Kiplinger's Personal Finance was hardly telling Boiseans anything new last summer when it ranked the city fourth among the nation's 10 best places to live, work and play. Over the last few years, we've gotten pretty used to being at or near the top of such lists: Forbes, Money, National Geographic Adventure, Inc.com, MSN BestLife, Relocate America, Prevention Magazine -- they all love us. But love has its price.
When I moved back to Boise a while ago after 20 years of living overseas and on both U.S. coasts, the return started out well. The brain-like folds of the foothills were as I remembered them. Seeing the little stone house near Hyde Park where I used to live and play my sax to cassette tapes recalled old tunes and old times.
Our friends welcomed us back and warned us not to brave the wild “connector" road between downtown and the suburban metastasis. But the city's only mall was out there, so we who had survived San Francisco's Interstate 80 and the D.C. Beltway entered the easy-going connector -- and had to laugh.
Maybe in Boise, I thought, we'll find balance, a state of grace that by definition disallows too much driving and too much striving at the expense of family and friends.
The reporters are right who have come to praise the charms of Boise, one of America's fastest-growing cities. The 40 years' war over downtown -- to renovate or raze -- hasn't produced victory on either side, but the occupied territory looks good to me. I live in the nearby North End, a non-right-wing pocket of the state. Besides, libertarianism has its upside in this town: Bicyclists may legally run stop signs and don't have to wear helmets.
Yet all those “Best Places to Live" lists never adequately account for the true costs of living in these Best Places. The rankings give big points for cheap labor, but they generally play down the flip side, which is that wages are horrendous. In Boise as in many other Western cities, work opportunities often are a matter of bumping your head pretty quickly on the ceiling. But that's OK many Boiseans explain, because in return we can maintain our quality of life. That's the treasure we want to hoard, and loss of it is our constant fear.
So we like to believe that the economic downturn has a weird upside for places like Boise, where Micron Technology, the state's biggest private employer, announced it will lay off about 1,500 workers -- following 1,100 jobs lost there last summer. The trend continued as the parent company of the Albertson's supermarket chain announced it would outsource 80 Boise jobs to India. More startling was what happened to the employees of seven Round Table Pizza parlors: They showed up for their shifts, only to find that the restaurants had closed and they were out of work.
Since September 2007, the number of people on unemployment has doubled in the city, but even as the nation's latest recession brings pain, it also puts a brake on the destructive power of quick growth.
The reality, though, is that a town's positive qualities are always endangered. Everyone knows the drill: population expansion, new development, sprawl, pollution, congestion, more crime. Especially in Western towns with a glowing media image like Boise, it's hard to imagine that the balance we treasure can survive.
Walking to meet my daughter after school, I think about the district's commissioners, who took the financial advice of an out-of-state consultant and tried to combine her neighborhood grammar school with others. The parents rose up and beat back that threat for the time being. Traffic is steady as I walk along this boulevard, reminding me that commuter traffic from growth to the north threatens to force the construction of wider roads through our historic residential district.
Strolling along, I wonder about all the wanderers like me, who once fled from places like Boise but later came back home in search of sanctuary. Are we trying to return to a place that never existed? The dream of the past is so often corrupted by the present. Is the sanctuary of the small-town West, its balance of family and work, just a mirage? Such thoughts are best shaken off.
I start to walk faster. My little girl might be wondering where I am.
Steve Bunk is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He is managing editor of Idaho Magazine in Boise, Idaho.