No other region of the US is so geographically and culturally contained as the six states of New England. We’re a little different here in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island. We are environmentally conscious, politically independent, stoic, self-reliant, not very religious and we talk funny. We are hands-on when it comes to community decision-making and responsibility, reluctant to change our ways and suspicious of new ideas and sometimes, people “from away”. We believe in higher education, libraries, historical societies and preservation. We try to help the less fortunate by taxing ourselves or by placing a collection jar at the local general store. Our town representatives are called “Selectmen, Assessors and Overseers of the Poor” and we pass (usually with changes) the town budget once a year at a big town meeting by show of hands. We dislike cookie-cutter housing developments, urban sprawl, garish attractions and flaunted wealth.
Undoubtedly, much of this character comes from our Puritan origins, but so many other parts of America had Puritan origins, because they were settled by New Englanders. The difference was that our Puritans didn’t move away after the “west” (upstate NY, Ohio, Michigan) opened up in the early 1800’s. They liked it here. The finiteness, the community, the traditions, maybe even the weather.
Puritans had the problem of self-governance of their church once they made the crossing, and this they settled according to their beliefs. Harry S. Stout in The New England Soul explains it in terms of covenants (contracts) church members made to each other to govern the affairs of the church according to the laws of God, without the hated English hierarchy. This model of self-governance naturally expanded to local non-church politics with the core features of small autonomous units (the church and town) and the commitment (covenant) of the individual to the unit. Additionally, the Puritans encouraged literacy, education and reverence of history. Thus we come to modern New England, with its many universities and population mostly in small towns with an unspoken responsibility to participatory democracy. Those who left for the untamed frontier in the early 1800s had had enough of the New England Way.
What we have created here is both good and bad. Our crime rate is low because we take community seriously. Anonymity is hard to find. But our population is flat-lining, and aging. With the aging population comes a shrinking tax base. Schools are consolidating and closing and abandoned houses are burned for fire department practice. Our small unit identity means we are sometimes reluctant to cooperate with neighboring towns, cities, counties or states. Our Puritan-inspired rules, regulations and tithing (taxation) stifles new business. These, along with a lack of cheap immigrant labor, hurt our competitiveness with the Sunbelt. As former governor (and now US Senate candidate) Angus King has warned,
In today’s global economy, the historic rivalries and differences between New England states are luxuries we can’t afford. Virtually every job we do is subject to global competition: in 20 years the only jobs that can’t be outsourced will be those that touch a person or something they own. The world wants our standard of living. It will take a massive effort at education and innovation to maintain it….We’re in peril. We New Englanders must strengthen ourselves, break historic precedent, find new and innovative ways to maximize our joint strengths, work together. (from http://newenglandfutures.org)
Fine, but lets stop a minute and remember why we live here. We just had a Great Recession. Red-hot growth areas like Florida and Nevada went bust. People who played the Ponzi housing game lost everything. Our New England home values did take a hit, but most of us knew our houses were overvalued because we saw the nuttiness and greed in the rest of the country, and our reluctance to allow big developments limited the carnage. If massive, leveraged development, housing or otherwise is “innovation” we should tread carefully. If growth means more CO2 and record breaking temperatures, droughts and hurricanes, be glad you live in cold(er) New England. And maybe flat population growth is not such a bad thing, it’s one important component to curbing global warming and not a bad example to export. Besides, my gut tells me that we will see an influx of “sunbirds” soon….