A couple of Saturdays ago, I was asked to help facilitate a poetry workshop for the congregation at Common Bound Ministries, one of the historic black churches in Hazard. Along with Hazard native Emily Hudson, we led a room full of grandmas, babies, young people, and teenagers in writing poems about what the concept of home means to them, using an exercise developed by Kentucky poet laureate George Ella Lyon. Many of these people had grown up in Hazard, some had left and came back, some moved up from across the mountains and found themselves in this little city.
The process of writing and sharing these poems as a group made me think of what it means to define ‘place’ as a collective, along with who is invited to evolving conversations of what a place becomes when industry, development, and time change the landscapes we call home. In Appalachia, the loss of a thriving coal industry and efforts towards “just” economic transition have provoked questions about what regional identity means without this infamous industry. However, the homogenization of Appalachian cultural and geographic identity by mainstream media has already historically erased the complexity of the stories and identities of people living in the mountains. Until the 1960s, many academic journals formally defined the world “Appalachian” as ‘a white person living in the rural mountainous region of the eastern United States’. Frank X. Walker, founder of the “Affrilachian Poets” sought to challenge this racist, narrow definition by giving a platform to black poets with roots in Appalachia.
Why is it so important that a plurality of voices be involved in the communal defining of any place, and particularly of Appalachia? This collective storytelling matters because it is so easy for those who are awarded structural and political power to determine the economic and infrastructural future of given localities in times of transition. When “home” gets taken away by processes of deindustrialization, corporatization, environmental destruction, and neoliberal capital flight, too often it is only the owning class or political elite that are invited to “imagine” the future of cities and rural places. Often, this translates to city officials and financiers supporting economic development efforts that have the effect of dislocating low-income residents.
We need to start having a conversation in Appalachia about the difference between gentrification and community controlled economic development. Contrary to popular opinion, rural gentrification DOES happen in this country, and does happen in Appalachia, with Asheville, NC and the surrounding towns/cities as the most prominent example of this phenomenon. Gentrification is dangerous because it is a false solution to unemployment and post-industrial recession. The displacement, rising housing costs, and increased policing that so often accompany the creation of elite “creative economies” do not represent a “just” transition from extractive industry. They simply replace extraction economies with exclusive, expensive, tourist enclaves. Without community control over both industrial and downtown/main st development, the story of a place becomes one that is told only by economic and political elites, not by the diverse communities who are deeply rooted in the area.
When I talked to the poets at Common Bound Ministries about what they imagined the future of Hazard would look like, they emphasized a vision that reflected a desire for both growth and continuity, for the physical and economic spaces they call home to become more vibrant but to remain stable. Everyone wants more jobs and prosperity, but no one wants to be rendered expendable as a result of development.