Rural Life, Invisible

Rural places can feel like they go on forever, without physical borders. It may take an hour or longer to drive across one rural county. Along the way you'll see scattered houses, farms and the occasional business. You may pass through two or three towns or villages. I have lived in two rural communities, and in both I heard it said that the county “is not united.” There is something about the vast geographic terrain that the community covers, and the yawning distances between destinations, that tends to work against a sense of a cohesive whole.

This has resonance for people who work in community development in rural places. When many people's identity with a place is not with the larger county, but with a small section of it, how do you rally people around a central cause? But there is another disconnect: 

How do people understand the concerns and aspirations of other people, who aren’t of the same economic or social class, when they can’t even see each other?

This is the trouble in rural areas, I think. You can drive from one end of the county to the other and your eyes may see only the historical, grand 19th century estates that are home to the better-off. Meanwhile, you may completely miss the rough-looking cabins where the poor reside. The working and middle class people in between, who inhabit the ranchers and split-levels, only muddy the waters. Their houses, more numerous and closer to the road than those of the poor or wealthy, create an impression of shared prosperity.

In the city, there is economic segregation by neighborhood. But there’s also a general understanding that a high poverty rate and related social problems are bad for everyone.  Maybe it’s an event like a spate of robberies in a gentrified neighborhood that create this awareness, or maybe it’s something less obvious. The organizations that fight poverty in rural areas have the challenge of making themselves visible when the people who live in the resort district or the gated community never come into contact with people different from them.

What to do? Surely a rural locality can build pride in itself much as a big city can. The public schools, library, and community center (if there is one) can do much to develop a shared identity in a place. But really the true physical centers in a rural place are the old crossroads, the little villages that had a one-room schoolhouse, a general store, and a church and a few houses nearby. With the schoolhouse and store gone, there go two out of three of the institutions that drew the community together. Rural counties have tried to replace that lost system of scattered centers with a new one in which students ride the school bus over an hour in the morning and another hour in the afternoon. There are advantages to the new system, but I’m not sure the gains outweigh what was lost.

(Photo by Ben Adamson, CC BY-NC-SA.)

David Holtzman is a planner for Louisa County, Virginia, a freelance writer, and a former Shelterforce editor.


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