A Note from the Author
Are you looking for the perfect guide to surviving the wilderness of Western North Carolina while you wait for culture to catch up with the home you bought in that little resort town? Are you curious about how to keep the locals from giving you that uncomfortable death stare that happens on occasion when you are just going about your business?
Look no further, then, my friends. This handy little guide will teach you all you need to know about how to survive as a transplant, a tourist, or a wealthy and well-manicured person trying to make your way in the backwards little towns of Appalachia.
My qualifications to be your guide are extensive: I’m a different kind of white than you are, from one of those towns you love to visit but can’t imagine growing up in. I know all about the way people act and think in these places. I started this guide as a love letter to my little town in the mountains.
I was preparing to leave for the city — chasing better opportunities for my child and my career — but the idea of leaving the place that raised me made everything look a little dreamier in the springtime dusk. The honeysuckle smell along the river was brighter, the sunrise more gilded, the people in the gas stations were just a little less meth-y. It made me a little nostalgic.
And then, on one of my last nights at home, I sat in a brewery with a cold drink to finish writing it down, and surrounded by all of you in one of the few places I truly love about my town, I decided that of course it shouldn’t be either of those things, but rather a guide for you.
It was obvious you were struggling to understand the cultural context in which you suddenly found yourself. Your confusion — and, let’s not fool ourselves, dear reader, your lack of comprehension was evident — was clear. You were the cleanest, most polished people for miles, driving the nicest cars in the lot, wearing the most expensive mountain gear. You just looked so lost — I couldn’t help but want to do something that might assist you in your new environment. As my Mamaw always taught me, we are kind to strangers, because Jesus was also a stranger (or something that went very much like that, anyway).
Without further ado, then, dear reader, presented here for your enjoyment and education are two helpful lists, a small compilation of guidance you may find useful for preventing the soul-killing of entire generations of Appalachians.
Welcome to our corner of Appalachia, dear reader, and good luck in your endeavors!
Gentrification & You: Things Your Teacher Didn’t Want You To Know
This is a story about how Southern towns, from the Appalachians to the eastern swamps, have sold their souls.
It’s a story about how the holy grail of economic development has pushed the existence of the locals so far out of sight that its impact is rapidly approaching the point of cultural eradication.
Mostly, it’s a story about how the people best positioned to save the South from itself and from everyone else are being marginalized — economically, socially, and culturally — out of the very places that raised them.
Gentrification is a term that has rightly made its way into the discussion of how racist policy impacts urban spaces. This discussion is decades overdue, still not loud enough, and just beginning to have an impact on how cities consider the physical evidence of the shameful past.
It’s not the only national gentrification conversation we need to be having, though: no one wants to speak yet about the gentrification of our last small towns in the south, about the small hidden places that, like those neighborhoods in the cities, are suddenly being eaten alive by wealthy and predominantly white people in all their precious obliviousness.
Most of us are too tired, too broke, and too beaten by life to carry that conversation six hours down the interstate to where the decision makers liv. The university folks driving gentrification conversations in the cities don’t live where we live. If we did drive all that way, though, we’d say that it was not okay, but at least manageable, when all the people who think of us as trailer trash lived far away in places we never went unless we needed a surgery or an airport or a permit to sell alcohol.
But now all of you are here, dear reader. There are some things you should know about how you impact the way we live, work, and raise our children, plus a few of the things that you do, that you don’t know you do, that make us either scream or cry, depending on the day:
- You buy and drive development of houses that none of us could ever afford. Because you can and will pay more, there’s no market incentive to build for those of us who work to serve you, cleaning your toilets, serving your food, and cutting your grass.
- You leave those houses empty nine-tenths of the year while across the street children pack into cheap old trailers and families pay over half their wages for a 2-bedroom last renovated in 1959.
- When you have those houses, you buy landscaping plants at Lowe’s, not the local garden supply, and you order furniture and sundries from online companies to furnish and supply your new place with the quality you are accustomed to finding in the made-in-China sections of your favorite Crate & Barrel stores.
- You pay property tax, but because you’re only here a few weeks a year, and because you eat, shop, and spend in Asheville or Highlands or Boone when you do come to town, you don’t pay much in sales or alcohol tax. (Plus, when you finally bought your second or third home here, you stopped paying accommodations taxes on all those hotel nights.)
- This means the locals still fund roads and schools and parks and libraries and Meals on Wheels all by themselves. This can lead to some resentment, you see, since obviously they are not very good at it — the schools aren’t that great and the roads aren’t fixed and God bless the volunteers who keep Meals on Wheels alive — but they have this idea that it’s partly because you live here, but don’t do your share to support it with tax revenue..
- You make sure your 6,000-square-foot “cabin” is prominently protected by ADT and, to further deter imaginary criminals for the 350 days a year you aren’t living there, you put all your lights on timers so we can all admire the spacious high ceilings and granite countertops visible through your windows at night while we sit on our little porches and wonder what it would be like to live there. And then we try to sleep with your godforsaken lights shining in our windows all night, every night. (Trust me, I know it’s the kind of dark you’ll never get used to, being from the city, and that can be scary.)
- You ride $3,000 mountain bikes in full-body neon spandex on roads that our state government so kindly designated as “scenic byways” in your maps and travel websites. (FYI, mountain bikes are for riding on, you know, mountains. We have a lot of them. With trails. But mountain bikes are not supposed to go on our paved roads, even though — yes, I know — they are roads that are in the mountains, technically.) You ride said bicycles in the middle of the road because, as every good urbanite knows, when there’s no bike lane you just take the lane, except those rules were made for roads that don’t do 80 degree curves with no shoulder, where there are streetlights to help people see you. And you do all this without ever realizing that these roads are also how we take our children to school, drive to work, get to the grocery store, and generally, you know, try to make a living around and in spite of you.
Last, but certainly not least, it is important to note that while you may have heard the term “brain drain” being used to describe the way that rural youth are migrating to your cities, that term is rather outdated and doesn’t capture the full picture. It’s no longer because of a rural diaspora or a lack of social cohesion or even the zipcoded inequality into which we were all born.
No, for me, and for those I know, we leave because people like you have invaded our physical, social, and emotional spaces, of which we had so few to begin with. I’m afraid, dear reader, that every time you monopolize one of the few good restaurants or walk into our ancient diner or our only brewery, that you are, yourself, contributing to our desire to leave.
Things We’d Say To You If We Wouldn’t Get Fired From Our Shitty Job
To round out our guide, here’s a handy list of some of the things we’d say to you if we could, if all the social strictures and economic restrictions and the plain good manners we were raised with weren’t in the way.
This is the most important list of all, dear reader, as these are the things that truly break us:
- Those of us who choose to stay in the Southern spaces where we were born usually have only a few places to call our own. A few breweries, maybe, or a couple of restaurants and one halfway-decent grocery store. We’re protective of them and you hate us for it, but we don’t have the embarrassment of riches that you do in your cities. Now, when we go there after a hard week of work, we have to sit and listen to you bitch about not having a Target nearby or being unable to find a good doctor. I understand, dear reader, that this is probably a fine thing to bitch about where you come from, but it is not so appropriate when you’re in a room full of people who don’t go to the doctor unless bone is showing, people who are just grateful as all hell to have a place where the beer is decent and there’s not a confederate flag to be seen.
- (One small note here, dear reader, many of the people drinking beer or standing in line at the grocery store around you have stood in line at 4 a.m. waiting for the free dental clinic to open. It rolls through once a year, and although the atmosphere is, in true mountain fashion, rather festive, like the circus, many of them waited with toddlers, or grandparents, or both, and by the time the doors open it is like the circus after closing, all the light and magic gone.) So medical and dental access conversations on your part are considered a bit, shall we say, déclassé.)
- When we walk into our local only to be overrun by loud white people in Patagonia vests and hiking boots that cost more than the clunker we drove to work, discussing the best place to find help for the summer, something breaks inside — and it’s one of those fragile things that just keeps breaking after that first initial burst. It’s something vague but vital, like air; like air the color of dusk in the mountains, like air pushed up from a mountain creek to cool your skin in the heat of summer, like the air that pushes our gold oak leaves against the purest blue sky you’ve ever seen in the dying season of fall.
- It breaks us to see our most sacred and favorite wild spaces — where we grew up in the mud wearing junebug shells and learning which plants healed and being taught to catch fish and drinking illicit Budweiser after prom — being sold on Instagram by our very own tourism authority to convince travelers to spend a few days’ vacation here on their way to somewhere else. You can’t exactly blame the tourism authority, since — remember our lesson — development is gospel, and anyway, dear reader, I understand that it’s not hard to fall in love with the most beautiful place on earth. But you must remember that when we take our children to see those places we hold so dear, we are overrun with all of you and your detritus, your cars pushing into the native azaleas that line the roads, your insistence on getting the perfect Instagram shot forcing us to literally wait in line avoiding your dropped trash to reach a summit we’ve been walking since before some of you were born.
- It breaks us a little more when we take our kids to the coffee shop diner our grandparents ate at, proudly open since 1926, without WiFi or card payments for all those years, a place where memories were built in red vinyl booths and where people remember literal generations of line cooks — and not be able to get a table, to actually be told that there’s a wait as if we are at a brunch restaurant in the city, because all of you have decided that the grease makes it quaint and you want to send pictures home so everyone will know you’re really authentically living the mountain experience.
- It breaks us when our few walkable downtown houses are bought by rich out-of-town parents for their college kids to turn into frat houses or by investors who will rent them as Airbnbs to the tourists whose season just keeps getting longer and longer. That means none of us can ever walk to work, since all the restaurants and bars and shops we work at are in those downtowns, which means we have to own a car, which adds just one more thing to our economic burden. (You may have noted that we are really not very good at public transit — please see the first section for some reasons why this might be so.)
One final note, dear reader, and then I’ll send you back out on those curving roads:
We don’t say this to your face, not only because we were raised right, but because it’s not only you that’s the problem. If it were, I think we could fight it –we could overcome our ingrained hospitality long enough to make it uncomfortable for you to be here so that you would go somewhere else.
Unfortunately, it isn’t just you, or even mostly you, to blame.
Those of us who wish to save the south walk in the no-man’s-land between the two towns laid one atop the other, the original town, the place where we were born and raised, and the current town, the place where we were made obsolete by your endless stream of wealth.
We know that the only reason you’re able to be here sucking the life out of the places we love is because the generations who came before us have always decided to bow down to more “sophisticated” people who told them how to do things. This was, and is, especially true when it comes to development. We are desperate for it without even knowing what it really is.
Regardless of you and all your rich-people things, we are still, for better or worse, surrounded by our families and those we grew up with, who are the same people who refuse to retire while talking about how we need more jobs so the kids will stay home, the people who raise us to work hard, keep our heads down, get married, procreate, and never ask why, the people who are almost always utterly racist, sexist, and bigoted against everyone who does not look, pray, eat, and think as they do.
Most of us want to find a different way forward: we want to be invested in the places we call home, we want to create new solutions and build things that draw from the best parts of what has come before without perpetuating the cycles we’ve spent our entire lives trying to break.
Most importantly, we want to raise our children with the love of our home intact and unbroken. We want to give our children mountain sunsets and lake days and wild blueberries and ramps and fresh trout and campfires and church suppers and decoration days. We want to give them bountiful gardens where you work the soil and then share your labors with those in need. We want them to climb trees and sneak bites of biscuit dough while they run through a house full of family and friends and catch fireflies for hours on late summer nights.
We want to give our kids the best of the places that raised us and we know that to do this means we have to be able to love these places hard enough to change them.
Even a few years ago, there were a lot of us hopeful hard-loving southerners left in small towns across the country. I don’t see them much anymore, and I’m leaving myself.
We wanted to save the South, dear reader, but you drowned out our love with your clearcutting and your Lexus SUVs, with your second homes and sandals and your complete and total blindness to the impacts you’re having on the lives of those who have been here for generations.
We wanted to save the South, dear reader, ut our parents and grandparents pushed our love back into the darkness, as we watched them court “jobs” and “development” and “impact” that they should have known would only result in more low-wage jobs that would keep us serving the people who really mattered in those equations.
Rural youth could have saved the world we loved, we really could, if only all of you — natives and newcomers alike — would have just gotten the fuck out of the way.
But you didn’t, and we didn’t, and here we are.
I hope this guide will be of use for you, dear reader, as you find your way forward in this brave new world that will very soon look just like the one you came from.
With love from Emily in Appalachia