A Hidden Little Gem of a Town

I moved to Aberdeen, Washington in September of 2017 to try to make my life work while living without a car in the US. I had spent two or more years researching small towns in the western United States trying to find someplace that might work for me.

I had a somewhat long list of "must haves" and "nice to haves" that I had been comparing small towns against. With only 16k or 17k residents and in kind of the middle of nowhere, Aberdeen seemed an extremely unlikely candidate when I first tripped across it. My first thought was "It's too small. There won't be anything there."

I began checking it against my list and was surprised to find there was more here than I expected. At that time, I didn't yet know it was the commercial hub of a region in which it is the largest city for miles in all directions, which is part of why it has so much more here than I expected to find. I eventually dubbed it The Downtown of Washington's Pacific Coast.

Ultimately, it won out as an initial target destination because many of the small towns I profiled were a case of "Good luck getting there without a car at all, much less on a budget!" I could readily and affordably get to Aberdeen via taking a train to Olympia-Lacey Station and a series of affordable local and commuter buses from there.

Even after I moved here, I initially believed I would use the network of intracity buses to explore other towns nearby and eventually move again. That plan never materialized.

Instead, I found myself regularly crowing about how delighted I was to be here and I started this blog with the idea of writing about living in Aberdeen without a car. My first post had the same title this post has -- A Hidden Little Gem of a Town -- and it began thusly:

The above video of Madonna's song Secret was shot in Harlem. Madonna said she chose Harlem because she saw it as a kind of secret. It had a bad reputation for being poor and rundown, but when she walked down the street, she saw a place full of beautiful buildings and beautiful people.

I have found my own secret of that sort.
The rest of the post wasn't all that good, in part because I hadn't lived here long, so I didn't know much about the town. This blog was eventually reenvisioned as being about the entire Coastal Washington region and most of the initial posts were removed, in part because they were only about Aberdeen and in part because they weren't especially good.

The first time my sons and I set foot in Aberdeen, my oldest asked "When are we getting to Aberdeen?" and I told him "THIS is Aberdeen." He said "I thought you said it was a small town." I said "It is a small town. It's a reallysmall town, only around sixteen or seventeen thousand people." and he said "It looks like downtown San Diego, only with smaller buildings."

Aberdeen's downtown is more than a hundred years old. It is constrained by the confluence of two rivers and the downtown is fed traffic by a confluence of old-fashioned scenic highways. Like the original Route 66, these were highways that went right through towns and preceded the limited-access interstate system that sucked the life out of a lot of small towns when traffic got routed around them instead of through them.

Aberdeen is a very special place. The tattered and torn downtown needs some tender loving care to bring it more fully back to life but it already is more lively and urban than is the norm for a small American town.

It's special because it's possible to live a full life here without a car, something you can't find in most of the US.

It's special in part because it's the shadow of its former self and time has somewhat left it behind. The tattered and torn downtown is what remains of what once was, something built before cars were everywhere.

Modern car-centric development hasn't yet completely obliterated the mixed use, walkable footprint of the old downtown. It could still have life breathed back into it instead of being lost forever to modern car culture.

What Aberdeen has is not only rare, it cannot be created from scratch anymore.

It needs some help to reach its full potential as a modern place where you can live well without a car. That potential is not likely to be achieved by guidance from people who drive everywhere as their default.

They don't have the right mindset, mental models, experiences, dreams or priorities. Such people may mean well but never can quite get certain things right if the goal is to make a great place to live where a car is genuinely optional.

I've been to public meetings here. I've seen how they just don't see what I see, so that's not me merely hypothesizing.

I blog and run r/aberdeenwa on Reddit in part in hopes of helping others see what I see as someone actually living without a car here. Maybe that will somehow make a difference here.

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