Americans on the Move, Chasing Rainbows

September 25, 1994|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- On Wednesday, The Sun's columnist Ted Lippman called up and asked me if I had been born in Maryland. Uh oh, I thought. Here it comes. Brace yourself, you're going to be outed.

Waffling would be futile, I knew. I've seen world-class practitioners at the top of their evasive game, and I know I'm not in their league. So I confessed. Not only was I not born in Maryland, but I was born in New York City.

Ted, perhaps disarmed by my candor and recognizing the sensitivity of this stunning disclosure, kindly didn't publish my birthplace in the newspaper. Even so, with the skeleton now out of the closet and rattling its way around town, it seemed best to come clean. Having done so I feel sort of, you know, liberated.

And being identified as a come-here instead of a from-here started me musing about some of the consequences of American mobility. Most of us are come-heres, and that has a lot to do with the way we think and act as a country.

A century ago, the great historian Frederick Jackson Turner (Ph.D. Johns Hopkins, 1890) argued that the availability of open land to the west had provided a vital safety valve for American society and thus played an important part in the nation's political development.

The frontier's closed now, unless you count Siberia, and today it's no longer possible to take up free government land and make a living as a homesteader. But we still have the safety valve of mobility. We're still a remarkably unrooted people, constantly looking for and sometimes finding greener pastures. Americans are always pulling up and leaving, sometimes out of desperation but more often out of optimism.

According to a fascinating demographic map published in the October Atlantic Monthly, in the great majority of American counties fewer than 12 percent of the residents have lived in the same place for 30 years. We change houses even more frequently than we change spouses, although often we do both at the same time.

In only a smattering of counties, mostly in central Pennsylvania and the plains states of the west, do 30-year residents account for 16 percent of the population or more. (In Maryland, only Dorchester, Somerset and Allegany Counties fall into that category.)

All of this moving around means a lot of home-building; about a third of all American houses and apartments are less than 20 years old. It also means that in a great many communities ''new'' people -- the come-heres -- outnumber the ''old'' people, the from-heres.

This has political as well as social implications, as we noted up our way this month as a candidate who moved to Harford County in 1985 easily knocked off a lifelong resident in the Democratic primary for the presidency of the County Council. Obviously more was involved than length of residency, but the election was still a reminder of how much Harford County has changed as it has grown. A short generation ago, from-heres were more formidable politically than they are today.

On the whole, physical mobility, like economic mobility, is a sign of a healthy society. It means that people are free to follow opportunities and restructure their lives whenever they choose. But moving, even moving to a clearly better place, can still exact a psychic price in the form of homesickness or culture shock.

That was true a century ago for New Englanders living in sod huts on the plains. It's true now of families who left their old city neighborhoods for the suburbs, or who followed their job from one state to another.

The more you move, of course, the better you adapt, but there's a price for that, too. Just as shrubs that are constantly transplanted develop a different root system than those that are left in place, humans who move constantly are likely to be distinct in subtle ways from those who don't.

In 1946, when my father got out of the army, he moved to a farm in Maryland. The semi-rural area outside New York where he'd grown up was already changing fast, and he could foresee what was coming. I've always been glad he made that move, and after almost 50 years have almost forgotten that I'm a come-here.

My children, both born in Havre de Grace, don't have any doubt about where they're from -- but that doesn't mean they'll want to stay, or even that I'd urge them to do so. My daughter especially gets a faraway look in her eyes when she talks about Alaska, and I hope she checks it out one day.

In 1890, Professor Turner noted that with the closing of the frontier, America was entering an entirely new era. But he didn't guess that a hundred years later the same old urge to leave home and find someplace better would still be keeping Americans on the move.

4( Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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