Slummin’ in Appalachia

Em Carpenter

Em was one of those argumentative children who was sarcastically encouraged to become a lawyer, so she did. She is a proud life-long West Virginian, and, paradoxically, a liberal. In addition to writing about society, politics and culture, she enjoys cooking, podcasts, reading, and pretending to be a runner. She will correct your grammar. You can find her on Twitter.

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83 Responses

  1. fillyjonk says:

    “What have you accomplished? Has your foray into “poverty porn” done anything to improve the conditions you found here in this place you’d never stoop to call home? ”

    Speaking as someone who lives in another “OMG why would anyone live THERE*” part of the country, I think it’s the old human impulse to feel superior, dressed up (so they think) in the clothes of “we care so much.” Basically concern-trolling.

    The other thing is the outsiders who come in and just don’t understand. I didn’t, when I first moved here. You have to be here a while before you start to get it. I think that’s the problem – a lot of the reporters from more-distant areas don’t know enough/spend enough time in places, but somehow they convince themselves that because they are Journalists, they are faster at catching on than everybody else. But they aren’t, and some of them may even be more blinded to their own prejudices than the rest of us are to ours.

    (*I had this said to me once while I was traveling by train. At dinner we would up – communal seating – with a real jerk at the table who felt he was better than everyone, who mocked and belittled Christianity (while saying he was a Buddhist, and they were ‘so much smarter’) and I was left not knowing if he really was that big of a jerk or if I was being secretly filmed to get my responses to him. I was never asked to sign a release so either he was that big of a jerk, or he didn’t get enough of a rise out of me to make it worth broadcasting…)Report

  2. Wow, I love this piece. Thanks so much for writing it. Every word resonates with me.Report

  3. Oscar Gordon says:

    I’ve seen pieces like this from WI as well, but it’s dying family dairy farms or small company towns struggling to survive after the paper mill closed.

    What journalism like this also does is feed attitudes like this. Where it’s not enough for pity and feelings of superiority.Report

    • Slade the Leveller in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

      Good Lord, that source.Report

      • Oscar Gordon in reply to Slade the Leveller says:

        Yeah, not my first choice, but the tweet did happen, I saw it, screen shots exist.

        And of course, it was a single tweet by a low level academic, so by itself, it’s indicative of not much.

        But I think there is an attitude of “those dumb hicks need to do what us city folk want” among certain strains of leftists. After WA passed the $30 car tabs, I had a discussion with a very smart man (at work) who leans left, who was quite angry that the rest of the state was not willing to pay $300-$600 a year for car registration when the bulk of the money goes for Puget Sound traffic infrastructure. There was a lot of, “if those people would not be spending all their money on cheetoes, beer, cigarettes, and guns, they’d be able afford the higher priced car tabs”, and , “maybe the urban corridor should not be sending so much tax revenue to support the poverty of the rest of the state”.

        All of which boils down to only wanting to use tax revenue for poverty relief when those whose poverty is being relieved are those who would vote/support those paying for the relief — which strikes me as a moral/ethical problem in the vein of drug testing welfare recipients.Report

        • fillyjonk in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

          No, but there are people who are totally unironically “let’s herd everyone into cities and make them live there, because environmentalism!” and honestly? If you want me to kill myself? Make me live somewhere with noise 24/7/365, where I can’t get away from people and their noise and their ATTITUDES. Urgh.Report

          • Dan Miller in reply to fillyjonk says:

            If somebody said “if you want me to kill myself, make me live somewhere with no diversity and no people, where I can’t ride the subway or walk to a corner store”….you’d be condemning that person as kind of an asshole. It’s fine if you like rural areas, but don’t be a dick to urbanites (also, we should raise carbon taxes so that people are paying full freight if they choose a lifestyle that’s going to put my city underwater–incidentally, such a tax would hit suburbs much harder than it does rural areas, whose high travel levels are balanced out by relative poverty).Report

            • Jaybird in reply to Dan Miller says:

              I just want to point out that Fillyjonk’s statement used “because environmentalism” and made the argument that she ought to move to Mega City One because it would be moral to do so.

              Your statement doesn’t strike me as particularly jerkish. Why? Because the person is expressing a preference. “If you want to make me kill myself, have me do this thing I hate!” doesn’t really step on any toes.

              Even if the thing I hate is something you like.Report

              • George Turner in reply to Jaybird says:

                Well, some people prefer places with a wide range of ethnic diversity and always-interesting social interactions, places that feature high density housing and that have food, work, libraries, and recreation areas all within walking distance. Others eschew such places, calling them “the federal prison system”.Report

        • veronica d in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

          It’s the lack of any self awareness that is so baffling. Surely this nitwit is aware that conservatives these same points about minorities. I hope he doesn’t agree with such arguments when they are aimed at brown people. Why is it different when they are aimed at rural people?

          It’s just — weird. I don’t get it.Report

  4. Mark says:

    I rafted the New River about ten years ago. I was treated reasonably well, but I wasn’t treated “with more kindness and hospitality than you are likely to find anywhere else.” I’d say the hospitality was about average.
    Yes, I am one of those who doesn’t quite get living in West Virginia. I was raised in one state, educated in another, got my first position in a third, promoted in a fourth, and finally settled in a fifth where I built a successful career. There are places not that far away from West Virginia with pretty vibrant economies such as northern Virginia or Nashville, and it does not take a Grapes of Wrath trek to get there. America is the Land of Opportunity, but opportunity won’t chase you down.Report

    • Em Carpenter in reply to Mark says:

      There is opportunity here. There are lawyers and doctors and business owners and professionals, just like anywhere else. I found success here. But beyond that, maybe “opportunity” and “success” take different forms for some people. There are some bad conditions here, I don’t deny it. But there is bad everywhere. Why is rural bad worse than urban bad? Personally, I stay because I love it here. I love the land and the people and the culture and yes, the pride. And I stay because nothing will ever improve here if every successful person leaves.
      (Also, I am not surprised that the hospitality at New River was just average. Most of the employees around there are seasonal folks who do not live here.)Report

    • Andrew Donaldson in reply to Mark says:

      I grew up in that area, so I have no doubt what you are saying about the New River area. To be fair most of the people involved in the rafting industry are seasonal and come and go accordingly so a bit different than the state as a whole.Report

      • George Turner in reply to Andrew Donaldson says:

        That’s really common with a lot of tourist industries. The business owners and employees are often former tourists who had some money to invest and decided to turn their vacation into a career, catering to people who are taking the same vacation they did. They show up in some idyllic spot and say “What this place needs is a [ golf course, hotel, sea-food restaurant, rafting business, ski resort ], and I’m just the person to build it!” whereas the locals thought the place was great just the way it was.

        If business goes well they often hire seasonal teenage workers from among the population of tourists. I would think most ski resorts were built by coastal financiers who loved skiing, not local ranchers whose great grandparents moved to Colorado or New Mexico in a covered wagon. The same probably applies to most popular destinations. When I went to Yellowstone, the teenage waiters in the giant log hotel were from all across the country. I’m not sure I met a born-and-raised local the whole time I was there.Report

  5. Jaybird says:

    I saw a great little essay about one of the pathologies of the dystopian meritocracy we find ourselves living in.

    The gist was that the meritocracy defines merit as not only being good at whatever but being willing to move. So people who want to stay where they grew up are automatically assumed to not be good at whatever.

    Still in your old hometown? Well, you must not have had enough merit.

    Which is kind of messed up.Report

    • DensityDuck in reply to Jaybird says:

      broke: if you aren’t rich it’s because you made poor life choices!
      woke: if you don’t live in the city it’s because you made poor life choices!Report

      • Dan Miller in reply to DensityDuck says:

        Bespoke: if you don’t live in the city, it’s because zoning laws are too strict and carbon taxes are too low.Report

      • James Marshall in reply to DensityDuck says:

        I love reading these comments! I live in rural- no… WILDERNESS, Northern N.H. in a much harsher climate than W. Virginia, but with all the same issues- even more I moved from Seattle. It SUCKS here. But I can’t live in Seattle. It’s too expensive. That’s WHY I moved! I can’t get a job here, despite my 2 degree, and being a Vet, with all that experience has to offer. Yes, Dollar General. Yes to ignorant hillbillies. Yes, to reliant on tourism. Yes to opiods…WOW! YES! to everything! It’s beautiful here. But it’s depressing, and because I can’t find work? I may lose the family house this year. Taxes have skyrocketed- $3,500/yr.. I’ve fallen behind. I’ll be homeless I’m sure. Four years ago, I made $60k- and paid $1,300/mo for an apartment that now costs $2,000/mo
        I moved back here. All I do is manage to survive on $17k yr. It’s pretty pathetic.
        I cut wood 24/7/365 so I don’t freeze in 40 below weather. It’s 32 in my house currently, and I have no water- the creek is frozen. I live in one room of the house, have $1,000 in my bank, half tank if gas, bald tires and no job prospects. Because there is no viable infrastructure! Unless you are a nurse, teacher (turn around rates WOW!) The mi wage is $7.25 so any decent job open is $10/hr…with a 25-50 mile commute.

        Yeah…it sucks. And I TRY to convince myself it’s beauty is worth living here…that the “quaintness” will grow on me…that these are “salt if the Earth” people…

        In reality? It’s lonely, depressing, there’s no socializing- people who DO move here are Anti- social, there’s no infrastructure, stuck in 1980… education sucks,..I GET IT NOW!

        Once you get here, you CANT leave. You become poor. Your finances run out. You’re STUCK. Then drugs…and if you have kids? Welfare dependence

        THAT, FRIENDS…Is the reality!!

        The author attempts to paint a noble portrait and has all the city folk bemoaning and questioning themselves as being jerks for asking “WHY?” do people live in such sqallid conditions?

        Because they’re incapable of moving. Simple. It’s not because of some noble cause…like Grandma Moses…it’s a trap. Those kids who DO make it out? DONT RETURN. The tax base diminishes, and taxes rise…no jobs move in…and voila! Poverty.

        So gawk away. I for one, UNDERSTAND!!Report

        • Em Carpenter in reply to James Marshall says:

          Wow, Northern NH sounds like a terrible place to live. I’m glad WV isn’t like that.
          Did you not learn these things before you decided to move there? Seems like maybe the smart thing would have been to try to get a job BEFORE you moved there?
          Also, that is not the whole of “reality”. That’s my point. It is of course true for some folks but for the majority of us here, it is not the case. We have lawyers, doctors, teachers, nurses, business owners, salesman, insurers, real estate agents, writers, contractors and construction workers, etc. It is not impossible to flourish here. And plenty of people who leave West Virginia come back.
          I have traveled all over the country and have not found a place I’d rather live, except maybe New Orleans. I’m quite capable of moving.
          I make a very good living. I’m not poor, even though I grew up that way. I have not used “welfare” or government assistance for the entirety of my adult life. I’m not on drugs. I have a social life. I have the internet and a cell phone and shoes and teeth and everything!
          Maybe you should come here. Sounds like we have everything you like about NH, but better.Report

    • Oscar Gordon in reply to Jaybird says:

      It’s not just “still living in your hometown”, but “still living in your hometown and whining about how you can never get ahead”.

      It’s one thing to stay and either find a way to be successful, or to accept that you’ll be just getting by. It’s something else to stay because ‘reasons’, and then spend your time complaining about it.

      And note, one should hold equal contempt for people who move to cities and work crappy jobs and complain about barely being able to make ends meet, but refuse to move because they just love the city so damn much.

      In short, if you remain fixed in a place for esoteric reasons, but you are unable to thrive there, the validity of your complaints about your inability to thrive are weakened by your unwillingness[1] to move.

      [1] Inability to move is different, but is also limited to a handful of good reasons. Being unable to move because the suburbs just don’t have good vegan soy lattes and and no independent music scene is not a thing.Report

      • Aaron David in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

        My hometown got like that, with many of the people I grew up with and who still lived there just eeking out a living. I always called a gumption trap, after the line in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Basically, it is a very nice little college town with all that entail (with perfect weather to boot), and a very high price tag as it is half-way between LA and SF. So you can just coast, hanging out at the bars, surfing in the AM and working some just-getting-by job.

        And the ones who stayed and lived that lifestyle constantly bitches about how little they make, how high the rent is, work cuts into the surf times, etc. It took me two tries to get out successfully.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

        And note, one should hold equal contempt for people who move to cities and work crappy jobs and complain about barely being able to make ends meet, but refuse to move because they just love the city so damn much.

        Just curious why you think those people deserve “equal contempt” when, according to your description, those folks have *chosen* to relocate in pursuit of a better lifestyle for themselves. You’re basically obliterating the relevant distinction between the two groups, which is that one group – the moved-to-the-city group – actually did relocate.Report

        • Oscar Gordon in reply to Stillwater says:

          Because it’s not about the moving by itself, it’s about finding that place you can thrive, or that place where you are satisfied with just getting by.

          I moved away from small town WI and eventually found myself in Madison, WI. I loved that city, but it’s a college town, and the opportunities (at the time) for my chosen profession were very limited. Rather than merely exist in that city in the hopes that I could find a job that aligned with what I wanted, I packed up and headed west to a place with more opportunity for me.

          I really, truly loved Madison. I loved that it was close enough to home to visit, but far enough to keep drop-ins to a minimum. I had a good job, even if it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I loved the atmosphere, the walk/ride-ability, the restaurants and cafes, the entertainment, State Street and the Capital Square farmers market. I loved Monty’s, and the variety of cheese and ice cream, and Culver’s, and so, so much more.

          But I would not be able to thrive there, and I was not happy to just exist, so I left.

          If you can not thrive, and you are not content to just exist, then you need to move on.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

        No, the pathology is found in, among other places, the attitudes behind the now-deleted tweets you linked.

        It’s not merely being behind and being unsatisfied. Being behind and satisfied is seen as a bad thing.Report

        • Oscar Gordon in reply to Jaybird says:

          Obviously I don’t think being behind and satisfied is a bad thing.Report

          • Jaybird in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

            Oh, I’m sure that you don’t.

            That said, the dystopian meritocracy in which we live sees it as odd to be living in a backwater with a backwater community and a backwater religion and the fact that you’re not willing to uproot and move to where Things Happen is a sign that something is amiss.

            For example: those now-deleted tweets.Report

            • greginak in reply to Jaybird says:

              There are mountain communities all over the west and some not far from where you live where people rave about living away from it all. Being in the mountains is like gold to some people and they loudly treasure. There is also a large subset of those people who are well to do or rich who live in Aspen or Park City and telecomute and live on there on the weekends. One of the big struggles in all the popular places all over the West is people moving there in droves leading to skyrocketing prices for housing and crowding.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to greginak says:

                It’s true that there are little gated community kinda towns that are magnets for the really rich, yes.Report

              • greginak in reply to Jaybird says:

                No not really. Mountain towns all over the West are super popular. I was just in Bend, OR last weekend. Some very pricey real estate and a big influx of people over the last 10-15 years. No gates involved. I listened to some of the locals talk about it. It’s not that Em doesn’t have a strong point, but there is a lot more to it then that. Lot’s of people love cities. Lots of people love to live in the country. Often the same people at different times in their lives.

                Old rust belt rural isn’t all that popular and like a lot of the great plains town are withering. But plenty of rural places are growing and popular. It isn’t’ hard to find long time locals complaining about how popular their once sleepy towns are.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to greginak says:

                No gates involved

                very pricey real estate


              • Stillwater in reply to Jaybird says:

                “Poor people couldn’t afford their own home when those towns were economically depressed and they can’t afford to own their own home now because those towns are economically booming.”Report

              • greginak in reply to Stillwater says:

                Poor used to be able to afford to live in a lot of rural mountain towns. Now they can’t since certain parts of rural america are really popular.Report

              • Stillwater in reply to greginak says:

                Ironically, though, this discussion is about poor people who choose to live in towns with very low costs of living YET complain about not having any economic opportunities.

                Maybe we’re telling the story the wrong way. Maybe (hear me out!) the economic opportunity these dying towns offer is being a super cheap place to live.

                “Hey, my town doesn’t have any economic opportunities and that sucks!”

                “Is it a *super cheap place to live*? Then quitcher bitchen.”Report

              • jason in reply to Stillwater says:

                You’re not wrong. One benefit of my town is that housing is affordable, and residents’ dollars go much further than they would in the northern front-range cities.Report

              • Chip Daniels in reply to Stillwater says:

                That’s the suburban dream, isn’t it?

                To work in the city where all the economic opportunities are, then live in the country where it is quiet and peaceful.Report

              • jason in reply to Chip Daniels says:

                We do have people that work in Colorado Springs and live here in Pueblo. Oddly enough, I know of many faculty and admins at my university who work here and live in Colorado Springs, which can be frustrating, in that they’re working for a good (sometimes really good) wage here and then spending most of that money in a community that isn’t really struggling. But whole foods needs money just as much as King Soopers, I guess. (King Soopers is part of the Kroger conglomerate anyhoo–this is more about attitude than big vs little business)Report

              • Chip Daniels in reply to jason says:

                One of the exchanges in bedroom community living is that you pay for the privilege, usually in time.

                When we moved from Orange County to downtown LA where I work, I gained almost 3 hours per day of extra time.

                But on another level, suburban living, the split life between workplace and bedroom is inherently precarious because communities are living things and grow and evolve over time.

                Sort of to Em’s point, those small WV towns at one time were economically humming, with either a mine or factory or rail hub generating jobs where people could live a block away from their workplace.

                A lot of those quaint country towns weren’t sleepy and peaceful, at all. They were noisy, dirty, rowdy places with gangs and brothels and muggers because, well, that’s life in the (small) city.Report

              • greginak in reply to Stillwater says:

                Not sure of your point. My point, as far as i can tell, is that rural vs city is oversimplified. Some rural places are really popular. Those places have mountains and a lot of natural goodness which people want. The city slickers hate rural hicks, is overplayed. Not that there isnt’ some truth there and of course plenty of hate in the other direction. But it just ain’t that city people all hate the country.Report

              • Oscar Gordon in reply to greginak says:

                A common complaint is that urbanites move to the country (or just buy up the housing) and then essentially gentrify the place, forcing the initial residents out.

                My wife used to tell me about how the rural school she attended as a kid in northern WI was falling apart because the municipalities could not pass a tax levy to fix it. Why? Because too much of the land was actually owned by people from Chicago, who, when such levies were on the ballot, would register to vote in WI (they had a home there, after all), vote against the levy, then re-register back to IL.

                Eventually they managed to get the levy passed, but it took years, and some legislative action, IIRC.Report

              • greginak in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

                Oh yeah that is definitely a problem. The point was that city folk don’t hate rural areas. Rural areas, some at least, are very popular and desirable. And of course many rural folk love to go to the city for all sorts of reasons.

                Just trying to add a bit of the dreaded nuance to this. It is a weird thing where people decry something, in this case city folk hating on rural’s, but then do everything to amplify and exaggerate the thing they hate.Report

              • George Turner in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

                Parts of Appalachia have that problem, especially near anyplace remotely “touristy”. Lots of city folks and out of state folks buy a big plot of hillside (because in many cases the land is only a couple hundred an acre) and plan to retire there far in the future, which virtually never actually happens because retired folks aren’t going to build a home in the boonies all by themselves, and any house they build might be worth less on the market than what they spent to build it. Some of them just use their ill-considered retirement plot as a private hunting area one or two days a year.

                Areas near the Red River Gorge (a rock climbing area) often get bought up cheap by climbers who’d just like their own little camping spots or personal section of cliff. Many other pieces of land were inherited by folks who’ve lived elsewhere for the past two generations but whose families once lived in the area. The property taxes are extremely cheap so they just keep it in the family. This creates the odd situation where the locals don’t own most of the land.

                The mountains surrounding my hometown were largely British owned (by “The American Association”), going back almost a century, the result of a boom in the 1890’s where geologists thought the town was sitting on a mother lode of high-grade iron ore, and smack in the middle of a bituminous coal region. Turns out they’d probably found an odd meteor fragment from the impact that created the giant crater (several miles wide) where the town was built.

                But there’s virtually no demand for real-estate, so all those parcels and sections sit idle, generating no economic activity and virtually no tax revenue. In some ways this makes the absentee-owned rural areas similar to abandoned sections of Detroit, but spread out and hidden by beautiful forests instead of urban decay.Report

              • Saul Degraw in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

                Here is the issue. Everyone wants it both ways. There used to be a time when transportation and communication were much tougher and you needed countries with small cities everywhere especially large countries like the U.S., there were also more self-contained but limited economies.

                This is not really necessary anymore. Places like West Virginia or your wife’s hometown survive through tax flow from blue areas to red.

                But blue city (((cosmopolitan elites))) like me still get slammed for our heathen ways.

                There is a tendency in politics to want everything to be smurf village or the shire. A self-contained village with a simplistic economy. But people also want the things of globalization and complexity like big movies, TV, music, video games, and pharmaceuticals.

                Those rural areas would suffer much more without the city types they hate so much.Report

              • George Turner in reply to Saul Degraw says:

                So where do the cities get all their shade-grown coffee, organic wheat flour, copper wiring, asphalt, timber, steel, electricity, and gas without all those poor rural serfs slaving away in the hot sun?Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Saul Degraw says:

                Do you think that if we transfer our hard-earned dollars into their tax coffers, we should have some say in their lifestyle choices?Report

              • Saul Degraw in reply to Jaybird says:

                Nice try at a troll. I am not going to explain way or defe d their anti-Semitism, racism, homophobia, etc. I am not one for Jeffersonian and Rousseauian mythos making.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Saul Degraw says:

                You prefer the anti-Semitism, racism, homophobia found in the cities?Report

              • Chip Daniels in reply to Saul Degraw says:

                Sort of tying Saul and George’s comment together (when has THAT ever happened!)-

                When you read contemporary accounts of the Old West, like Mark Twain’s “Roughing It” the picture of the settling of the West that emerges is some sort of mad stampede of looting and pillage, where there were land booms and busts, crazed speculation and fraud, towns thrown up overnight then abandoned, and all of it made possible by the taxpayers back East who funded the Cavalry who drove out the original owners of the land and kept the Al Swearengens of the day from losing their scalps.

                And it still is that way. the high deserts of California are dotted with various grids of streets and empty lots where some lucrative real estate booms was promised, but then abandoned.

                Because as much as we romanticize the beauty of Appalachia or the austere arid West, the tendency is to treat the land and the people there as something to be plundered and sacked then abandoned.Report

              • George Turner in reply to Chip Daniels says:

                True, but that’s also what made the US the richest country on Earth. Here absolutely anybody was allowed to go out in the wilderness, develop some land, and get a deed to the property, and then turn it around and sell it at a profit. The people who bought the properties would make improvements and then resell at a profit. Essentially, we settled the frontier by building and flipping houses, farms, and mines, with almost everyone getting rich (by world standards) in the process.

                Part of that is trying new ventures (real estate developments) and not all of those succeed. Plenty of urban developments decay, with plummeting real estate values, but in cities that are still growing, the location itself draws in re-developers and the earlier failure gets paved over and forgotten, or a major renovation and face lift. In rural areas its often much easier just to start somewhere else so you don’t have to bulldoze a bunch of abandoned houses and haul them to a landfill.Report

              • Chip Daniels in reply to George Turner says:

                Yes, that is correct.

                Its also correct that we became so rich and able to afford shade-grown coffee, organic wheat flour, copper wiring, asphalt, timber, steel, electricity, and gas by forcing poor rural serfs to slave away in the hot sun.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Stillwater says:

                Maybe (hear me out!) the economic opportunity these dying towns offer is being a super cheap place to live.

                I still don’t understand why homesourcing hasn’t taken off.

                You could make 75% of a San Francisco tech salary and live in Leadville and be high on the hog.Report

              • Linda Fitzpatrick in reply to Stillwater says:

                I have family in West Virginia and my Dad grew up in Huntington. My ancestors were Irish and were the ones that helped settle the Appalachian mountains. I have always wanted to move there “because” of the people that DO live there. My grandfather. Ulysses G Fitzpatrick decided to move to Texas or I might live there still. I’m “blessed” with living in a city of 2.2 million people and I hate it. I read books written by people who know WV and live there. They lost so much by the railroad that stripped their forests and left poor land to farm. Then the coal mines that took so many lives including my Mom’s dad, who was a coal miner. I would give anything to live there and even though I’m getting older I still want that life. I need to be away from the people and the constant noise of the city. I envy those that live the mountain life and I’m already living just by getting by on SS so a lower cost of living would be great and I’ve lived in places that most people would call impoverished. It seems annoying to me that people come to observe the people there and write about how sad it is! I think y’all have the better life than people in the city! Being poor is a life that is hard but I think that if you weigh the alternative. Hearing constant traffic 24/7 and no privacy unless you never leave the house and wear ear plugs. WV is where I should be.Report

    • Marchmaine in reply to Jaybird says:

      Eudaimonia… the only political debate we never have; the only one that matters.

      I recommend Berry’s _Hanna Coulter_ for a thoughtful rumination on how we managed to get lost without noticing we were.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Marchmaine says:

        Flourishing is really, really, really hard. Above and beyond the whole “introverts flourish like *THIS*, extroverts flourish like *THAT*”, dynamic (that exists for as many bimodal distributions as you’d like to posit), it also requires boundaries.

        Which we don’t have anymore.Report

  6. Aaron David says:

    Rednecks in the mist. That is my favorite term for this.

    I am a west coaster and grew up in a much-coveted spot, but I have lived in many places not so coveted, and many times downright derided. I get it. If you are outside the circle, then you are forever looked at like a zoo specimen.

    Bourdain was often much more perceptive that is the norm with that type of programming. I watch one of his shows where they went deep into the Amazon and spent time with the natives, and he came away, after eating the crappy local food, drinking the crappy local booze and whatnot, that what they really wanted was a cell phone, a moped, and a decent job. But eco-tourists would swoop in, pay to see them in the “natural” state all the while congratulating themselves on how enlightened they were to do these trips. You could really tell how depressed and angry the whole thing made him.

    Great piece Em.Report

  7. Slade the Leveller says:

    I can entirely empathize with this post, and it is kind of infuriating when an entire population gets painted as being less than desirable.

    Living and working in Chicago, I see all too much of this in the right wing media. Are there places in the city i don’t really want to be when I go out at night? Of course. Is is OK Corral? Of course not.

    I find Mark’s comment above pretty spot on. That said, I know how tough it is to uproot oneself. It takes a huge leap of faith to do it, and circumstances have to be pretty dire to get someone to make the leap. Not everyone is that brave.Report

    • Em Carpenter in reply to Slade the Leveller says:

      I was born and raised here, went to college and law school here, found opportunity here. And I have the means to leave if I want to. I don’t want to. It isn’t family that ties me here- my parents are a few hours away anyway, and I’ve no particular need to see them on a frequent basis. It isn’t fear or lack of bravery that keeps me here either. That’s what gets me- the thought that people who live here lack something – intelligence, bravery, ambition – that would otherwise have had them heading for the border on their 18th birthday.Report

      • Slade the Leveller in reply to Em Carpenter says:

        But something is keeping you rooted there, even if you don’t state it. And something is keeping those less fortunate than you rooted there, too. My intention was not to deride you, or anyone else.

        I don’t think it was the Catalyst author’s intention either. Here’s the full quote from which you pulled the first clause, “Although I would never want to live there, I can see the appeal.” He finishes this way: “It may be a life of struggle, but at least it’s their choice.”Report

        • Em Carpenter in reply to Slade the Leveller says:

          What roots me here is that I don’t see any need to leave.
          I quoted him as saying he could “see the appeal”, as well as that last sentence in my piece and I linked to the article, I don’t think I took anything out of context.
          I don’t mean to take your comment personally. I just don’t see living here as a negative or evidence of something lacking in my life. It’s beautiful, I have what I need, I have a career, my children are doing well. Others here don’t have it so well, I know, so I stay to hopefully help improve things. Others may stay partly because they have to, but I’m comfortable in saying most wouldn’t leave even if they could; they’d just use their good fortune to make a better life right here.Report

          • Slade the Leveller in reply to Em Carpenter says:

            Dang it, you sure did include those quotes in your piece. I should have checked. I just didn’t get the same takeaway from the piece that you did.

            I live in a city and a state that are headed for a financial apocalypse in the not too distant future. But I still pay my property taxes twice a year. Nearly my entire family lives here, but I have the means to visit them if I chose to relocate. I have a job that I could replace almost instantly if I moved almost anywhere else in these United States. Heck, I could even keep it and work remotely if I was a good enough salesman to get it past my boss. Yet, here I stay, for many of the same reasons you stay where you do. Mostly out of desire to live here, but there’s probably a fair bit of inertia, too. Roots to one’s homeplace run deep, and they’re tough to dig up.Report

  8. J_A says:

    I had the opportunity to visit Morgantown and the area around it, and I loved it. I can’t speak how representative of WV it is (being a college town and all that) but the place was beautiful, the area gorgeous, the people nice and friendly. The local Starbucks had great coffee (a must for me) For what it’s worth I thought it looked like a nice place to retire.

    Having said that, it’s no secret in OT what I think about coal mining. Coal mining is dying. I take no particular pleasure in that (my life includes having run a coal fired power plant, and designing another), but I’m also not particularly sad about it. I understand the economic forces that are killing coal mining, and there’s no stopping them. WV will be better served if both politicians and voters acknowledged that fact, and planned, and acted, accordingly.

    But you live in a beautiful state, and I wish the best for its people. Alas, I’m afraid that my wishes in this respect will take a long time to come true, but that’s not because of people like me (or people like Hillary, either). You can act like reality is real, or you can, honestly or dishonestly, act as if facts don’t matter. From my comfortable Houston perch, i5seems like the latter is what’s going on. That, too, does WV no good.Report

    • Em Carpenter in reply to J_A says:

      I’m going to admit that Morgantown is not representative of WV. Due to its location and it being a major college town, you’re going to fine a lot there that you don’t find in most of the state. From the physical beauty standpoint it is still WV, though.
      I agree with you 100% about coal and I’ve written that before, too. It makes me somewhat of a blasphemer in my state but so do most of my political opinions.Report

  9. JoeSal says:

    Good work Em, a lot of heart and grit in this one.Report

  10. Great piece, Em. It’s been a long time since I’ve been in WV, and even then I was at Green Bank, which is as isolated as you can get. The one thing I remember is that the roads were good; way better than in, say, Illinois or New Jersey. When I went up to Green Bank, they were cambered so that you could practically drive through the mountains without touching the steering wheel.Report

  11. Doctor Jay says:

    I have been rafting down the New River once, and I drove through WV one other time. But what I saw of it was shaped by another experience I had growing up.

    Every summer, right after school got out, Dad would get us up at 5:30, pack us in the car, and we’d cross the border into Canada, have breakfast at Hope, BC, and end up, like as not, 1000 miles north of the Canadian border in places named Kamloops, Lytton, Merritt, Watch Lake, Glimpse Lake, etc.

    So, WV did not look like wild country to me, it looked more or less normal. Like parts of Whatcom County that I’d driven through growing up. Wild country was the places in BC where you could see the ruins of an old gold mine just sitting there on the side of a hill.

    At least one of my companions on that river rafting trip down the New River remarked about the “poverty” we had driven through. Which was the first time that thought entered my head. It looked more or less normal rural to me. Yeah, there were rusting cars in the yard. Where else were you gonna put them?

    I have many relatives who, when they visit some remote spot, want to live there. I don’t. My life wouldn’t work there.

    To practice my chosen profession at the time I was starting out I needed to live in some very specific places. Now, between satellite broadband and Amazon Prime, I could probably make it work many other places.

    Oh, and this discussion reminds me of this. Everybody hates a tourist.Report

  12. Chip Daniels says:

    The insular nature of media is a real thing.

    One thing I point out to people is that virtually every bit of visual entertainment you watch- whether it is feature film, cable movies, television shows- almost all of it is written, produced, directed, and performed by people who live within about a 10 mile radius of Hollywood.

    Even more specifically, people who live in a few narrow neighborhoods bounded by Ventura Blvd. on the north, the Santa Monica freeway to the south, Glendale to the east and the beach on the west.

    Maybe you can find a scriptwriter living in Dallas, or Miami or Minneapolis. But naw, mostly not.

    Have you ever wondered by on almost every show you watch, the “typical” American family lives in a comfortable suburban house whose interior looks like a furniture showroom and drives a late model car that is forever spotless?

    Because that’s what those communities look like, where the scriptwriters live. Take a Google map tour of Studio City, Sherman Oaks, Brentwood, or Encino and you will get the eerie sense that you have seen these places before, like in the opening credits of every sitcom you have ever watched.

    Whenever the the storyline requires a scene change like to a place like Appalachia or the Rust Belt it takes on the “rednecks in the mist” (h/t Aaron David) quality that this essay describes.

    But then again, it goes in other ways as well.

    There are more Mexicans living in Los Angeles than there are people in all of WV. How many profiles of an immigrant family, or stories written from their perspective have you seen? When was the last time anyone saw a story or description of the life in the Crenshaw district, Compton, or Inglewood?

    There was an episode of Ray Donovan where the plot was that his teenage son was acting up, and to teach him a lesson, Ray drove him to a horrible, dystopian street in LA, and dropped him off.
    The street was filled with a bunch of tents and menacing homeless people, who all looked like extras from Escape From New York.

    Because…they probably were.

    That street, you see, is 3 blocks from my apartment. I walk there on occasion, and the most threatening thing you will see is a homeless guy peeing in a corner or shouting at demons in his head.

    But to the scriptwriter living in his home in Encino, the urban core of Los Angeles and the backwoods of WV are pretty much like those old maps where they just said, “Here be dragons”.Report

    • Oscar Gordon in reply to Chip Daniels says:

      The movie “Friday” was made because the writers wanted to show a different side of that scary urban hood.Report

      • Oscar Gordon in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

        Can someone fix my html?Report

      • Chip Daniels in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

        Yeah, there has been progress.

        But note that this example is 25 years old.

        On a recent episode of Get Shorty, they made a mocking reference to a female-oriented cable channel called “OvumTV” where virtually every movie had as its plot line a winsome single gal who travels back to her rural hometown and discovers romance and the true meaning of Christmas.

        Which is to say, almost all the movies made for Hallmark/ Lifetime channels, where the universe has two authentic options for living, one in Manhattan and one in Maybery.Report

    • Aaron David in reply to Chip Daniels says:

      Was Sandford and Son set in that circle? Chico and the Man or Good Times? 227? Those shows changed to Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper, The Cosby Show and George Lopez. All of which did very well. Maybe the communities that you are talking about didn’t want to see more urban poverty as they moved up economically, but uplifting shows and movies.Report

  13. Michael Cain says:

    I’ve spent most of my adult life along one edge or the other of the Great Plains, the poster child for dying rural areas. Three times the area of Appalachia, one quarter the number of people. Population peaked in the 1930 census and has been declining steadily ever since. The population is slowly crashing back towards the transportation routes and few rivers (and a couple of areas with large oil and gas deposits). Many counties have dropped below the traditional definition of frontier: seven people per square mile. Not as traditionally scenic as West Virginia. Lots of different kinds of scenery, but most are an acquired taste.

    Great Plains prism population map here with the GP counties in white. (The volume of the prism represents population; the height represents density; making the height equal population introduces a horrible visual bias.) The most striking feature is that cities sit at the edge or a bit outside. A stripe of land from Canada to Mexico that averages 500 miles wide and the biggest metro area is a hair over 250,000 people. Vast stretches where the largest town is less than 25,000 people.

    Similar map for Appalachia here. The height of the prisms have been truncated to the maximum value in the GP map for consistency. It’s harder to see the state boundaries because the white prisms aren’t dead flat like the GP. Largely the same thing about cities: the area is defined by where cities aren’t. Still, people are distributed much more widely than the GP.Report

    • Em Carpenter in reply to Michael Cain says:

      Semi-related I just read “Heartland” by Sarah Smarsh, who group up poor in rural Kansas. It was a wonderful book and what grabbed me was how similar her life experience has been to my own, but swap out the mountains for the prairies. The people, the struggles, so much was the same. Definitely recommended reading.Report

  14. jason says:

    On a much (much, much, much) smaller scale, I feel your pain. I live in a Colorado city that’s not Denver or one of its suburbs, Colorado Springs, nor a Mountain town. Many people in Colorado look at Pueblo in the same way that many in the US look at West Virginia. Much of the sneering is the same: a kind of snotty snobbery based on surface views. A few years back, we made the NYT because gang violence led to a high number of murders (11!). Anyone who has lived here and talked to people from other parts of the state has probably heard some version of “Aren’t you scared to live there?” It’s funny in a sad way.Report

  15. Chip Daniels says:

    On a somewhat related note, maybe the residents of West By God Virginia can be relieved that their state slogan isn’t “Meth: We’re On It.”!

  1. August 25, 2020

    […] article was originally published by the Ordinary […]Report

  2. October 17, 2020

    […] wrote a routinely and rightly criticized memoir about his mom’s addiction to pills, or the semi-annual poverty-tourist that contrives a tortured photojournalistic essay of what every small town in the entire country […]Report