It’s no secret that climbing rents are driving many creative entrepreneurs out of popular urban centers. When Seattle book publisher Ed Marquand stumbled across an abundance of cheap real estate in a struggling small town not far from the big city, he thought he may have found a solution to the problem. But will Marquand be received as a knight in shining armor or a colonizer come to conquer and pillage?Download episode
Rebecca Sheir has been a host and reporter on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Marketplace, Here and Now, The Splendid Table, and the Alaska Public Radio Network. Follow her on Twitter.
Phoebe Flanigan is an independent producer and reporter based out of Portland, Oregon. To check out more of her work, visit her website.
Rebecca Sheir: These days, you hear a lot of stories like Carye Bye’s.
Carye Bye: My name is Carye Bye. I’ve been a professional artist.
Sheir: Carye specializes in these really interesting illustrations and prints using woodcuts. And about 15, 16 years ago, she was looking to live in a city with a community of other artists—one that artists could actually afford. Unlike San Francisco, where she had been living.
Bye: I lasted about a year and a half. But it wasn’t really my scene or working out too well.
Sheir: So in 2001, she packed up
Bye: Many people told me that I would really like Portland.
Sheir: and headed north.
Bye: I had never been there before. And within a year I had found a great community. Being an artist there was really easy. And within six years I was able to go into full-time art.
Sheir: For a while Carye was doing great in Portland, Oregon. But it wasn’t long before things changed.
Bye: It was the point where I was renting an apartment, and I had no idea how expensive apartments had gotten because I was in a steady place. And before you could maybe get an apartment, one bedroom, for 700, 900, something in there. And then suddenly, my husband and I are looking and things that weren’t even that great were $1,500. We were like, “Huh, that feels a lot like San Francisco!”
Sheir: So here she was, in a city that artists like her had made attractive—even mockable, if you’ve seen the show Portlandia—and she was getting priced out.
Bye: For me I just was like, Well, if Portland’s going to be an environment that isn’t being very helpful to me, it just felt like the right thing to do is to get out while I could.
Sheir: Or, as she wrote in an op-ed in the local alt-weekly at the time—one titled “Portland, I Love You but You’re Forcing Me Out”:
Bye: “...what I learned from my brief time in San Francisco is that there’s a line between swimming and sinking. I’m starting to feel myself get soggy.”
Sheir: So, Carye packed up again, and headed south:
Bye: I’m here in San Antonio. I’ve been here three-and-a-half months.
Sheir: And so far, so good, she says.
Bye: So right now I’m living pretty close in. Rent is very reasonable. I very much love being downtown. It’s a beautiful town and I couldn’t be happier.
Sheir: But will her happiness last? Or will the developers and higher prices follow her to Texas, too? Will this cycle, so common in coastal cities in the United States, just keep repeating itself?
Bye: Oh, it could.
Sheir: I’m Rebecca Sheir, and from Slate magazine, this is Placemakers: stories about the spaces we inhabit, and the people who shape them. Today, we’ll meet another creative type in the Pacific Northwest who, like Carye Bye, also fled from the high rents and escalating costs of the big city. But as producer Phoebe Flanigan tells us, this individual is proposing a very different path—down what is literally a dead-end road.
Phoebe Flanigan: I have to describe this scene for you, because it is totally surreal. I’m in this dusty little, end-of-the-road town called Tieton. Out in eastern Washington state. Beautiful old buildings surrounded by miles of apple orchards, a big blue sky. It’s like a Norman Rockwell painting, hung out to dry somewhere and forgotten.
Daniel Chase Powell: Oh you should have seen me out there! I went in low and came out sliding. Oh man that was amazing! It was worth the 310-mile drive to get here!
Flanigan: So, not the sort of place you’d expect to find a bunch of nationally renowned designers and engineers climbing into what appear to be miniature, handmade racecars—think soapbox cars, but with little, five-horsepower motors. They’re called cyclekarts.
Powell: You just take a hunk of marble and you just cut away everything that isn’t a cyclekart. And what you’re left with is a beautiful racing machine. So yeah if you just picture an old—if you know nothing about cars, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang? Just something with the wheels on the outside.
Flanigan: This is Daniel Chase Powell. He works for a Bitcoin ATM company in Seattle. He’ll be driving a cyclekart later today, but at the moment, he’s whizzing around on a Segway.
Flanigan: I gotta say, it stands out in Tieton.
Powell: Well you know and I actually asked one of them, does this make me look like a conceited prick riding this around? But hopefully not. I’m really just trying not to think of it because I’m having so much fun riding this thing.
Flanigan: It looks fun. And it also looks totally out of place. Like this Bitcoin guy accidentally Segwayed into Tieton through a wormhole, from the future. Actually, all of these cyclekart enthusiasts look a little alien against the backdrop of rural Tieton. I mean, it’s a three-hour drive from Seattle. Twenty minutes from Yakima, the nearest place that resembles a city.
So, how did they end up way out here?
Flanigan: So you had a nice drive? A long drive?
Flanigan: The guy to ask is this gentleman—Ed Marquand.
Marquand: It is always beautiful. That drive is unbelievable.
Flanigan: Ed Marquand is not a cyclekart driver—nor is he an engineer. He actually runs a publishing company that prints fine art books out of Seattle. But he does like to ride bikes. And there was this one, fateful bike ride, back in 2005, that changed his life. And changed the fate of this place. See, since the ’90s, Marquand’s been spending a lot of time in eastern Washington.
Marquand: My partner and I have a cabin that we built about now 25 years ago.
Flanigan: He and his partner, Mike Longyear, call it their “cabin,” but the design looks more like something you’d expect to find in Brooklyn or San Francisco. Back in 2005, Marquand was spending a lot of his weekends at his second home—going on these long, looping rides.
Marquand: Long bike trips around the Yakima Valley.
Flanigan: This particular bike ride, on this particular day—it started the same as countless rides before. Marquand slipped on his bright yellow safety vest, clipped on his biking cleats and helmet, and headed out on his old road bike. But after riding down to the highway and winding east for several miles along the Naches River, Marquand saw a sign he’d never noticed—an arrow, pointing up a steep grade to a place called Tieton. Spelled T-I-E-T-O-N. And he let his curiosity get the better of him.
Man’s voice: For a while I was thinking the story was of multiple bike riders. But the last time I heard it, it was one bike rider. Ed Marquand.
Flanigan: What happened next has become something of a local legend.
Man’s voice: By the time he got to Tieton he must have been exhausted.
Woman’s voice: And as he came into Tieton he ran over a big lot of goatheads.
Marquand: Which are these diabolical little weeds that grow in the cracks of asphalt.
Man’s voice: It’s called terribulus terribulus in its Latin form. But anyway it’s a real bummer.
Marquand: In 10 feet I had 18 punctures.
Man’s voice: And so I think he was—I don’t know if he was in Tieton square. But he was changing a tire and that’s when he saw all these empty spaces.
Marquand: Lots of empty storefronts, lots of empty warehouses.
Flanigan: Marquand was enchanted by the sight of all of these beautiful old buildings, standing dusty and derelict.
Man’s voice: And wheels start clicking in his mind you know.
Man’s voice: So and he was just like, I’m gonna do it.
Flanigan: OK so hold on to that image for a minute—Ed Marquand, in this little town square. He’s starting to get ideas. But to understand what happened next, you have to know that Tieton wasn’t always this sleepy place full of empty buildings. If you found yourself in downtown Tieton back in the 1950s or ’60s, you could go to a movie, get a haircut, buy groceries, get your prescription filled.
Pat Biggers: There used to be a hotel, there were restaurants.
Flanigan: Pat Biggers runs the antique shop in Tieton, and she remembers what it was like. You might recognize her voice from earlier, talking about Marquand’s bike ride.
Biggers: There was a jail—there’s not a jail presence in Tieton anymore although I’m sure they could find a place to lock somebody up if they had to.
Flanigan: Biggers was born in Yakima. She moved up here as a young woman almost 60 years ago, and for years, she farmed raspberries. These days, she’s the town’s self-appointed historian.
Biggers: And I’ve seen it be very full of people, businesses. And because of the economy for one reason or another it has had some downsize.
Stan Hall: Matter of fact, there’s been some research done on that.
Flanigan: That’s Stan Hall. He used to be the mayor here in Tieton. And he says, that downsize? It all traces back to some big changes in the global economy that hit this town hard—in a kind of one-two punch. First, the rise of agribusiness. Apples have always been the lifeblood of Tieton—but Hall says that, since the 1950s, consolidation in the agricultural sector has meant the end of many family-owned farms. They just couldn’t compete with big ag.
Hall: They started bringing in the Hispanic workers. So the ones that had come from Arkansas and Missouri and Kentucky that lived here, they started getting pushed out, ’cause they could pay the Hispanics a cheaper wage. So you started losing more and more people. And the trend just continued until there really wasn’t much left.
Flanigan: OK, so, that’s not exactly true. There’s a lot left in Tieton. The demographics of the town have changed. These days, Tieton is almost 70 percent Hispanic—it was 70 percent white at the turn of the century. The apple industry, the town’s engine—it’s still going strong. And the population has actually tripled since the 1960s. Still, walking through the town square—Tieton’s business corridor—you would never know it.
And here’s where that second punch comes in. See, just as agribusiness was absorbing small farms, big-box stores in nearby Yakima were underpricing Tieton’s local mom-and-pop establishments. So the general store, and the bowling alley, and the movie theater—they couldn’t compete. But—back to Ed Marquand. It’s 2005, he’s in the town square with all of these vacant buildings, patching his tires, and.
Marquand: The longer I was in the park and the more I looked around, the more curious I was about these empty storefronts. It wasn’t squalid. It was just kind of without a lot of hope.
Flanigan: Marquand was in the right frame of mind to be looking for hope. He lived in Seattle—and rents in Seattle were getting expensive. But he needed more manufacturing space for his book publishing company. Actually, he knew a lot of creative entrepreneurs in Seattle who could use more space. Meanwhile, Tieton seemed like it could use a boost. So, why not buy up some of this relatively cheap real estate, convince a few friends to move their work out here, make some jobs for people in the area—it’s a win, win. Right?
Kerry Quint: He had a little Honda, I think an ’84 Honda, and we would always drive around in that.
Flanigan: That’s Kerry Quint. He and Marquand have been friends since college. And he was one of Marquand’s first recruits.
Quint: I’d sit in the back seat while he envisioned all this. And Mike was in the passenger’s side. Both of us were pretty quiet about the whole thing. I kept thinking, “Ohh … have you thought about a condo in Maui??” But he was pretty adamant about this.
Flanigan: Here’s the thing about Marquand—he loves an out-there idea. And once he sinks his teeth into one, he’s not letting go. That’s just kind of how the guy rolls—he’s not afraid to push the limits, take risks. And for that he blames his parents.
Marquand: At the age of 13 they let me travel through Mexico by myself for a month. So long as I earned the money, I could go.
Flanigan: A 13-year-old California kid on his own in Mexico. Every summer after that, he took increasingly ambitious trips—across Mexico. He says that the confidence boost he got from that was huge. That positive feedback loop continued—when he moved away from home, when he dove into the art world, when he started a business printing totally one-of-a-kind luxury books.
So, this Tieton thing? Sure, people were asking why—but for Marquand, the better question was, why not? He started buying up buildings—beginning with a run-down apple-packing warehouse that had been standing empty for more than a decade. Quint remembers when Marquand tracked down the owner’s number and made that first phone call.
Quint: And this was a time when there weren’t cellphone towers in Tieton. And Ed was standing in the park on top of a picnic table with his antenna in his hand trying to wail the deal out of this guy for this defunct old warehouse. And people in Vickie’s café across the street were probably looking at him like he was from another planet.
Sheir: Which brings us too something we haven’t really addressed yet, and something Ed Marquand hadn’t spent a whole lot of time considering. See, from his perspective, this plan of his looked great. It would boost business, and help out the town. But what about the locals? What did they think? Did Ed Marquand and these other city people really look like they were “from another planet?” And if so, were they coming in peace? Or was this about to become a colonizing mission? We’ll find out ... after the break.
Sheir: From Slate magazine, it’s Placemakers. I’m Rebecca Sheir. Last we heard, Seattle publisher Ed Marquand had just started buying up property in Tieton, Washington, with some pretty big plans in mind. But what did locals think about Ed’s ambitions for their hometown? I’ll let reporter Phoebe Flanigan take it from here.
Ed Gottschalk: Oh they did go the other way! Oh they go clear down and come back around.
Flanigan: Back at the cyclekart race, I put that question to Tieton old-timer Ed Gottschalk. He runs a machine shop here in town.
Gottschalk: Well, we didn’t know at the time of what they was gonna do. New business coming in. You never know if it’s going to be successful or not. Or what they was planning on doing.
Jackie Williams: It was the talk, you know the gossip thing of like, this and this.
Flanigan: This is Jackie Williams. She grew up around here. And she also remembers what it was like when Marquand and his friends first started moving their businesses into Tieton.
Williams: When you’re set in your ways as it is in really a lot of small towns—and something big comes in or something comes in that’s different or changed, people don’t like it.
Flanigan: Marquand had talked with the county clerk, and some folks on the regional development council about his plans for Tieton—and they were supportive. But it’s true—he didn’t really consult the townspeople. Because to him this wasn’t about philanthropy—it was a business. And it had to make business sense.
He and his partner, Mike, pooled their resources to buy up a couple of warehouses, an old church, a number of empty storefronts, some houses, a vacant lot—nine properties in all. A sizeable chunk of the downtown. Between upfront costs, renovations, and upkeep, it was an expensive plan—we’re talking $4 million to $5 million, expensive.
But Marquand saw it as a positive investment. And to him it felt like, hey—so what if we’re buying up these empty buildings? No one else has come up with a plan for this space. We aren’t pushing anyone out.
Marquand: We weren’t burning tires. We weren’t putting in a packing house for pet food, you know? I mean it could have been really, really bad.
Flanigan: So, in spite of the grumblings, Marquand’s crazy idea soon exploded into a whole network of nonprofits and creative businesses and annual events—like the cyclekart race. They all coexist under this umbrella organization called Mighty Tieton.
Marquand: Maybe the community members didn’t feel that we had built a lot of bridges, but we certainly didn’t burn any bridges. And now we’ve just been around long enough and—if you look at just the pictures from around the square ten years ago and you look at it today, the town looks so much better.
Flanigan: Here’s what you see in the town square today. There’s an art gallery that sells work from local artists to raise money for the food bank. There’s Paper Hammer—where Marquand makes his books, along with cards and calendars and a whole bunch of other stuff. There’s a restaurant. A little bakery. A post office, an antique shop, a mini-mart. And then a few other buildings—still shuttered.
Around the corner, in a renovated warehouse are the Mighty Tieton lofts—14 big, modern condos. All massive windows, and up-cycled wooden beams, and raw steel. They’re mostly owned by people directly involved with Mighty Tieton. And they share a parking lot with the Mighty Tieton warehouse—it used to be cold storage for apples, but now it’s been transformed into a sort of arts incubator. It houses a small print shop, a lamp-making company, some artist studios, and a big event space that they rent out.
All things told, Mighty Tieton has added to the tax base. It’s attracted a regular trickle of tourists. And it’s created 17 jobs. Doesn’t sound like a lot, but for a town of twelve hundred people, it’s something.
Still, for some of the locals, there’s a lingering question mark above the whole project. Sure they wanted the town to perk up again—but they weren’t sure they wanted it to look like this.
Biggers: They like the investment. The businesses are not what they would have probably chosen as type.
Flanigan: That’s Pat Biggers again—Tieton’s self-appointed historian. I asked her what sorts of businesses she thought people would have chosen.
Biggers: Mom and pop, old time, general stores. This is what they’re talking about. This is what they remember, what they liked—and it isn’t there anymore. And I understand that. I feel the same way. I would love to see some of the old time things come back.
Marquand: What they really want is for their town to revert to the way it was when they were in high school.
Flanigan: That’s Ed Marquand again.
Marquand: Because that’s, in most people’s imaginations, when it was perfect. When it was golden. When it was ideal. The economies in small towns have changed so much, they’re never going to revert to the way this place was. My point to them is, it can be better—it can be better than that. It’ll be different.
Flanigan: At its heart, this split vision around the town’s future seems to boil down to something of a cultural divide—between this global, creative class that’s moving in and an older, Anglo population who’ve lived in Tieton their entire lives. Who owned the city’s past. There’s a big gap in worldview there.
Marquand: I could be wrong but I think we all like each other too much to want to explode, blow things up in each other’s faces. You know. You don’t bring up politics.
Flanigan: You don’t bring up sexuality either. Many of the people who moved to Tieton from the Seattle area are openly gay—Marquand included. Early on, he wondered if that would be a problem. He says that for the most part, the locals have been totally fine with it—especially since gay marriage was legalized. And for everyone else.
Marquand: If they’re uncomfortable with it but they like you, if you are very discrete about it, they will find a way to glom on to that as a way to make it OK for themselves. Because they want to like you. They want it to work.
Flanigan: That moral pragmatism works both ways. Marquand told me about this bible camp that takes place every summer in the park right across the street from Mighty Tieton’s main storefront.
Marquand: I never went to Bible camp. I don’t know that I had friends who went to Bible camp. So it just didn’t make any sense to me. And it was kind of a little annoying the first few years I was here because it just seemed like this religious indoctrination was happening and I was watching it. And then gradually I thought wait a minute, the kids are having a really good time. And they’re playing games and rolling around and crying and laughing and doing all those things. Now I just love it!
Flanigan: It’s not just the kids—social life for a lot of Tieton’s long-term residents revolves around church. And that means that religion’s actually a big dividing line in Tieton—not out of any sort of malice. People just tend to associate within their church communities.
Most of the folks involved with Mighty Tieton aren’t really the church going type, so that counts them out. But a few different people told me that the Catholic/Protestant divide’s a big reason why Tieton’s Latino and Anglo populations don’t mix socially a whole lot.
There are spaces where those two communities intermingle—in the schools, for instance. In the fruit packing warehouses, to some degree. But now Mighty Tieton’s become another bridge between those two groups. Everyone comes out for big events like the Mighty Tieton Christmas Bazaar and Dia De Los Muertos. And about half of Marquand’s employees are Hispanic.
Elisabeth Magana: People around here are really open too, to spend with different people that have different cultures. And Ed’s really, really kind. I really love him.
Flanigan: Elisabeth Magana moved here from Mexico about three years ago, and soon got hooked up with Mighty Tieton. Marquand originally hired her on to make clay fortune cookies for his company Paper Hammer.
Magana: The way that I found here, I was doing my laundry and then I saw a flier that if you knew how to make handmade tortillas, that’s what they were explaining on the flier. So then you can make the cookies.
Flanigan: When those orders slowed down, Magana moved over to building lamps that are sold across the country.
Magana: It makes me feel really, really proud. Like sometimes when I’m talking with my dad, I like to tell him everything that I’m doing. I want him to feel proud of me. So I’m like dad I’m doing this and things are going around the world and he’s like ohhh that’s cool, I feel proud of you! Yeah it’s really amazing feeling in me.
Flanigan: Magana and her husband are moving into their first house soon, here in Tieton. They’re planning to stick around. And the truth is, the future of this little town—it’s not really up to Ed Marquand or Pat Biggers or any of the folks in that older generation. It rests with people like Magana. Young people—largely Hispanic—who are moving to Tieton to make a permanent home here. Or who, like Whitney Stohr, are thinking of moving back to the area.
Whitney Stohr: I took a tour of one of those converted condos and I’m like—holy hell I might be moving up to Tieton!
Flanigan: Never thought you’d say that.
Stohr: Never thought I’d say that! No, no.
Flanigan: I met Stohr at the cyclekart races. She grew up just down the road, and her grandparents had an orchard in Tieton. But she spent the last decade in D.C. And when she came home, she was amazed to see how much this place had changed.
Stohr: As a millennial and having lived in big cities where towns are more walkable and there’s stuff going on downtown—moving back to a small town where this is happening, is really attractive.
Marquand: We live in a really exciting time that it can be both hyper global and hyper local and one can’t exist without the other.
Sheir: Ed Marquand points to places like Marfa, Texas, or any number of small towns in New England. Even the Hudson Valley north of New York. These places that have stayed small and remote-feeling, but have managed to connect with the global economy thanks, in large part, to Internet commerce. More and more, would-be urban refugees are noticing the potential of these places. And they may not even need goat-heads and punctured bike tires to induce them to take a second look.
Sheir: Our story today was produced and reported by Phoebe Flanigan. Placemakers is a production of Slate magazine and is produced by Mia Lobel, Dianna Douglas, and Michael Vuolo, and edited by Julia Barton. Our researcher is Matthew Schwartz. Eric Shimelonis does our mixing and musical scoring. Our theme was composed by Robin Hilton. Steve Lickteig is our executive producer. I’m Rebecca Sheir.
For more information about today’s show and other episodes of Placemakers, go to Slate.com/placemakers. You can drop us a line at email@example.com. You can follow us on Twitter; our handle is @SlatePlacemaker. And if you like what you’re hearing, please give us a review or rating on iTunes. It really does help.
Coming up next time on Placemakers: A tree may grow in Brooklyn, but a trendy new coffee shop grows in the South Bronx.
Majora Carter: I have plenty of love. All I had to do was open that coffee shop. And whether or not people know who I am and know the role that I played in getting that thing there, I see them happy. That’s what drives me.
Sheir: We’ll meet the Hunts Point native who returned to her old stomping grounds to breathe in new life.