Monday, September 29, 2008

In the "Going Down the Road" series, a distinctive tale from central Florida

I'm often skeptical when "towns" that are part of conurbations are described as "rural" by journalists. But Damien Cave's latest installment in the NYTimes Going Down the Road series is an exception. That is, Cave convinced me that Eatonville, Florida, population 2,432 but part of the Orlando Metropolitan Statistical Area, is rural -- or at least that it retains many characteristics associated with rurality. Cave writes of how Eatonville, home town of Zora Neale Hurston, remains a "place apart," in spite of its proximity to the "theme-park sprawl of greater Orlando." He describes Eatonville thus: "as independent, dignified and private as it was in the 1930s, when Hurston wrote that rural blacks in Florida often resisted sharing their true thoughts with the white man, who 'knowing so little about us, he doesn't know what he is missing.'"

Read more about Eatonville, then and now, here in Cave's story, "In a Town Apart, the Pride and Trials of Black Life."

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Law and Order in the Ozarks (Part VI): Property crime and other miscellany

The September 18, 2008, issue of the Newton County Times was in the mail yesterday, and it features only one law-related story on the front page. The story's headline is "Adjudicated court cases reviewed," but as far as I can tell, it reviews only criminal cases. Eleven cases are reviewed, but I will mention only those that have not been covered in recent issues of the paper, which I've written of in this blog. That means that most of the cases to be discussed here arose from property crimes, not the more headline-grabbing crimes against the person that have been the recent focus of front-page stories.

Here are the basics on crimes that happened as long as six months ago:
  • 20-year-old female charged with financial identity fraud after submitting credit applications and receiving credit cards using another person's identity. The woman obtained more than $3,500 worth of merchandise with the cards. She was placed on five years' probation for each count, to be served concurrently, and sentenced to 100 hours of community service. She was fined $500 pus court costs and fees and ordered to make restitution.
  • 44-year-old man charged with "making and uttering hot checks" for the total amount of $830. He was placed on probation for a year and fined $83 plus costs and restitution.
  • 34-year-old man charged with not paying child support. He was placed on 10 years probation and fined $100. He was also ordered to pay past due support totaling more than $12,000. A fine of $100 is not much of a penalty for a man in arrears on his child support to the tune of $12K. Bear in mind that unless this man and the child(ren)'s mother are anomalous within Newton County in terms of income level, that $12K could represent literally years worth of unpaid child support. I wonder what mechanisms are in place for actually collecting on the debt.
  • 24-year-old man and 23-year-old man charged with theft by receiving, a Class C felony, for possession of property, valued at $1,745, stolen from a sawmill. Each defendant was placed on a year's probation, and each was also ordered to do some community service and pay restitution.
  • 22-year-old man was charged with aggravated assault, a class D felony, for holding "an individual at gunpoint and [making] threats to kill the victim." He also stuck the pistol in the victim's mouth. The defendant entered a guilty plea and received a three-year suspended sentence. He was also ordered not to come into contact with the victim, and to pay court costs and fees. Interestingly, the gender of the victim is never mentioned in the story.
  • 58-year-old man was judged guilty of harassing communication, a class A misdemeanor. Prosecutors dismissed an additional felony charge of terroristic threatening. The man was accused of telephoning the Newton County Sheriff's office and stating that if anyone at that office continued to have contact with his brother or family, he would kill that officer. The man was placed on unsupervised probation and fined $200 plus court costs.
  • 51-year-old man who had been charged with arson and theft of property had charges dismissed. The man apparently burned a house from which he had been evicted and from which he had taken items. The file from which the journalist made the report did not indicate the reason why the case was dismissed.
  • 24-year-old man was charged with theft of property, "taking money that belonged to a jail inmate." The circumstances of that theft are not explained -- that is, was this man the jailer? Or did he simply take advantage of the owner's presence in jail to steal from his home? The man had earlier been charged with commercial burglary and theft of property. He was sentenced to six years in the Arkansas Dept. of Corrections and ordered to pay court costs and other fees, plus $566 in restitution. The value of the property stolen is not specified, but his sentence does seem disproportionate to the others.
The back page of the paper features more current news: the county sheriff in the midst of harvesting 108 marijuana plants. The captions to two related photos indicate that the plants are valued at $750 to $1500 per plant, and also that 189 other plants were recently pulled in other parts of the county. The sheriff notes that he "appreciates" tips from citizens about the location of such plants.

The headline for these photos is "Marijuana eradication progresses." I have long thought that it's convenient that marijuana eradication season falls so close to Election Day. It gives the Sheriff a great opportunity to show he's tough on crime not long before voters go the polls, while also -- I presume -- eradicating the plants just before harvest. But, wouldn't it have made sense to harvest some of these plants earlier in the season, to preempt some consumption?

Friday, September 26, 2008

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Urbanites discover the value of another rural artifact: tractors

And their interest creates additional value.

Here's a link to the story on NPR, and here's the lede:
Skittish about the stock market and credit crisis? There's another place to park your money: collectible tractors. The sector is growing like never before — it has even attracted European investors.

Before a recent auction on a farm near Shelby, Iowa, dozens of old tractors were lined up in a field, ready for the auction block. Some were shiny and restored, others were long unfamiliar with paint. And some of them started right up.

Photo by Toby Talbot of a tractor in Coventry, Vermont.

See stories with related themes here and here.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

An author from the heartland, on the heartland

This story on NPR caught my attention in relation to literary depictions of the rural. The book featured is Home, by Marilynne Robinson. Robinson has been associated with Iowa writers workshop for a couple of decades now, though she grew up in Idaho. Here's an excerpt from Lynn Neary's report, which notes that Robinson's previous novel was also set in the same small Iowa town as Home. The first quote is of Robinson:

"There is a definite Iowa aesthetic . . . . It's sort of modest and optimistic. I think people forget in the metropolitan areas of the country that the country really is largely made up of small towns that function well for the most part."

Robinson's fictional town is called Gilead, a name fairly common among early 19th century American towns because, as Robinson says, people settling this country "had these Utopian intentions. They were going to create a place where there was balm ... the pain of other civilizations would be answered."

I like Robinson's non-romantic, even-handed characterization of small towns as places that "function well for the most part." I haven't read the book, but that line suggests that she strikes a middle ground between depictions of rural America as either idyllic or hopeless.

Listen to the full NPR story here.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Rural Genius: Regina Benjamin

The MacArthur Awards ("The Genius Awards") have recognized the importance of ruralism this year. One of the winners is Regina Benjamin who founded the Bayou La Batre Rural Health Clinic in the Gulf Coast fishing community of Bayou La Batre, Alabama. The foundation discussed Dr. Benjamin's commitment to providing quality healthcare for some of the poorest, most underserved, rural communities. As well as running her own practice and visiting the neediest patients in her pickup truck, Dr. Benjamin has been involved in turning preventive health research into accessible community-based interventions. She has also helped others establish clinics providing quality medical services in underserved communities nationwide.

See Regina Benjamin's profile here.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Another moment in the spotlight for rural voters

One of the rare bits of attention rural voters have enjoyed in the past year or so came this morning on NPR's Morning Edition in a Howard Berkes report headlined, "McCain Holds Lead with Rural Voters: Is it Enough?"
Here's the lede from the story, which focuses on a poll of rural voters in swing states:
A new survey of rural voters shows that Republican presidential hopeful John McCain has a 10-point lead among this key group. But 10 points in the nation's least populated and most remote places may not be enough to overcome Democrat Barack Obama's expected margins in the nation's cities.

The poll of 742 likely voters in rural counties in 13 tightly contested states has McCain ahead 51 percent to 41 percent.

"In this rural poll, you have McCain only winning by 10 points. That's a recipe for Obama winning this election," says Anna Greenberg, a Democratic pollster who was part of the bipartisan team that conducted the survey. "If you look at the national polls, Obama now has about an average of a two-point lead. Part of the reason that he has that lead is McCain isn't doing better in rural counties.

The story also makes the case that the rural vote matters, in part because large margins in rural counties propelled Bush to the White House and kept him there.

Read the rest here, including details of the methodology. The poll was commissioned by the Center for Rural Strategies.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Eating locally, in two senses of the word, in New York

This story by Sarah Kramer of the New York Times is about an intersection of rural with urban-- or at least an intersection of the agricultural with the urban. Below is an excerpt of the story about Agustín Juárez, 49. With his family, he farms 1.5 acres on the North Shore of Staten Island. Juarez is among 140 Hispanic immigrants in NYC who were sponsored by the New Farmer Development Program. Only 18 of them are still farming today.

For generations, immigrants from around the globe have turned little corners of New York into an approximation of the countries they left behind. Since 2001, Mr. Juárez has been following in their footsteps. He is maintaining the traditions of the small farming town in southern Mexico where he grew up, and providing an anchor to home for some of the city’s quarter-million Mexican immigrants.

But the farm is not Mr. Juárez's only job. In addition to the 20 hours/week he spends there, he works 60 in an Italian restaurant on the island.

Read the full story here.

Law and Order in the Ozarks (Part V): A plea bargain in a 2005 double homicide

The only story about crime (or, more broadly, law), on the front page of the Sept. 11, 2008 issue of the Newton County Times features the headline, "Ashworth sentenced to 32 years." It reports that William Ashworth, age 41, agreed to a plea bargain just before he was set to go to trial on two capital murder charges. He pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of manslaughter which, with other charges, means he will serve more than 3 decades in the state prison. He was accused of killing two other Newton County men in October, 2005, one aged 38 and the other aged 22, and then burning their bodies.

I remember when Ashworth was arrested for these murders last fall. That happened after a confidential informant told FBI agents about the deaths. The informant, whose identity has remained confidential, had helped Ashworth move the bodies following the killings.

There are a couple of rural angles in this story. One is the role that federal agents played in helping to investigate the murders, as well as forensic support they provided. It is difficult to imagine the small staff of the Newton County Sheriff's office handling such matters on their own.

The other goes more to the substantive law and how it is likely to be interpreted or applied in a rural context. The Newton County Times story explains that the prosecutor decided to offer this plea deal to Ashworth because he realized that his effort to convict Ashworth of two capital murders might not be successful before a local jury. His perceived weakness in his case is apparently linked to Ashworth's version of events, which implicates both the vulnerability and privacy associated with rural sparseness of population and with rural culture. Ashworth says that on the night of the killings, he heard car doors slam outside his remote residence, and he went outside to investigate, taking a 9 mm pistol and a shotgun with him. He says he hid behind some trees and heard men saying they were gong to get even with Ashworth by burning down his house. (What the men would have been "getting even" for is not specified). Ashworth says that when he confronted the approaching men, he saw that one of them was carrying a gas can. Ashworth reports that he shot only after one of the men raised a "long gun" in Ashworth's direction. After shooting that first man, Ashworth maintains, the other one picked up the "long gun and tried to shoot" Ashworth. Ashworth says he then shot and killed the second man.

In short, Ashworth's claim is one of self-defense. In the particular rural context, where prospective jurors are unlikely to judge Ashworth harshly for having guns and using them to defend himself and his property from those who might have been planning foul play, the prosecutor opted for the plea. Also coming into the equation here is the fact that, if Ashworth called for law enforcement assistance, it almost certainly could not have arrived in time to prevent the crime that the men were purportedly planning. So, jurors who believed Ashworth's version of events would likely have empathized with him.

So, local discretion comes into play in determining what charges are brought, and that discretion in turn relies on an assessment of local norms. In this case, those norms are heavily influenced by rural spatiality and rural culture. And that is an aspect of our criminal justice system that works well, whether or not one agrees with the prosecutor's plea bargain for this particular defendant.

NB: Here's a recent academic article on prosecutorial discretion; the empirical part of the study was done in New Orleans. Nevertheless, there is interesting food for thought here in relation to such discretion, including plea bargaining, nationally.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Reflections on a year of blogging

Last fall, I started this blog for students in my new Law and Rural Livelihoods seminar at the University of California Davis School of Law. I wanted to use blogging as a way to get my students not just to observe the junctures where rural livelihoods encounter law and legal institutions, but also to tease out the possible legal relevance of rurality by writing about it. I wanted to get them noticing the rural in the midst of the urban-dominated U.S. I was aware of selfish motives, too: learning students' thoughts on the links between rurality and law would provide fresh insights for own writing, and giving students incentives to blog (extra credit for posts or comments) was my way of getting them to speak (that is, write) up. The students were terrific, as you'll see if you glance through the Sept.-Dec. 2007 posts. A few students have continued to post, and I hope I'll get to teach the course again so that I can once more tap into student insights.

I have the sense that the tenor and nature of my own blog posts has changed over the course of this year. I create more independent content than in the beginning, though I still like to use the blog to collect news stories about the rural, making it a repository of and for research. I've also become more likely to express an opinion, to go out on a limb (well, a little way).

Whereas I previously thought of myself as writing mostly to be in a different type of conversation with my students, I realize that I now aspire to a wider audience. I want to connect with others who are rural or are interested in rural people and places.

There's something very egotistical about blogging (duh!), as with other forms of writing for public consumption. I've been able to see that more clearly as the year has passed. That, along with having people ask me when I talk about my blog, "but who reads it?" led me to have a sitemeter installed a little more than a month ago.

The sitemeter is a fount of information. It tells me the locale of visitors to the blog and what search terms brought them to it, among a great deal of other information (most of it relevant to garnering advertisers). I've learned, for example, that lots of folks are interested in Track Palin's legal troubles, only peripherally touched on in this post. Probably the single most attractive item on the blog has been a photo of Track's mom. That's somewhat disappointing, I have to admit, but I'm nevertheless playing to the masses by posting it again. Somewhat fewer folks, but nevertheless a critical mass worthy of mention, are interested in wind farms and living off the grid. Quite a few Arkansans and Missourians found Legal Ruralism by searching for "Craighead County Fair." Who'd have thought that my post about these bridges in Craighead County, Arkansas, would prove so fruitful? That Craighead County Fair must really be something else.

Occasionally a really distinctive and unexpected search brings someone to the blog. I write from time to time about my hometown, but I was surprised to see someone from a neighboring Arkansas county search for "Newton County" "race" and "hate crime"-- surprised, that is, because Newton County is about 98% non-Hispanic white. On the other hand, I've written some about "otherness" in the rural context, and so the very possibility of hate crimes in my home county should not be so shocking.

It's always fun to have readers from other countries come to the blog, if still a little surprising. It turns out that they are much more likely to find Legal Ruralism by searching for words like "ruralism" and "rurality." This may mean that they are more interested in rural-urban difference in the abstract, that they are intrigued (as I am) by the very concept of "the rural."

Sitemeter has also revealed to me how people "game" their blogs to attract readers, but I really can't imagine doing that -- in part because I can't think of any link between Britney Spears and rurality. Maybe I'm overlooking the obvious. Never mind, I've got Sarah Palin as my "rock star," and her rural bona fides are fairly sound.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Patronage politics and "crony capitalism" in Alaska

Timothy Egan's column, Moo, is the most emailed story in the New York Times right now, about 36 hours after it was posted. In it, Egan re-surfaces a few of Palin's decisions as governor of Alaska; others were covered in this story last week, under the headline: "Once Elected, Palin Hired Friends and Lashed Foes." That story reported, among other things, that Palin hired at least five schoolmates for high-level government jobs since she became governor, often with few relevant credentials and at salaries that exceeded their private-sector wages.

Egan suggests that Palin's sort of bad governance is associated with the state's cultural status as the "last frontier." He compares Palin's "crony capitalism" to some recent corporate governance debacles, including golden handshakes that failing CEO's have gotten.

Here is an excerpt:

Palin’s Alaska is a cultural cousin to this kind of capitalism. The state may seem like a rugged arena for risky free-marketers. In truth, it’s a strange mix of socialized projects and who-you-know hiring practices.

Egan provides an example of this in a discussion of government-subsidized dairy farms near Anchorage, a project that ultimately failed. He also notes the size of the earmarks that Alaska gets, relative to other states. Per capita, they get about 10 times what residents of Illinois receive. Egan notes the irony of federal monies buying things Alaskans could not otherwise afford--because they pay no state taxes.

Part of the information and context Egan and others have supplied recently in the wake of Palin's rise is not entirely Alaska-specific. Some of it is characteristic of rural places. Counties and states with a great deal of federal land tend to be sparsely populated (though rarely to the same degree as Alaska, of course) and this often makes for local economies that are seriously supplemented by, if not dominated by, federal monies. So, as discussed in an earlier post, governing and balancing the budget in these places is somewhat different than in places which are more populous and economically diversified.

One thing I find interesting in all of this is the extent to which the sort of patronage politics in which Palin engaged in Alaska is also a particularly rural phenomenon. I know it happens in cities, certainly (isn't Chicago famous for it?), but I wonder if there is something about the familiarity among folks in sparsely populated places, along with the relative dearth of economic opportunity there, that fosters this behavior--and accepts it. Corruption by local officials was suggested in this story out of upstate New York last month, for example.

Certainly, I saw patronage politics run amok in my home county when I was growing up. There, getting your "man" elected County Judge (the chief administrative officer of the county) was critical to getting your road graded until the next election. Getting your candidate elected Sheriff was seen as highly influencing any interactions with local law enforcement. Also in that context, where relatively good jobs are so rare, administrative jobs in the offices of elected county officials were highly coveted. Elected officials regularly doled out favors of these sorts to their supporters, often leaving others dis-served. The obvious favoritism sometimes displayed might have drawn great criticism as unfair and abusive, but people seemed to see it as "turn about is fair play." They simply worked harder to get their own cronies in office at the next election.

So, if Palin excuses some of her behavior with, "that's the way we do things here," she may be accurate -- which doesn't, of course, make it right.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Laramie, Wyoming and the LGBT community a decade after Matthew Shepard's death

October 12, 2008, will be the ten-year anniversary of the death of Matthew Shepard, the University of Wyoming college student who was beaten by two men who met him in a Laramie bar and left him to die, tied to a fence outside town. The New York Times' Patrick Healy writes here of how Laramie has changed -- or not -- in the ensuing decade. The story draws heavily on the Laramie Project, the "widely praised and frequently staged play bout how this small city grappled with the notorious murder." With a population of about 27,000 in a county of about 80,000, Laramie is nonmetropolitan.

Here is an excerpt from Healy's story that focuses on what it is like to be a member of the LGBT community in Laramie.

If Laramie has struggled with this onus, young gay men here have also reckoned with the fact that Mr. Shepard’s death did not change much for them. Nor, they say, did the success of the 2005 movie “Brokeback Mountain,” about two gay ranch hands in Wyoming.

“If you walk around campus holding hands with another guy, you have to know that people are going to holler and yell at you,” Iain-Peter Duggan, a junior at the University of Wyoming, and who is gay, said in an interview. “You just have to be smart.”

Rural-urban, agrarian-industrial tensions in India

This story by Somini Sengupta from yesterday's New York Times reports on tensions in Singur, West Bengal, India -- tensions between a powerful industrial conglomerate and native peasants who once farmed rice and potatoes where a new automobile factory now sits.

This excerpt sums up the bigger conflict represented by recent events in Singur:

The standoff is just the most prominent example of a dark cloud looming over India’s economic transition: How to divert scarce fertile farmland to industry in a country where more than half the people still live off the land.

At the heart of the challenge, one of the most important facing the Indian government, is not only how to compensate peasants who make way for India’s industrial future, but also how to prepare them — in great numbers — for the new economy India wants to enter.

The story explains that last month, protesters laid siege to a new factory owned by Tata Motors. Some of the land on which the factory was built had been taken forcibly from farmers. Interestingly, Tata chose this locale in part because of the sorts of generous incentives that states and counties in the United States -- especially rural ones -- offer to industry. Tata got a generous land lease and tax breaks. That strategy in the U.S. has often resulted in a race to the bottom among nonmetro communities desperate for jobs. It has also resulted in adverse consequences over the long term, as factories brought to rural places on favorable terms have subsequently moved abroad -- indeed, to places like India -- in search of cheaper labor. That's a problem India likely won't be dealing with for a long time, if ever. Meanwhile, that nation is confronting a much different challenge, one that marks an earlier stage in the progression from a primarily rural nation to a primarily urban one.

See a related post here.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The impact of natural disasters in rural America

I have written a bit about the difference rurality makes in a nation's ability (or will?) to respond to natural disasters. I mused about it here in the wake of the Sichuan province earthquake in China this spring, and here and here after flooding in the midwest a few weeks later. Keep in mind that not only is it often more difficult to reach rural places with relief following a disaster, as recovery proceeds, these communities generally have much less developed and extensive social service infrastructures to meet ongoing needs.

A couple of stories in the wake of Hurricanes Ike and Gustav have also featured rural datelines. One story on NPR this morning was out of Fannett, Texas. Although Fanette is part of the Beaumont-Port Arthur Metropolitan Area, it is unincorporated and has an estimate population of 105. The lede is below; later, the story suggests that relief is slower to reach rural places than urban ones.
Many small towns in Texas have been devastated by Hurricane Ike. The agricultural community of Fannett, Texas, was flattened by the storm. Residents are returning in hopes of reclaiming what was left behind. But many are finding their valuable livestock dead.
(Photo of cows on state highway 73, by Marisa Penaloza for NPR).

This story ran on 2 Sept. 2008 in the New York Times, a few days after Hurricane Gustav. The dateline is Pearlington, Mississippi, and the headline, "To rebuild or to leave?" Here's the lede, and an excerpt that also tells of government neglect of rural places:
With every drenching storm, this little fishing town gets a little closer to oblivion. Residents watched with sadness three years ago as Hurricane Katrina cut the population in half, to about 1,000 people, and on Monday, Hurricane Gustav poured water into about 100 homes.

Now, Pearlington once again finds itself facing a painful question: Is it worth it to rebuild?
* * *
Many residents said they felt trapped and ignored. Pearlington — one of Mississippi’s oldest Gulf Coast communities, settled in the 1770s — still does not have daily mail service three years after Hurricane Katrina. The school has not been rebuilt, nor have many homes, as post-hurricane aid has been concentrated in other areas.

Monday brought uncomfortably familiar feelings. Once again, the world focused on New Orleans, 40 miles to the west, as if the suffering of Pearlington did not exist.

“It’s frustrating,” said Jonathan Dianese, 39, recalling Hurricane Katrina. “New Orleans had a levee break. They didn’t get smacked by the storm like we did.”

I am glad, in the midst of media focus on Houston and Galveston (and a few weeks ago, New Orleans), that there is at least a bit of awareness of the impact of these storms on rural places. Perhaps the federal government's neglect of rural America in circumstances like these helps explain the skepticism of big government so often associated with rurality.

Postscript: Two weeks after Hurricane Ike, the New York Times ran this story on the same region of Texas as covered in the NPR report above.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Calvin Beale, USDA Demographer, 1923-2008

How many times have I cited the Beale Urban Influence Code? or before that, the Butler and Beale Rural-Urban continuum? Lots!

Now I read in the Daily Yonder of the death of Calvin Beale, USDA demographer. He died on Sept. 1 at the age of 85. Read stories about him in the Washington Post here and in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel here. All three stories have marvelous quotes from Beale and anecdotes about his life. Here are two excerpts from the stories that express well both his knowledge and understanding of rural America.

This is from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:
[Beale] elegantly explained the struggles and opportunities of rural America. In 1985, Beale reflected on a billboard he saw in Wisconsin: "WELCOME TO GALESVILLE, the Garden of Eden, Industry Invited."

"Here, in a nutshell, the basic modern dilemma of rural America is expressed," he wrote. "On one hand there is the ardent assertion of the idyllic, fulfilling quality that life in a small community can have, but then tempered by the necessity to invite the serpent of industry into the garden if people are to have the means to live there."

This is from the Washington Post.

Two or three times a year, Calvin L. Beale would leave his desk in Washington and travel to the University of Wisconsin to speak to graduate students. . . . After his lecture, Mr. Beale would join [Professor Glenn] Fuguitt and the grad students for dinner. In his characteristically reserved but attentive way, he asked the students where they were from. He would then recite the name of each student's county, no matter how remote, and detail its primary businesses and cultural history.

As a final flourish, he would describe the local courthouse.

The Daily Yonder shares some of the many marvelous photos Beale took of county courthouses around the country, and others are online here. Of the 3,140 counties in the United States, Beale visited about 2,500.

Postscript: NPR's Weekend Edition ran a feature on Beale on 21 September. Have a listen here.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Law and Order in the Ozarks (Part IV): No crime to report this week!

The September 4, 2008, issue of the Newton County Times has just arrived, and I am happy to report that not a single crime is mentioned on the front page. This is in sharp contrast to the past four issues, which I've written about here, here, and here. Indeed, I've scanned all 8 pages and could find nary a mention of crime anywhere -- the sheriff's log isn't even included this week.

That leaves us with a front page dominated by good news, and a real sense of some of the great things about Newton County. It features two large, color photos from the recent county fair and livestock show. Both show young women with their respective winning heifers, one the Grand Champion and the other the Reserve Grand Champion. These young women received prizes of $1K and $500, respectively. The back page of the paper features 14 additional wonderful color photos of fair winners--many of whom are girls and young women--with their livestock. Again, I lament that none of these photos are available online for me to share with you. One story reports that the Reserve Grand Champion steer at the livestock show sold at auction for $3,000. Clearly, farming is alive and well in Newton County, if not the pillar of the economic base that it is in some other parts of the state and country.

The other big story on the front page features the dateline Washington, DC, and is "$4.3 million for water project." It is basically a press release from the offices of Arkansas' U.S. Senators and the two U.S. Representatives for north central and northwest Arkansas touting funds appropriated through the 2008 Farm Bill for the Ozark Mountain Regional Public Water Authority (OMRPWA).

There's lots of rich rhetoric in the press release, which quotes all four members of the Arkansas delegation who were involved. I'll highlight just that of Marion Berry, U.S. Congressman who represents a neighboring district that will also benefit from the grant, because of his use of the nostalgic, myth-invoking "backbone" metaphor: "Rural communities are the backbone of America and we must make sure they have the infrastructure to support economic growth and development. . . This grant is one of many steps we are taking to keep our rural communities strong and successful. I applaud local officials for working to ensure the prosperity of their community."

I've become interested in the extent to which federal funding has become less important to rural communities than it formerly was, as states pick up more of the tab for rural development and other local needs. (Mildred Warner and Lisa Cimbaluk presented a terrific paper about this at the Rural Sociological Society Annual Meeting this year). This Newton County Times story reports that OMRPWA is also getting a $200,000 grant from the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission for this project.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Some colorful rural language in a news report out of Montana

When Brian Schweitzer, Governor of Montana, spoke at the Democratic National Convention a coupla' weeks ago, he was touted as very popular in his home state -- especially for a Democrat. A story in today's New York Times may shed light on one of the reasons for that popularity, even though the gist of the story is somewhat negative. It seems that Schweitzer is quite a talker, and he's in the habit of using some pretty colorful language. The problem is that he used some of this colorful language (including references to a "pregnant nun") in a speech this summer in which he suggested that "he had used his position to influence the outcome of the 2006 Senate race in favor of a fellow Democrat, Jon Tester." As journalist Kirk Johnson notes, "Tester’s narrow victory helped to swing majority control of the United States Senate to the Democrats." The Governor's spokeswoman has explained that Schweitzer was only "horsing around."

But there's more colorful language -- including some that seems quintessentially rural -- in Kirk Johnson's report. He writes:
Attorney General Mike McGrath, a Democrat, declined the request, but he and Mr. Johnson [Secretary of State] both took the opportunity to play smack a mole, with Mr. Schweitzer as the mole.
That interesting turn of phrase could be rural reference since one meaning of mole is a small, wild mammal. My google of "smack a mole" turned up references to reality TV, but I'm still not sure to what the phrase refers.

Then there's this wonderfully rural quote from Erik Iverson, chair of the state's Republican Party, who suggests that Schweitzer has become "a little too big for his britches." It makes Montana sound like a pretty colorful, down-home sort of place to be.

Small-town lack of anonymity and bias, big-time consequences

I'm seeing lots of coverage this week of the just-disclosed, long-time romantic relationship between a judge and a prosecutor in Collin County, Texas. Two of the stories are here and here. The affair came to light because one of many cases tried during the period when the affair may have been ongoing were criminal charges against Charles Dean Hood. Hood was convicted of capital murder in a September 1990 trial in which Verla Sue Holland presided and Thomas S. O'Connell, Jr. was the prosecutor. Hood was sentenced to death in the case, but several irregularites -- including this now confirmed intimate involvement between Holland and O'Connell -- have put that conviction in doubt.

The closing paragraphs of the New York Times story about this breach of legal and judicial ethics caught my attention in relation to rurality:

Ms. Kunkle, the court clerk, said that nearly everyone in the courthouse had heard the rumor over the years. She said Judge Holland and Mr. O’Connell were part of a tight-knit legal community that lived in Collin County before its population boomed in the 1980s and 1990s.

“Sometimes the little small-town stuff just doesn’t go away,” Ms. Kunkle said.

That sent me over to the Census Bureau website to see just how rural or nonmetro Collin County and its seat, McKinney, were during the relevant period. (Holland was a district judge there from 1981-1997). Here's the scoop from Publication No. 1990 CPH-2-45 (pages 3 and 83):

In 1980, Collin County's population was 144,576, whereas in 1970 it had been just 66,920. McKinney's 1980 population was 16,256, a modest growth over the 1970 figure, 15,193.

By 1990, Collin County had 264,036 residents, while McKinney had grown to 21,283.

Collin County is now dominated economically and in terms of population by Plano, a Dallas suburb that grew quickly in the past few decades. McKinney, the county seat, is now probably fairly characterized as an exurb. Still, thinking back to the McKinney of a couple of decades ago, when the Holland-McConnell affair apparently began, it's not hard to imagine that it was the talk of the town, or at least the legal community. In light of that, I find it interesting that an investigation was never initiated, especially in light of the number of trials in which the two apparently played their respective roles. Perhaps that failure is attributable to another characteristic sometimes associated with small towns and rurality. I call it the paradox of rural privacy; it is the tendency to mind your own business, even if you know everyone else's.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Keeping kids out of trouble in Alaska?

A story in the New York Times compares the role of hockey in Alaskan society to that of football in rural Texas. The headline of Kim Severson's story is "The Hockey Way of Life in Wasilla," and it mentions one of Palin's accomplishments as mayor -- seeing a $15 million hockey rink built in her small city. (I wrote earlier about this, suggesting it was a laudable project because it gave youth something constructive to do.)

The headline for my post is suggested by the story's assertion that hockey in Alaska is like football and basketball in other places -- that which keeps kids on the "straight and narrow." A bit farther into the story, it is clear that hockey is not as important in the more remotes parts of Alaska as it is in Anchorage and environs. Here's an excerpt, which references both "rural parts of the state" and Alaska in its entirety as a "rural state":
In more rural parts of the state, where gyms instead of hockey rinks were built with the rush of oil money in the 1980s, basketball is the favored sport. But in and around Anchorage, particularly in wealthier high schools, hockey is everything. With $400 skates, $150 sticks and hundreds of dollars more for pads and gloves, outfitting a skater can cost well over a $1,000. Add in ice time, league fees and the cost of travel in and out of this rural state, and some families with elite high school players can spend $15,000 a year.
That's pretty much where the story's generalities about the "hockey way of life" end. The bulk of the story is about Sarah Palin's eldest son, Track, and her future son-in-law, Levi Johnston. It details some of the disciplinary and temper issues that each had--troubles that may have been fueled by their participation in an aggressive sport, as well as their failures to develop other skills. Indeed, that part of the story suggests that hockey may have been as much a part of the problem as it was any solution.

The story goes on to report that Track often played only part of a game before he was kicked out for inappropriate behavior. Track later joined the Army and is about to be deployed to Iraq.

I suppose this Alaska tale is not so different than is typical regarding other high school sports -- particularly in local cultures that promote youth involvement in sports in a way that neglects the development of other skills.

I saw this often in my own home town. Our school's primary sport was basketball, and the only other sport at the time was baseball. Basketball players were idolized and received far more attention in the local newspaper, for example, than honor students. It's a risky strategy -- investing so much time and energy in a skill with which only a very rare young person is going to find future gainful employment, or even a college scholarship. And that brings me to a topic for a post in the near future: priorities for rural schools.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Using oldtimer-newcomer synergy to solve rural problems

Buffalo Theatre, Jasper, Arkansas (c) Lisa R. Pruitt 2015
This historic building on the town square
has been repurposed many times by innovators and civic entrepreneurs

As I've been thinking and writing about social problems in rural contexts in recent months, one theme that has repeatedly cropped up has been the positive role that newcomers can play in effecting change in rural communities. While the tensions between oldtimers and newcomers often attract our attention (see some of my prior posts here and here), in both mainstream media and in scholarly works (e.g., Sonya Salamon, Newcomers to Old Towns (2003)), we may not be as quick to see the benefits that may be derived from the mixing of demographic profiles that often accompanies population churn, growth, and even gentrification of rural communities. 

 The plain truth is that in many historically static and homogeneous rural places, the oldtimers (long-time residents, usually representing several generations in the same place) simply didn't have the human and social capital necessary to initiate new programs and, just as importantly, figure out how to fund those programs. What newcomers have often brought is knowledge of urban programs that can be adapted to rural settings. But this has not made oldtimers obsolete; they have contributed local knowledge, localized social capital, and great passion for and commitment to their communities. The results have sometimes been remarkable. One example can be found in my own beloved Newton County (AR), population 8,608.

When I was growing up there, the town had one lawyer and a number of people with degrees in education (even then, many teachers commuted to Newton County schools from neighboring, more populous counties). It was in the late 1970s or early 1980s, I think, that the county got its first physicians in residence (as opposed to those coming over a day or two a week from neighboring Boone County). The state gave them financial incentives to work in our under-served rural county, and they ultimately became very attached to the place. Eventually, the female physician, Dr. Nancy Haller became the catalyst behind an organization called the Newton County Resource Council. The Council was formed in 1987, and it accomplished many things over the next couple of decades. Quoting from a February 9, 1997 story in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, it "created a low-income housing organization and a battered women's shelter . . . a program that has served homeless families, a day-care center to help working parents, an outdoor adventure group for at-risk youth, a scholarship program for single parents and parenting classes" and launched Ozark Ecotours, using local guides. According to a May 27, 1991 story in the Democrat-Gazette, the Council also built a picnic area and a city park with baseball and softball fields, and it helped set up a youth center, a used clothing store, and an emergency food distribution program. Hard as it may be for urban and even micropolitan residents to imagine, the county had none of these services or amenities prior to the efforts of the Resource Council. Over the years, grants from both the federal government and foundations funded these programs. 

 Unfortunately, the Council is now defunct, and I'm not clear why that happened. While some of the programs no longer operate, many do, and much of the physical infrastructure (such as the park and playing fields) are still in place. My point is, I cannot imagine how all of these wonderful things would have come about in Newton County had it not been for a newcomer such as Dr. Haller, someone who brought with her knowledge of amenities and programs that are taken for granted elsewhere, but that most Newton County residents never imagined having and, in some cases, would not have known existed.

Haller worked with others in the community-- including oldtimers -- to accomplish so much. I like to think that the Resource Council has provided not only material assistance to residents, it has expanded their imaginations and opened their minds to a much wider array of possibilities for their beloved community. Many times over the past few decades my own mother, a 4th generation Newton County resident, has raved about some Resource Council program or another. Further, the benefits that newcomers have brought to the county are not limited to the work of the Resource Council. 

 I see many manifestations of oldtimer-newcomer cooperation when I read the weekly newspaper. There is a law angle in all of this, too. In my recent writing about the social problems of domestic violence and youth drug use in rural communities, I have come to see how incredibly significant infrastructure such as a battered women's shelter and a youth center are when it comes to preventing and responding appropriately to these phenomena. The economic piece of it also matters, of course. Economic devastation and lack of opportunity fuel these social problems. Services such as the community food pantry and housing assistance help hold families together during economic downturns or when disaster strikes. 

 Back now to California . . . what sent me down this sentimental journey is a story in today's Sacramento Bee that echoes the theme of newcomer-oldtimer cooperation in rural places. It is headlined "Retirees help wring out a Delta city's red ink," and the dateline is Rio Vista, California, population 4,571. Here's an excerpt that gives a sense of the cooperation between long-time residents and newcomer retirees (living in a posh-sounding retirement golf community) who are working to solve budget woes there.

In Rio Vista, a Delta town perched on the bank of the broad Sacramento River, a singular circle of retirees is working hard to put the struggling little city back in the black.

And they're having fun in the process.

"Our expertise is only exceeded by our good looks," quipped Bernie Durman, 70, a veteran of engineering management.

Durman sat at a big table in a sunny clubhouse at Rio Vista's Trilogy, a golf course development for seniors. He was joined by other Trilogy residents: retired attorney Arthur Fox, 59; businesswoman Carol Turgeon, 70; and former municipal manager and consultant Bob Marchbanks, 71.

The four gathered to talk about their Citizens' Committee on Water & Wastewater Rates, a volunteer group galvanized last spring by a city proposal to double water rates. Since then, they've tackled a raft of other issues, from 30-year bonds to arsenic water filters to meter readers.

Gradually, a little grudgingly, City Hall has come to appreciate their efforts.

Read the rest here, and enjoy the Bryan Patrick's photos of some of the oldtimers and newcomers in Rio Vista (my terms, not those of the Sac Bee).

Sunday, September 7, 2008

"Going Down the Road," this time from western Iowa

Here's the latest in the NYT's "Going Down the Road" series. This report from Monica Davey features the dateline Iowa Falls, Iowa, and the headline is "Vanishing Barns Signal a Changing Iowa." It uses the state's many disused and falling-down barns to discuss the parallel demise of the type of neighbor-helping-neighbor community (what rural sociologists call gemeinschaft, sometimes translated "community") long associated with the rural Midwest. The story is very rich and full of rural themes such as multi-generationality in rural communities and attachment to place. Here's a short excerpt:
But the tale of the disappearing barn, a building whose purpose shifted, then faded away, tells a bigger story too, of how farming itself, a staple in this state then and now, has changed markedly since those writers drove through.

What had in the 1930s been an ordinary farm here — 80 or 160 acres and a few cows and sheep and chickens — is today far bigger and more specialized to pay for air-conditioned, G.P.S.-equipped combines and tractors, so much fuel and the now-skyrocketing price of farmland.

Read the rest of this very sentimental story here, with interviews of various residents of western Iowa's small towns. See the interactive feature here. Stories like this one make our nation's rural past sound so appealing that I find myself incredulous that it was ever quite as good as the old-timers say. Nevertheless, it is rural associations such as that with gemeinschaft, I believe, that fuel the "love" part of our nation's ongoing love-hate(disdain) relationship with rural America.

P.S. It is surely a reflection of that "love-hate" relationship that, more than 36 hours after this story was posted to the NYT site, it is still one of the 10 most emailed items. We remain nostalgic for our rural past, perhaps even more so as we see signs -- like the falling barns and the farm consolidation -- that it is slipping away.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

More on Palin and the rural vote

The folks over at the Daily Yonder have been noting/observing/complaining for some time the Presidential candidates are ignoring rural people and rural issues. With Sarah Palin's selection as John McCain's running mate, there are hints from many corners (including here) that this is no longer the case because Palin is rural and understands that social and economic milieu.

I'm not sure whether Palin played the rural card first, or whether the rural constituencies picked up on her rurality and ran with it. In any event, many commentators have picked up on the link between Palin and the rural. One that caught my eye is by Will Bunch, who deploys the link with a rural metaphor in his Philadelphia Daily News column. He writes of Palin's "speech to nowhere" at the Republican Convention, calling her "a boffo politician who speaks in a plaintive prairie voice that channels America's Heartland like a chilling breeze rippling a wheat field." (More re: rural accents below). With policies like those she advocates, "chilling" seems an apt word choice.

Here's another story that makes the link. It is by Monica Davey in today's New York Times and includes this quote from Erik Iverson, chairman of the Montana Republican Party: “This is the first time we have heard a presidential candidate or a vice-presidential candidate even talk about what it’s like to live in rural America, and believe me, they were listening,” Mr. Iverson said. “All over the Western United States, there were a lot of heads nodding.”

Certainly, Palin has worked her rural credentials. Here's an excerpt from a commentary by Chase Martyn in the Iowa Independent which notes that, but then challenges the assumption that rural voters will flock to her as a result:

Palin’s speech to accept her nomination used the words “small town” five times. “I had the privilege of living most of my life in a small town,” she remarked.

“I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a ‘community organizer,’ except that you have actual responsibilities,” she continued, ripping into one part of Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama’s biography.

But while highlighting her small-town past might make some rural voters like Palin, it is too simplistic to assume that such statements will make them vote for her.

When Iowa’s then-Gov. Tom Vilsack launched his short-lived presidential campaign shortly after election day in 2006, pundits wondered aloud whether his candidacy would take his state’s first-in-the-nation caucuses off the table for other candidates. It took only about a week before it was clear that it would not.

I heard Iowans in coffee shops say things like, “I liked him as governor, but he thinks he can be president? Really?”

I like what Martyn has to say for several reasons, not least that he gives rural folk a lot of credit for being discerning voters.

For a contrary argument, see this, from Patchwork Nation (picked up in the Daily Yonder) asserting that "geography matters." Here's a quote from Dan Gimpel's story:

Geography matters in politics because candidates are evaluated not just according to who they are, but also on the basis of where they’re from. People tend to be more favorable to candidates who are from familiar places and less favorable to those who are from places unknown. Thus, fair or not, the place that somebody calls home can prove to be an advantage or disadvantage.

He goes onto say that "imagery in television and movies depicts rural people as being unsophisticated, heavily accented, and semiliterate. They are frequently shown working the land or engaging in related rural occupations – with it often implied that they’re not smart enough to make a living in a big city."

Sadly, he is right about how rural people are portrayed in popular culture. But, also note that to some ears, Sarah Palin does speak with an pronounced accent. I guess she embodies this somewhat negative stereotype. Judith Warner picked up on this in her Domestic Disturbances column a few days ago, and while I agreed with the vast majority of what Warner had to say, I wish she'd left out the comments on Palin's accent and focused on substance.

Mind you this is coming from someone who, outside Arkansas (which happens to be where I've lived most of the last two decades), is perceived to have a heavy accent. And, I'm aware of having been judged on that basis -- underestimated, that is. By way of example, a few months into teaching my year-long torts class several years ago, a student from New York told me that she and others in the class had really underestimated my intelligence after initially hearing me speak. Since then, she reported, I'd been redeemed in their eyes by my extensive vocabulary and other aspects of my classroom performance. But I digress . . . In contemplating bias against rural people, I've often considered how one's rurality may be manifest so as to invite that bias. That line of thought frequently brings me back to the accent issue, while acknowledging that accent is an imperfect proxy for rural origin and that various urban accents also invite condescension and ridicule.

I'm digressing again. Nevertheless, thinking about Arkansas reminds me that I've not yet seen any comparison of Bill Clinton to Sarah Palin in relation to the rural vote. Both arrived on the national political scene as governors of largely rural states that aren't very populous. (Arkansas has six electoral votes to Alaska's three). And Clinton certainly had an accent, albeit one that he still seems to turn on and off at will. My sense is that he attracted a lot of rural voters (along with other overlapping categories such as blue collar folks), though its hard to say how much of that attraction was based on his rural origin.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Law and Order in the Ozarks (Part III): Putting the recent crime wave in context

I've tracked down some of those rural-urban crime stats I was looking for last week (Ok, the librarians tracked them down), but the Dept. of Justice/FBI website where they're found does not make it very easy to access the data I wanted. It seems that, every year or so, the government changes how it presents the data and exactly what data it includes. This makes comparing "apples to "apples" over time a bit challenging. Plus, there are gaps in the data.

For now, here are some statistics that give us a sense of relative crime rates in rural vs. urban places. These also give us a sense of trends over time. In particular, I've excerpted here statistics regarding violent crimes. I'll leave property crimes for another discussion.

  • In 2006, the rate of violent crime per 100,000 persons was 514.6 in Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs), while in cities that were outside MSAs, it was 382.4. In nonmetro counties (counties with no population center of at least 50,000 and a total county population of under 100,000), it was 199.2. For murder and non-negligent manslaughter, the numbers per 100K population were 6.2, 3.3 and 3.1, respectively, for the three types of areas. For aggravated assaults, the figures were 304 (MSA), 278 (MSA, outside cities), and 156 (nonmetro).
  • In 1997, the rate of violent crime per 100K population was 684 in MSAs, 455 in cities outside MSAs, and 214 in nonmetro areas (p. 12). The rates of murder and non-negligent homicide were 7, 4, and 5, respectively, in each category of place (p. 16). The rates of aggravated assault were 416 (MSA), 343 (cities outside MSAs), and 183 (nonmetro) (p. 34).
So, it seems that while violent crime rates have fallen across all three categories of places, they have typically fallen least in nonmetro places. One exception, comparing just 2006 to 1997, is with respct to murders and non-negligent homicides, which fell at a higher rate in nonmetro places.

Jumping to 2007, for which less detail is available, here is what we know: The rate of violent crime in metropolitan areas fell 1.7%, while the rate for nonmetro areas rose by 1.8%. In the smallest places (cities with populations under 10,000), violent crime was down .5%. While the murder rate fell 5.9% in nonmetro places, the rate of aggravated assault rose 3%. In the smallest places, the murder rate rose 1.8% and the aggravated assault rate rose just .1%. The rate of property crime fell in both metro (-1.6%) and nonmetro places (-1.7%). In the smallest places, it was down 2.4%.

And here is some Arkansas and Newton County data:
  • In Arkansas in 2006, there were 158 murders in MSAs, 28 murders in cities that were outside MSAs, and 19 murders in nonmetro counties. These numbers are not weighted for population, but the statewide figure for murders per 100K residents was 7.3. The number of aggravated assaults in MSAs was 8,263, 2,068 in cities outside MSAs, and 876 in nonmetropolitan counties. The statewide average was 399.4 per 100K.
  • I was able to find some data for Newton County for 2001 (click on Table 11a). It showed no murders, forcible rapes or robberies. In that year aggravated assaults numbered 10, burglaries 13, and larceny-thefts, 25. There were no motor vehicle thefts or arsons that year. Newton County did not report any statistics for 2002 (Table 11A), 2003 (Table 10A) 2004, 2005. or 2006. That's disappointing; I guess when you're running a 3- or 4-person operation like the Newton County Sheriff does, reporting tasks are a low priority.
  • Looking for a comparable baseline, I checked out the stats for neighboring Searcy County. The demographic and economic profile is virtually identical to that of Newton County, but its population density is slightly higher at 13 persons/sq. mile. In 2006, Searcy County reported only 8 violent crimes, all aggravated assaults. It reported no data for 2003, 2004 and 2005. In 2002, 1 forcible rape and 15 aggravated assaults were reported, and in 2001, 1 forcible rape and 6 aggravated assaults were the only reported violent crimes.
So, with that statistical preface, let me tell you what's in the Newton County Times this week. I just received the August 28, 2008, issue, and three of the five front-page stories are about serious violent crimes. Combined with the news of the past few weeks, it appears that Newton County will meet its crime quota early this year. Indeed, when it comes to murders and non-negligent homicides, norms have already been exceeded. The headlines are:
  • Killing at Ponca -- this is a report of the murder of a man who lived in neighboring Boone County but who was shot and killed in his "getaway cabin" in Ponca. The body was found in bed; the apparent cause of death was gunshot wounds. No suspects have yet been identified. A tiny community on the Buffalo National River, Ponca has a post office but isn't a Census Designated Place. An interesting side note is that the victim, age 77, had spent much of his career as director of the USDA Rural Development's Area One, where he had been involved in many public water projects in the region.
  • Stuart pleads, sentenced 35 years--this follows up on a story I mentioned last week, about a 36-year-old man who shot and stabbed his girlfriend in March. The story notes that the man, Stuart, had been paroled after a conviction for murdering his brother in 1995. More intra-family crime (and at least one Newton County murder we know of from 1995).
  • Mother suspected of shooting her son--this story tells of a 42-year-old woman who shot her son in the side of the head with a .22 caliber rifle. She apparently did so at the end of a a day of drinking with him and others. The mother shot her son when he refused to accede to her demand that he not drive away; she was reportedly concerned that it wasn't safe for him to drive because he'd had so much to drink. She apparently retreived the gun from beneath her mattress and pointed it at him as she yelled for him to get out of the car; she says the gun went off accidentally. The son survived, and the mother has been charged with first-degree battery.
This last story, with its prominent mention of the role alcohol played in the crime, is juxtaposed, on the paper's back page (where it continues from the front), with a photo featuring the caption "Contraband." The photo shows an open car trunk full of beer -- 13 cases of beer to be exact. You see, Newton County is a dry county, and this story reports that a 76-year-old man was caught bringing the beer and miscellaneous wine and liquor into the county. He was charged with procurement of liquor for another, a misdemeanor.

I am reminded of the role that alcohol played in that killing a few weeks ago, when a 33-year-old woman shot her husband. Further, I am reminded of something a former student told me recently about her work prosecuting domestic violence (albeit in a metro county): if it weren't for alcohol and drugs, she wouldn't have a job.

The lighter fare on the front page includes a photo of the exhibition judges at the county fair and a story, with photo, about the county's Farm Family of the Year. There really is a lot of good news, too, out of Newton County. Sometime, I'll write another post focusing on some of it.

So,what do we feel and think of America's last frontier?

Timothy Egan argues in a column in today's New York Times that the country isn't ready for at least one aspect of what Sarah Palin represents: our nation's last frontier, a place that evokes the America of yesteryear.

Here's an excerpt:

Among Alaskans, drunken driving, teenage pregnancy, shooting wildlife out of season and courting an independent political party whose founder once said, “the fires of hell are frozen glaciers compared to my hatred for the American government,” are not disqualifying issues. They’re dinner-table stories.

* * *

But what many of us find, um, memorable, the rest of America may see as alarming, or at least strange. The CBS news survey on Tuesday, taking into account the Palin nomination, showed Obama with a 14-point lead among women. And a fresh Gallup poll suggests that the Palin pick has not helped McCain with Democratic or independent women, to date. It’s hurt.

Shooting wolves out of airplanes is something Palin backs with zest. But most Americans have never seen a wolf, let alone considered shooting one from a Piper Cub.

Egan lists a few other examples to make his point of how Palin and Alaska aren't like the "rest of us," and he concludes that, while Alaska may be what America used to be, "it may not be what America wants to be."

Certainly, we have become a nation that is primarily urban. By the 1920 census, more than half the country was living in metropolitan areas. By 1990, one half of the country was living in metropolitan areas with populations greater than 1 million. As our urban population has grown, so we have become increasingly urban-focused. Indeed, there is some rural discontent around the Presidential candidates' neglect of rural America (post-Iowa, of course).

Today, most of us encounter rurality through reality television and out our car windows as we drive to rural resorts. So Egan may be right. America may not be ready to embrace its frontier past, especially if it means putting a political greenhorn like Palin in the executive office. But I see plenty of evidence that the appeal of our rural, frontier past dies hard. Besides, whatever the current appeal of the rural myth in isolation, in Palin it is almost inextricably entangled with some other powerful, iconic, and appealing images: God, motherhood, and hard work.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Palin's rural vantage point

Jeff Edwards wrote last week about Sarah Palin's rural credentials, but we've learned more since then that provides yet another dimension to Palin's "rurality." While she has prepared position papers on issues of importance to rural communities -- particularly those in Alaska, e.g., indigenous populations, subsistence hunting and fishing -- her connection to the rural runs deeper than that. I found of particular interest her long personal history with Wasilla, Alaska, as it went from a community of 400 when she was a child to a booming exurb/suburb of Anchorage, population about 9,800. (It is part of the Anchorage MSA). Reports suggest that the population of Wasilla roughly doubled during Palin's service on the City Council and later as mayor. (Hear an NPR interview with Palin's biographer, Kaylene Johnson, here ;it describes Wasilla's growth over the years) .

An early report from the New York Times detailed Palins's rural roots, including her birth in Sandpoint, Idaho, and her family's move to Skagway, Alaska when she was infant. The family later moved to Wasilla, essentially an exurb of Anchorage. Palin was elected to the Wasilla City Council in 1992, and she was mayor from 1996-2002. At that time, the Wasilla Police Department had 25 officers. A borough government oversaw the schools and fire department. The story includes this quote from the deputy city clerk who characterized Wasilla as "really rural America," and said "everyone is in shock" over the possibility that Palin might become Vice President. Another official interviewed for the story recounted Palin's mayoral achievements:
She cut property taxes, increased the city sales tax by half a percent to support construction of an indoor ice rink and sports complex, and put more money into public safety, winning a grant to build a police dispatch center in town.
So, this report indicates that she dealt with some issues that are increasingly important to communities the size of Wasilla: (1) how to keep youth busy and (2) rising crime rates.

The growth that Palin oversaw was apparently not always pretty, as if often the case with sprawl. A man interviewed for this NYT story about Alakans' attitude toward Palin noted that many think Wasilla is "as ugly as sin." Still, residents there are apparently happy to be getting a Target next month, one of three opening in the chain's Alaska debut.

Wednesday's NYT included a story with the headline, "Palin's Start in Alaska: Not Politics as Usual," which gave us yet more information about Palin's mayoral management style in Wasilla. As the headline suggests, she did not shrink from controversy. Among her early small-town gaffes: suggesting that some books should be removed from the local library. The story suggests that Palin brought "wedge politics" to town. Here's an excerpt that characterizes Wasilla's political landscape, both pre- and post-Palin:
The traditional turning points that had decided municipal elections in this town of less than 7,000 people — Should we pave the dirt roads? Put in sewers? Which candidate is your hunting buddy? — seemed all but obsolete the year Ms. Palin, then 32, challenged the three-term incumbent, John C. Stein.

Anti-abortion fliers circulated. Ms. Palin played up her church work and her membership in the National Rifle Association.

The pre-Palin part sounds like a lot of rural places, where political patronage plays a significant role and "all politics is local," to quote Tip O'Neill. The post-Palin phase sounds like the mix of national with local issues that we increasingly see everywhere. But the post-Palin phase also featured patronage politics, as many who backed her opponent or otherwise crossed her lost their jobs.

A story in Thursday's NYT takes us back to her experience governing a state which, while quite distinctive among the 50, features many challenges shared by other largely rural states. These include the challenge of spatial isolation and the reliance on extractive industries. Here's an excerpt:
Alaska is harder to govern than a smaller, more settled realm in the Lower 48. With vast distances, large numbers of indigenous peoples and a narrowly based extraction economy — with a handful of giant multinational oil corporations dominating the game — some economists say a country like Nigeria might be an apter comparison.
The story quotes University of Alaska professor Stephen Haycox, who characterized Alaska as a "colonial place." He explained that a third "of the economic base is oil; another third is federal spending. * * * It’s not to say that Alaska is a beggar state, but it certainly is true that Alaska is dependent on decisions made outside it, and over which Alaskans don’t have great control.”

A critical difference between Alaska and other states, as journalist Kirk Johnson points out in Thursday's story, is that Alaska is fiscally flush because of its major extractive industry--oil and gas--and the high prices currently commanded by a barrel of oil. Unlike other rural places, then, Alaska under Palin has not faced the challenges of economic restructuring that have devastated so many other rural places that were previously reliant on extractive industries. That makes Palin's experience rather less applicable to the greatest concerns facing other rural economies. It also helps explain why she doesn't flinch at opening up ANWAR to drilling. Prosperity based largely on Alaska's oil and gas reserves is all she has known, but it's hardly a model that translates well to other states, let alone the nation.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Off the grid in Oregon

A story in last week's NYT Escapes section featured an off-the-grid community of about 500 vacation homes in Oregon. The "subdivision" at the Three Rivers Recreation Area is near Lake Billy Chinook and the Deschutes National Forest in the central part of the state.

Here's an excerpt from the piece by Matthew Preusch:

“The lifestyle here, you can get simple or you can be real extravagant,” said Lorne Stills, whose late father, Doug Stills, started Three Rivers roughly four decades ago. The history of Three Rivers has been a trend from the former to the latter.

At first, what today is perhaps the country’s only off-the-grid second-home subdivision was just juniper and bunch grass, grazing land for cattle and sheep across the Metolius River arm of Lake Billy Chinook from the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs Reservation.

* * *

Three decades later, off-the-grid vacation homes have become practical for those not inclined to tinker and jury-rig car parts or shower under empty Folgers cans. And in today’s atmosphere of climbing energy costs and concerns about global warming, what once was obstacle is now amenity.

Sometimes I find rural chic off-putting, but you can't help appreciate the resourceful and environmentally conscious approach to the second home phenomenon. On the other hand, how "chic" can they be if they're driving hemis rather than hybrids? And, indeed, how environmentally conscious?