues, set off an exodus of well-heeled professionals out of cities to the suburbs, exo-burbs and beyond. But in an era where working from home has become easier than ever — among the privileged classes, at least — will the easing of COVID restrictions see a boomerang migration back to metro centers? Or, like catered corporate lunches and hugging coworkers, has the office, as both a place of business and a social institution, thankfully been made obsolete?
In his new book, Return of the Artisan, Grant McCracken explores how a post-war America gradually rediscovered its home-spun roots, sprouting amid the sterile futurism of the 1950s, growing through the 1960s and ’70s counterculture revolution, and blooming with the maker movement at the start of the 21st century . In the excerpt below, McCracken discusses the accelerating effect the COVID pandemic has had on America’s rejection of “smart city” living and embrace of a more rural, artisanal lifestyle.
Excerpted from Return of the Artisan. Copyright © 2022, Grant McCracken. Reproduced by permission of Simon Element, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved.
The arrival of COVID-19 in 2020 transformed the American economy and culture in many ways. It was manifestly bad for hotels, airlines, restaurants, anyone who supplied restaurants, performing arts, live music, gyms, and country fairs. It was (mostly) good for people who were selling online or could seize new opportunities there. (Etsy-based artisans were quick to bring face masks to market; at their height, masks made up a tenth of all Etsy sales.) To say COVID was a mixed blessing would be an understatement.
But in one way, COVID was unambiguously good news for the artisanal movement. People began to flee the city for suburbs, exurbs, small towns, and the countryside. By some estimates, three hundred thousand people left New York City, heading to upstate New York and the far end of Long Island. Sometimes this meant merely activating summer homes. Sometimes it meant renting. Sometimes it meant purchase. For all, it meant giving up their treasured city, at least for a while.
Most of these people were not migrants. They had no intention of staying. After all, a real New Yorker scorned the idea of the “bridge and tunnel” world beyond the city. This was the world God created for suburbanites, “breeders,” the weak of head and heart, people without real cultural currency, those who choose to wallow in the wasteland of popular culture.
Bridge and tunnel is the world so heartlessly captured by Christopher Guest in Waiting for Guffman. In this “mockumentary,” Guest gives us a town called Blaine, Missouri, a place where everyone is a clueless hick except for one man, Corky St. Clair. Corky is in fact a total dunce. Corky has failed to make it on Broadway and returned to Blaine to start again. Poor Corky. When he realizes that Blaine too must betray him, he lashes out.
“And I’ll tell you why I can’t put up with you people: because you’re bastard people!” That’s what you are! You’re just bastard people!”
In a culture where expressions of outrage are crafted for us by the best writers in Hollywood, “bastard people” seems a little ineffective. This was Guest’s point exactly. In bridge and tunnel world, people aren’t really very good at anything. They can’t even manage convincing indignation.
The bridge and tunnel stereotype had long kept New Yorkers in place, in check, at home. Things could get very bad in the city—you could lose your job. You could fail to complete that novel or win that contract. But until you actually left the city, you were still a New Yorker, an insider. You were not yet Corky St. Clair.
The artisanal movement managed to shift this stereotype. It helped us see small towns and the countryside as a virtuous choice, instead of a Corky-scale failure. With the artisanal lens in place, the world outside of New York City became a more attractive place. Human scale, handmade, historical, authentic, kinder, gentler, less competitive. Quite suddenly, bridges and tunnels were less a source of shame than a method of escape.
Some people began to hear echoes of the 1970s and early ’80s, when the city suffered from so much unemployment and lawlessness that people began to leave, taking their taxes with them and pushing the city into a downward spiral. Fifty years later, New York City appeared poised for yet another fall. Three hundred thousand people left. Fewer people threatened a small tax base, fewer services, and more chaos. This would mean diminished police and fire support. This would mean more crime and chaos. This would mean more flights. A self-renewing cycle had been set in train.
New Yorkers are perpetual motion machines. And now that New York City was pushing (thanks to COVID and crime) and places like upstate New York were pulling (thanks to the artisanal revolution), departure felt like a compelling option.
What a gift for the revolution! Every small town got an infusion of people. In the early part of 2020, Litchfield, Connecticut, got two thousand newcomers in a period that would normally bring them sixty. Most came bearing the big salaries that can be made in a big city. And virtually all these people had been inducted into the artisanal movement while still living in the city, by the diasporic chefs doing Waters’s work there. They were newcomers, but not entirely unwitting when it came to local culture.
This is what every social movement dreams of. New recruits who are sophisticated and well-heeled. For people living in a subsistence economy, barely eking out an artisanal existence, this was water in the desert, manna from heaven. Restaurants flourished. CSAs finally passed their break-even point. Farmer’s markets filled to overflowing. Life was good, or at least better.
But, of course, there is always a tension. The newcomers might grasp the general idea of the artisanal mission, but some of the realities escaped them. They could be rude and clueless. In Winhall, Vermont, the locals were feeling a bit overwhelmed:
The post office ran out of available PO boxes in mid-June. Electricians and plumbers are booked until Christmas. Complaints about bears have quadrupled. And as far as the [town] dump is concerned, as [one town resident] put it, “the closest word I can tell you is sheer pandemonium.”
In the worst cases, the newcomers were driving real estate prices up and old-timers out. The irony was palpable. Writing from the small town of Kingston, New York, Sara B. Franklin warned of the “potential loss of people who’ve kept our community vibrantly diverse, not to mention alive and functioning.”
Still. The COVID moment brought together people with taste, money, and commitment with locals who had been making small towns and artisanal economies work for generations. Sometimes it worked; sometimes it didn’t. But generally speaking, the artisanal movement was massively augmented.
The key question was whether the newcomers would stay. And this depended on a series of smaller questions. Would they put down roots? Would they “take” to life outside the big city? Would their employers let them stay, or would they call everyone back to headquarters the moment it was safe to do so.
I did a research project on American families in the COVID era. Mothers were clear on whether they wanted to go back to work outside the home. For most, the answer was a resounding “no.” These women now had proof that they could work from home. And now that they were working from home, they looked back at the pre-COVID era with a sense of puzzlement.
“Why was it,” one of them asked me, “that we had to spend all that time commuting, all that time on our clothing and hair, all that time in the office with lots of empty engagements and pointless meetings?” For what?” In the ensuing conversation, some women were prepared to entertain the suspicion that work had been a kind of “theater.” This had nothing to do with functionality or practicality. My respondents thought something else was going on. One of them said:
I think it must be men. Women can do lots of things at the same time. We can work at home. We can manage a family. It’s men who need to have a separate time and place to work. They need a box to work in. It’s also a question of ego. Men like to see cars in the parking lots. Why do women go into the office? They do it to satisfy male egos in the C suite.
But it was not just women who took this point of view. The New York Times talked to a guy who gave up his home in LA and bought a place in Vermont. Apparently, Jonny Hawton “finds it hard to conceive of returning to his old commuter lifestyle, which allowed him only an hour a day with his 1-year-old daughter.”
If someone told me I had to go back to do that tomorrow, I don’t know what I would do,” he said. “It’s almost like we were in a trance that everyone went along with. I used to see Millie for an hour a day. This whole crisis has kind of hit the reset button for a lot of people, made them question the things they sacrificed for work.
These folks will want to stay outside the city, and they are prepared to make extraordinary sacrifices to do so. The research told me that these women had used the time saved in the COVID era to change their families, to get to know their children better, to build new relationships with their daughters, to restructure mealtime, and to give the family new centrality. At one point I thought I was looking at the possibility of the emergence of a more fully, more emphatically matrifocal family.
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