Thursday, December 15, 2011

Hillbilly Urbanism

Despite Brian O'Neill's best efforts, Pittsburgh isn't part of Appalachia. However, Pittsburgh is located in Appalachia. Confused? Don't be:

Hardly any part of the U.S. typifies the concept of rural like Appalachia. Even the most outdated historical stereotypes persist: hillside shacks, impoverished children with no shoes, moonshine. While the region certainly had a rural past, its present is actually much more urban. To explore this side of the region, two Appalachians have just launched a news website, The Hillville, to cover an increasingly urbanized Appalachia.

“A lot of it has to do with media perceptions and what the media covers,” says co-founder Beth Newberry. She says the stereotypes mainly arise from high-profile news coverage of the area’s poverty problems in the 1960s, stemming from a visit by President John F. Kennedy. “That was the first time when we got a lot of those images on TV. And what we saw were hungry people in hollows and coal miners and people walking on the side of the road to get to town. And those images stick.”

Newberry and Hillville co-founder Niki King are quick to say that these images are undeniably a part of Appalachian heritage. But they feel the dominance of these images and stereotypes has skewed the idea of what Appalachia is.

When fans of the Cleveland Browns call Steeler fans "hilljacks", they mean that Pittsburgh isn't a city. There isn't anything urbane about Yinzers. (There isn't anything urbane about Browns fans, either.) Anyplace outside of cosmopolitan Cleveland is hillbilly country. To the extent that Pittsburgh is rural, it is part of Appalachia.

That's what I meant by the post "Redefining Rural". Rural landscapes can look urban. Pittsburgh can be part of Appalachia as a city. Appalachia has cities. More from The Hillville:

Maybe it’s because we’re all attached to our region’s rural past, so imprinted are we with our grandparents stories, we can’t stop thinking or writing about it. Or, the issues that dominate conversation happen to be in our rural quarters, like mining, mountain top removal and ameliorating poverty. Maybe it’s because there are few universities that offer urban studies. Virginia Tech’s Department of Urban Affairs and Planning is the only one I’m aware of.

Whatever the reason, it’s a fact Emily Satterwhite bemoans in her essay “Seeing Appalachian Cities” in the journal Southern Changes. “Appalachian Studies literature has seldom discussed what it means to be city and mountain, or what it feels to inherit or embrace contradictory sets of values. Only in the past few years have some Appalachianists begun to address the need to better understand the presence of cities in the region.”

Emphasis added. Hillbilly urbanism is the expression of a paradox, the rural city. North or South, I feel at home in any Appalachian city. Perhaps it's the cozy confines of the surrounding hills and the blue collar traditions that still dominate the culture. There's also that diaspora thing. It isn't universal:

In addition to the cities located within the region, the [Hillville] site is also going to focus on cities outside the region heavily influenced by migration of Appalachian residents. Cincinnati, for example, has a large Appalachian community. One in four residents is of Appalachian descent.

“It had such a large outmigration of Appalachians for jobs that they carried their culture with them, as happens with a lot of migrants,” says Newberry. “For the past 40 years there’s been an urban Appalachian center, there’s neighborhoods centers, there’s whole neighborhoods that family units basically picked up and moved to and recreated the connections they had in the hills.”

We hilljacks like to take over foreign cities (and opposing stadiums). Thus, Cincinnati is now a shining example of hillbilly urbanism. You can see the cultural diffusion in the landscape. In Detroit:

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.”

When people look down on you for how you look and talk, you stay with your own. So the new arrivals stuck together and formed tight-knit groups. Their neighborhoods were so insular that many of their children, born and raised in Detroit, still speak with accents nearly as thick as those of their parents.

Detroit is part of Appalachia, too. But it isn't located in Appalachia, hear?


Brian O'Neill said...


I love this discussion, and I agree that Pittsburgh didn't attract as many post-war migrants from rural Appalachia as did Detroit and Cincinnati. But I don't accept that Appalachia must forever and always be considered a rural place. I'll let this map make my argument that Pittsburgh is an unusually prosperous part of Appalachia, but it's Appalachia all the same:

Jim Russell said...


Thanks for the comment. I consider Pittsburgh to be a part of Appalachia. I figure that many others don't share my perspective because of the geographic stereotype: Appalachia is rural.

Urban Appalachia is an oxymoron. This is the dominant perception and has impacted scholarship about the region. The Hillville addresses this oversight. Hillbilly urbanism will finally get the attention it deserves.

Dan said...

Interesting post. Hilljack certainly isn't a term used around here (Pittsburgh/Mon Valley). I even asked everybody at work and checked with my sister who lived in Columbus for 10 years and they have never heard of the term either.

I checked online and found an interesting website mapping where the term is used:

It seems to be used mostly around southern Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky. I think the closest thing we have to hilljack around here is yinzer although that isn't really equivalent. Both terms denote somebody who is blue collar /working class but it seems to me that a hilljack would be somebody from an isolated rural area. Yinzers certainly aren't isolated but are more of an urban hick.

Jim Russell said...


That website also references Twitter feeds using the term. One that caught my eye:

Have fun with Charlie Batch, you hilljack Steeler fans.

I'm from Western PA and I never encountered the term until I started reading NFL fansite message boards. I'm just guessing, but I think it might be a Northern/Southern Ohio thing.

C. Briem said...

I think this would be called oral history.. but I have been told that the Appalachian Regional Commission actually defined itself, or at least its geography, at a meeting in Pittsburgh long long ago. I will have to see if can pull the treead on that some.

Jim Cahalan said...

There are more square miles of "official Appalachia" in PA than in any state; we have 50% more than the no. 2 state, WV. Want to learn about it in depth? See

Patrick Prescott said...

When I studied in Steubenville, I was told by the ladies I worked with who were from WV (my Mountain Mamas) that the folks in WV were sometimes called hoopjacks.

Jim Russell said...

Hoopjacks? That's a new one for me.

Brian O'Neill said...

Hoopies, yes, I have heard that term used for West Virginians. That has to do with the notion that so many of them were barrel makers.

Mahramus said...

I too have never heard of "hilljack", though "hoopie" definitely rings a bell. Thanks for the story of the origin, Brian.

CJFrey said...

I'm from SW Indiana and grew up saying "Hilljack" and "hillbilly" interchangeably. Both terms were synonymous with "redneck" to me. If we consider southern Indiana as a great western lobe of Appalachia (just as the same area is considered more Southern than Northern), then the word probably was used by flatlanders (like myself) to describe people in those zomia-transition zones who couldn't rely just on farming.