Speaking From the Other Side of the Fence: Notes From The Urban/Rural Divide

One of the many pieces of data uncovered by the Census is the rapidly shrinking and shifting rural population of the United States. Many people are relocating to urban and suburban areas, causing even more of the population to be concentrated there, and the racial makeup of rural areas is starting to skew increasingly Latino and Latina, in no small part because of the heavily reliance on immigrants for farm labour.

The urban/rural divide has been a topic of conversation for a very long time and I’m throwing my hat into the ring because it’s an issue that matters to me and it’s one I think at least some of you, gentle readers, could benefit from exploring more deeply. Or might just be interested in exploring, benefits aside! Hence, the start of this series of intermittent posts talking about this social divide in the US, and discussing the cultural implications. We’re going to be looking at everything from public transit to political beliefs and I think it should be fun, or at least informative.

I strongly suspect, although I don’t have actual hard statistics to back it up, that many of my readers are located in urban or suburban areas and come from that background, though many of you are not from the United States, and this series is focused primarily on urban/rural politics here, because those are the politics I am familiar with. Some may find the lived experience of people in rural areas totally unfamiliar, while others may have spent some time in rural regions and are familiar with some of the issues we face. While agrarian life is often idealised in a lot of ways in this country, whether we’re talking about small town values or other topics, many people in urban and suburban areas are very isolated from rural realities and it creates a lot of fault lines in our society.

These are often played up, usually with the goal of making people feel like they need to pick a side, undermining attempts at solidarity and finding common ground. Divide and conquer tactics are old and well established and it shouldn’t be a surprise to see them used here, and to see people leveraging them for political gain. Certain members of society definitely stand to gain by creating and maintaining an adversarial relationship between rural and urban people.

I live in a rural or semirural, depending on who you talk to, area, and I’ve spent most of my life in rural areas. I come from the ‘other side’ of the urban/rural divide and I find some conversations about the rural US confusing, and, sometimes, actively offensive, because they display such a fundamental lack of understanding. Other conversations leave me cold because they assume a shared urban experience and talk about things I am unfamiliar with, or place things in a context I do not recognise. A lot of snobby elitism surrounds social attitudes about rural areas, even as we are accused of looking askance at citydwellers. I suspect both sides have some learning to do about the other, when it comes down to it.

There are good and bad things about living in isolated regions, just as there are good and bad things about living in the city. And rural experiences are far from universal, which is an important thing to keep in mind over the course of this series. My experiences are based primarily in a very liberal, ‘progressive’ community that is reasonably close (four hours driving) to a major city centre. That makes my own experience as a rural resident of the US very, very different from that of someone living on, say, a working farm in Iowa who may not have access to the same things I do.

As I talk about the urban/rural divide, I’ll also be looking at divisions between rural areas, because those are important. Just as cities demand that they not be viewed as universal and interchangeable, and rightly so, rural communities are also very diverse in terms of what they are like, who lives there, how people think, and how social and political issues are handled. Our lived experiences are not identical even if we happen to come from areas with shared demographic characteristics. One obvious divide can be seen in the very fact that you are reading this: Some rural communities have access to high speed Internet, while others do not. Some lack any kind of Internet access at all, which is a pretty fundamental obstacle to engaging with society, thanks to the increasing reliance on the Internet.

I’m looking forward into delving into topics like the depiction of rural communities in pop culture, how we are handled in the media, and ‘progressive’ attitudes about residents of rural areas. Like many rural people, I tend to resent the fact that places like San Francisco and New York are considered the cultural and political centres of the United States, that it is assumed nothing of interest or importance is happening in other areas, and that we are viewed as objects of mockery and humour, rather than a serious population to be engaged with and possibly even listened to. I also resent the fact that many people consider me a ‘city academic’ or ‘urban intellectual’ because they assume that someone with my level of engagement, education, and facility with language must be a resident of an urban area—’Northern California’ is read as ‘San Francisco Bay Area.’

Hopefully along the way we’ll be challenging beliefs and assumptions about both urban and rural people in the United States, and exploring the commonalities between these communities instead of focusing solely on the ways they differ.