Monday, June 30, 2008

A story on Obama courting Southern voters, with nary a mention of the rural

This appeared in the New York Times today under the headline: Obama Camp Thinks Democrats Can Rise in the South. Given the great deal of attention by the media (including the NYT) to parsing the rural-urban vote during the Democratic primaries, especially in the South and especially in the latter months, I found it interesting that Robin Toner made no mention of the rural vote in this piece. This is in spite of the fact that, compared to other regions, a larger percentage of people living in the South live in rural areas. Another way of stating it is that a disproportionate number of non-metro Americans live in the South -- about 40% of them according to page 4 of this USDA Report on rural poverty. In short, rurality is closely associated with the South in our national consciousness -- and with good reason.

Meanwhile, the folks over at the Daily Yonder are giving us lots of coverage of the Presidential race, all with a rural angle. Their coverage includes this response, on July 1, to the NYT story.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Farm Bill Revives Black Farmers' Opportunity to Pursue Bias Suits Against Federal Government

Here's an excerpt from the AP story, which notes that up to 70,000 potential claimants may have claims totaling $3 billion, three times the payout in the original 1999 settlement.

The decision to allow new claims comes almost 10 years after the Agriculture Department settled a class-action lawsuit brought on behalf of thousands of black farmers. The farmers, mainly from rural areas in the South, asserted that federal department offices at the local level routinely denied them loans, disaster assistance and other aid frequently given to whites — practices that often drove them out of business.

At that time, 22,500 farmers filed claims. Nearly two-thirds were awarded a total of $981 million in damages, including one Virginia farmer awarded $6.6 million.

But an estimated 73,000 others were denied payments because they missed the October 1999 deadline for seeking claims. Many said that the six-month filing period was too short and that they were unaware of the settlement until it was too late.

The 2008 Farm Bill allocated only $100 million to satisfying the claims, and supporters acknowledge that it was an arbitrary amount. Artur Davis, Democrat from Alabama explained, “[t]he reality is that we had to fix some dollar amount to this provision because that’s what the House rules require.” The AP story notes that "the measure ran into little opposition in the debate on the farm bill, mainly because of the artificially low price tag."

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Rural Development Funds in the 2008 Farm Bill

Read a report from the Nation's Regional Development Organizations here.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Mixed headlines out of rural America

The bad news is out of Winfield, Missouri, where the Pin Oak levee was breached this morning, threatening about 100 homes.

More bad news out of rural Alaska, towns like Homer and Cordova, where individuals who suffered greatly from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill will receive a small fraction of the award they were expecting -- and need -- to recover from the spill's consequences. Their awards will be greatly reduced following the Supreme Court's decision this week to cut the punitive damages award against Exxon from $2.5 billion to $500 million.

The good news is out of Unity, New Hampshire, where Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama appeared together today is, well, a show of unity.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Rurality Then and Now, Here and There (Part IV): "End of the World"

In an earlier post, I said that the properties we were looking at in the foothills of Amador and El Dorado counties might be categorized as either “rural gentrification” (a/k/a/ “rural light”) or “end of the world.” I’m writing today about the latter category.

Like the “rural gentrification” properties, the “end of the world” properties may be in housing developments or subdivisions. If they are, however, they tend to be in older subdivisions and those with fewer covenants and restrictions – and those with more lax road maintenance and homeowner associations. We’ve also noticed that sometimes the properties at the rear or end of the road in a subdivision are in this category, while those nearer the county or state road entrance are not.

Needless to say, such properties tend to be farther off the beaten path, farther from amenities such as grocery and hardware stores and post offices. Never mind restaurants. They also tend to be larger lots or parcels, usually down long dirt or gravel roads -- which seem longer than they are due to their condition. Reaching these properties makes four-wheel drive vehicles appear no longer to be the luxury that they are in the ‘burbs where we live. These properties are often “off the grid,” and the water situation is more likely to be iffy. We’ve also noticed that there seems to be a lot more junk in view en route to these properties. (See bottom photo). These are the properties (and not just the junky ones) that one realtor associated with meth houses. Nevertheless, many offer stunning views. (See top photo). Most have potential.

We’ve also noticed that the folks who live in these places tend to be the “back to nature” type. Each is living on more than 60 acres. They seem to relish the adventure of living off the grid; they also tend to have lots of practical skills to navigate the challenges. We met some of our prospective neighbors while looking at one Amador County property, and they seemed like really nice folks. Both couples are in their 40s or 50s and have been living in the area less than a few years, having moved from out of state. They’ve both lived city lives but prefer where they are now. They clearly place high value on their self-sufficiency and their privacy. One couple has made clear, for example, that even though the owner of the property we’ve considered buying would have a legal right to pass over roads on their land, they will not permit it. They have taken this stance because they, not the homeowners’ road association, maintain the road. Right of access via the road over the other’s property is less clear legally; what is clear is that the other owners won’t permit it. In both cases, one would likely have to litigate to achieve a resolution that would permit access, but that would undermine neighborly relations. And I think these are neighbors we'd want on our side over the long run. Besides, another road runs onto the property, but it is more circuitous and less well maintained. (So much for that homeowners association and the road upkeep function).

Both couples are, in one way or another, telecommuting from their very remote properties, and they have had DSL lines run onto their property for that purpose. One was very proud of the fact that he hadn’t been off his property in several months; his wife goes into town for the grocery shopping and such. They drink well water, and they get power from some combination of solar panels, generator, and propane.

So, you get a sense of why I call these the “end of the world” properties. They are the sorts of places you can imagine hunkering down and hiding away, if necessary. As romantic as I find the prospect of living on 80-100 acres, off the grid (take that, utility companies!), I’m not so sure that the oft-touted (by realtors and immediate neighbors) “end of the road” privacy is for us, nor the inconvenience that goes with it. Even with the practical skills to manage such a place, it sure looks time consuming, and this property is supposed to be about week-end relaxation and retirement . . . Plus, as I said in my first post of this series, how much privacy do we really want?

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Will bad news for the exurbs be good news for the land? and for rural livelihoods?

This piece from the New York Times is headlined, "Rethinking the Country Life as Energy Costs Rise," but it isn't really about the "country." It is about the exurbs or, as journalist Peter S. Goodman repeatedly refers to them elsewhere in the story and in the multi-media link associated with it, "the suburbs." The dateline is Elizabeth, Colorado, west of Denver, and here's an excerpt:

Just off Singing Hills Road, in one of hundreds of two-story homes dotting a former cattle ranch beyond the southern fringes of Denver, Phil Boyle and his family openly wonder if they will have to move close to town to get some relief.

They still revel in the space and quiet that has drawn a steady exodus from American cities toward places like this for more than half a century.

The story recounts details of the rising energy costs that the Boyles are facing, including those that result from $4/gallon fuel and long commutes to work, as well as from the escalating cost of heating their home with propane -- twice what it cost five years ago.

Will fuel prices finally bring relief from such dreadful McMansion sprawl? Is the demise of suburbia at hand? Or will high energy costs bring only worse times for what was once our beautiful countryside, our farming and ranching land?

Addendum: In the print edition, this story ran under the headline "Fuel Prices Shift Math for Life in Far Suburbs." As of 5 pm PST, it has been the second most emailed story on the NYT website for several hours. Are all of the exurbanites reading and sharing it? and also all the others who long for the American dream of a "place in the country"?

Monday, June 23, 2008

Social Problems and the Rural-Urban Axis

Legal scholars may overlook the relevance of the rural-urban axis, but not criminologists and sociologists. In fact, I have discovered in recent months a terrific cache of empirical research on issues such as drug abuse and crimes against women. The principal investigator in many of the studies is Dr. TK Logan, a professor of Behavioral Studies at the University of Kentucky. She holds appointments in the departments of Psychiatry, Psychology, and Social Work and is associated with the Center on Drug and Alcohol Research.

Logan is a prolific researcher and writer, and I have found her empirical research indispensable to my latest article (forthcoming later this year in the Wisconsin Journal of Law, Gender & Society) on the difference rurality makes to the incidence, reporting, investigation, and prosecution of domestic violence. She has done a great deal of work investigating rural and urban difference in relation to women's experiences of intimate abuse and stalking, as well as their perceptions of the justice system. She has also studied and compared rural and urban court officers and victim service advocates to explore differences in their attitudes about the efficacy of the civil and criminal justice systems, as well as in the advice they give to women who've experienced violence . It is very important work, and I am heartened to know that while rural women and the violence against them have been largely overlooked by the legal academy, they have received more attention from social scientists, social workers, and mental health professionals such as Logan and her colleagues.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

A visit to Stay More

This spring when I visited my beloved Newton County (AR), I drove the six miles from Jasper, the county seat, to the hamlet of Parthenon. This place name always elicits chuckles from non-Arkansans (and some Arkansans, too), especially when they learn that such a high-falutin' name is matched to a wide-spot-in-the-road with less than a hundred residents. Actually, that population figure is a guess since the U.S. Census Bureau doesn't have a Parthenon listing, and all Wikipedia has to say is that the Little Buffalo River bridge there is on the state' s list of historic places. Meanwhile, tells me that Parthenon's population is 83.

Parthenon, or a place near it (perhaps Murray, see below), is widely believed to be the inspiration for Donald Harington's series of novels set in Stay More, Arkansas. That's its claim to fame -- that and the fact it was home to the Parthenon Academy, the only high school in Newton County until oh, well . . . I cannot say for sure as I write this because of the lack of resources online about Parthenon. (I thought you could find anything on the internet, but about all that's coming up in my search of "Parthenon, Arkansas" is offers to find me a personal injury attorney or car dealer there, when I know it has neither) I'd have to rummage through old issues of the Newton County Times looking for "Times Past" photos, or looking through my mom' s collection of Arkansas memorabilia. In any event, I know it wasn't too long ago -- I'd guess the 1920s or 1930s based on what students were wearing in the photos I recall, as well as the fact I knew as elderly folks some of those pictured when I was growing up in Jasper.

The Arkansas Hometown Locater comes up in my internet search, but all of the real estate and job listings associated with Parthenon are actually 25 miles away in Harrison, in neighboring Boone County. The latter include physical therapist, occupational therapist, nurse . . . presumably reflecting the shortage of health care professionals in rural America, especially an aging population like that in this part of NW Arkansas. (Some of these sites tell me that Harrison is the nearest "metro" area, which is a bit funny since its population is 12,152; guess it's all relative).

But I digress. I set out to tell you about my trip to Parthenon and what I saw. Let me say first, it has been at least 25 years since I'd driven those six miles from Jasper to Parthenon. I recall very little about how it used to be, but here's what struck me on this spring 2008 visit.

The old Parthenon General Store is still there. It's pictured in the top photo, little changed no doubt, for decades. Love that Little Buffalo River stone. I was excited to see the store there because I know many of the county's communities of similar size, like Mt. Sherman, have lost their stores.

Parthenon has a post office, and I noted that the hours shown on the government-issued opening hours sign had been altered to show earlier opening and closing times. People get up early, I guess, in Parthenon. In any event, the post office building looks like standard, government issue, small post office, pre-fab -- just like the one we'd seen in the equally tiny Newton County community of Ponca earlier that day. Parthenon's zip code is 72666, which I recall tended to freak out some locals when I was growing up -- "666" being the mark of the beast from the book of Revelation in the Bible.

That might help explain why there were at least two churches in "downtown" Parthenon. One was a Baptist church (pictured above left), which looked very tidy and well kept. I couldn't imagine how the population supported both churches, yet an internet search revealed another, the Church in the Valley, off the Murray Road, not far from town. (The website, on the other hand, turned up no churches in Parthenon, but they offered to email me if one got listed). Who populates all these churches, I wondered? How can they afford to have a preacher each Sunday, let alone a minister or pastor on staff?

We saw a sign for Rivendell Organic Gardens (photo above right), with a pick-your-own feature. This might be a reflection of the nature of the nearby community of Murray, which has long had reputation as a hippie enclave. Thing about Murray is, it has perhaps the highest education level in the county. I noted on that while there are no Parthenon residents with just a bachelor's degree, and while a full quarter of them didn't even make it past the ninth grade, almost 10% have a graduate degree. Hmmm. What do they do for a living? I believe the family practitioner physician who has an office in Jasper lives in Murray, but ZIPSkinny lists no one living in Parthenon as doing anything other than farming/fishing/forestry (54%) and construction/extraction/maintenance (46%).

At times, my internet search about Parthenon held out the promise of everything from helping me find the lowest gas prices to same day flower delivery in Parthenon. Turned out there were no truly local listings for any of the above (as with careers and real estate listings), but Canadian pharmacies will send drugs there. A bit closer to Parthenon, there are a few retreat centers near Murray. At least one person with a PhD there does "colon cleansing and cellular detoxification."

ZIPSkinny also tells me that 0% are unemployed, but the poverty rate is a whopping 27.3%. I have no idea what ZIPSkinny's source of information is, but their site shows 15.3% of those over 15 never married, and the remainder -- 84.7%-- married! No divorces, no separations. Do you suppose it is related to all those churches?

Parthenon looked lovely when I visited in March, about to break out in spring. I can honestly say it made me want to Stay More--and see more and do more there. That wasn't practical, though, so I'll have to visit again. Maybe I'll even get to Murray next time.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Another tale of tension between old and new in the mountain West

Yesterday's NYTimes featured this story on Bonner, Montana, until recently a "company town" owned by Stimson Lumber. Bonner's just been purchased by Scott Cooney, a "multimillionaire developer" from nearby Missoula. Here's an excerpt from Pamela Podger's story:

Mr. Cooney said he planned to transform this unincorporated working-class community of several hundred residents into a modern “Mayberry R.F.D.,” with new and renovated homes, upscale shops and “green” manufacturers along the Blackfoot River, which Norman Maclean made famous in his fly-fishing novel “A River Runs Through It.”

“I’d like to take the cyclical nature of the wood-products industry out of here and give people consistent economic engines for the next 100 years,” Mr. Cooney said.

He has been working with residents to retain some of Bonner’s timber heritage, including reusing hand-hewn timbers from the dam for homes and other new buildings. He also says he wants Bonner to remain affordable, with new homes ranging from $80,000 to $250,000 and current residents given the first chance to buy the renovated mill homes.

But residents are skeptical as Cooney has raised rents on even the older mill homes. Bonner's long-time residents are generally opposed to growth, and they fear that the town will become a second-home community for the wealthy. Podger's story includes a number of quotes and vignettes that well illustrate these tensions between old timers and newcomers.

This Montana story reminds me of another recent one out of northern Idaho, which similarly depicts the increasingly common discord in the amenity-rich West between extractive industry interests, which represent one model of rural economy, and the growing demand for "rural resorts," which represent another.

Still more on flooding and the rural Midwest

I heard a segment on NPR yesterday afternoon on Bush's visit to Cedar Rapids and Iowa City. I noted that he said something about the smaller places also affected by the floods, so I did a search this morning to see if I could find the exact quote. I haven't found it yet, but I have found several stories focusing on the rural angle. Here are some links.
In these, the journalists again play the gemeinschaft card, playing up the neighbor-helping-neighbor, attachment to place angle. It provides a positive spin on the tragedy besetting these towns, and I find myself hoping it is really still true.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

As if there weren't already enough threats to rural America . . .

Photos in today's NYTimes depict efforts to shore up the Mississippi River levees in Canton, Missouri, population 2,557, and Clarksville, Missouri, population 490. They accompany a Dan Barry story on the front page, "A Hand-to-Hand Struggle with a Raging River." He writes:

They sandbag by moonlight. The school superintendent and the judge, the police sergeant and the mechanic, the Amish man in a straw hat and the young man in a Budweiser T-shirt, they lay down sandbags as if making peace offerings to a vexed god called the Mississippi.

* * *
There is something almost too simple, even primitive, about sandbagging. In an age when anyone can receive a satellite photograph of where they’re standing with the click of an iPhone, and when the river’s southward swell can be tracked like a tagged animal lumbering along a worn path, we still heavily depend on a basic, communal practice: shovel sand in bag, place bag on ground, pray it works, as it often does.

Once again, sounds like the gemeinschaft long associated with the rural Midwest, and that's very comforting in times like these. The second paragraph evokes rurality's association with nature, that which is untamed, the primitive.

And a few hours after this initial post, this story, reporting that Winfield, population 723, was under threat from a levee breach. As with the story about Chelsea, Iowa, a few days ago, the question looms: can the town survive another flood?

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Will rural attachment to place in the midwest stick in the face of Iowa's changing demographic?

A story in yesterday's New York Times is a fine illustration of rural attachment to place, even at the household level. Journalist Susan Saulny writes about Chelsea, Iowa, which considered moving the town to higher ground following the 1993 flood. In the end, just a few homeowners took advantage of the federal aid offered for relocation and buyouts.

Here's an excerpt from Saulny's story:

Now here is Chelsea again, under about six feet of water at the lowest point, second-guessing everything but also staunchly defending its right to exist exactly where it wants to.

“There were comments made at the time, ‘Why would anybody want to live there?’ ” Mayor Roger Ochs said of the last flood. “ ‘Why would anybody stay there?’ Well, this town is safe and quiet. Many had lived in their houses for years. Most people in town preferred to stay where they were.”

* * *

“Most of the time in ’93, you could walk anywhere in hip boots,” Mr. Ochs said. “The water, it’s not life threatening here. That’s what I can’t get across to people in the news. Right now, fewer than 10 houses have water in their living quarters. Last night, I mowed my lawn.”

After explaining some details of government programs to assist the residents following the 1993 flood, the story explains that the owners of more than 40 Chelsea homes left, but most stayed, saying "they could not bear another flood, but many more said they would not sacrifice the rich history of their community for the certainty of staying dry in a new, generic place." Residents also noted the confusing information from various agencies regarding what assistance was available.

Saulney does not make this point, but if 40 homeowners moved, that was significant in the context of so small a town, which had only 113 housing units as of the 2000 census. If 40 left after 1993, that represented a quarter of the town.

A bit farther down in the story are details of the neighborly assistance that Chelsea residents got from adjacent communities who "opened their houses and kitchens." Saulny suggests that this generosity obviated the need for the Red Cross shelter and meal station that were on offer. I suppose Saulny is offering this information as a manifestation of the gemeinschaft associated with the rural Midwest. Indeed, such generosity from neighbors surely helps explain residents' attachment to place.

But wait, my visit to the U.S. Census Bureau's American Fact Finder page revealed that almost one third of Chelsea's residents were Hispanic as of the 2000 census. No mention of this is made in Saulny's story, so I guess she doesn't see it as relevant or doesn't know about it. Maybe many of the Hispanics moved to Chelsea in the mid-1990s, following the departure of those 40 households, to fill voids in the local workforce. Indeed, a quick check of Chelsea's population in the 1990 census shows just 12 Hispanics then, a small fraction of the 90 counted in the 2000 Census.

It makes me wonder whether the Hispanic residents of Chelsea experience the gemeinschaft in a way that reflects their integration with the non-Hispanic whites. In other words, are the Hispanics and the non-Hispanic whites part of the same Chelsea "community." I also wonder whether many of the Hispanics are home owners and whether they feel the same attachment to place that long-time residents described in Saulny's story. In other words, will they stay after the 2008 flood?

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

"The farther you are from another human being, the more likely you are to be a Republican."

That's what Randy Penrod, the Republican county chair of Scott County, Minnesota said, as quoted on the Daily Yonder. Bill Bishop writes there:
There’s been lots of talk about whether Sen. Obama can win the “blue collar vote.” But the Democratic candidate should be concentrating less on economic class and more on geography -- alert to how Americans have clustered in communities based on ways of life. It's these lifeways, increasingly, that are key to political behavior rather than the older, and now often misleading, measures of age, education or wealth.
I don't know if Penrod and Bishop are correct, but if we assume they are, why would there be a correlation between not living near others (Penrod's quote suggests population density as the measure of rurality; Bishop suggests a "way of life" definition) and voting Republican? What would lead rural voters to vote as a block? Are Penrod and Bishop suggesting that common concerns link rural voters across regions? or that individual rural communities, like individual urban and suburban neighborhoods, tend to vote alike?

Going back to the question about why rural voters might tend to vote Republican, perhaps the high value in self-sufficiency is a common denominator among rural voters? perhaps it is about distrust of big government? if so, why do people who choose to live remotely from others tend to distrust government? is it something about a desire for privacy? a desire to be left alone?

Just as interesting is the question of whether, as traditional (by this I mean long-time, intergenerational, which is what Bishop suggests by the term "lifeways") rural populations shrink, the rural vote will continue matter? Will phenomena such as exurbia and rural resorts significantly change the "rural" vote so that many of those living remotely from others (and therefore rural by that indicator) will have values and priorities that are more culturally urban, leading them to vote Democrat? What will this reverse migration or population churn in places with low population density mean for the so-called "rural vote"?

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Jail Travails

I became aware last year that the Newton County (Arkansas) Jail was in a crisis. In February, 2007, an Arkansas friend forwarded me a story from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette about the facility being substandard and unsafe. It was, after all, built in 1903.  Journalist Sharon Fitzgerald reported then that county sheriff knew the jail was a problem, but the county had no money to do anything about it. On October 11, 2007, the Newton County Times ran the headline, “Jail Should be in the Smithsonian.” (link not available) That headline was drawn from the quote of David Underwood, coordinator of the Arkansas Criminal Detention Facilities Review Committee, which oversees jail standards for the state. He compared the situation in Newton County to that in Izard County, in north central Arkansas, which had recently built a new $1.8 million jail with tax revenues. He warned the Newton County Quorum Court that they could be liable for problems associated with the jail, including insufficient staffing, which had one person serving as both dispatcher and jailer. Other problems included the facility being too small to segregate misdemeanors from felony prisoners and the booking area not being secure. He also observed that the kitchen is inadequate and there is not room for storage, resulting in items being left on hallway floors. The story reported that the two options for Newton County to finance a new jail were a property tax increase or a USDA public building safety grant.

A few days ago I read that Sevier County (Arkansas) opened a new jail in May, having been without since their prior one was closed because of lack of a fire escape in 1974! For almost 35 years, the county had been keeping its prisoners in the courthouse basement, nicknamed “the dungeon,” or transporting them (at great expense in manpower and transportation costs) to neighboring Miller County. The county sheriff estimates that the jail will save the county $10K to $12K each month -- and that was before gasoline prices really shot up.

Well, the Newton County jail has been back in the news more recently, and county law enforcement officers are now in the situation formerly facing Sevier County. In the past month, two inmates have taken their own lives in the Newton County Jail. On May 11, a 28-year-old man who had been arrested the night before for shoplifting and possession of a controlled substance tied two socks together and hanged himself from the top bunk of a bed. Then, on June 1, a 51-year-old man who had been in the jail since January on arson charges reportedly hanged himself from an overhead air vent with the use of his orange jail pants, having tied the legs together. In both cases, jail personnel had reportedly seen the inmates within an hour or so of their deaths.

Following the second suicide, according to the Newton County Times on June 5, 2008 (link unavailable), Sheriff Keith Slape “emptied the jail, moving seven inmates” to the jail in neighboring Carroll County. He released an eighth, who was being held on a public intoxication charge. He said the jail would stay closed “until we get something done,” and he cited the need to reduce personnel in light of the county’s current budget crisis.

I recently wrote, in an article about domestic violence in rural communities, that responses to that crime (as to others) often depend on local resources, such as adequate law enforcement or a sufficiently large jail. The latter may seem a non-issue for many urban readers, where such physical infrastructure can be taken for granted. But the challenges facing a number of rural Arkansas jails, and the law enforcement agencies responsible for them, are real crises in communities like these, and they contribute to the reputations of rural areas as places where the law is relatively absent. After all, if you're going to enforce the law, you've got to have a place to put the "bad guys."

Saturday, June 14, 2008

"Letters from Vermont," with the rural angle overlooked

One of the most emailed stories in the NYTimes today is Bob Herbert's column, "Letters from Vermont." In it, he reprints excerpts from several letters sent by Vermonters to Senator Bernie Sanders. They are compelling tales of hardship, as reflected in this excerpt:

“This winter, after keeping the heat just high enough to keep my pipes from bursting (the bedrooms are not heated and never got above 30 degrees) I began selling off my woodworking tools, snowblower, (pennies on the dollar) and furniture that had been handed down in my family from the early 1800s, just to keep the heat on.

“Today I am sad, broken, and very discouraged. I am thankful that the winter cold is behind us for a while, but now gas prices are rising yet again. I just can’t keep up.”

Nowhere is "rural" mentioned in Herbert's column, but it seems implicit that a great deal of his hardship is associated with rural economics and rural hardship. With a population of just 608,000, Vermont is a rural state by many (any?) measures, including those associated with various Department of Justice Programs. Its population density is 65.8 per square mile. The largest city is Burlington, population under 40,000, which makes even Burlington non-metropolitan (albeit "micropolitan").

Of course, with inflation having a huge impact on food and fuel prices, even as a contracting economy has led to fears of recession, things are tough all over. But as rural economists have often documented, rural places tend to suffer more during economic downturns and benefit less from upturns. Law and policy makers in Vermont have no doubt seen this phenomenon before, so it is perhaps not surprising that the state declared a relief program this week, making it the first state I've heard of to respond to the current crunch.

Who says you can't go home? (for a visit, anyway)

I went “home” a few months ago. That is, I visited the place where I grew up. It was my first visit to Newton County (AR) in about two and half years, so somewhat overdue. OK, it was especially overdue for someone who professes such an attachment to place, who writes about rural attachment to place – for someone whose family (both sides) has been in a place for five generations. (Photo top, city of Jasper, county seat, from Round Top Mountain; photo left, entering city from south on Hwy. 7)

Of course most folks can literally go (visit) “home,” but social re-entry is another experience altogether. Over the almost quarter century (yikes!) since I left to go to college, I’ve increasingly felt like an anthropologist when I visit Newton County. I am one of them, and yet not. I now observe the place, which I once took for granted just as it was, with a new eye for all sorts of practices and norms that sometimes seem peculiar. Peculiar, yet I understand them and find myself with at least some capacity to explain them to my husband, who now accompanies me.

It is easy to let one’s childhood home – especially a place as relatively static as Newton County – get trapped in a sort of time warp in one’s head, thinking that nothing ever really changes. In fact, I’ve been aware over the years that many things have changed. I was even more keenly aware of that on this visit, perhaps because I realize, now that I write about rurality, that Newton County has always been for me the quintessential rural place for me. It therefore bears scrutiny.

So here are a few things that have changed since I left:

  • Apartment buildings have been constructed in a town where there were once only single-family dwellings. Two of the three facilities are federally subsidized, I believe, and house the elderly and other low income residents.
  • The “city” of Jasper, population about 500, has a nice town park with a softball diamond, even some lighting.
  • The church in which I "grew up" is now a building that the school uses for home economics classes (are they still called that?); a new church building was constructed about a decade ago.
  • The old nursing home now houses various county offices, and a nice new nursing home sits on the other side of town. Two funeral homes were built in Jasper, both branches of the ones in Harrison, 20 miles away. One has since closed and is now home to a nifty senior center where folks can get a hot meal at midday, use the exercise equipment, or just socialize.
  • Ecotourism has taken off, kinda’. Certainly, many more accommodations are now available for tourists driving up Scenic Highway 7, coming to float the Buffalo National River, to hike its trails or those through the Ozark National Forest. When I was growing up, there were three little motels in Jasper, but now there’s great competition for tourist dollars – from log cabins to my own great-grandfather’s stone house, for rent by the week-end or week.
  • Over the years, I have subscribed to the Newton County Times, the weekly newspaper, off and on, so I knew the population of the county was not as static as when I was growing up. “Newcomers,” the transplants are called, those without roots in Newton County. They include folks with school-age children. There are now as many kids in the current school year book whose families as I don’t know as there are that I do. Heck, even the owner of the landmark Ozark Café, right there on the courthouse square, is a newcomer.

But I became aware of even more changes – saw them with my own eyes – when I was there in March.

  • What used to be the Dairy Diner – the burger joint I rode my bike to get ice cream cones and such – is now the Boardwalk Café. It serves only organic food. It was good, but pretty expensive. I wonder if the locals can afford it, or only the tourists.
  • There is now banking competition, right there in Jasper. Not only is the Newton County Bank no longer the Newton County Bank (but rather the Bank of the Ozarks, a regional bank), a bank from neighboring Carroll County is building a nifty new building.
  • Single-track dirt roads – often driveways to single homes – now cut across hillsides that were previously completely forested. A pricey dude ranch sits at the bottom of one of them.
  • There are organic farms, advertised as such.
  • Air Evacuation services are available to a “better” hospital than the little regional one 20 miles away.
  • The streets in Jasper have names, with signs to mark them. The houses have numbers. I guess this makes it easier for emergency services to find homes, which once were, for example, the "old Margaret Jones house" or "across from the Methodist Church."
  • The elementary, junior high, high school buildings and gymnasium of Jasper School have been joined under a single roof with a nifty, attractive clock tower. Perhaps this is a positive consequence of the school consolidation that followed a 2003 ruling of the Arkansas Supreme Court declaring the current school funding scheme unconstitutional.

Maybe I’ll write another post soon about what has not changed. It’ll start with the fact that oncoming drivers 'round the county still lift their pointer finger in a gesture of greeting when they meet me on the road – even though I am in a rental car and they don’t know who I am. A lot may have changed, but it’s still that kind of place.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

More on Same-Sex Marriage in Rural California

Here's what the New York Times is reporting tonight. The point is similar to that made in the California Report this morning, about Kern and Butte Counties, along with Merced County, now solemnizing no marriages out of a desire not to perform same-sex marriages.

This report explicitly attributes this phenomenon to conservative Christians, with journalist Jesse McKinley writing:

The Campaign for Children and Families, which opposes same-sex marriage, has urged clerks in counties “where the man-woman marriage ethic is strongest in California” to deny licenses to same-sex couples until after the outcome of a statewide ballot initiative in November that would bar such unions.

The group’s founder, Randy Thomasson, said he had spoken with several county clerks who said they did not want to or intend to issue same-sex marriage licenses unless forced to. “They are process people, and the process is roughly being shoved aside,” Mr. Thomasson said.

The story uses the word "rural" only at the very end, and there as raised by a county supervisor who is quoted as opposing the suspension of civil marriages by county officials, in part out of concern that it makes the place and its residents resemble the old Johnny Carson joke about "hicks from the sticks," thereby obscuring positive associations with the place.

[T]he county supervisor, Don Maben, said he worried that the clerk’s decision would deny poorer and far-flung rural couples access to weddings, because the clerk’s office has long been a refuge for those wanting nonreligious or cheap nuptials.

Same-Sex Marriage in Rural California

A story on the California Report this morning highlighted the issues that some county officials are facing in the run up the issuance of marriage licenses to same-sex couples next week. The suggestion in Kelly Wilkinson's report was that this is more controversial in rural counties, where the clerk/recorders are more likely to know their patrons and are under social pressure, as from conservative Christian groups. Butte County and Kern County officials have announced that they are no longer going to perform marriages. They are saying this is because of budget constraints, but Wilkinson's report suggested that it is because they have been told that they cannot legally refuse to grant licenses to same-sex couples while continuing to grant them to heterosexual couples. The Kings County clerk, interviewed for the radio program, indicated that he, too, is taking heat from county residents.

Does this suggest greater tolerance among urban populations? greater political vulnerability of local politicians in rural counties?

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

And another bluegrass adaptation

Just after completing that last post, I went over to the NYTimes website and found this review, titled "Harmonious Tension and Dueling Flaxen Locks" by Nate Chinen. It's about a concert by Allison Krauss and Robert Plant, whose album last year was "Raising Sand."

Les Bleu Pelouse

Another belated post from the Canada trip:

We enjoyed the music of this band, calling themselves Les Bleu Pelouse (Bluegrass), one evening in Place d'Armes, a lovely public square in Quebec City, overlooking the St. Lawrence. The spokesperson for the group did not appear to be a native English speaker, but all of the songs performed were in English. Their music was a real throwback to a couple of U.S. folk music traditions, including bluegrass and spirituals. Memorable numbers included Folsom Prison Blues, complete with train whistle, and Oh Mary Don't You Weep. Several of the band members played instruments other than those pictured here, including the saw. It was a delightful throwback to some of the musical influences of my childhood.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Two more stories with (unexpressed) rural angles

Two other stories in today's New York Times had distinct rural angles, but the authors (and/or editors) chose not to express them.

One was Dan Barry's story about the house in Crandon, Wisconsin where six young people, aged 14-20, were killed last fall by a local sheriff's deputy. He was the estranged boyfriend of one of the victims, Jordanne Murray. I wrote about the event shortly after it occurred in October, 2007.

Barry's story is about the plan to raze the house where the shooting took place, as if to expunge the ghosts, the memories of that awful event, for the town. As I read of the plan to get rid of the house, it struck me that this is the sort of thing that would not happen in a city. Indeed, Barry suggests that with his description of Crandon as a "place of 2,000 residents related by blood, by church, by school, or by standing together in line for dipped cones at the Eats ’n’ Treats stand." That is, while cities and neighborhoods within them would certainly mourn the loss of young people following such a tragedy, it seems unlikely that the literal place -- the house -- would loom so large in their consciousness as to need destroying. But this house is as well known to Crandon residents as, in a sense, were the young people who were killed there. Of course, it is better known now.

One Crandon resident is reported to have said, "It's like an infection; until you clean that infection, you are not going to heal." Other locals are reported as saying no one would be willing to live in the house now. Barry calls the house razing, set for June 21, a "communal, cathartic event," again invoking the relevance of community -- small-town community-- to a plan by which they will collectively grieve and remember the town's children.

The other story with a rural angle -- or at least a non-metropolitan one -- is headlined, "Local Officials Skirting Federal Rules in a Bid to Snare Illegal Aliens." It reports on state and local crackdowns on unauthorized immigration, and the focus is on Santa Rosa, Florida, in the state's panhandle. There, a multi-county task force, which did not include Immigration and Customs Enforcement, arrested workers at three local employers in February. Local law enforcement officials indicate that they were motivated to act against the unauthorized immigrants for identity theft based on complaints from the community. But those complaints were not about identity theft. They were essentially cultural and also reflected concern about jobs and the economic impact of the migrants. Here' s a quote from Damien Cave's story:

Interviews with more than 25 residents and police officers suggest that the views of Harry T. Buckles, 68, a retired Navy corpsman, are common. Outside his home in Gulf Breeze, Mr. Buckles said the main problem with today’s Hispanic immigrants was that they did not assimilate.

Even after hundreds flowed in to rebuild Santa Rosa County, Mr. Buckles said: “They didn’t become part of the community. They didn’t speak the language.”

Echoing the comments of others, he said he became irritated when he heard Spanish at the Winn-Dixie and saw a line of immigrants sending money home at the Western Union. Mr. Buckles said he feared his community would lose its character and become like Miami, with its foreign-born majority and common use of Spanish.

“We see things nationwide and we know that we could be overwhelmed,” he said.

Yet in spite of these residents' perception, just 3 % of Santa Rosa's population is Hispanic, which is well below the national average.

Cave provides some regional context for what is happening in the Florida panhandle, noting that Mississippi enforces strict laws on false documentation. There, about 1.7% of the state's 2.9 million residents were born abroad, and only about half are in the United States legally.

I wonder if the cultural resistance in places like northern Florida is, in part, because immigrants have not been in these communities for very long, as opposed to say Des Moines or Omaha which have higher percentages of Hispanic residents. Certainly Hispanics have not been in northern Florida as long as they have been in Miami!

Or perhaps it is also because the immigrants' numbers seem greater than they actually are in the microcosm of a small town like Milton, population 7,000. That might lead residents to feel more threatened at the possible loss of culture and identity, as suggested by the quote from Mr. Buckles. Urban residents, who tend to be more diverse and less static in many respects, arguably have a greater capacity to adapt to the change represented by the migrant population, and they are arguably less threatened by it.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Finally, "Rural U.S." gets the big NYT headline -- about fuel costs

Here's the headline for the top story on the NYT website right now:

Rural U.S. Takes Worst Hit as Gas Tops $4 Average

The accompanying photo of a tractor suggests that this is a story about the impact that fuel prices are having on farmers and food production, but journalist Clifford Krauss goes beyond that angle to note the impact of high gasoline prices on commuting costs for rural workers, many of whom are employed in the poor-paying manufacturing and service sectors. Here's an excerpt from the story:
The disparity between rural America and the rest of the country is a matter of simple home economics. Nationwide, Americans are now spending about 4 percent of their take-home income on gasoline. By contrast, in some counties in the Mississippi Delta, that figure has surpassed 13 percent. 
As a result, gasoline expenses are rivaling what families spend on food and housing.
“This crisis really impacts those who are at the economic margins of society, mostly in the rural areas and particularly parts of the Southeast,” said Fred Rozell, retail pricing director at the Oil Price Information Service, a fuel analysis firm. “These are people who have to decide between food and transportation.”
Krauss reports that high fuel prices are exacting the greatest toll, relative to incomes, on residents in the Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming, and New Mexico. Rural parts of the South are perhaps the hardest hit because of the scarcity of both jobs and public transportation, the length of commutes, and the age and size of vehicles. Rural Maine is only part of the northeast to be seriously affected.

Don't miss the terrific interactive graphic that accompanies the story. It illustrates both how low rural incomes tend to be, as well as the trend to higher gas prices in those areas.

I wonder where the story will appear in the California print edition I'll receive tomorrow (the link takes me to the Business pages), and I wonder what took the NYT so long to get to this story. (Note my post last week about a similar story in a national Canadian newspaper).

Addendum: The story appeared in the upper right corner of the front page of the CA print edition, with graphic appearing below; photos appeared with continuation of story on page 13.

"Rewilding" the Great Plains brings eco-tourism to North Dakota

A marvelous travel story in today's New York Times features North Dakota. No offense to North Dakotans, but the state is not one of the first that comes to mind for a domestic vacation.

It seems, however, that the depopulation of the Great Plains, which has not been so good for rural communities there, has brought some considerable ecological benefits to the state -- and with them, tourist dollars.

Here's a quote from the story by Joshua Kurlantzick.

Outdoors people, big landowners, travel operators and conservationists are now returning much of the Great Plains to its wild state, to a kind of American steppe. Conservationists are reviving native fauna and flora, and wolf populations are returning to the Yellowstone area. In the future, many hope, one giant fenceless region might be created across the entire plains that cover much of central North America east of the Rockies south to West Texas and New Mexico.

Appealing as this trend is at first blush, Kurlantzick's story reveals that it does create conflicts among rural/small town interests, agricultural interests, and environmental/conservationist interests. Perhaps those hoping to keep their towns alive will benefit economically from the eco-tourism; perhaps the trend will also create further incentives for them to be good stewards of the land.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

"Rural" New York City

Alexander Hamilton's home, "the Grange," was moved today from one Manhattan location to another, just a few blocks apart. David W. Dunlap reports in the New York Times, "the two-story, 298-ton wood-frame house will be rolled conspicuously — and slowly — from its cramped site on Convent Avenue to an appropriately verdant new location a block away in St. Nicholas Park, facing West 141st Street. That is as close as it can get these days to the rural setting for which it was originally designed." ("Grange" means "a farm, with its nearby buildings" according to my Random House College Dictionary).

Note the use of the word "rural" in the story, albeit in a qualified manner, to characterize a Manhattan locale. It reminded me of a 1963 New York Superior Court decision in which aspects of Central Park's "rural character" were referred to as justification for its preservation. It also recalled some Montreal tourist literature using the word "rural" to refer to Mont Royal park, another oasis which Frederick Law Olmstead helped to create. They're not exactly my idea of rurality, but I suppose some connotations of the word are reflected in these lovely green spaces that relieve and refresh residents of their respective metropolises.

Friday, June 6, 2008

This just in from the USDA on one of my favorite topics: Defining "Rural"

Almost as if they've been reading my blog . . . the USDA today released the latest issue of its online publication, Amber Waves, in which one of the features is titled, "Defining the 'Rural' in Rural America." John Cromartie and Shawn Bucholtz offer a sophisticated analysis there of the issue I've lately been pondering here.

More fallout from West Virginia's social and political incestuousness (as opposed to the type Dick Cheney suggested this week)

The President of the West Virginia University has just announced his resignation, six months after we learned that the governor's daughter had been granted an MBA without fulfilling the requirements for it. He thus becomes the second recent casualty associated with powerful people in the state being a little too close to one another. I'm not suggesting that this is a problem unique to West Virginia -- or even to largely rural states. However, the concentration of power in the hands of so few in sparsely populated places may be more obvious? I wonder if we have good investigative journalism to thank for bringing to light the events (malfeasance? or at least the appearance of it) that brought down the West Virginia Supreme Court's Chief Justice and the President of its flagship University in such quick succession.

The parenthetical in my headline refers, of course, to Dick Cheney's gaffe earlier this week, which suggested literal incestuousness among West Virginians.

Juneau relishes its isolation -- and fights to keep it

With a population of 30,000 Juneau, the capital of Alaska is not rural by the Census Bureau definition. It is, however, micropolitan by the Office of Management and Budget's definition, and that places it at the metropolitan end of the non-metropolitan continuum. As significant, perhaps, in terms of assessing its place on the rural-urban continuum, is the fact that it is isolated spatially from the rest of the state -- and the North American continent -- due the lack of a road to connect it. The only way in or out of Juneau is by air or sea. Now, however, a 51-mile road has been proposed to connect Juneau to Skagway and Haines to the north.

A story by William Yardley in today's New York Times reports that Juneau residents don't want ot give up their isolation. Here's a short excerpt from this very rich story, which features lots of factual detail and colorful quotes from Alaskans:
Yet beyond the political and environmental fight that will determine whether the nearly $400 million road will ever be built, there is a central question: What would the improved access change the most, Juneau or outsiders’ perceptions of it?

“There is an insularity here,” Mayor Bruce Botelho said, “that I think is a net positive.”

Would the road rouse Juneau residents to emerge from their rainforest isolation and engage the rest of Alaska?

Would it help people in Anchorage, the state’s economic and population center, finally accept Juneau as the state capital, because they would be able to drive there — even if it took two days?

The story certainly suggests strong links between culture and spatial isolation, and it depicts a community's struggle over whether to embrace changes in both.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

F.L.D.S. members return home to Eldorado, Texas

Here's a link to the NYT story, which includes a great quote from a sect member: “We’re trying to find that safe little town in Texas where we can be in peace.” I guess that is what the YFZ ranch represented to them -- a safe rural space where they could live as they chose in a community, largely self-sufficiently, off the land?

This image, from a Dallas Morning News photographer, seems reminiscent of Little House on the Prairie and evokes our positive associations with rural America. Note that one man is pictured with one woman. It looks like a traditional nuclear family -- unlike many other images we've seen in coverage of the F.L.D.S, photos depicting clusters of just women, or of women and children.

So, was the decision by the Texas appeals court to return the children to their families (and the sect) the right one, or not? How is the difference reflected by the F.L.D.S. like other religious and cultural differences we tolerate --or don't?

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

An Economic Upturn for a Tiny Upstate Town

This story by Fernanda Santos, from the Adirondacks in upstate New York, appears in tomorrow's NYTimes. It tells of a paper mill in Newton Falls that has been revived following a 2000 closure. Here's a vivid excerpt describing events after the plant closed:

Some families moved wherever they could find work. Others were stuck with homes they could not sell and long commutes over desolate country roads. The nearest gas station closed, the local hospital struggled to fill its 20 beds, and the volume of mail at the one-person post office shriveled by half, as if the place had been given up for dead.

It is a familiar story: industry leaves, jobs disappear, hardscrabble town is left adrift. Not Newton Falls. As if in a fairy tale, the shuttered mill has come back to life, thanks to a healthy dose of luck, a longtime paper executive’s willingness to take a chance, and the unbending commitment of two men to the place where they had labored for two decades.

Wikipedia reports Newton Falls' population at 400??; there is no entry for it on the U.S. Census Bureau's American Fact Finder site.

A Japanese city responds to population loss with generous offer: Free land

A story in yesterday's New York Times tells of a city of about 6,000 on the island of Hokkaido in northern Japan which is giving away land. It is giving away 28 parcels ranging in size from 4,300 square feet to 5,230 square feet -- "very generous by Japanese standards." One third of the parcels are reserved for local residents, but the remaining parcels are intended to attract new residents to the city of Shibetsu, which has suffered a 10% population loss in the past decade. The reason: a "hollowing out" dairy farming and fishing, the city's primary industries.

Here's a quote from journalist Norimitsu Onishi's story:

“If you think of it in American terms, this is like a Wild West town you see in movies or on television,” said Hiroaki Matsui, 50, a truck driver born here. “But even in America’s Wild West, this would be the remotest of all towns.”

Mr. Matsui supported the policy of giving away land but wondered whether newcomers, used to the comforts of modern Japan, were ready to move to an isolated town where winter temperatures drop to minus 4 Fahrenheit.

Providing additional perspective on this offer of free land is the fact that Japan's population is more than 40% that of the United States, but its land area is about the same as that of California. In other words, it's pretty crowded. Those accepting the free parcels must build a home within three years.

The story reports that Great Plains states in the U.S. have similarly been giving away land in recent years, which was news to me, though I can understand the common struggles of these agricultural strongholds in both countries.

Addendum: Professor Anthony Schutz of the University of Nebraska Law School has pointed out to me that his home community in south-central Nebraska, Elwood, is giving away land. He explains that "availability is financed by diverting the property taxes for the lots to fund the acquisition costs and improvements." He notes that the school district, which is primarily funded by property taxes, is not so keen on educating the newcomers' children for free.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Rural Canada in the News

Readers will have gathered based on my recent posts that I've been visiting Eastern Canada --not far Eastern, not the maritimes -- just the province of Québec. I found the lack of sprawl around Montréal and Québec City a relief. The 3-hour drive between the two revealed a great deal of farm land and also – oddly to me—many houses situated remarkably close to the motorway (in sharp contrast to New England). It’s obviously not the most rural part of Québec, or Canada for that matter, but there nevertheless seems to be a real sense of a rural-urban distinction in the province.

During my week in Canada, I kept a fairly close eye on any national media coverage of rural issues in the English-language newspapers I was reading. I saw just one item that discussed rural issues in any focused way. It involved the impact of rising fuel prices on rural economies and rural people, from farmers in Ontario to those living in remote villages in Newfoundland, where virtually everything they consume is trucked in.

In addition, there was a story one day about the polygamists in the appropriately named Bountiful, British Columbia. These, too, are an offshoot of the Warren Jeffs group in Southern Utah. While the photo accompanying the story featured a gorgeous mountain backdrop, the story did not use the word “rural” or pick up on the issue of the group’s chosen rural locale.

My Rural Travelogue (Part I): New England

Since I started thinking and writing about law and rural livelihoods a few years ago, I’ve particularly enjoyed the opportunity to be in rural America. I especially like visiting new rural places, in regions outside my native mid-South, and thinking about the variations – and similarities—among them. This summer, I have the opportunity to visit to two rural areas that are new (or nearly new) to me. The first is rural New England. I’ll be back there in July for the Rural Sociological Society Conference (well, I’ll be in Manchester, N.H., that is, not the more rural bits). In between, I’ll be driving through some remote parts of Northern California and Oregon.

I began writing this from coastal Maine, the southern part. So far, what I’ve seen is basically resort-type “rural.” Passing into Maine from N.H. and off I-95, one sees many small towns, spaced not too far apart. It’s rural in the sense that it is certainly not “urban,” but people don’t live great distance from each other, as in the West, the plains states, an in some other regions. Route 1 is regularly dotted not only with towns, but also with the availability of goods and service they bring. After all, the population density of the state is much higher than in states covering much larger land areas. In New England, nothing is too far from anything else – it’s a compact region compared to the sprawling West and Southwest. In fact, Maine’s population is about 1.27 million, with a population density of about 41/square mile. That density is about the same as Colorado’s, which has about three times the land area. As a basis for comparison, I note that California’s population density is about 234 persons/square mile, while Wyoming’s is just 5.1. (It’s also interesting to compare media income: California $49,894; Colorado $51,022; the median incomes for Wyoming and Maine are not listed on Wikipedia).

This part of Maine is as tidy as can be, which is quite a contrast to the rural South and many parts of the rural West, where people’s front yards (and side yards) seem to get a bit junked up (though, of course, you also see homes there that are kept as neat as the proverbial pin). Unlike many parts of the rural South, for example, this looks affluent. I haven’t seen a single home yet that looked like it housed a poor person – you probably see more of that in the northern and more inland parts of the state, which are less densely populated and less economically developed. Down here, folks can likely get a slice of the economic benefits associated with the tourist trade, if they want it.

A few days later, we were on to Hanover, New Hampshire and then north through Vermont to the Canadian border. Except for our time in relatively affluent (but certainly not ostentatious) Hanover, we were on the U.S. interstate road system. From that vantage point, New Hampshire and Vermont appear very rural –indeed, you’d almost think they were entirely unpopulated. Exits are few and far between and not many signs of life (except trees, deer and birds) are visible from the road. Only very occasionally does one catch a glimpse of a church spire or another sign of civilization through the trees, down in the valley. It is refreshingly different from, say, I-40 through Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Tennessee. The natural terrain there may be as aesthetically appealing, but one is aware there of rural and micropolitan clusters that have become part of a highly commercial and unattractive interstate transport economy. In other words, I’m not sure where the truck stops were in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, but ignorance was bliss.   

Monday, June 2, 2008

Rurality Then and Now, Here and There (Part III): Rural Gentrification

So, we’ve been back in El Dorado and Amador Counties looking at property again. I’ve decided on a convenient way of dividing the properties we see into two broad categories. I call them the “end of the world” properties and the “rural gentrification” properties. In this post, I’m going to talk about the latter category, which might also be thought of as “rural light.”

These properties are often in “developments,” sometimes even referred to as “subdivisions.” One we’ve looked at is called Showcase Ranches, and it has almost enough covenants and restrictions to be in a Sacramento suburb. I note that such covenants and restrictions are a way in which law is present (at least potentially so) in the lives of residents, whereas rural residents not living in such “communities” have more autonomy about how to use their property. Residents have made a choice, by buying land there, to regulate the space and to be regulated, something not typically associated with rural people and places.

Showcase Ranches is listed as a “Community Service District” – whatever that is—on the El Dorado County Local Agency Formation Commission website. The “lots” (as opposed to parcels) are 20-acres or larger. The roads are paved; electric lines run throughout. Last time we were up, I noted that they even have garbage collection services! Many of the homes that are visible from the roads that run through the subdivision – and that includes quite a few – appear to have been built in the past coupla’ decades. Several are horse properties, but few seem to be used actively in agriculture or viticulture. Yet Showcase Ranches is rural in that lots are quite large, and the homes are often not within sight of one another. Also, it isn’t particularly near any metropolitan area; it is an hour or so from greater Sacramento. It’s about 20 miles from the county seat of Placerville and almost twice as far from exurban El Dorado Hills.

But, right in the midst of the Fairplay wine region of El Dorado County and very close to Shenandoah wine region of Amador County, Showcase Ranches is surely up and coming. Indeed, it is arguably hip. Land values there have almost certainly been driven up somewhat as a consequence, which has probably priced Showcase Ranches beyond the reach of many locals.

I could be wrong, but I assume that the folks attracted to places like Showcase Ranches aren’t looking for a very rural experience -- what some might think of as authentic rurality. I suppose they like the idea of a “place in the country,” without many of the inconveniences associated with it. And, as much as they are seeking the privacy of a rural home, they probably like the idea of having a few neighbors not too far away. It makes them feel more secure. As one realtor in El Dorado County said to us, “if you buy in Showcase Ranches, you’ll have neighbors who’ll look out for the place when you’re not there. If you buy out on ______ Road, well, I can’t guarantee there won’t be a meth house by you out there.” Hmmm, so one function of rural gentrification is to fend off the meth manufacturers … Well, I’m for that, but I wonder if the realtor, in invoking the image, was playing on a rural myth? And trying to sell a property, of course.