Local Peace Economy

5 Surprisingly Hip and Progressive Places in Trump Country

Enjoy the creature comforts of liberal towns in red and purple states.

A cool mural in downtown Ferndale, Michigan.
Photo Credit: Michigan Municipal League (mml.org) / Flickr

If you live on the East Coast, chances are you think most states that went Trump in the last election are kind of scary—places that might lack culture, to put it politely.

But America is more than the black-white/blue-red contrast painted by TV news and Facebook. It’s a complex, diverse melting pot of ideas and people, and there are forward-thinking communities everywhere—even in red and purple states. 

So move over, Ann Arbor, Asheville, and Austin. Here are five Middle-American gems that might surprise you. Even in the Heartland, you can find the creature comforts of a liberal, coastal town. 

1. Yellow Springs, Ohio

JZ152 / Flickr

About 30 minutes outside of Dayton, this little town is an oasis in rural southern Ohio. It was founded as an aspiring social utopia, and later became home to hyper-progressive Antioch College as well as dozens of HBCU professors from nearby Central State University and Wilberforce. It has a vibrant downtown filled with small businesses and all the touchstones of a hipster paradise: Pride flags fly. “Refugees welcome” signs are posted in almost every window. Spotlessly clean public restrooms are located just off the rails-to-trails Buckeye Trail. Cafes, farm-to-table restaurants, small shops, theaters and bars line the streets, and parking is free. It might feel a little anglo-hippy-centric: The fairy garden, tarot card readings and enchanted forest signs make it almost seem like a shakedown street to a Renaissance Faire, but the diversity of the town’s residents keeps things in check. Comedian Dave Chappelle calls Yellow Springs home.

2. Oregon District, Dayton, Ohio

Scott Beale / Laughing Squid / Flickr

Tucked away just outside downtown Dayton is the Oregon District, a hip neighborhood brimming with dozens of small businesses, the majority of them women-owned, including two sex toy shops right on the main drag. It boasts one of the highest concentrations of independently owned businesses in Ohio. The neighborhood is diverse, public transit is electric and the used record store topnotch. Art galleries, live music bars and farm-to-table restaurants round out this Democratic Party stronghold. But perhaps the biggest surprise is the bartender of local farm-to-table bistro Lily’s, just down the street from a sex shop, whose day job is as the reverend of United Church of Christ, in nearby Beavercreek.

3. Boone, North Carolina

Sean Pavone / Shutterstock

Home to Appalachian State University, Boone has the progressive touchstones of a college town—cafes, breweries, a vibrant art community and a local high country music scene. It also has free, bio-fuel powered public transit, run by the university. AppalCART serves all of Watauga County. That means people in even the more rural parts of the county can still get to town, and ensures a healthy mix between the college students and the rural locals. “People wanna make Boone a better place for everyone,” says Deacon Sinanian, who has lived in the town since he was six. “It’s a lot of working and middle-class people. Down [in other parts of North Carolina] it was Trump country—‘pull yourself up by your boot-straps.’ Here’s it’s the idea of community, and that we’re all in this together.”

That means Boone is pretty liberal when it comes to the controversial 2016 bathroom bill the state passed demanding people use the bathroom associated with their birth gender. “Boone itself is open-minded and accepting of people regardless” of sexuality or gender, says Sinanian. The general vibe is one fostering a happy, comfortable, safe environment for all. “People aren’t as worried about what your labels are. I am Deacon. The rest of those details are irrelevant. Religious, sexual or otherwise.”

4. Ferndale, Michigan

Michigan Municipal League (mml.org) / Flickr

If you take Woodward Avenue north from Detroit, and cross 8 Mile, you are transported to 9 Mile, the hip downtown of Ferndale. The city council recently became one of the first in the nation to permanently install a pride flag in council chambers. Trans flags fly, even at the local police department. Some locals complain it’s been “gentrified to the point where straight hipster people with their baby stroller are all going to the cool taco place.” But talk to one of Michigan’s gun-toting, rural residents in Trump-loving Macomb County, and Ferndale is the most liberal town in Southeastern Michigan. You’re more likely to find locally grown pumpkin spices, pinball and a petition to legalize pot here than a gun shop or a Trump sign—a ubiquitous marker in some surrounding communities.

5. Marquette, Michigan

Michigan Municipal League (mml.org) / Flickr

Marquette is the largest city in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. People from all over the UP travel to Marquette to stock up on resources, and there’s a tourism crowd in the summer, says former Marquette resident Heidi Meek, 29.  Home to Northern Michigan University, the college and outdoors bring in plenty of 20-somethings to interact with the tight-knit community of locals. A county bus system helps the communities integrate. There are five local museums for adults and children covering art and history. A host of year-round festivals keeps the town moving, celebrating everything from the blues to blueberries, beer and films. A strong community of artists, jewelry makers and mountain bikers keep the town vibrantly free-spirited.  

Valerie Vande Panne is an independent journalist whose work has appeared in the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, Columbia Journalism Review, The Guardian, Politico, and many other publications.

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