Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Boomerang Appalachia

I'm working on a blog series about distance-trust and Pittsburgh, but I've got some more research to do before I launch it. Meanwhile, read about another boomerang migration tale:

My father, who was from eastern Kentucky, headed with millions of other Appalachian people for the “promised land” after the great depression. The promised land in that day consisted of cities such as Dayton, Detroit, Gary, and Cincinnati, out of which rose great factories that employed thousands on giant “campuses.” ...

... Today the world is different. Many of the workers who left for jobs in other cities are returning home to Appalachia – and not entirely by choice. Many of them are being laid off from the auto factories with little else to turn to but family and ties to “place”.

This creates a new challenge to areas like Appalachia and my region, eastern Kentucky. These are no longer inevitable geographies of distress; certainly they are no more challenged that those of the former dreamscapes up north around the Great Lakes.

The author of the essay goes on to describe a more nuanced landscape that national media often overlooks while latching on to the traditional stereotypes of Appalachia as economically distressed and culturally backward. By and large, this is also the Pittsburgh story.

While Pittsburgh (along with Cincinnati) is one of the "dreamscapes", I consider the city to be part of Appalachia. Lumping Ohio River urbanity in with industrial powerhouses of the Great Lakes region as some sort of Appalachian other is an odd distinction. I might even go so far as to claim that the big cities with a southern mountain flavor are at the front of the economic revitalization wave.

There is a cultural crescent roughly following the Ohio River westward from Pittsburgh and then up the Mississippi to St. Louis. Within that region is the boomerang migration hotbed and the top three domestic urban diasporas (Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and St. Louis). The jury is still out on Louisville, but I've seen evidence of the same potential for that city.

I blog about this geography because it is part of Pittsburgh's impressive sphere of influence. Far from "increasing irrelevancy", Pittsburgh is where the Midwest and Appalachia meet the cosmopolitan Northeast. Pittsburgh's domestic orientation is unique and powerful. So much so that the global connections are tenuous at best. That critique issued, I envision Pittsburgh as the global city of flyover parts of Appalachia and the Midwest. While the rest of America retains its misinformed views about this part of the world, Pittsburgh is in perfect position to drive economic growth.


The Urbanophile said...

I'd actually make the opposite argument with regards to the river cities. It seems that many of the old 19th century river towns - Cincy, Louisville, St. Louis - have particularly stagnated and it is newer interior cities that are doing better. Phoenix, Denver, Atlanta, Dallas, and Charlotte are all interior cities. As are Midwest leaders like Indy, Columbus, and Des Moines.

Jim Russell said...

"Phoenix, Denver, Atlanta, Dallas, and Charlotte" are products of the last economic shake-up. I'm thinking about this new round of downturn and the cities that might come to the fore. The Midwest leaders you list might qualify, but I'm wary of the capital city effect.

The Urbanophile said...

thundermutt said it best on one of my blogs postings, "The Great Lakes unite, rivers divide". Rivers often serve as political boundaries, and there seems to be enormous strife along them (Cin vs. NKY, Lou vs. SOIN, etc). Pittsburgh is in a little different situation there, however.

The capital city effect, I think, comes from the fact that capital cities which are also primate cities tend to draw people there regularly from throughout the state. (You'd probably call this hinterland geography but I do not like the hinterland term since it has pejorative connotations). This produces some type of "brain circulation" of a sort. It also tends to concentrate "creative" types such as journalists, ad agencies, law firms, engineering firms, etc.

In the Midwest at least, the capital city effect appears to be real. There is only one decent sized city with above average population and economic growth that is not also a state capital of greater than 500,000 people metro. (That is Kansas City).

Jim Russell said...

Indeed, rivers divide. Rivers also connect. But you bring up a very interesting distinction: Rivers as political boundaries. I have not thought of Pittsburgh as being unique among postindustrial cities in that regard.

My understanding is how rivers have divided communities, making them particularly Balkanized. These cultural archipelagos are the artifacts of domestic urban diasporas. And, I think, one River Rat from Pittsburgh can easily understand a River Rat from Evansville.

What I find impressive about Pittsburgh is the ease of relationship with not only the Appalachia people and Ohio River Diaspora, but Great Lakes cities and even the Northeastern Megalopolis.

Three Rivers, Three Cultural Tribes.

pittropolis said...

If Pittsburgh wants to position itself as a "crossroad city" for these regions, I can offer some humble advice: be more accepting of outsiders. I recently moved to Pittsburgh from West Virginia for my doctorate. When I mention that I'm from West Virginia, the "native Pittsburghers" have a tendency to negatively stereotype my home state (in my experience and to put it mildly). For example, my dentist in Squirrel Hill is guilty of this offense, and I even had a professor crack a joke about the state of West Virginia in class. The people I interact with in class and in my personal circles are not uneducated people, yet I still get these backwards and prejudiced comments from them. To put it mildly, this has been less than welcoming and reflects a provincial attitude among the local citizens. How deep does this run? I would love to hear the reason or historical backdrop for these remarks. I think Pittsburgh has a lot of charm and potential, but I want to (and will) live in a place that is open to change and not insular.

Jim Russell said...

Pittsburghers tend to look down on their neighbors in West Virginia. In fact, my sense is most residents do not think of Pittsburgh as an Appalachian city. They'd prefer to ignore the Midwestern influences as well. Burgh-centrism cuts both ways. However, I think the negative aspects are well recognized. I'm interested in exploring the advantages of such a perspective.

pittropolis said...

If the burgh-centric point of view applies to what Pittsburghers (Urban Appalachia) think of West Virginia (Rural Appalachia), imagine how it might apply to something Pittsburghers would find completely foreign? For example, if Pittsburgh would ever experience a significant influx of Hispanics (legal or illegal). Personally, I would wager that Pittsburgh needs a cultural shift. Some things just really drag down the area’s reputation. Yet I have no idea how to change people’s prejudices. I would say more education the better, but as stated above, this hasn’t eased people’s biases. Ideas?

Jim Russell said...

Anti-outsider sentiment is common wherever you might go. Cities that seem more tolerant have more outsiders. Something that would help Pittsburgh is more out-migration.