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GUEST POST: Does Rural Urbanism = “White”?

Today I am sharing my space with Katie McCaskey of Urban Escapee. She and I are examining different shades of the words “rural urbanism”. Below she examines the racial element and on her blog I explore the place-related element. Enjoy!

Our rural urbanism captured my attention when I moved from New York City to Staunton, Virginia (pop. 22,000) and started an independent business.

Paradoxically, it was “rural” Staunton’s urbanism which attracted me back to it. The “Main Street” downtown is intentionally dedicated to independent businesses, and, the walkable infrastructure, free city trolley, and Amtrak access are all appealing lifestyle amenities. In fact, the infrastructure itself influenced the decision to start a neighborhood grocery; there had been such a thing at the turn of the last century and coming from New York my husband and I were spoiled by the walkable convenience of neighborhood shops. That resulted in George Bowers Grocery, which expanded last year to include a cafe/beer garden.

I’m very excited about what these pockets of “rural urbanism” can offer for our futures. In fact, I got so excited I wrote the “Micropolitan Manifesto” about the opportunities and possibilities present, especially when you factor in building your own business. But, one thing worries me:

Is it just for white people?

Of course, I don’t think so, But, I’m white, and, admittedly it didn’t cross my mind until a black friend from New York pointed out that the title of my blog and upcoming book (“Urban Escapee”) sounded like, well, “white flight”. The unspoken assumption: “By ‘urban’, don’t you mean ‘black’? And, aren’t small towns, especially small towns in the South, filled mostly with white people?” Who would build a business there?

Uh, no.

I was talking about “escaping” the constraints of big city living and, later, escaping from the notions of what is/isn’t possible in our country’s smallest urban pockets. Yet, it continued. Another reader ranted about the use of the word “pilgrim” in a quote used to describe adventurous entrepreneurship in our micropolitans.

So what’s the real problem?

I see two big issues that contribute to social misconceptions about our smallest urban centers, aka, micropolitans:

1) Diversity. Diversity has always been a part of “small town America”, but, its an identity only recently openly and honestly explored… one example is the identity series of Appalachia at TheHillville.com. Mass media culture has meant mass storytelling about our diverse geography and a bland retelling of who lives where. Only now is a wider range of experience and perspective being shared and discussed.

Moreover, at the same time our country as a whole is becoming more diversified—and this is a trend is present in micropolitans, too. See the book: “Small, Gritty, Green: The Promise of America’s Smaller Industrial Cities in a Low-Carbon World” by Catherine Tumber, concerning immigrant patterns moving to smaller cities, not larger ones.

2) Opportunity. There is legitimate concern about the future of work in our smallest urban centers. Will limited jobs just go to the wealthiest and most educated? Will the telecommuting elite push out the work opportunities for those without these advantages? Or will it create jobs unattainable for current residents?

Real issue: rural gentrification?

Perhaps the fear that urbanism in its smallest (micropolitan) form is really a fear about displacement; a fear about loss. I’m in no position to speak about the loss many minority populations experienced during the “urban renewal” policies of the sixties. Yet, I’ve witnessed white populations fearfully anticipate shifts that might displace them…shifts that have to do with the changing nature of work as much as cities themselves. For example, there is much anxiety that the “come here’s” will boot out the “been here’s” when it comes to downtowns. That fear isn’t cut along racial lines as much as between socio-economic classes.

As we move into the “urban century” as Neal Peirce calls it, we need to remember two things about our micropolitans: they are increasingly diverse and their social and physical landscapes will inevitably change as does the geography of work on simultaneously global and local levels.

Katie McCaskey writes about indie entrepreneurship in micropolitan cities. Her book, “Urban Escapee: How to Ditch the Commute, Build a Business, and Revitalize Main Street” will be out later this year. Be notified about the book and micropolitan topics by subscribing here, and join the discussion on Facebook.

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  • Well, things might be reversing in certain cities: with the gentrification of downtown cores in Vancouver and Calgary, it may cause people who want to find cheaper housing out in the suburbs.  So the condos, townhouses, infill housing in downtown core tends to be abit more expensive/smaller space.

    I lived in Toronto which has larger Afro-Canadian population than either Vancouver or Calgary where there are areas downtown, midtown and out in the burbs.  But it’s very hard to generalize now compared to 20 years ago, the situation for Toronto. 

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