December 16, 2019
Some days, as she drives her children to school or a soccer game, Brigette Ostrom Largey will pause to point out the mountains and wooded valleys circling their little town.
“Take a look at how beautiful it is,” she tells her kids, ages 10, 8, and 5. “Do you understand how lucky you are?”
Surrounded by state forest, with a population of just 3,200, Wellsboro, Pennsylvania, may seem small and remote to some. But after growing up in a nearby coal town of a just a few hundred, Largey, 39, says this upstate county seat feels downright cosmopolitan.
Sports programs, school activities, music festivals, parades, and kid-friendly plays help create “real human connections—not the kind you make on Instagram and Facebook,” this special-education teacher still marvels after 12 years living here. “People welcome you. They invite you. They would do anything for you."
About 6 in 10 American adults say they feel at least somewhat attached to the community where they live, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center, while about 4 in 10 say they don’t feel a deep kind of connection.
Carmen Hooper, 24, counts herself among the latter. After a year in Eugene, Oregon, “I’m still struggling with myself to fit in,” she says.
She relocated to Eugene from Portland to take a data entry job at a plywood manufacturing firm. “I love my job and my employers,” says Hooper, and she sees opportunities with it for a long career.
But after growing up in a “very conservative” coastal town where her father was a commercial fisherman, she finds Eugene “very liberal, very progressive, and that [outlook] surrounds everything.” A self-described moderate, “I feel I don’t quite fit into the local demographic,” she says. Apart from a few friends, and a roommate with whom she shares a duplex in a quiet part of town, “I kind of keep to myself."
Rural adults are more rooted in their communities than urban or suburban residents, with longer histories and less interest in moving to a new community, the Pew survey found. Older adults tend to feel more satisfied with their communities and more attached to them, while young adults tend to be more restless and mobile.
After living in Seattle for a short time, Kristin Tovar had mixed feelings about returning to Tucson, Arizona to be closer to her now-husband. In college there she’d loved its walkability and “celebration of differentness.” But after moving back, she soon discovered that the easy ways that young singles connect on a campus eluded her when she was 26 and married. She wanted to move, but her husband, a native Tucsonian, wanted to stay. “I felt very stuck,” she says.
Tovar moped for months, then had an epiphany. “I have to find a way to live here and thrive,” she told herself. And with that she embarked on a search for things about Tucson to love. “I started taking photos of the things I enjoyed—anything that caught my eye or piqued my interest…. The more I learned about this or that place or who shaped it, the more I came to appreciate it.” Then she started posting her photos on Instagram. “It really hit a nerve with other people my own age."
Tovar began selling T-shirts online that read “Why I Love Where I Live,” and they proved so popular she opened a retail store in a former shipping container. It sells T-shirts and other products with upbeat messages like “Bloom Where You’re Planted.” Today, at 33, even with two small children and another job, she finds time to work the counter and share with customers her story of how she found connectedness.
“Our message is not just about Tucson,” she says. “The message of loving where you live is something that can shape other places as well.