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Becca Johnson at her office in Manhattan (Photos provided by Becca Johnson and Mark Scarlett)
Becca Johnson at her office in Manhattan (Photos provided by Becca Johnson and Mark Scarlett)

Vanishing Youth: Why do young people choose to leave the North Country?

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This morning, we begin on an on-going series, looking at the problem of young people in the North Country. Across the US, rural towns and villages face a dangerous drain of young people who are moving away, choosing a different way of life in cities and suburbs.

The exodus of twenty- and thirty-somethings has huge implications for community life, reshaping the economy, shrinking schools, making it harder to sustain volunteer fire departments and other basic services.

In the days and weeks ahead, we'll be looking at this challenge from many different angles, hearing many different voices.

But we begin with Brian Mann's story of one young woman who grew up in Rossie, in the St. Lawrence Valley, but chose to live and raise her family far away from the North Country.

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Becca as a girl on her parents' farm in Rossie

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When I first started talking to Becca Johnson about the small town where she grew up, I didn’t get just how small it is.  Her parents moved to Rossie in the 1970s. Their family homesteaded in an old abandoned barn.

"The first floor was our kind of living space and kitchen, but no running water and no toilet, or anything like that," she told me.

"So you were practically a teenager before you had indoor plumbing?"Becca laughed and shook her head at the memory.  "Yes, yes!  It had an interesting influence on my social life."

While most American kids were waking up to MTV, Becca's family didn’t have a TV, or even a telephone.

Rossie is tucked away in a fold of rocky hills, surrounded by a chain of beautiful lakes. 

When her family settled here, the place was already fading.  The mines were long gone.  Factories and farms and cheese plants were closing.  Rossie’s once bustling little downtown has mostly gone dark.

"The population of Rossie is about what it was in 1850 or 1860," Becca's dad, Mark Scarlett, told me when I visited.

He’s in his sixties now and he absolutely loves this place. He talks about the land, the geology, the local history…the way a city guy might talk about his favorite deli or his favorite baseball team.

Mark worked all kinds of jobs to make a living, everything from construction to farming. He takes me out to the field where he keeps his team of oxen, that’s right, actual oxen that he uses for logging and for sugaring maple trees.  They look sort of like cows on steroids.

"They're very good around chain for hauling logs," Mark said.

By now you’re probably thinking that Becca Johnson and her parents are a quaint sort of Little House on the Prairie throwback.

But here’s the interesting thing. When the Scarletts moved to Rossie in the 1970s, a third of Americans still lived in rural areas. These days, that percentage has dropped dramatically so that now just one in five of us live in places even  remotely like Rossie.

In states like Illinois, the change is even more stark, with the urban population swelling to almost 90 percent.  A big part of the reason is the exodus of young people like Becca.

"I definitely wanted to go away," she recalled.  "I mean part of that was I just was like, there’s got to be other places in the world to see, so I definitely remember thinking that I couldn’t want to go away.

It turns out, Becca is part of a historic migration, a century-long shift away from small towns that is redefining the nation’s economy and culture.

"Grew up in small town and when the rain would fall down, I’d just stare out my window dreaming of what could be," sang Kelly Clarkson.

This transformation is such a powerful part of the American experience that it’s actually inspired a sort of genre of music, pop songs and country and western ballads about leaving small towns and heading to the big city. This is the journey that has reshaped Becca Johnson’s life.

She lives now in the Hudson valley north of New York City.  She commutes on the train to work in Manhattan, trading her village of 800 people for a city of 9 million.

"So we’re in Grand Central Station, and this is where all the tracks converge and where everybody heads off to their busy days in the big city."

Now here’s an interesting thing. Becca has made a great career for herself, working as a researcher and consultant for medical and insurance companies.

But these days, people who study small towns are finding that a lot of young people are choosing an urban life not just because of better jobs and careers, but because this is the life experience they want: cosmpolitan, fast-paced.

"I love it, I mean, I love it," she said.  "I was trying to think why I love it so much, because it is such a change.  I remember one of the first days on the job, you were just hearing different languages. Tons of languages going on in the office, which is cool, I love it."

One big transition that Becca and a lot of rural people navigate is the move from a mostly white community to an America that is far more multi-racial and multi-cultural.

This is especially true in the Midwest and Northeast, where small towns have seen almost none of the racial diversity that is transforming the larger culture.

While at college, Becca met and married a black man. Her husband, Mark Johnson, is home making dinner. They laugh about it now, but he was leery at first about traveling north to Becca’s tiny town to meet her parents.

"He insisted that I tell my parents that he was black.  And I was like this is going to be really awkward.  Because they’re not gonna, they're gonna be like, okay?"

The two families met and meshed really well, though Becca says the lack of diversity in her home town is one of the reasons she thinks it would be hard for her to move back there with Mark and their two kids.

Mark says he’s watched Becca adapt to a more urban, more plugged-in life. He sort of teases her about it.

"It’s funny, too, she’s like making up for lost time, she’s on Palm Pilot and she's watching 'Houseives,'" he said.

The truth is, Becca is really ambivalent about parts of this journey.  When we go for a walk with her kids, Ezzie and Maya, she kind of admits that she feels that she’s betrayed something, or lost something, by choosing a more urban life. Some of the small-town values she grew up with have slipped away.

"Do you actually think in some ways that you have kind of sold out?" I asked. "Yeah. Yeah, I do," Becca said.  "I mean, because I hold those ideals but I don’t always live by them.  I mean I always think, we could have a garden, or I’d love to have a garden, instead I spend a whole lot of money shopping organically."

Becca's kids, Ezzie and Maya don't feel any of that regret.  To them, even this bedroom town where they live feels sort of isolated, and Rossie?  They can't even imagine that life.

"I wouldn't go any farther rural," Ezzie said. "That’s what I feel like Rossie is like, going back in time."

People who study rural America say there are some hopeful signs for places like Rossie.  The small farm movement is drawing some young people back.

But the reinvention of America as a country where the culture and the economy are mostly rooted in cities, that’s probably irreversible.

"Unless they found some kind of really meaningful work here, I didn't expect them to stay here," said Becca’s mom, Louise.

Both of her kids and almost all of their friends from school have moved away.  She says she's proud of them and their careers, but as her own generation hits retirement age, she worries about Rossie and the community she and her husband tried to revitalize.

"You know, we are definitely in the older demographic of it. I don’t know who the younger people who will carry it on.  So yeah, it’s definitely not a good thing for the community."

These days, when Becca goes home to visit, she says she worries that incredibly important things are being lost as rural America fades, connectedness, self-reliance, a less frantic way of life.

"I love [Rossie] now for all the reasons I wanted to leave it as a kid.  It's quiet, it's solitude, it's remote. You get to escape the craziness of the world I've planted myself in."

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