Thursday, April 7, 2011

Rural trappings and urban trends

Non-functioning old cars left in front yards has come up multiple times in our discussions of the rural this semester. A few weeks ago I thought about those abandoned old vehicles when I visited Flora Grubb Gardens, a hipstery, landscape design center in San Francisco. Located off of a rather busy street, Flora Grubb is a green haven amidst the concrete of the city. The old warehouse is overflowing with air plants and ferns, mosses and succulents, not to mention rustic outdoor furniture and vertical gardens. The center (it is more of a center than a store) is also complete with a Ritual Coffee shop and high-end yard furniture. While I can't afford anything there, I enjoy the place. However, the thing that really caught my eye when I visited, was an old truck in the yard that had been transformed into a porch, complete with steps leading into the bed, where a table and chairs invited guests to read the paper and sip their coffee. I immediately thought of Law and Rural Livelihood and began to contemplate the ways that rural trappings have become adopted as urban trends.

Growing up in a family of garage-sale addicts and junk-yard junkies, I am pretty accustomed to buying used, recycling, and refurbishing. For my father, it has become an art-form (collecting) and my parents' house is almost entirely furnished and decorated with other people's old things that have been "reinvented" to some degree. As I have grown older, I have adopted his habits and embraced the art of the yard sale. Over the last few years, in my pursuits of hidden treasure, I have noticed the increased number of people at Urban Ore and used furniture shops popping up in Bay Area neighborhoods. This is not to say that people haven't been buying used and collecting things for decades, but my sense is that it's growing in popularity. I recently walked into Zonal, a furniture store in Hayes Valley, with piles of used furniture, many with weathered wood and chipped paint. I asked the owner where he got his stock and he replied that he drives a van across the country collecting pieces, most of which come from the middle of the country. By the looks of his collection, I wonder how much of it was acquired in small rural towns, likely for a small fraction of the price he was selling them for in the City.

A good friend of mine recently became engaged and is in full wedding-planing mode. Of course, wedding venues are the hot topic of discussion, and in our conversations about potential sites for the nuptials, we waded into the subject of the cost of sites. I recommended that she just find a barn and get married there, to which she responded: "Barns are expensive. Everyone is getting married in barns these day!" I guess I wasn't so surprised, but it triggered a google search and sure enough, websites on barn weddings, even a one-stop barn locater site, with barns in various states. One customer bride-to-be, commented that getting married in a barn "symbolizes a sense of peace and oneness with the land that harmonizes well with the idea of a wedding." While this might be true, and clearly she is entitled to her thoughts, it gets me thinking about the way we view the rural and symbols that we associate with the rural. As a Denver Post article put it, "popular culture can't seem to get enough of rural Americana." And as Patrick Gottsch, founder of Rural Media Group, exclaimed, "It's cool to be rural now."

The Urban farming movement is growing, but it is not without its controversy. While it is helping some urban residents have more control over their food, is it also harming traditional farmers in rural areas of the country? While I view the practice as both a sign of respect for farming communities and the farming lifestyle, I also see that in many ways it is a privilege for for only certain urban communities. Then, as we all know, there are the clothing and food trends that can arguably be traced to a fascination of rural culture (and which I take part in as well, I must admit).

My question is: Are we romanticizing the rural? Are we using the stereotypes and trappings as we wish, without recognizing the issues facing rural communities in this country?


Sarah J said...

Thanks, Lauren. I feel like I've had similar experiences, both in observing what's "new" and "hip" in our beloved urban centers, as well as in the wedding planning context. To answer your question, from my perspective I think we do romanticize the rural. For one thing, I think people normally romanticize whatever it is they do not have. When I lived in San Jose, the capital city of Costa Rica, I would have given anything to "take a break" and spend a few weeks getting to know the small, rural mountain towns. When I lived in a small, rural town in Malaysia, trips to the capital city were all that I thought about. So, naturally, an urbanite will drool over anything that invokes the countryside, and perhaps vice versa. I think the trendiness of the "urban farm" ideal is a result of this phenomenon. Admittedly, I have been sucked in as well, as that truck-porch looked really cool.

Jen Wickens said...

I am most definitely guilty of romanticizing the rural - I wear flannel, have chickens in my backyard, attempt to grow herbs and vegetables at home, and dream of owning a goat farm one day. Yet I can't wait to get out of Davis and live in San Francisco when law school ends. How to explain the dichotomy? I think Sarah's grass-is-greener hypothesis is spot-on. I also think that other rural stereotypes of authenticity and natural beauty have something to do with urbanites' fascination with the rural. There is also something to be said for achieving a semblance of balance between the loud, crowded city and quiet, isolated rural space.

N.P. said...

The growing trends of embracing Americana has actually been a large part of how several cities have sought to rebuild to their former glory. One example, found in the NY Times a few months ago related to a city in the middle of Pennsylvania that used to be a big urban town that was using this image of rurality to get urban individuals to move back into the town. For example, they used urban farming, the small town relationships, and the ability to rebuild a city from the ground up the way to get people to move into the area. This is an interesting blend of rural and urban - but mostly the notion that rural is being used as a marketing device.

D'Arcy said...

I have to agree with Sarah - I think even rural folk like to romanticize the rural. Romanticizing rural has been going on for a long time. Film, plays, and television more often than not, fall into this trap. The musical "Oklahoma" came out in 1943 and is filled with charming rural images. A recently canceled TV show, Men in Trees, glorifies life in a small Alaskan town. And there are hundreds of other examples. I frequently fall into idealizing my own small town, especially when city life brings me parking tickets. Many media images and urban impressions are one sided, but rural communities do have many wonderful attributes. There is much to be said for living in an area that is close to its natural environment. My mother moved from Long Beach California to a small mountain town. She is very aware of the town's struggles with meth, nasty politics that lead to election a City Council dominated by the Tea Party, and issues with inefficiencies and limited access to resources, but she loves walking her dogs in the woods and smelling the earth after the rain. Some rural characterizations celebrate the beauty of rural life. Barns, hay fields, and rusted out trucks covered in growth are beautiful. These seem like the more harmless idealizations. TV shows about perfect families in perfect loving communities might be more problematic.

vlshaw said...

Good post, I too have noticed the romanticizing of the rural in popular culture a lot these days. One of my favorte TV shows is called American Pickers, where two guys drive around the country in a van collecting old stuff to sell to hipsters at triple the value. It's kind of like when you buy new jeans that already come with holes in them. I definitely see this trend continuing until the cool people play it out, and its not cool to them anymore. I'm going to start planning a coffee shop for my uncles rusty car graveyard soon.

Lisa R. Pruitt said...

Here's one of my favorite stories about "rural chic," from 2005: