Saturday, May 7, 2011

When it comes to defining rural, it's all relative

A friend forwarded me this story from yesterday's Los Angeles Times because he knows I'm from Arkansas. The story's headline proclaims "Wal-Mart family's $800 million art museum gift is stupendous--but not record."

But what really caught my attention was the lede's use of the word "rural":
It makes for a good story, but the munificent $800-million gift from the family that owns Wal-Mart, meant to endow programs and operations at Alice Walton's under-construction art museum in rural Arkansas, is not the largest such gift ever made to a U.S. art museum.
It seems to me that the writer uses the adjective "rural" here to diminish the place--just as the story also puts the museum endeavor in perspective (the largest endowment, the journalist informs us, was from J. Paul Getty to the Los Angeles art museum that bears his name because, adjusted for inflation, that gift would be three times the Walton gift to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art). Otherwise, why use such a geographical descriptor at all? Perhaps to distance and distinguish the place from uber-urban LA?

If the journalist who wrote this knew anything about Bentonville, Arkansas and environs, s/he would know that it is not rural by any definition--unless it's that definition coastal journalists often use, referring to pretty much any flyover state, in its entirety, as "rural." Admittedly, the immediate setting of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art may be bucolic or pastoral, but Bentonville is not a rural place by my estimation, nor by any definition that the U.S. government uses.

Bentonville is part of the two-county metropolitan statistical area called the Fayetteville-Springdale-Rogers MSA. With the 2009 population estimated at 464,623, it added about a quarter of that population just in the last decade. The area was the sixth fastest growing metropolitan area in the nation between 1990 and 2000. Bentonville's population is just 33,648, but the county's population is about 210,000. With Washington County to the south, these two counties' combined population is exceeded only by Pulaski County, home to Little Rock and North Little Rock.

So, Bentonville as "rural"? I don't think so. The only way you could possibly justify that label would be by broad-brush dichotomy that reserves "urban" for behemoths like Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago and Washington, DC. Yes, if it takes a megacity like Los Angeles to qualify as urban then, perhaps, Bentonville could be considered rural. But if you look at the USDA ERS rural-urban continuum codes, which run the gamut from one as most urban to nine as most rural, Los Angeles is a one and Bentonville is a ... two. That leaves a whole lot of room for a wade array of "rural" places running the gamut from three to nine. By this metric, Bentonville and Los Angeles are not worlds apart at all. And maybe the Getty and Crystal Bridges won't be either.

A few years ago, I commented here on another story in which a national journalist refers to this thriving, metropolitan corner of Arkansas as rural.

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