How Do We Talk Transitions Without Downtowns?

When people gather in conferences or workshops to talk about economic transition there are two schools of thought that I hear and it wasn’t until recently that I realized how contradicting they are.

1.      Gentrification is bad.

2.      Downtowns need to be maintained and celebrated as forces behind economic transition.

Gentrification tends to happen in larger urban areas, when struggling cities see a shift in their city planning.  Suddenly the folks who have lived in this city and called it home for years can no longer afford the living expenses of their own community because it has been taken over by a new group of people who are upper middle class.  Gentrification is dangerous because it wears the mask of “healthy transition” but the truth is that it doesn’t lift people up around it, it only expands the gap of wealth within the community but in a way that makes it harder to see.

As someone who grew up in a region that had little to no downtowns it took a while for me to grasp the concept of gentrification.  Movies, television, teachers and society as a whole have taught me as a child of rural Appalachia that urban is better.  There was never any explanation beyond that.  Cities meant vibrancy and opportunity, so hearing and seeing that sometimes people in cities don’t have any other opportunities beyond us.

So then the answer becomes how do we create more opportunity for folks?  Small downtown USA is often the answer.  There’s nostalgia from folks who either lived in these small towns when they were at their prime and there’s hope from young organizers who want to have spaces to gather with other folks and take away some of the isolating feeling that sometimes rural life gives us.  However, the history of downtowns is way more complicated than that.  In the south downtowns have a history of segregation and in central Appalachia downtowns did not appear organically, they were usually owned and operated by extraction companies.  Mill towns and coal camps became common in states like Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina. 

Downtowns were part of the company.  You could work for the company and because of cost of living your entire check and then some was expected to go back to the town.  And while that was already difficult on families, it was even more difficult when the companies left and the heart of their communities were no longer there.  Now it is common to drive through Appalachia to see these towns and see empty deteriorating buildings with name plaques on them honoring outside landowners who never lived in the community.  I never had a downtown.  We called Neon a downtown, but we only spent anytime there one weekend a year for our town festival when vendors filled the streets and music played on a small stage. 

There are no restaurants, no stores except a couple of church thrift stores and in my town there is only one intersection with a caution light.  It’s frustrating then, when folks talk about downtowns being key to transition.  I can remember as a kid when I lay down to sleep I would spend my last minutes awake city planning, only I didn’t know that’s what it was called.  I would imagine cafes, shops, gyms, and courtyards with picnic tables.  I blame the Appalachian angel that is Dolly Parton for making us all believe we can come back to our towns and turn them into an oasis of miniature golf and restaurants. 

Urban is opportunity.  Downtowns are vital.  These are the ideas that were embedded in our young minds, but now I’m looking at my home community with the idea of transition.  And while I still love to daydream that one day I’ll sit in downtown neon with a group of friends in a restaurant while sharing a bottle of wine, I know that that will probably not happen.  I still think my community has chances to prosper and find a way to have it’s own healthy economy, but I don’t think we will ever find that answer by focusing on our downtown. 

If we want to talk about economic transition for rural economies than we need to let go of this idea of towns and start focusing on what these communities already have. We also have to get creative; it’s time to start using the knowledge we have and start talking more innovatively about transition for rural communities.  I’m not sure what the answer is, but I’m ready to have conversations that talk about my community and not my town.

- Willa Johnson