Notes From the Urban/Rural Divide: The Familiarity of Daily Routines

Much of my examination of the urban/rural divide has focused on larger social issues, ranging from differences in accents to the challenges of providing public transit in rural areas. The divide goes deeper than that, though, because it also involves fundamental differences in daily lives that can be very difficult for people on both sides of the divide to grasp. Each of us thinks of our daily routine and the things around us as normal and unremarkable, when in fact they can be very strange to others, and our normal can be someone else’s alien and frightening.

I’m always struck by this when traveling, because I am thrust into unfamiliar urban environments, sometimes with a confident guide and sometimes without. Suddenly my entire life is upended because what I do on a daily basis doesn’t fit, and I’m forced to adapt to new things that are normal and taken for granted by the people around me while I find them deeply strange. I joke about playing the rube when I’m on trips, but it’s not entirely a sham; sometimes I really do feel hopelessly disoriented and confused, despite the fact that I’ve lived in urban environments and I spend a lot of time interacting with them.

I was at a friend’s house in Los Angeles a few months ago and spent 10 minutes looking for the compost before I realised there wasn’t one. Some urban areas do offer composting, but not all do, and just because the service is available doesn’t mean people can use it; composting companies may not cover the entire city, may focus on restaurant and other commercial waste, or may not have contracts with given apartment complexes and condo associations. Many urban people don’t have the space to process their own compost, or have no way to use the soil they produce, so food waste goes in the trash. It’s not uncommon for buildings to not even have recycling, for that matter.

Suddenly the story about the family who documented all their waste for a year made much more sense to me; they were surprised when they started vigorously separating waste to remove food waste, recyclables, and usable things, when this is routine for me. When you take your own trash to the dump, you become hyper aware of how much you generate and work hard to limit it, and hence you produce one wastebasket full of actual, serious business garbage every two months.

They don’t have septic tanks in the city. People aren’t used to prolonged power outages. Many people don’t know how to perform basic household repairs and wouldn’t necessarily know what to do about leaky or stopped plumbing, problems with an electrical switch or outlet, and similar issues. You have to pay for parking. Things are gated and locked and secured at all times.

I don’t say this to express shock or disgust about urban areas, I say this because it’s a fact: The city is a different place. That doesn’t mean cities are bad, or good, but it does mean that there are some huge differences in the way we live, and these differences often don’t manifest in pop culture or social impressions of the urban/rural divide. When I watch television set in rural areas, for example, many things about it don’t ring quite right to me, and it’s because these shows are being written by people from urban areas who aren’t used to what is normal, for me. Were I hired to write television set in urban environments, I’m sure it would be equally off to urban viewers.

What we see around us is our default and our norm; this is pretty well documented, whether we are talking about race and how people read characters in books, or class and how people think about their environment. These divides can make it difficult to communicate because a lot of people tend to read them as judgmental when we try to discuss them. The issue here is not a desire to prove that cities are better than rural areas or vice versa, or to make people feel bad for not realising that their normal isn’t everyone’s normal, or to punish people for not having shared experiences, but to simply make people aware of how their norms play into their perceptions.

Many urban dwellers think of taking the bus as normal; the airport is at most a half hour from their houses; there’s lots of interesting food readily available to them; museums and other institutions provide art and activities to engage in; their communities are culturally diverse. This is not necessarily the case in rural areas, which doesn’t make us useless hayseeds, but does mean that we have a very different experience.

Talking with some friends over dinner in Los Angeles, we were discussing the fact that many fire stations in the city are also providing medical aid right now, because of budget cuts. This is causing some controversy and outcry. To me, it’s completely normal; you don’t have the funds and the personnel to provide both ambulances and fire personnel in outlying areas, so you combine them. Fire crews respond to medical aid requests and provide assistance on site. They may transfer people to the hospital or keep them stable until an ambulance or helicopter arrives; some have advanced paramedic training in addition to fire training. Many are volunteers.

This is a system that works for rural areas because of the way they are structured and one that is utterly unremarkable to me; yet, in the city, it is alien and weird and doesn’t belong. I don’t necessarily believe that combining fire and medical aid services in urban areas would be a good policy decision, given that it should be possible to provide both services since there’s necessary demand for them and there should be adequate funding. But, coming to the discussion from my own experiences, I had to have a moment of adjustment; this is not the Elk Fire Department, I had to remind myself. This is the city.