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About the cover

  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e   September 2008


Why Not the Best?

A snowy Minnesota exurb beats Las Cruces for livability.
Yeah, right.


Evidently the folks at Money magazine never go outside. That's the only explanation I can come up with for their latest issue, the glossy cover of which — emblazoned "America's Best Places to Live" — now competes for attention beside my reading chair with The Atlantic Monthly and Batman.

I know your bags are packed to pick up and relocate in the best place in America to live, so I won't keep you in suspense a sentence longer. The magazine's editors — this year focusing on "America's best small cities," defined as population 50,000 to 300,000 — bestowed that coveted title on (drum roll, please)... Plymouth, Minn. No, that "Minn." part — short for "Minnesota" for those of you who flunked Geography 101 and Abbreviations 102 — is not a typo. The best place to live in America is supposedly in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. Indeed, the list of the top 100 small cities is studded with Minnesota locales — not unlike the way a Minnesota resident's body would be festooned with mosquito bites after a half-hour's evening exposure this time of year. (The good news, though, is that it's already September; the first frost and blizzard are right around the corner in Minnesota, so no more pesky skeeters!) There's Eagan at number 17, Apple Valley at 24, Lakeville at 26, Eden Prairie and Maple Grove at 40 and 41... the list goes on. We're talking about a metropolitan area, please note, where one of the sports teams is nicknamed the "Swarm." That's not as in "swarm of butterflies." I'm pretty sure that Off is Minnesota's official state cologne. I scanned the list in vain for a mention of "NM," past Bismarck, ND, at number 97 — yes, Bismarck, NORTH Dakota, for gosh sakes, are these people dropping acid? — and all the way down to lowly Wayne, NJ, at 100th place. Nary a New Mexico place earned a ranking.

To be fair to Money's no-doubt-beleaguered editors (the mayor of Wayne, NJ, must be calling nonstop), only three New Mexico places meet their rather peculiar criteria for this year's "Best" list: Las Cruces, Rio Rancho and Santa Fe. Still, it's hard to imagine that none of those could squeak past, say, Fargo, ND, number 88. Imagine this conversation:

"Fred, we've decided to promote you to district manager."

"Gosh, boss, that's great news."

"But you're going to have to relocate. You have your choice between Fargo, ND, and Santa Fe, NM."

"That's a no-brainer, chief! We've always dreamed of living in Fargo. Now we can finally get that snow-blower out of the garage and put it to use! Wait'll I tell the wife."


Close inspection of the magazine's ranking criteria reveals that, indeed, they don't expect any of their readers to venture outside. At least for the final cut, rankings are based on: jobs/economy, safety, education, housing affordability and leisure/arts. Climate was not factored in, much less the frequency of blinding snowstorms or likelihood of being carried off by mosquitoes. By these criteria, a North Sea oil rig could have topped the list if it had enough employees, a distance-learning program and HBO on cable.

I can see how "housing affordability" might have dented Santa Fe's ranking, but surely its score on "leisure/arts" should have compensated. (Is Plymouth, Minn., the second-largest fine art market in the US? I don't think so.) And, honestly, it's hard to figure how Las Cruces — not so long ago ranked one of the best places to retire by the very same magazine — failed to crack the top 100: booming economy, NMSU, still not so pricey on housing compared to most places (median home price $186,000 compared to the "best places" average $292,000), and a Spaceport being built just up the road!

Several burgs in Arizona did make the list — suburbs of Phoenix like Gilbert, Chandler, Scottsdale and Peoria (not the one in Illinois). Not to diss our neighbors to the west, but it's obvious the Money staff has never visited the Phoenix area in the summer. Granted, Las Cruces can get a tad toasty, but we're talking thermonuclear temperatures. Small children have been known to melt in the Phoenix metropolitan area when left in the sun too long, like popsicles. Dogs catch fire. Streets turn to rivers of molten asphalt.

Then there's the traffic. Getting from these "best places" in the Phoenix metroplex to, say, any of the area's "leisure/arts" requires navigating a tangle of car-clogged roadways that makes one long for the ease and speed of LA freeways. Or try commuting! By the time the typical Chandlerite crawls into his downtown Phoenix parking space, a Las Cruces resident could have driven to Santa Fe, taken in the opera, and gotten home. And that's before the coming Spaceport America lets us all zoom around like the Jetsons.


Many of these so-called "small cities" on the magazine's list, indeed, are nothing more than glorified "exurbs," dependent for their economic vitality and "leisure/arts" options on big cities a ways down the interstate. (Moneycounted attractions within 15 or 30 miles, depending on the category.) Given the recent runup in the cost of gasoline, Money's timing for this particular "best places" focus couldn't be worse.

None of the Minnesota cities I mentioned would exist without the proximity of the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Having lived in the Twin Cities for two good chunks of my life, I can testify that most of them aren't true "cities" at all; they're appendages off the I-694/494 beltway. No casual motorist could tell where Apple Valley ends and Eagan begins. ("Look, honey, another Denny's! This must be Eagan.") Plymouth, the supposed "best place to live," is just a village that ballooned into an exurb when the suburbs between it and Minneapolis filled up.

The viability of these places, like many on the magazine's list, depends upon gasoline costing a good deal less than $4 a gallon. It's perhaps not too harsh, indeed, to argue that the Plymouths and Chandlers of America epitomize the nation's current energy mess. Thinking that gasoline was inexhaustible and eternally cheap, we took our SUVs and minivans and pickups ever farther from the core cities, staking out new suburbs and tract-home developments the way our forebears once homesteaded the prairies. Developments with interchangeable names like "Willow Lakes," "Eagle Estates" and "Serenity Meadows" overran the real willows, eagles and meadows.

I'm amazed, in fact, that the Twin Cities suburb where we lived for six years, Woodbury, didn't make the Money list. One of the fastest-growing towns in Minnesota, Woodbury turned from cow pastures to cul-de-sacs, from tangles of trees to tract homes, almost overnight. When we bought our house in Woodbury, only a few old farmhouses lay between our outpost of suburban civilization and the St. Croix River to the east, where charming old river towns hugged the water. My commute to downtown St. Paul was only about 20 minutes on those rare days when it wasn't snowing; still, we couldn't imagine anyone living much farther out. Today, of course, the population has boomed in places that were little more than distant dots on the map when we lived in Woodbury. Subdivisions have sprouted from those charming river towns like weeds. People commute from across the river in Wisconsin. Woodbury's population grew 131 percent from 1990, shortly before we moved there, to 2000, just after we left. It's added another 12,000 denizens since 2000, I see, reaching 58,500, and is projected to hit 73,500 by 2020--assuming that somebody finds enough gas to fuel those ever-lengthening commutes. (May I also point out that one of the handy Web sites where I found these statistics also says the average January low temperature in Woodbury is 6.2 degrees? No, that's not a misprint. But it's balmy compared to "the best place to live," Plymouth, where the average January low is 2.8 degrees.)


Whatever its flaws, Las Cruces is a real place, not merely an outgrowth of someplace else or a real place that's been overwhelmed by refugees from inner-ring suburbs. Maybe it's growing too fast, but that's obviously not a negative for the rank-meisters at Money. Yes, the summer mercury does top 100 degrees more often than we'd like, but that's the tradeoff for January lows that average 23.2 degrees warmer than Plymouth, Minn., and January highs of almost 60. Locals may long for more of those "leisure/arts" options, but Las Cruces surely has more indigenous culture than the typical Twin Cities suburb; it's not as though the Guthrie Theater or Walker Art Center are in beautiful downtown Plymouth, after all.

As skyrocketing gas prices choke off the nation's Plymouths and Gilberts, moreover, most Las Crucens continue to enjoy laughable commutes. The typical resident isn't sitting in traffic burning fossil fuels for 90 minutes or so every weekday.

It's just too bad that Money's annual "best places to live" ranking comes out in the August issue instead of, say, January. Then we could compare the daily life lived by a Plymouth resident — bundled up like an Eskimo, stuck in the car on a snowbound interstate on-ramp, the fuel gauge dipping perilously toward "E" — with that of some poor soul in Las Cruces, which didn't even make the list.

The Money editors might want to look, oh, at Spirit Winds coffee bar. Joe and Jane Las Crucen will be sitting outside in their shirt sleeves, maybe a light jacket, sipping a java drink. They have time for a coffee break because their drive to work took only 10 minutes.

Poor bastards. Too bad they're not in America's best place to live.


Desert Exposure editor David A. Fryxell lives in "one of the
100 best small towns in America," Silver City.



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