Sarah Cole, 32, is relaxing on the front porch swing with her partner, Robert Fitzpatrick, when her phone buzzes.
It’s a text from their friend, Tim Higgins, inviting them over. Tim and his partner, Aaron Head, live just across the street.
The spring breeze ruffles at least half a dozen different windchimes strung along the porch ceiling of the sprawling Victorian fixer-upper where Sarah and Robert have lived since they moved to town late last year. It’s the first home Sarah has ever bought.
She unfolds herself from her place on the swing and calls to their dog, Chubbs, who’s snuffling around the yard. He’ll try to follow them to Tim and Aaron’s house like always.
Their homes nearly face each other on Main Street near the heart of Greensboro, Ala., population 2,300.
The four friends aren’t originally from Greensboro, the picturesque seat of one of Alabama’s least populous counties. Rather, they abandoned the hustle of living and working in a big city – Pittsburgh for Sarah and Robert, Nashville for Tim and Aaron – to pursue their dreams in a tiny Southern town.
It’s hard to know yet whether migrating millennials forgoing big city rents and traffic headaches for the affordability and slower pace of small-town life will be a measurable trend. But there’s anecdotal evidence, from real estate search data to local surveys, that suggests a pandemic-era boost in migration out of cities.
The COVID-19 pandemic shattered working norms and, for people like Sarah, prompted serious reflection about what it means to build a good life.
She and Robert worked multiple jobs in Pittsburgh to pay bills, including their $1,000 per month rent for a small place in a working-class neighborhood. Tim and Aaron paid $1,600 per month in rent for half of a duplex in swiftly gentrifying East Nashville. But in Greensboro, historic homes with 4,000+ square feet of space sell for less than $150,000. Sarah says the mortgage on her home now is significantly less than she used to spend on rent, despite being three times the size.
And here, nobody sits in rush hour traffic. It’s a five-minute walk to the downtown storefronts of the small businesses that Sarah and Aaron can now afford to own.
Sarah says she spent a long time resenting the rural Alabama community where she grew up, about 20 minutes from Greensboro. As the daughter of an immigrant, she never felt like she truly belonged there, and she wanted something bigger.
“But then you get away,” she says, “and you don’t realize how good you had it. You want to invest in yourself, and invest in a community.”
Roaming porch party
Someone in town once called Tim and Aaron’s three-story Victorian a “Greensboro skyscraper” because it’s one of the tallest buildings around. From the upstairs windows you can see the town’s pale green water tower emblazoned with the town motto, “Catfish Capital of Alabama.”
Tim, 31, and Aaron, 29, are sitting on their own pollen-dusted front porch when Sarah and Robert arrive. Not long after, another friend shows up, having driven down from Tuscaloosa to bring the couple a rug.
“We describe Greensboro as a roaming porch party,” jokes Aaron. “Everybody’s always on their porch.”
The couple first moved to Greensboro two years ago, pre-pandemic. Aaron is a textile artist who’d been working in a gallery in downtown Nashville and hosting workshops on the side. Tim is a singer-songwriter who released his debut album last year and toured frequently before the pandemic.
But the cost of living in Nashville, particularly since both spent so much time traveling for work, started to seem ridiculous.
“You’re just sort of chasing this hustle and you don’t get to do any of the things you actually want to be doing,” Aaron says.
“We thought, we can’t actually build a life here,” Tim says. “We can just work.”
Both men had spent time growing up in Alabama – Tim on the coast and Aaron in a small town outside of Montgomery. They lived and worked for a while in Huntsville, a mid-size city in North Alabama, before moving to Nashville.
They fell in love with Greensboro after visiting a college friend, Ian Crawford, a University of Alabama instructor who’s restoring a big Greek Revival house a few blocks away.
“The reason we initially came down here was that we figured we can live anywhere, and here we can have studio space, and that’s all true,” says Aaron.
“But I think we also found a magical community when we got here, too. We got more than we anticipated.”
Up to the challenge
Sarah and Robert liked Pittsburgh. But when the pandemic hit in March 2020, it accelerated a sense of dissatisfaction that had been building for a while, particularly for Sarah. She’d worked multiple jobs in recent years, including managing a farmer’s market, working at a local bakery and at the Carnegie Library. But she felt like she wasn’t building anything lasting.
With some encouragement from Tim and Aaron, she started browsing online listings in Alabama and in Greensboro in particular.
Commercial space in Greensboro was affordable, too. Sarah is passionate about whole, locally grown food. She knew she wanted to cook for people and maybe one day open a restaurant or a food co-op. Robert had been pursuing his woodworking hobby in the tiny basement of their Pittsburgh place, but he dreamed about opening a woodshop and furniture restoration business.
In Greensboro, those dreams looked possible, even affordable.
The town real estate agent in Greensboro insisted on meeting Sarah in person, so a few months into the pandemic, she flew from Pittsburgh to meet him and tour houses.
She fell in love with the rambling Queen Anne Victorian on Main Street with original hardwood floors, 12-foot ceilings and no central heating or air conditioning.
It was beautiful, and it needed a ton of work. Plus, the 4,900-square-foot home sat on an acre of property choked with weeds and wisteria. But Sarah has always loved a challenge, and Robert had experience with renovation and handyman work.
She bought the home and moved in last summer. Robert, who admits he initially took some convincing, followed a few months later.
Forged in the Black Belt
After hanging out on the porch for a while, the two couples take the five-minute walk into Greensboro’s tiny downtown, where most of the storefronts have open, locally-owned businesses, including an antiques store, flower shop and several hair salons.
The first stop is Aaron’s studio, with its enormous purple front doors and nearly floor-to-ceiling front windows. Sunlight floods the studio, illuminating handmade quilts in a dedicated gallery and shop space that showcases art from artists around the South. In the back is Aaron’s dyeing and sewing studio. Pots of tiny dye plants sit in the front windows, taking advantage of the sun.
Nearby is Robert’s woodshop, which he hopes to open in the next few months. Tim can point out locations around town, including the historic Greensboro Opera House across the street, where he’s filmed some of his music videos.
Sarah doesn’t have a dedicated retail shop yet, but her commercial kitchen is tucked inside a restored historic school building a block off the main drag.
In the small kitchen with the huge windows, she preps maamoul, a traditional Middle Eastern shortbread cookie, cornmeal pound cake, seasonal tarts, sourdough talami and other treats for pop-up sales she holds in Greensboro, Selma and across the Black Belt.
She gave her bakeshop a family name: Abadir’s.
Sarah’s mother is Egyptian and immigrated to the U.S. at 28. Her father is from the Black Belt and worked for decades as produce manager at the Food Fair, a local grocery store, before it closed.
Growing up, Sarah didn’t know many other immigrants in her hometown of Demopolis. Kids at school sometimes made fun of her mom’s accent, she said, or the food her family ate. Her family didn’t have a lot of money, and she heard jeers from other kids about the way they dressed and the car they drove.
“People knew and loved my dad, and they loved my mom because she was kind,” Sarah says.
“But at the same time, I would see how people communicated differently with her. They would say nice things to our faces, but you knew at the same time they were treating us differently.”
She developed a love of cooking by watching her mother prepare traditional Middle Eastern fare alongside Southern dishes, which inspired the recipes she creates for Abadir’s.
She left the Black Belt shortly after college, with no plans to ever return.
But in recent years, when she thought about what she really wanted, she kept coming back to the idea of carving out a place in a small town where she could cook for people and prioritize locally grown foods.
Greensboro is the county seat of Hale County, which is consistently ranked as of the poorest in the state. There are few grocery options in the area; the local Piggly Wiggly closed just before Sarah and Robert arrived.
But Sarah doesn’t like the term “food desert,” which is often used to refer to places where fresh produce and meats are difficult to find.
“I don’t see Greensboro as being a food desert,” she says. “There is really great food here, but the systems aren’t always in place to highlight those farms or producers.”
She sources some of her ingredients from a community-based farm in nearby Uniontown and from other locals. Greensboro has a small farmer’s market, and the area is dotted with family farm stands during the summer. Sarah hopes to work with local growers to make fresh food more accessible to people of every income level.
After their trip downtown, the friends head back to Sarah’s house, where she serves a late afternoon meal. They pull up chairs on the porch, balancing plates on their laps heaped with slices of roasted carrot galette seasoned with lemon and tahini and topped with collard greens and herbs. Dessert is a lemon almond cake with edible flowers.
Tim texts Ian to ask if he wants them to bring him some food, and Ian invites everyone over to his house for evening drinks.
Eccentrics and radicals
When Sarah, Robert, Tim and Aaron arrive at Ian’s house, their host is waiting with champagne, dressed in a dashing scarf and snakeskin boots.
A Southerner might describe Ian as a character. Originally from Auburn, he’s lived in Greensboro since he purchased his home in 2016 at age 28. He teaches interior design and history at the University of Alabama, a 45-minute drive north. He considers the house his laboratory, where he’s constantly experimenting with décor and renovation.
“Sometimes people say, ‘What are you going to do when it’s finished?” he says. “Well, it’s never going to be finished.”
Now firmly a part of Greensboro life, Ian is a member of the local garden club – he snagged Sarah an invite as well – and the library board. He’s known for throwing elaborate parties.
“The thing about Ian,” says Aaron, “is he sort of demands that you inhabit his world. And when you do fully get into it, you feel like you’re in this alternate reality and it really works.”
Ian speaks quickly, bits of historical trivia and ruminations on the use of light in 19th century architecture tripping off his tongue as easily as other people discuss football scores or gardening tips.
When he bought the home, known locally as The Oaks, it had an enormous hole in the downstairs entry hall, gold shag carpeting and “Band-Aid colored walls,” he says. It’s now full of antiques and art, much of which reflects his favorite historical era, the early 19th century.
When he lived in Tuscaloosa, he says, it could be difficult to get people to attend a fundraising dinner for the historical society, much less to get them enthusiastic about dressing in costume for one.
In Greensboro, his themed fundraising parties sell out and residents dress to the nines. For the first library fundraiser he hosted a few years ago, themed “Dinner on the Orient Express,” he assumed the women would dress up but their husbands would not.
“But the guys tried to outdo the girls,” he says, “and I thought, how fun that nobody here takes things so seriously.”
That live-and-let-live attitude extends to his personal style, which he describes as “eccentric.”
“My friend once said that in New York, nobody would care what I’m wearing,” he says. “In Greensboro, people care enough about you to just not care about what you’re wearing.”
Among the gardens and modern art in Ian’s back yard is a large fenced-in pen with an elaborate coop that Ian calls the “Palace of Justice.” It’s the home of three geese named after French revolutionaries, plus three chickens.
“I’d always wanted birds,” he explains. “And Greensboro is a place where, this sounds kind of cheesy, but where I could say, why don’t I have birds? So now I’ve got my menagerie of birds.”
Acquaintances from other places have asked him why he didn’t choose to live somewhere that might be considered more socially progressive or even more gay-friendly. But in Greensboro, he says, he has had genuine conversations with people who hold opposing viewpoints, in which he came away feeling like they understood each other even if they didn’t agree.
Aaron and Tim said they’ve found this to be true as well.
“The Black Belt is an inherently radical place, because of Selma, because of its history, and because of the population being predominantly people of color,” Aaron says.
During the 2018 midterm elections, Tim says they were surprised at how many people responded positively to the yard sign they put up supporting Democratic Sen. Doug Jones’ reelection.
“But there weren’t a lot of political signs overall,” said Tim. “It’s that small town thing: We all have to live together and get along, so we’re not going to confront each other on the street over politics.”
A high weirdness threshold
As dusk approaches, the friends wind down the day with champagne and beer in Ian’s garden. They’re sitting in a circle of lawn chairs, a pair of life-sized horse sculptures keeping watch nearby.
They talk about an end to the pandemic, a time when they can restart their plans – more pop-up shops for Abadir’s, more live music, more garden club meetings, more art gallery showings.
Sarah and Robert are putting in a big garden behind their home. Tim and Aaron plan to host visiting artists at their home for weeks or even months at a time, building an artist-in-residency program.
“Our plan is to help make Greensboro a spider web for artists,” says Tim, who’s busy writing songs and is looking forward to contributing to the local live music scene. “We want to make everybody come here.”
It’s a goal that feels achievable, particularly in their adopted home. The Alabama Black Belt is a place that celebrates art, from the Gee’s Bend Quiltmakers in Boykin, an hour south of Greensboro, to the Coleman Center for the Arts in nearby York, to Auburn University’s Rural Studio architecture program, which builds artistic, experimental homes and public structures around the Black Belt.
Greensboro tolerates and even welcomes things that are new or different, says Aaron.
“It’s a town with a pretty high threshold for weirdness, for new stuff and experimentation,” he says. In his experience, locals often ask him what he’s doing so they can help connect him with others who could help him out. “There’s a big infrastructure for support here that doesn’t exist in a bigger city.”
The friends discuss more porch parties, more costumed fundraisers, maybe a float in the annual Christmas parade, which anyone can join.
“There are people who say, ‘I could never live in a small town,’” Ian says. “But they don’t know this one. It’s its own little world.”