Seeing Appalachian Cities
By Emily Satterwhite
Vol. 21, No. 2, 1999, pp. 20-22
Since at least the turn of the nineteenth century, the people of the Appalachian mountains have been stereotyped as backward, backwoods hillbillies. In popular culture, Appalachia uniformly consists of near-wilderness hills and hollows where folks live without access to any of the accouterments of modern life. The people who live there have been denigrated and scorned for what is seen as their inability or refusal to keep up with “progress.”
Reacting against the assumption that progress is an unequivocal blessing, defenders of an Appalachian way of life have acknowledged the persistence of a more rural, more isolated, and less modern mountain existence. Those defenders-Appalachian Studies scholars/activists, film makers at Appalshop in Whitesburg, Kentucky, and others-simultaneously asserted the dignity of the rural mountain lifestyle. They pointed to Appalachians’ propensity to love and live off of the land as a antidote to a destructive, wasteful, and exploitative relationship to the environment. By accepting the premise that Appalachians are different from other Americans while reversing the value judgment placed upon them, Appalachianists have fashioned what Manuel Castells refers to as a “resistance identity.” The Appalachian resistance identity has been crucial to an Appalachian identity movement which continues to inform and galvanize.
A parallel form of identity politics has been very important in my life. In the women’s movement, identity politics serve to mobilize women against oppression, help them reclaim characteristics often denigrated as “feminine,” and open up new ways for imagining a just society. When I moved back to Bristol, Tennessee, in 1996, I found the potential of Appalachian identity politics to offer an alternative vision to our increasingly industrialized, money-chasing culture irresistible. Yet as I looked around me, I saw thousands of Bristolians, “Appalachians” and newcomers alike, living what was obviously not a quintessentially “Appalachian” lifestyle. At the same time, some city residents expressed their hope that Bristol could become the “Gateway to Appalachia.”
I turned to the Appalachian Studies literature to help me understand the dynamics. How to understand cities in an Appalachian context? Could city residents be considered Appalachian? Many shared a common history with others from the region-family who farmed the land or mined coal or still lived more than an hour from the nearest Blockbusters or (less and less) Walmart. Initially, I was unable to discover any discussion of what it meant to be city and mountain, or to inherit values which were apparently inherently contradictory. Until the past couple of years (in work by Appalachianists like Anne Mitchell Whisnant and Kevan Frazier), in any discussion of “Appalachian-ness,” the cities of the region seemed to disappear.
Yet even in 1965 when the federal government labeled the Appalachia an underdeveloped region deserving of aid, between 47.31 percent of its residents fit the federal definition of “urban.” Although the number of urban residents in Appalachia increased 15 percent from 1960 to 1990, the proportion of Appalachians living in urban versus rural areas in 1990 fell to 47.18 percent after reaching a high of 48.44 percent urban in 1970. However, the federal definition (designating residents of towns of 2,500 or more as “urban”) obscures the fact that in 1990, a greater proportion of Appalachians lived in the region’s largest cities than ever before.
To observe this shift, we might begin by looking at just the “core” region of Appalachia. Appalachian historian John Alexander Williams derived his definition of core Appalachia from the six historically most influential delimitations of the region. Williams’ definition covers 164 counties in eastern Kentucky and Tennessee, northern Georgia, western North Carolina and Virginia, and much of West Virginia. Although the U.S. Bureau of the Census designates residents of towns with a population of 2,500 as urban, it
reserves the label “city” for those “incorporated places” with a population of 25,000 or more. There are numerous such cities in core Appalachia. As of 1994, the U.S. Bureau of the Census considered two core Appalachian cities-Chattanooga, Tennessee (pop. 152,000) and Knoxville, Tennessee (pop. 169,000)- “principal cities,” defined as cities with a population of 100,000 or more. The Census also distinguishes between principal cities and those cities whose population exceeds 200,000; no core Appalachian cities are among the seventy-seven U.S. cities which meet this criterion.
In addition to defining cities, the U.S. Bureau of the Census also designates metropolitan statistical areas and “Large Metropolitan Areas.” At least one county of seven Large Metropolitan Areas (defined as having populations of over 250,000) falls within core Appalachia-Chattanooga; Knoxville; Charleston, West Virginia; Huntington, West Virginia-Ashland Kentucky; Hickory-Morganton, North Carolina; Johnson City-Kingsport-Bristol, Tennessee-Virginia (the Tri-Cities); and Atlanta, Georgia. Of these, only Chattanooga, Knoxville, and the Tri-Cities “Large Metropolitan Areas” fall completely within core Appalachia. Two smaller U.S. Bureau of the Census metropolitan statistical areas, Asheville, North Carolina, and Roanoke, Virginia are also at least partially in core Appalachia. Of the two, only the Asheville statistical area (population 191,774) falls completely within bounds.
In 1990, the 164 counties had a population of 5,567,736. Whereas the U.S. Bureau of the Census definition indicates a steady percentage of Appalachians living an “urban” lifestyle, measuring the percentage of Appalachians living in these metropolitan areas establishes a different picture over time. In 1960, 19 percent of Appalachians lived in a county “anchored” by one or more of the MSA’s central cities (meaning the home county of Knoxville, Chattanooga, Bristol (both Sullivan County, Tennessee and Washington County, Virginia), Johnson City, Asheville, Charleston, and Morganton. However in 1997, 1,379,687 people, or 25 percent, of core Appalachian residents lived in a county for which at least part could be characterized as “city.”
Even more striking than this 6 percent increase is the shift in the percentage of Appalachians living in a metropolitan statistical area. In 1960, 24 percent or one out of every four Appalachians lived in a county which by 1997 had become part of a metropolitan statistical area. In 1997,
2,145,813 people, or 39 percent of all Appalachians, resided within a metropolitan statistical area boundary.
What does this population increase of 15 percent in metropolitan counties indicate? It could be caused by an influx of non-Appalachian middle and upper class Americans moving into rather homogenous American suburbs surrounding cities with increasingly fewer Appalachians or fewer people retaining “Appalachian” characteristics. It could, however, mask a characteristically Appalachian desire to obtain paychecks in more urban or industrial areas while maintaining not a suburban but a more rural lifestyle (with cash-based employment augmented by farming or gardening) outside the city. The 15 percent increase in metropolitan Appalachians might be due to a combination of the two, or could vary according to the city in question, or could mean something entirely different.
The point is, we don’t really know.
Those interested in the production and persistence of “Appalachian-ness” and in the alternative values purportedly embraced by Appalachians have concentrated almost solely on rural Appalachia. Their work is of course vital to a complete understanding of the region; while some portions of the region have a very large metropolitan population (East Tennessee is 66 percent metropolitan), there are also huge tracts of the mountain region (as in a twenty-seven-county-area in southeastern Kentucky) in which no metropolitan statistical area can be found. Finally, however, recognizing the existence of cities within Appalachia may rearrange or even sharpen the tools available for thinking about the region and the political movement centered around it-for at least three reasons.
First, given the shrinking number of people who experience an unadulterated rural Appalachian lifestyle, it may become more and more difficult for people to claim the Appalachian resistance identity. The movement will be on ever-more slippery ground if it attempts to enlist only those who could be considered quintessentially Appalachian. Appalachian scholar-activists themselves have often come from, been educated in, or currently live in the metropolitan areas of the region. Preliminary discussions with some of today’s leading Appalachianists indicates that growing up in cities often meant greater exposure to stereotyping and denigration of mountain values and mountain heritage; this would indicate that rather than those who grew up isolated and to some degree sheltered, residents of large mountain towns or cities had the greatest need for the affirmation offered by the Appalachian identity movement.
Second, Appalachian cities may encourage more scholarship on the uneven geographic development associated with capitalism. Ultimately even the most rural of areas is involved in and affected by the same processes of urbanization as are cities-as evidenced by the rearrangement of demography and geography achieved by capitalists’ introduction of coal mining in Appalachia and by (to give a more contemporary example) the appearance of chain mega-stores in otherwise “rural” areas. Lastly, perhaps we need to ask if the accumulation of capital in Knoxville is any less damaging than the depletion of rural Appalachian resources for the enrichment of wealthy capitalists in New York.
The final suggestion I would like to make here is that grappling with the phenomenon of Appalachian cities, and perhaps the Appalachian-ness of cities or the urbanity of some Appalachians, may help to temper the tendency to romanticize the people of the region.
An ever-increasing number of Appalachian residents are being affected by and/or are participating in urbanization in the region. If it ever made sense to think of a pre-modern rural Appalachia entrenched against wealthy urban outsiders, we are quickly outgrowing the suitability of such a model. Appalachianists could continue to throw away inclusive geographic boundaries of the region and persist in pointing to the shrinking spaces of rurality and poverty as the “real” Appalachia. But to do so would mean missing crucial transformations in the dynamic economy and culture of the region. To do so would negate the threads of continuity between the region’s past and its present, between what options were available to the region’s inhabitants in the past and the options available now. It would seem crucial for us to understand how, in Appalachia, turn-of-the-century capitalism and mid-century industrialization have given way to a late-twentieth-century service economy and a continued concentration of people and wealth. Perhaps developing a new schema for understanding Appalachia-one capable of incorporating Appalachian cities-is the first step.
Emily Satterwhite is a student in American Studies at the Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts at Emory University in Atlanta.
Calculations used here are based on the Appalachian Regional Commission’s 1965 and 1997 annual reports, the U.S. Bureau of the Census’ “Standard Metropolitan Statistical Areas: 1965,” and metropolitan statistical areas as defined in the U.S. Bureau of the Census’ 1984 County and City Data Book. Other sources include: Manuel Castells, The Information Age-Economy, Society, and Culture Volume II: The Power of Identity, Blackwell Press, 1997; Graham D. Rowles and John F. Watkins, “Demographic Change in Appalachia: Patterns and Trend,” report funded by the Appalachian Regional Commission, January 1995; and, John Alexander Williams, “Counting Yesterday’s People: Using Aggregate Data to Address the Problem of Appalachia’s Boundaries,” Journal of Appalachian Studies, Spring 1996, pp. 3-27.