Dean Kahn

Study ranks Bellingham one of the most ‘normal’ cities in America. But is it really?

People dress up in nature costumes for Bellingham’s annual Procession of the Species parade. A recent study ranked Bellingham as the eighth most ‘normal’ city in the country, based on 20 variables, most of them economic. However many people consider Bellingham to be anything but a normal city.
People dress up in nature costumes for Bellingham’s annual Procession of the Species parade. A recent study ranked Bellingham as the eighth most ‘normal’ city in the country, based on 20 variables, most of them economic. However many people consider Bellingham to be anything but a normal city. THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

I’ve heard lots of adjectives applied to Bellingham.

Artsy. Green. Community-minded. Unaffordable. Self-absorbed.

But “normal”? Now that’s a new one.

Yet Bellingham is the eighth most normal city in the country, according to a study by Lyman Stone, a cotton economist who also blogs about migration.

In Stone’s ranking, the most normal American city is Oklahoma City, followed by Tulsa, followed by Jacksonville, Fla., and then Spokane in fourth place.

The “weirdest” city is San Jose, Calif., followed by New York City and Jacksonville, N.C.

“Weird” and “normal” are catchy labels, but “typical” and “atypical” would be more appropriate.

That’s because Stone ranked cities on how much or how little they deviate from the national metro average for 20 variables, most of them related to economics. His variables included the number of foreign-born residents, share of residents who are married, percent of people self-employed, family poverty rate, and percent of households with a car.

San Jose is the weirdest – that is, most unlike other cities on those 20 variables – because of its large share of foreign-born, white-collar, educated, and high-salary, residents. As you might guess, technology has something to do with it.

Eight of the 10 most ‘normal’ cities, including Bellingham, have sizable college populations, so having lots of students doesn’t automatically make a city atypical.

“Silicon Valley makes San Jose very weird,” Stone wrote in his blog.

New York City was the second weirdest city, in part for its many immigrants, its high housing costs, and its low number of car owners.

“New York is weird because it’s just so darn urban,” Stone wrote.

I thought Bellingham’s status as a college town would bump it more into the weird world – not that college students are strange, necessarily, but because students’ jobs, incomes and housing reflect a student’s life, not the everyday world of Jane and John Doe.

But I was wrong. In fact, eight of the 10 most normal cities, including Bellingham, have sizable college populations, so having lots of students around doesn’t automatically make a city atypical.

So, what’s to be made of Stone’s findings? First of all, as Stone writes, weird isn’t necessarily bad.

The study didn’t use such variables as politics, cultural interests, religion, and participation in community events.

San Jose is weird because it’s a world-class hub of innovation, and New York is weird because it has so many people in a small area. But small cities were weird, too, including mining and farming communities, and cities with large military bases. Such cities are atypical statistically, but they provide important natural resources, they feed people, and they help defend our country. Nothing wrong with that.

Bellingham is one of the most normal cities, but that doesn’t mean it’s normal in all ways, in part, because Stone’s study didn’t use other variables – such as politics, cultural interests, religion, and participation in community events – that could paint a fuller picture of life in a city.

Bellingham is pretty darn normal when it comes to those 20 economic variables, but people like, or dislike, Bellingham because of what makes it special, not what makes it normal. It’s somehow encouraging that Bellingham’s quirkiness, its “not-your-typical-town” appeal, transcends its statistical normality.

Perhaps Bellingham’s nickname,“the city of subdued excitement,” should be “the normal city that still has subdued excitement.”

Dean Kahn: 360-715-2291

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