I’m a city boy: Born in New York, raised in New Orleans, a resident of Atlanta for the last half of my life. The smallest place I ever lived for longer than a summer was Ann Arbor, Michigan, a sizable college town. I love cities: I love their vitality, their diversity, their amazing infrastructure. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever lived in a municipality smaller than 100,000 people. (I’m not counting suburbs; living in Mamaroneck, N.Y., is still very much living in New York City’s orbit.)
So I have almost no common ground with the residents of Connersville, Indiana.
Connersville is a town of about 13,500 in east-central Indiana. It’s perhaps 70 miles but a world away from Indianapolis, the state capital and center of a metro area of more than 1.7 million. Eight hundred fifty thousand live in the city itself. If I were living in Indiana, I’d definitely live in Indianapolis. (And I’d probably drive to Chicago regularly.)
I’m not alone. The United States has become very much an urban-rural country, with a chasm of an urban-rural divide. As noted in a recent Atlantic article, “America’s Great Divergence,” Hillary Clinton won 88 of the 100 most populous counties in the U.S.
That, of course, was not enough to win the presidency. Donald Trump overwhelmingly won rural America; 72 percent of Fayette County, where Connersville is the county seat, voted for him.
“America’s Great Divergence” is my Sunday read.
This divide is nothing new, of course. It’s been highlighted in the memoir “Hillbilly Elegy.” It’s been a stock subject of comedy — the clash between the country boy and the big city — for generations. (It’s even the subject of another, more recent, Atlantic article because, dammit, those of us who are paid to try to understand things are damn well going to try to understand this.) Here in Atlanta we often talk about “the two Georgias” — Atlanta and everyplace else in the state.
But it seems as if it’s getting worse. Perhaps my memory is faulty, but when I got here in the early ’80s there was a state pride in metro Atlanta as the engine of the state, the “international city” with the giant airport and the major league sports teams (even if I also recall rural visitors with fearful, less-than-enlightened attitudes coming to the hotel where I worked). Now it seems like some rural legislators run for office just so they can dismiss this sinful place when they visit the Capitol for their 40-day session. They hate mass transit; if it weren’t for the speaker’s children, I wonder if the latest plan to fund it in Atlanta would have gone the way of so many others. Many residents of Connersville probably feel the same way about Indianapolis and other big cities.
Meanwhile, their town has been devastated by a loss of industry. One resident told author Alana Semuels, “What’s happened to Connersville is that the jobs came out and heroin came in.”
Yet many stay. It’s home, for one thing, a place where “everybody knows everybody,” as another resident said. The town is suffering, but the locals don’t ask for much. They own their houses. They hunt, fish and hike.
But what does the future hold? As the article observes, those that could leave often have — for the city. They’ve often gone to college and taken jobs in the service economy.
This has political implications. Many small towns are hollowing out and their people struggle to go beyond high school. But those towns right now hold the political power, which leans right — sometimes hard right — and clashes with the generally laissez-faire attitudes of city life. It’s the culture war, infused with the economic revolution, writ large. Is there a bridge to this divide?
I have no idea. I despise the term “flyover country” — it’s so dismissive of any place that’s not New York, Washington, Los Angeles or San Francisco — but I’ll admit that, when I’m driving up the interstates that improved corporate supply lines but helped to destroy Main Street, I wonder. What do small-town folks do? (Lucinda Williams: “And I wondered about the people who lived in it / And I wondered if they were happy and content …”) And I’ll bet many in the Connersvilles of the country also wonder. How can he live in a city, with all that crime and wanton otherness?