Note: We now have Part 2 of this series, which summarizes the many (over 248) comments made to this article. Obviously, we struck a nerve here!
Nov. 9, 2010 — You might be the kind of person who wants to retire somewhere warm. You’ve identified some states where the climate is a lot better than where you are now, and where outdoor recreation is possible12 months of the year. You’ve also done your research and have chosen a state that that is tax-friendly. Chances are, the states that meet those criteria are in the South. And that probably gives rise to other questions.
Even if you have never spent any significant time in the South, you probably have an image of what life might be like be like there. Without the benefit of experience, however, that image is probably off the mark. In this article we will attempt to answer some questions to help you become better informed: Will the people in your new community be friendly? Will you, a Yankee, fit into the social and cultural ecosystem of your new southern home? Will you be able to contribute your time and talents to your new community in the way you expect to? Will you be comfortable with the political situation and attitudes? And how about the food?
Our apologies in advance if this article offends anyone. The opinions given here are personal, undoubtedly biased by a native northeasterner who has only spent a little more than 2 years of his life in the South. Our attempt to answer the question obviously reflects a northern point of view. The corollary to this question is clear too: a southerner moving to the north should also be concerned about experiencing social and cultural issues in their new adopted region.
Regional Differences Magnified –Fairly or not
Sue Cerulean, a transplanted New Jersey native who has spent her adult life in north Florida, makes a great point about the kind of differences a Yankee will find in the South. She observes that… “the differences a northern transplant is likely to notice in the South are more of a rural vs. urban issue than they are northern vs. southern”. We agree, and would add that socioeconomic status differences also tend to stand out – whether you are in the north or the south.
Sure, there are some physical differences. When you stray from the Interstate the landscape features piney woods and red clay soil. When it comes to differences between people, the most obvious clue comes when we open our mouths. Different accents provide an obvious reminder of regional identity, which can create a barrier to mutual understanding and trust. The fact that newcomers stand apart from locals only compounds the social and cultural differences. Human groups usually prefer socializing with their own kind – in Savannah or Saint Louis – which explains why people who move to a new town might feel unwelcome.
What do you bring to the party?
Part of a successful transition to any new town has to start with you. What are you expecting in your new community, and what are you bringing to the party? If you want to be part of the community and are willing to get involved in working or volunteer activities, chances are you will soon feel a part of things. But if you want to do your own thing, you might feel like an outsider. Likewise, if you appreciate new cultural experiences, your transition will be easier no matter where you retire. On the other hand if you prefer to socialize with the kind of people you already know, then you should probably investigate an active adult community and stay away from living in a town or city.
Politics and Religion. Chances are your new southern home might be in a state that is more conservative than where you are now. In the 2010 mid-term election we just saw that the new South is trending more Republican among white voters, and Democratic among African-Americans. In small towns you will probably find that attitudes toward homosexuality might be less welcoming in the South. The southern brand of religion is a generally bit more conservative than its northern counterpart, although that is certainly not universally true.
Food. The good news is that Southern cooking is usually at a pretty high level. The typical small town restaurant puts a hearty meal on the table. With plenty of butter and bacon as ingredients, it might not always be the healthiest, but it will be tasty. Barbecue, fried chicken and gravy, and hush puppies are foods your editor can’t wait to experience South of the Mason-Dixon Line. And that is not to say that there aren’t great restaurants offering every kind of cuisine.
Deep South vs. Mid-South. In our opinion certain states are more “Southern” than others. Alabama, South Carolina, Mississippi, and Georgia have a stronger Southern culture and feel, with exceptions guaranteed within those states. The houses don’t look the same, as bungalows and ranch homes replace salt boxes and northern frame styles. Like small towns in other areas of the country, zoning laws are not as restrictive as in affluent northeastern towns. Trash along the highways does seem to be a Southern scourge. Statues of Confederate war heroes on the town “square” (the “green” to many Yankees) will remind you of where you are. In the Deep South the differences are more extreme because the culture is stronger.
The Carolinas. Particularly near the coasts and in the larger cities, retirement in the Carolinas may offer more of a neutral living experience. A steady stream of transplants from across the country contributes to that. For a sophisticated, intellectually active environment, you might consider the dynamic Research Triangle area of Raleigh-Durham. Even the most jaded New Yorker could find adequate stimulation there. In popular retirement towns like Mt. Airy, Asheville, Greenville (either SC or NC), or Pinehurst, the person you bump into at the Piggly Wiggly is just as likely to be from Harrisburg as a town in North Carolina. In parts of the Carolinas without a heritage of outside immigration, however, you might be in for a cultural jolt. The locals are undoubtedly friendly, but it might take them awhile to get used to your Yankee ways – and vice versa!
Mid-Southern. Mid-Southern states like Tennessee and Kentucky can offer a mixed experience for retiring northerners. Nashville, Chattanooga, or Knoxville offer a pleasant small city experience, with tons of culture and a college town environment. Retiring to an area like Paris, TN, which attracts retirees from a wide area, will tend to minimize other differences. In a small town with few retirees coming in from other states, you might not feel at home for a long time – unless you make the effort to join in on community activities.
Florida. The Sunshine State is, for the most part, a cultural melting pot. Fort Myers, for example, is the quintessential American suburb, with sprawl, busy highways, and big box stores by the gross. Living there requires almost no cultural adjustment, no matter what part of the country you are coming from. Old Florida, to be found more in the western and central parts of the state, still retains some of its old Southern charm and differences. Personally, we find this charm very appealing – harkening back to another, kinder and slower era. But could we as a Yankee enjoy living in a regular neighborhood in a small town like Chiefland – probably not. But in a southern-looking neighborhood in cosmopolitan Tallahassee, definitely.
Cities in the South: The South has its fair share of bustling cities like Atlanta, Birmingham, New Orleans, Jacksonville, Tampa, Nashville, and Charlotte. There are mid-sized cities like the college towns of Athens, GA and Tallahassee, FL. Living in one of those cities offers an experience not much different than living in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Chicago – or Ann Arbor, MI. Either way you will be living in a city where many of the residents are from somewhere else and the cultural opportunities ample.
Where You Live – Active Adult Community vs. In-Town
The great leveler in regional differences is the active adult community or other big development. Home builders like Pulte, Del Webb, Centex, Toll Brothers, Jensen, Daniel Homes, and others have been on a building boom from New Bern to Bluffton to Huntsville and parts beyond. Thanks to the south’s attractive climate, favorable tax structure, and plentiful and cheap land, retirees from all parts of the country and Canada are moving south to these new communities. Some are near metropolitan areas, such as the National Village at Grand National is to Birmingham or Fairhope is to Mobile. Others are further afield, built near recreational areas like Lake Keowee or Amelia Island. Even more are in the hinterlands, far from anything, or near a very small town.
Living in one of these developments tends to diminish and soften the regional differences you might expect to see by moving to the South. That’s because you will be living in a self-contained environment which you rarely leave. Sure you will go to town for most shopping and medical needs, but your social infrastructure will mostly be centered within the active community. So, even if the small towns around your enclave seem alien – you only have to drive by this world, not have it as an everyday experience.
There is the South in your mind… but there are really many Souths
There are indeed many different kinds of environments in the South. With so much diversity anyone from the north should be able find a compatible location for a happy retirement in the South. And for those who choose to live in an active adult community or development, as opposed to residing within a town or city, adjusting to living in the South is usually almost not an issue.
Recommendations to consider
If you are concerned about your ability to be a happy Yankee in a southern world, consider these recommendations and questions:
– Choose a city rather than a small town
– Go for a college town or community that is known for attracting retirees from all over the South
– Don’t move anywhere without staying in that community for an extended period of time (visit first, then rent)
– Select an active adult community if you want to live with people like yourself
– If you want to live in a town or city, make an extra effort to join in the community
– If a development that is far from a major town or resort, take that remoteness into consideration
– No matter where you move, plan to make social connections as soon as you arrive – visit churches and join one, join a club (perhaps one you are already affiliated with like the Rotary), take up a sport, take a class, be open to new people, friendships, and experiences.
– Be open-minded about your new community – imagine what a stranger might experience by moving to the town where you live now
What do you think? What have your experiences been if you have either retired in the South, or explored different communities there? Please give everyone on this site the benefit of your experience.
For further reference:
Part 2: Can A Northerner Find Happiness in the South
Use the Retirement Ranger at Topretirements to help you find compatible towns and communities. Advanced Search is another convenient tool to to help expand your horizons.