Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Varying depictions of a Texas place: is it rural or not?

The tragic events of this past week-end in Kaufman County, Texas, where the county's chief prosecutor and his wife, Mike and Cynthia McLelland, were found shot to death in their home in Forney, has drawn attention to various aspects of the place.  The initial New York Times report of the crimes referred to Kaufman County as "rural," and today's longer report does, too.  Here's the lede from the latter:
To scan the crime blotter of this largely rural county is to get a snapshot of life in small-town Texas. 
Report of a dog bite on Grandview Drive. Report of cows loose in the 32000 block of Farm-to-Market 429. A stolen vehicle on Bradeen Drive. Donkeys on a property on County Road 4125. Reports of trespassers and abandoned vehicles, thefts and domestic disturbances. No one from Kaufman County, it turns out, sits on Texas’ death row. 
But nothing about the county’s crimes has helped answer the question that perplexes and worries local officials and residents — why have two county prosecutors been shot and killed in the span of eight weeks?
Manny Fernandez and Serge Kovaleski go on to admit that the county's crime record reveals no obvious observe in the next paragraph of their story that while the Kaufman County line is just 20 miles from Dallas, "it is a world away from the city’s neon-lit skyline." The largest city in Kaufman county, they note, is Terrell, with a population of about 16,000, though Forney is not far behind with a population of about 14,000.  Referring to other markers of rurality and urbanicity, Fernandez and Kovaleski note the presence of fast-food restaurants, along with "men in cowboy hats who actually know how to ride a horse, and houses with backyards that can be measured not in feet, but acres." Other metrics they use inlcude land area, noting that at 780 square miles, Kaufman County is "slightly smaller" than Rhode Island with 1,033 square miles, but more than twice as large as New York City, with 302.  

Yet in spite of all these efforts to depict Kaufman County as "rural," I see that it is by several official measures urban--or at least metropolitan.  First, with a population of more than 100,000, it is metropolitan rather than nonmetropolitan. Second, it is part of the Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington Metro Area.  Third, it is has a population density of more than 132 persons per square mile. That is neither center-city dense nor sparse. In fact, most of these indicators make it seem exurban.  

Fernandez and Kovaleski discuss the county's crime rates and types, too.  Within those "wide county lines," they write that a "fair share of violence, drugs and other major crimes" occur.  During a single week earlier this year, the Sheriff's Department responded to 683 calls, including 10 burglaries and 25 domestic disturbances.  They do not, however, note one theory regarding the motive for killing the prosecutor and his deputy, who has gunned down near the courthouse in late January:  the two had, according to some reports, assisted in investigating crimes by a white supremacist gang.  

While the New York Times does not take up this angle, NPR does, including this explanation of the possible links between the Kaufman County murders and the recent murder of the Colorado prisons chief at his home:
The suspect in that murder was a white supremacist, who was killed in a gunfight with Texas police. 
While officials aren't yet saying whether the prison-based white supremacist group called the Aryan Brotherhood is linked to any of the murders, Kaufman County is considered a regional stronghold of the gang known for violence. 
Notably, NPR also does not depict Kaufman County as "rural," instead referring to Forney, the site of the latest deaths, simply as "near Dallas."

Guess it all goes to show how malleable--and variable--the concept of rurality is. 

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