In some of the old towns in the "New West," things have changed. Residents don't take kindly to spitting on the sidewalk or drunken discharge of firearms. Some have even gone vegetarian.

Most (three-quarters) of the interior West of the United States, defined as 12 states east of the Sierras and west of the Great Plains, has a sparse population, with fewer than six people per square mile. That qualifies it as "frontier" by census definitions.

But in about 10 percent of the 247 counties of the Old West, the New West has come calling. Affluent "escapees" from California, retirees, second-home vacationers, and well-educated information pushers have shown up with their tastes and expectations packed in their wagons.

Some of the expectations are a culture shock to the traditional cowboy denizens of the West, farmers, miners, ranchers--people who live off the land and the labor of their hands.

Kristopher Rengert, a senior researcher at the Fannie Mae Foundation, says the pattern of new development in popular destinations varies from "upscale clusters" to multi-million dollar ranches. Any way you cut it, these are people with a lot of money.

"This is really a rural gentrification," he says, "so of course there will be some conflict. But there are positive effects as well. A lot of the job loss that has happened in the region would have happened anyway, as a result of mechanization, and the like."

City slickers

Most of the New West arrivals settle in hip, well-known metro areas like Aspen, Colo., or Bend, Ore. But even small, relatively remote cities can undergo rapid conversion from Old to New West. Rengert cites Moab, Utah.

"A few years ago, Moab would not have been considered cappuccino. But now, the place has become a center for rock climbers, mountain bikers--what you might call active lifestyle tourism. And the retiree population is growing."

Native challenges

In stark contrast to the New West migration, Indian (meaning Native American) communities in the region have continued to struggle.

"The housing situation [in Indian counties] is terrible," Rengert notes. "and the economic situation for the most part is even worse."

Time is catching up with the Old West way of life. The question for builders: Can they satisfy the big demands of the small minority of yuppies and retirees, at the same time keeping housing affordable for the other two-thirds of the population?

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