by Froma Harrop

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was first published in the Providence (R.I.) Journal and is reprinted with permission. Any similarities between the towns described in this article and Arcata are purely coincidental.


It would be hard to find uglier creatures than the aging hippies depicted on a recent cover of The Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine. They look as grungy as they did at Woodstock, only they are fatter, their beards rattier, their hair kinkier. To make them still less appealing, the artist has dollar bills flying out of their backpacks.

Perhaps the magazine had to draw gross-looking liberals because of the awkward nature of its story, titled "The Rise of the Latté Town." Try as the magazine might to find fault with this phenomenon, the truth is inescapable: Latté Towns are mighty appealing places, and liberals made them so.

What is a Latté Town? "Latté" refers to an Italian style of coffee that mixes espresso with steamed milk. Latté is fancier than your ordinary cup of Joe. Likewise, a Latté Town stands a few socioeconomic rungs above Anywhere, USA. It is often a college town blessed with a lovely natural setting and nice old houses. Citizens work fiercely to preserve the small-town feel and favor small shopkeepers over superstore chains. Burlington, Vt., is a Latté Town, as are Madison, Wis., and Ithaca, N.Y.

These societies are very different from the small-town America of yore. Donna Reed would not likely find soda fountains, prom-dress shops and moderate-priced pumps in a Latté Town. The diner is now a cafe selling organic Costa Rican coffee. The shoe store specializes in hiking boots and Birkenstocks. The bar is a microbrewery. Homosexuality is entirely acceptable. Smoking is entirely not.

Latté Towns make some conservatives sick.

"For years, progressives have condemned white flight," David Brooks writes in The Weekly Standard, "but now they've created Liberal Flight, in which socially concerned families and individuals leave the urban world for pastoral, predominantly white communities."

He is right, of course. But this and other discoveries -- for example, that liberals like money -- are hardly groundbreaking. Granted, a Latté Townsman may spend $4,000 on a mountain bike then criticize the consumerism of a guy on a skimobile. Liberal hypocrisy is a very easy target.

But the liberals are at least saving these pastoral communities from the destructive powers of modern conservative ideology. Yes, it would be nice if one could find a wrench set rather than a kiln-fired pottery vase on Main Street. But downtowns used to have hardware, shoe and sporting goods shops. They were all rolled up in a carpet and unfurled into one Wal-Mart at the edge of town.

Try to keep superstores from tearing out the town's heart, and conservatives bitterly charge "elitist zoning." Try to stop someone from demolishing a 150-year-old house on Elm Street to put up a drive-in drugstore, and conservatives see no value worth defending other than the developer's property rights.

Brooks accurately observes that Latté Towns favor pedestrians over automobiles. Somehow this set of priorities irritates him. As Brooks approaches a crosswalk in Burlington, he develops an instant dislike for the driver who stops for him. "This driver knows that while sitting behind the wheel, he is ethically inferior to a pedestrian like me." (Perhaps he is just obeying the "Yield for Pedestrians" sign.)

Alan Ehrenhalt, who coined the term "Latté Town," takes a more benign view of the whole thing.

"The bookstore devotes an entire corner to Gay and Lesbian Studies, and the city council can spend hours talking about justice for invertebrates," Ehrenhalt writes in Governing Magazine. "It's easy to satirize places like this. For all the jokes, however, there's a point about these places that even their critics might as well face up to. Something about them is undeniably seductive, even for people who aren't recovering hippies and don't care much for politics."

Ordinary Americans want decent food, walkable streets and good coffee. Which reminds me of a funny scene from "The Honeymooners" TV series. Ralph Kramden and Alice are finishing dinner at a fancy restaurant. A waiter comes by and asks Ralph if he'd like an "espresso" or "demi-tasse." Ralph says, nah, he'll just take a small cup of strong, dark coffee.

Because rich liberals like latté does not mean that conservative Americans might not appreciate a cup of strong coffee with hot milk. The waiter's politics shouldn't really matter.

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