Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Southern California Fires and the Rural

Last week, in the midst of the Southern California fires, I started to draft a blog post about the relationship between fires and rural living. It seems that the fires prompted many Internet users to express their deepest feelings about land use and rurality.

I first began thinking about rurality after viewing last week's New York Times’ readers comments here. At that time, I read a comment by one woman who wrote that the reason the fires had become so out-of-control is that developers had crowded out all wildlife by developing in rural areas. With more development, houses and lives were in danger, which created a bigger risk to health and safety than it would had the area remained undeveloped. I thought her sentiments were isolated, but they were not.

Later I went back to the site and read through many of the 300-plus comments. One gentleman noted that the fires are “a blessing in disguise to stop sprawl,” because people should not be able to build wherever they please. Another wrote that in assigning blame for the fires, she only wanted to “point fingers” at the developers who she said profited greatly by overdeveloping the region.
Many readers had strong ideas about the best use for land. Several expressed the sentiment that “houses should not be built in certain areas." One wrote, "Not everyone can have ocean front property or a majestic mountain view. When push comes to shove…Nature is my odds-on favorite."
These comments are interesting for two reasons. First, they blame people for choosing to follow an idyllic lifestyle in a less-urban part of California. Second, they exclude rural poor people from the discussion through the view that the rural is populated by so-called McMansions.
Returning to the first thought, many of the comments I read were angry and bitter at people for choosing to live in a rural or semi-rural setting. The comments seemed to indicate that the rural residents "deserved" to face the threat of fire because they had assumed the risk of living in a remote location. I appreciate the sentiment that buyers ought to understand the unique risks and challenges of living in a remote or isolated setting.
Many city dwellers have moved to the rural parts of my hometown and complained about certain aspects of rural life that are normal to long-time residents (e.g., noise from crop dusters, mice and squirrels in backyards, etc.). My view is that a certain amount of adjustment is required to live in an isolated area. Nonetheless, the attitude that rural people should be left to "fend for themselves" because they live in rural areas is troubling. Rural people should not be blamed for living where they do. While many choose to build new, million-dollar homes to "get away from it all," many more move to rural places because it can be cheaper.
This brings me to my second point--do these comments indicate an underlying sentiment about who should populate the rural? Is the fact that rural poor people were ignored from the readers' comments? I suspect that it is, because it indicates a broader sentiment about rural life, especially in Southern California. I conducted a search for "rural," and I saw few references using the word. I did find one reference referring to the shacks of "poor Black families" as a contrast to the "small, crowded homes" of Hispanic families in rural areas whose homes had also been destroyed in San Diego County. In fact, that was the only time I saw a reference to rurality and poor people (and race). When I think of rural areas, income level tends to be one of my first associations. Thus, it is interesting that most readers kept rurality as a term out of the blogs, and the few times it was used, they essentially reflected a view that rural residents are wealthy.
Furthermore, there was no discussion of race and the rural (contrast this discussion to, say, Hurricane Katrina, which was largely about race).
Now that a week has passed and coverage of the fires is no longer so constant, I wonder whether future stories and comments will continue to reflect attitudes about what is and is not rural, and who should live there.

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