Saturday, April 14, 2012

Day 4: Pt 2 - Small Town Appalachia

I'm from Alabama.  I'm ashamed of Alabama quite often.  I ask the reader to remember this because I fear offending.  I know all too well how easy it is to beat up on what you haven't lived, or haven't grown up with, or maybe don't really understand.  I'm an outsider here in Appalachia (see my previous post) and I don't want to seem holier than thou. 

I mention Alabama because I don't come from a better place than this, I'm not smarter than the people who live here, and I have no right to criticise what I have observed; and truly criticism isn't my intent.

My intent is simply to try and understand the situation I find myself in; a situation I share with all who live in this corner of rural Appalachia.  

Not long after we moved here and I started working at UVa-Wise, I met a friend who, though originally from this region, had lived in a great many places across the country.  He was a man possessed of wanderlust if ever I've met one.  He was not an academic.  He was an employee with Chartwell's, the food preparation company who has (inexplicably, in my opinion) been given a contractual monopoly over dining options on campus.  Food preparation and service were certainly not his passion. 

There are a class of people, a minority in our prevailing culture, for whom work is always just a means to an end and never a way to obtain life goals.  For these people the term "career" doesn't apply.   These stay unencumbered by no more contractual obligation than is required to make a living.  My friend belonged to this class of people, and though I could never live in that fashion, his passion for life outside of "success" as commonly defined was very endearing, and I think his kindness and affability spoke for itself.  When I knew him he was approaching retirement age, and even though he was in the middle of his second or third stint living in rural Appalachia, he wasn't any more interested in settling down in the region to stay than ever.   In fact, he's since moved on.

In a conversation between he and I and several other friends where I was wondering aloud why more businesses hadn't moved to the area despite a population seemingly eager to spend money closer to home than an hour or two away, I distinctly remember suggesting that the area was primed for economic growth and he said to us,  "There ain't never been nothin' in Wise county, there won't never be nothin' in Wise county."

I rejected this.  It seems fatalistic and pessimistic on the face of it; but a nagging fact of the matter is that he might be better able to judge than I.  I think I may be beginning to understand what he meant.

Perhaps the best I can do is recount some incidences over the past couple of years to highlight what I mean.

First, the population of Wise county has been on a persistent decline in lock-step with the decline of the coal industry in the region.  Simply put, as with the rest of the country, we're quickly running out of easily attainable, and thus profitable fossil fuel deposits.  Extremely rural areas, once perennially fed by the coal industry, are being emptied out as young people move away and though considerable efforts are being made to explore ways to move in new industry (everything from technology industry in the form of a new data entry and technology development center housing employees hired locally for CGI and Northrop-Grumman to the possible development of wind farms and more) the jobs being created and those likely to be created require a trained and educated populace (not previously as important) and the number of jobs being created does not match the jobs being lost, nor do they offer nearly enough opportunities to keep the populace growing in place.  There is hope, but fundamental changes will need to be made. 

As parents move to areas of greater job opportunity they inevitably take their school age children with them and the result is a necessitated restructuring of the county and township school systems.   In other words, it's simply not acceptable from a managerial standpoint to have 6 largely empty (and aging) school buildings in the county school system when 3 (newly built) schools will do.  Seems logical, but I can assure you that logic did not rule the day when plans were put forth to join the student populations from the several smaller towns with those from the several larger towns.  "You're killing our town" was a common refrain at packed school board and county supervisor meetings that would regularly have extended required "public comment" sessions that would stretch into the night as proponents of the many plans put forth to either save the old schools or build new ones (commonly called "consolidation") would fully lambaste each other, not refraining (even between board members) from even personal attacks.  The public comment section was sometimes so contentious and long that the room needed to be cleared and the scheduled meetings occurred behind closed doors late into the early morning.  All of this occurred, seemingly in spite of the knowledge that there was only one way forward which I would call reasonable.  One fact was not in contention, as far as I was aware, and that was that the only way to keep the school system solvent in the long term was to consolidate the schools.  Opponents crowed about reports that students from the larger towns had threatened students from smaller towns telling them that they wouldn't be allowed to participate in sports, etcetera, and a great upheaval was gravely predicted by many.  Law suites were filed, monetary threats were made, and there was even a newspaper story written about the kerfuffle which aired the dirty laundry of the county in a public and national forum. 

Eventually the inevitable happened, the smoke settled, and, though the opponents of consolidation were able to temporarily block the building of new buildings, fiscal inevitabilities forced the students to be consolidated into the three larger schools. 

What happened with the beginning of the new school year was most telling of all.  Nothing.  Nothing happened; and the suspicions of the rational observer were validated.  Namely, all the fuss was never about the students, it was about the parents; it was always an artefact of destructive pride and sectionalism. 

Residents from the larger towns, I think, felt vindicated.  But lest they begin to feel too self-righteous the very next year the county began negotiations with the one independent township within the county limits to consolidate its schools as well.  The resulting vitriol between the two similarly sized larger towns, merely three miles distant from one another, out stretches whatever transpired the year before.  The residents of the two towns, too used to competing against one another on the gridiron and baseball diamond, look far down their noses at each other; each is guilty of condescension and each accuses the other of the crime. 

This "those people" mindset is particularly anathema to me because I warrant that if a resident of one town were stood next to one from the other and everything conceivable was revealed about each save the physical address of their residences and the name of the high school on their aging diplomas there would still be no way to tell which was which.  But still, the fact that the address of your house is vastly insignificant and that the fate of the residences in the region are tied inexorably together goes completely without consideration on either side just as it was the year before. 

What's more, seemingly irrational behaviour is not limited to dealings with the school system.  The town of Wise (where I currently live) recently purchased several old buildings with frontage to the main street through town which they demolished and built in their place a nicely apportioned open-air amphitheatre and space for a much anticipated farmer's market where local produce growers could finally sell their produce to a willing populous right in town.  As it turns out, there will be no farmers market and the area will remain largely unused.  Why?  Before the center was built, the farmers had voiced their concern that there would be no way for them to back up their trucks and sell out of the back of them.  Instead, the produce would have to be moved into the prepared area.  The town planners ignored this and built their preferred plan anyway.  The farmers then asked if they could use the parking lot behind the prepared center to set up their market.  They were told no.  So, the current plan is to set up about a half mile down the road in the parking lot of the town hall and thus, the centrally located, newly and specifically built "farmer's market" will lie fallow.  It sure looks nice.

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