Thursday, April 29, 2010

Appalachian Chic

I learned about Detroitblog from Aaron Renn, whose Urbanophile brand has gone viral. I would characterize Detroitblog as an urban anthropology of Detroit's frontier. Anthropologists like places that seem stuck in time. I'm sure most of these social scientists would appreciate Detroit's Little Appalachia:

When World War II ended and the auto factories stopped making tanks and started making cars again, Appalachians fleeing life in the coal mines poured into town along what became known as the “Hillbilly Highway.”

They showed up in droves, seeking work and settling together in older Detroit neighborhoods or in growing suburbs such as Taylor and Hazel Park, which sometimes still gets called “Hazeltucky” — a nickname that’s no compliment.

The new arrivals were looked down upon, often considered backward. Their homes were called eyesores. Landlords sometimes refused to rent to them, fearful that dozens more would follow into the neighborhood. A survey conducted by Wayne State University in 1951 asked Detroiters to identify “undesirable people” in the city. “Poor Southern whites” and “hillbillies” were in a near tie with “criminals and gangsters” at the top of the list, well ahead of “transients,” “Negroes” and “drifters.”

I hope you'll take notice of the lumpy migration pattern. I think we tend to overlook the relationship between Appalachia and the Rust Belt. Upwardly mobile blue collar workers like to look down upon those toiling in the industrial colony. The problem with this distinction is that Appalachia has its own manufacturing heritage:

5. Instead of being tied to the land, jobs in the towns tend to emphasize industry and services—important signs of a more diversified economy. However, aside from the major urban centers along its perimeter, the entire Appalachian region still suffers from population decline and the loss of younger residents to the cities.Towns closer to the major highways and nearer to the many larger cities fringing the region (Pittsburgh, Columbus, Cincinnati, Atlanta) are disproportionately better-off than rural regions in the mountainous interior.

The bulk of the economic transformations for the region occur in the periphery, not the core. One can easily divorce prosperity from the cultural hearth. But the recent success of Appalachia's urban ring is hard to dismiss as mere coincidence. An Appalachian neighborhood in Detroit stands out a lot more than one in Pittsburgh.

Cities that straddle national cultural fault lines tend to do well economically. It's a cosmopolitan proxy. These shatterbelts attract top talent from at least two cultural caches. Only the brightest and most motivated manage the migration. Intrinsically, these people are entrepreneurs. They think like immigrants.

If you are looking for the next boomtown, then take a gander at the southern end of the Appalachian periphery:

Overall, the Governor's Office of Planning and Budget expects the population of the 10-county area of Northwest Georgia to add about 495,000 people by 2050. The growth would push the region's current population of 521,000 to more than 1 million.

Dr. Douglas Bachtel, a professor of housing and consumer economics at the University of Georgia, said the area's scenic beauty, climate and proximity to both metro Atlanta and Chattanooga -- coupled with jobs and affordable housing -- will draw people to the area.

"You've got all of those factors drawing to North Georgia like a magnet," Dr. Bachtel said.

Atlanta is busy spilling over into Chattanooga and Greenville, SC, opening up this end of the ancient mountain chain. For those who claim I'm in the business of bashing the Sun Belt, think again. I'm an unabashed booster of the Appalachian urban periphery. This part of the Rust Belt is experiencing a remarkable economic transformation.

1 comment:

jenna said...

Anecdotally, I hear from a salesperson who has been stumping the areas around there for the last 5 years and he states that busines has gone from spotty to steady.