Appalachia: The Great White Ghetto? Why I am Staying.

 

I grew up poor.  In a poor community.

At twenty-seven I still am still considered poor.  In a poor community.

Of course, I should preface this by saying that this isn’t a cry for help, or for a handout, or for any other such thing.  There seems to be at this time in America a sort of expectation that poor people should keep quiet about poverty; that all poverty is the result, at least in America, of character flaws inherent in the poor person themselves; of habits and addiction; of ineptitude and stupidity.  I want to continue by saying that I do not plan to stay poor for long, but I doubt that anyone who has ever lived in poverty ever does.  I am luckier than most, however, and there are people I know personally whose situations are far more dire than my own.  At least as of this past weekend, I am now a college graduate with a bachelor’s degree in business administration and some very clear, if rather unorthodox, career aspirations.  I also have managed to surround myself with a group of amazing friends and family who support and help each other in every way imaginable.  And, due to the kindness of a relative, I don’t have to pay rent right now.  The house I live in is a small block house that relies on a wood burner for heat and is certainly nothing fancy, but it’s free, and I am free from that financial burden that has led to economic anxiety for so many.  So there’s that, and that is a huge relief.

I grew up in the Appalachian Mountains of southwest Virginia, in a tiny town called Pennington Gap.  When I was a child, Pennington Gap was small, but it was not on the verge of collapse as it seems to be today.  We had several locally owned small businesses:  a couple of grocery stores, a coffee shop, two or three restaurants downtown plus several fast-food chains on the outskirts.  My great-grandfather, who I was blessed with the opportunity of being able to know and to learn from for the first fourteen years of my life, was a local merchant and respected businessman who owned a hardware store that was located right beside the home where he and my great-grandmother raised three daughters, and then went on to help raise two additional generations under that same roof, including the generation of which I am the eldest male cousin.  My father worked as a maintenance man at the local hospital when I was an infant; eventually he would start a furnace repair business that failed, (“I just did too good of a job of fixin’ em; I never got repeat customers” is the defense my father gives for the collapse of his business to this day) and would later go onto work for the Virginia department of corrections.  My mother was an LPN and served under Kelly Taylor, a local physician who owned the local rural health clinic as well as several other businesses.

It’s hard for me to recall exactly when I noticed things going downhill, both in my life and in my town.  Was it after my parents divorced?  Was it after Dr. Taylor died of cancer?  Was it after my mother suffered a debilitating back injury on the job and had to file for disability?  Was it after my father left his job as a correction officer, unable to deal with the ever increasing stress?  Was it after my own first three failed attempts at pursuing a college education, the failure caused mainly by own lack of ambition and drive at that point in my life but certainly not helped by the lack of real academic guidance provided me by my high school education as a poor kid in southwest Virginia, a lack of guidance that is all too common in the regional educational system?

Was it after the town’s old Main Street became an empty alley rather than the bustling community space it once was?  Was it after the only car dealership in town closed down, followed by the only hospital in a nearly thirty mile radius?  Was it after the occasional kid getting busted for pot became a drug roundup list of at least a dozen names every week in the local paper, their addictions becoming ever increasingly devastating drugs, like the crystal meth cooked in some junky’s basement?  We had a meth lab blow up, by the way,  in Pennington Gap about two years ago.  It was located in an apartment building that was located directly across from the police station.  And, of course, other meth labs have blown up since in town.  I can’t remember if that all happened before the chief of police was arrested for breaking and entering the local Rite Aid to steal prescription medications from behind the pharmacist’s counter.

I guess you could say that both myself and my hometown have endured some hard knocks over the course of our lives.  In my own case, I simply say, “Who hasn’t?”  Life is hard, and unfair, and often unkind.  In the words of my favorite author, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., “So it goes.”  I am thankful for both the hardships I’ve endured at times in my life as well as the victories, and this past weekend, ten years after graduating high school, I finally earned my bachelor’s degree.  My first three attempts, full of bad grades and the symbols of a lazy and misspent youth, pulled my GPA down enough to keep me from receiving honors.  But my GPA over the course of the past six semesters has consistently been in the 3.6 to 4.0 range.  I’m proud of that.  And so were my parents and my fiancé, which is what made me truly happy.

In the case of my hometown, though, it’s a little different.  I’m attached to that place and still defend it on a regular basis.  I’m part of a Facebook group called Resurrect Lee County who are dedicated to improving Pennington Gap and the surrounding county of Lee.  I’ve met with town leaders to discuss the town’s future.  Though I’m currently living in Norton, a small city about forty-five minutes from Pennington from where I have been commuting to the University of Virginia’s College at Wise for the past two years, I still try to make it down to Pennington as often as possible.  And even when I see groups of men and women my age, most un-or-underemployed, some clearly using or dealing illicit substances on the streets during daily business hours (not that there are many businesses left on the streets of Pennington Gap), some trying to harvest whatever scrap metal they can to take and sell up at the scrap yard or find some other means of alternative economic conveyance, the whole scene looking vaguely of a ghost town in a Spaghetti western crossed with a Kid Rock video and one of the nuclear war torn villages that might litter a post-apocolyptic video game like the Fallout franchise, I still hold within the core of my being a sense of intermingled urgency and hope for my hometown.

Image
(The Great Stone Face, just outside of Pennington Gap, Virginia)

 

And it isn’t just a local phenomenon.  The entire regional economy is in shambles.  I could sit here and blame the decline of the coal industry, but Appalachia’s history of poverty extends far beyond the time when Obama supposedly declared a war on coal and extends also beyond the time when LBJ declared a War on Poverty with the Appalachian region the poster child for American poverty.  And while that history is no doubt itself a fascinating one, it is perhaps best suited to another time and most definitely another blogger who is better versed in that history than I am.

There is a noticeable defeatism in the Appalachian spirit, as well as a tendency of those outside the region to look at is as an impossibly lost cause.  I wonder if we would be so willing to write-off Appalachia as a “great white ghetto” if we considered it more akin to a depressed city like Detroit or to a foreign third-world country?  While it is true that there is a sense of apathy among some people, and while we face our struggles with various chemical addictions as well as an often under-educated and change resistant population, our violent crime rate is considerably lower than the national average.  We do also have a small but dedicated professional class in our mostly rural mountain communities.  We also have some remaining miners and blue collar workers.  These are not lazy, drug addled free-loaders, but many of them are still “working poor.”  These are people dedicated to their families, their communities, and their places of worship.

But in Appalachia, as in far too many parts of this nation that prides itself on being a land of opportunity, far too many people are falling between the cracks even as the income levels of those at the top of the mountain climb to ever exponentially higher levels.  A house divided against itself cannot stand, but a house with its kitchen in the Marianas Trench and its pantry on Mount Everest can’t either.  We can look at the rural wastelands that dot many parts of southwest Virginia, northeast Tennessee, West Virginia, and Eastern Kentucky as a portrait of what other parts of the nation may soon be facing if income inequality in this country isn’t reduced.  These places that are already economically vulnerable are often the first to be hit growing economic inequality, and the results are never pretty.

(Video for my song “Die Laughing” which juxtaposes images of Lee County, Virginia from its “glory days” with images of Lee County today.)

As for my hometown of Pennington Gap and myself, I do have hope for both of us.  The town recently opened its newly renovated theater, and concerts and shows are regularly scheduled there, drawing a small amount of tourism to the community. (My fiancé and I will be getting married there in three weeks). The car dealership is in the process of being reopened under new management.  The hospital remains closed but there are rumors of possible buyers.  And the town’s local elections resulted in some new blood taking leadership of Pennington Gap’s political processes.  For my part, I just finally graduated and celebrated the weekend with my parents, my fiancé, and some close friends.  I just applied for a job with a regional non-profit in eastern Kentucky that I have desired to work with for some time.  And I am in the process of writing a proposal for something that I hope will come to fruition and help to further the economic and cultural recovery of my hometown, which I hope to present to one of the newly elected town council people in the next couple of weeks.

People tell me all the time that I would be best off leaving this place, this whole general region, but roots are roots, and many times in this modern world, we have a tendency to lose touch with those roots.  In doing so, we lose a part of who we are, a part of our identity, part of the uniqueness of our human experience.  We lose touch with something that is fundamentally real and important.  We lose touch with ourselves.

I am determined to spend my life fighting for this region in whatever way I can.  Because it’s worth fighting for.   I know it will not be easy, but if there is one thing I have learned in my twenty-seven years, the most worthwhile things usually aren’t.  I have been lucky enough to encounter other people, both young and old, rich and poor, highly educated and under educated, who feel as strongly about fighting for this region as I do, and I can only pray I will be lucky enough to continue to encounter others like them.

Image
(Newspaper article on Display at the Lee Theater in Pennington Gap, Virginia)

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22 Comments

  1. Pennington Gap holds a special place in my heart for this is where my family comes from.

  2. I feel the same way about my hometown, Hazard Kentucky. Though I do not live there anymore, I am hoping and try to help it improve it’s situation whenever possible.

  3. Although many people will (unfortunately) see this is going backward, I think that one of the important pathways for Lee County and others in the Appalachian region is to nurture local agriculture and local food networks. Lee County has a lot of quality agricultural land that is not being cultivated…as energy prices increase the costs of food in commercial grocery stores that is shipped long distances will increase (and the quality will decrease even more than it already is)…an infrastructure of local farmers markets and restaurants that use local produce will become more and more an essential feature everywhere and in the long run a place like Lee county will have an advantage over more urban places that cannot grow their own food.

  4. My family is from Pound, Va . And it is slowly drying up as well and it’s sad I enjoy visiting my family and wish there was more to bring these towns back to their peak.

  5. I absolutely love this! I live in Marion, Smyth County. I was raised here then moved to NC, then NYC, then Roanoke and back here. I love these mountains and really wouldn’t live anywhere else. Yet the town officials here are not looking towards the future. They have nothing but a skating ring for all of these teens and kids. Then the county wonders why the teens keep getting into trouble? GIVE THEM MORE THAN ONE PLACE TO GO THAT IS ALCOHOL AND DRUG FREE. The bowling alley has even closed. I just dont understand why county and town officials cant get together and provide places that will stimulate these young peoples minds. There are so many EMPTY buildings, that have sat there for years and will sit there till the county condemns them. I love your look on the “white ghetto” and thats what all these SWVA towns are gonna be soon because noone wants to look towards the future. Our towns are the only thing left of these mountains. I pray that our children will make things better for their’s.

  6. Both of my wife’s parents were born and raised in Jonesville. Ironically, you might recognize the Paternal name of her father’s side of the family as Hines, even when my last name is Hines. No, they are Irish and my Hines’ are Welch; we are eons apart. Her father’s

    I’m from Eastern North Carolina and Nikki (32) was born and raised here too, just a mile down the road from where I was raised. Her family came here with her father in the Air Force (trying to get out of Lee County, like everybody of his generation). He continued his career (23 years) in the USAF and moved on and her mother stayed here in NC and they divorced. That was good for me, as I got a wife, but of course, divorce is never a good thing for those who it impacts directly.

    Yesterday, we celebrated 14 years of marriage.

    In 14 years, a lot has changed for us personally. Nikki’s paternal grandmother died in October of 2012 and six months later her maternal grandfather passed away, as well. Nikki was an only child of an only child. That leaves “Hines’ Hill” at the edge of Jonesville (just passed the Walmart) to Nikki.

    We have visited at least once a year for the past 14 years, but sometimes twice per year. Nikki has got her nursing degree and is proceeding to finish her B.S.N. this coming December, just two more classes. She can work anywhere on the planet and I can too, to a certain extent, in the insurance business. We have threatened moving to Lee County a dozen times in 14 years. She wanted to move closer to her roots and I always thought of myself as a “mountain man,” versus a “beach boy” like most of the people around here are, since we live 45 minutes from the beach. I was more than happy to move to the mountains of Lee County. But, we never could really justify it and when the hospital was shut down, that flatly ended the the idea.

    Right now, Nikki’s father is clearing the wood off of Hines Hill and is preparing to build a log cabin. That is going to be our retirement. We will live in Lee County, one way or another.

    I’m 40 years old, I’m also finishing my bachelor degree (B.A.) in American History late. I have two years left while I work at the same time. It would seem that I will proceed immediately in a M.S. from George Washington University in Foreign Policy or continue at East Carolina with a M.A. in American History. That’s the “plan,” at least. I could easily see us living up there in Lee county in just a few years while Nikki and I work “remote” in teaching and consulting.

    We love Lee County. We love Jonesville. We have watched the decline. I have to admit, when we would visit, I would wake up in the morning and go get the paper just to see who was arrested and how “high up” they were. When the Chief at Pennington Gap was arrested, I found that remarkably telling to the challenges of the people of Lee County and to the region as a whole. The children are growing up watching this unfold before their eyes. Everybody they are being told to appreciate and honor are being arrested or accused of something.

    The coal industry was in decline before Barack Obama, but Mr. Obama has surely promised to the further slamming the last nail in the coffin. The sad part of that is there’s nothing to replace either the void of energy nor the void of jobs.

    There’s a family in our church here in Goldsboro who the wife is from Wise County. They sit beside of us at church. Last night, just making conversation, I asked if she ever wanted to move back. She said, “Sure, but what would we do to make a living? Where would our son finish school (H.S.)? And where would we go to church?”

    She makes three great points. They have two girls in undergraduate college, but the boy is 16. Her husband is deep into a career at UPS (I imagine they would be coming from Middlesboro?). Church is a subjective discussion, but we are conservative Baptist and there are plenty of churches in the area, but non like the genre of churches where we attend.

    There is just nowhere for a fast moving, medium to high middle class family to fit in around Lee County. That’s the problem. It’s a problem that is almost, possibly insurmountable. Nikki and I would not consider moving there *before* our children were to get into college, at least. We may have the log cabin and we would visit very regularly, but moving there is just not in the cards.

    Anyway, I’ve almost written an article or a guest blog post with this “comment.” Thanks for the space. We are rooting for Lee County, but the Powell Valley does have it’s challenges.

  7. I think you will go far. Lots of wisdom for a 27 year old.

  8. I made that sign of my 5x grandparents and their family right before 421 market.

  9. Wonderfully written! I hope you don’t mind that I shared it on my Facebook page.

  10. My daddy was born in St Charles, my great grandpa was killed in the coal mine in 1929 I still have family in Pennington Gap. It is truly an historical area and should be recognized for it’s great history.

  11. Well done and well written. I have long thought like the comment above that Lee County is missing snagging a bunch of tourist dollars, hard to beat the beautiful country side, by not catering more towards that niche. Also handicrafts, some of the best quilters in the country live in Lee County, and agricultural (organic) based industries would boom and enable the area to get on its feet. Coal is on its way out, as a resource it is not sustainable and ruins the eco system where ever they mine or worse “strip mine”. We need to protect the beauty of the county not squander it for a few dollars, but establish industries that will keep going for generations. I wish you the best in your endeavors and thank you for giving others hope and pride in being from Lee County.

  12. Pennington Gap was named for my Gr-Gr Grandfather. My Grandparents settled Ben Hur and I still call it my home even though we moved away in 1943. I have read about changes through the years and there seems little familiar about the Pennington Gap where I graduated high school 71 years ago.

  13. What a great writer you are! Loved this. I left Lee County after I finished college in 1988 to move to NYC. I never felt that there was anything there for me ,and there was more going on then. It’s sad when I come home to visit to see all of the downtown stores that are either closed or have become law offices. But I am optimistic and I see the promise and hope of Lee County. Tourism could be a real industry. People love the Daniel Boone history and we have the Wilderness Road State Park and the Cumberland Gap National Forest to start with. Every time I come home I try to patronize local stores and businesses. There just needs to be more of them. One thing about Lee County is that the people are reluctant to change. Change is necessary. And you must be willing to welcome people from the outside with different ways of looking at things. The Mexican restaurant is a good start. Also, the number of kids that go on to higher education is depressing. Lee County children are no less smart than any others in the world, but the school system sends such a low percentage of students on to college. How many kids has Lee County sent to Ivy League schools in the past 30 years? Barely any, and I am sure each year there are some kids that could most likely get full rides at the most prestigious universities in the world. I know my high school counselor never said a word about college to me. Luckily my family helped with that. I wish the schools would start pushing for and expecting great things from these kids. They are the future to Lee County.

    • Lee County has many geographic barriers that create economic barriers. I too left Lee Co. for more economic prosperity. But Lee Countians have great potential and sometimes just need a little encouragement to succeed. You are right Martha, the school system must help lead the way.

  14. Very well done! I have memories of shopping in Pennington Gap with my mother and grandmother. So much fun to go to Park-Belk and choose fabric for a new dress. I also went to the dentist for the first time at age 17 to get an abscessed tooth pulled. (Another part of living in Appalachia – not really good medical care at the time!). Keep up the good work!

  15. HI– As a city boy from- Illinois and now a Californian retiree I really want to leave and N C- Virginia – appeal to me and you guys have really enhanced that desire. Thank you. I would like some thoughts on The Asheville N C area from people that are familiar with the Blue Ridges and Appalachian area. Good or bad will be appreciated. Any comments on where you would go would bw appreciated.

    Thank you
    Rick Taylor
    fredrick.taylor@comcast.net

    • Hi, Rick. Sorry to be so long in getting back to you. I have neglected this blog for quite some time now, but I hope to start being more active once again.

      Like anywhere else, Appalachia is a very diverse place in terms of culture. The Asheville, North Carolina area is very different from the southwest Virginia/eastern Kentucky area, which is where I currently live and work.

      Culturally, Asheville is a very cool place. I love visiting there. Lots of restaurants, things to do, and all of the amenities of a small American city while still being nestled in the beautiful mountains. It also has sort of a hippie vibe to it, which is in contrast to the more “conservative” areas you’ll find in the more rural parts of Appalachia. I’m not saying that as if it is a bad thing. I love Asheville’s “hippie vibe” and would love to a little more of that throughout the rest of Appalachia.

      Thanks for your comment.

      -Rance

      • Thanks Rance. Sorry for my delay too.

        I am about 90% sure I will be relocating to Asheville. I like the comments about Asheville being a bit “Hippie” as I was at Woodstock and still have the 60’s in me and always will. I am going there in late April/May to look for housing in Asheville & the smaller towns in the near vicinity. I live in California now, for the last 20 years and like it but a change is direly needed. Fortunately I worked at one company for 25+ years and took an early buy out ( something that no longer exists) and that gives me a lot of flexibility. I like CA but sure is expensive. My license plates reads CABRKME “California Broke Me ” me. I am not, but I do get the high sign all the time.

        Thanks again
        Rick Taylor

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