Dividing Paradise: Life in a New Zoomtown

I’m in the midst of reading an excellent new book that should be on the reading lists of anyone seeking to understand the challenges of rural development and of addressing our growing economic inequality more generally.   Dividing Paradise:  Rural Inequality and the Diminishing American Dream is a deep-dive ethnographic study of Washington’s Paradise Valley, a beautiful area located near Mount Rainier National Park. The author, Washington State University’s Jennifer Sherman, has written often on issues related to rural poverty.  In this book, she examines life in a rural place that, on paper at least, is doing pretty well.  Thanks to its natural beauty and amenities, Paradise Valley has attracted lots of “amenity migrants.”  We might call it a “Zoomtown,” where many newer residents can work from home and enjoy hip boutiques, cool restaurants, and great outdoor recreation. Yet, all is not well under the surface.   The growth generated by this in-migration has not really improved the lives of long-time residents, and connections between them and the “newcomers” can be tenuous and sometimes testy.   Issues of housing availability/affordability and quality jobs are especially thorny.  This is not a policy study, so Sherman doesn’t offer a lot of solutions or recommendations.  But, she does provide a fascinating—and challenging—look at how both new and old residents are dealing with economic inequality in a “hot” rural locale.  Many folks in Paradise Valley are seeking to address these tensions, but they can’t do it alone.  We’ll need to think bigger if we want combat economic inequality in America’s new Zoomtowns and beyond.

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