Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.
The stereotypically rural region has a new online publication embracing its urban side
Hardly any part of the U.S. typifies the concept of rural like Appalachia. Even the most outdated historical stereotypes persist: hillside shacks, impoverished children with no shoes, moonshine. While the region certainly had a rural past, its present is actually much more urban. To explore this side of the region, two Appalachians have just launched a news website, The Hillville, to cover an increasingly urbanized Appalachia.
“A lot of it has to do with media perceptions and what the media covers,” says co-founder Beth Newberry. She says the stereotypes mainly arise from high-profile news coverage of the area’s poverty problems in the 1960s, stemming from a visit by President John F. Kennedy. “That was the first time when we got a lot of those images on TV. And what we saw were hungry people in hollows and coal miners and people walking on the side of the road to get to town. And those images stick.”
Newberry and Hillville co-founder Niki King are quick to say that these images are undeniably a part of Appalachian heritage. But they feel the dominance of these images and stereotypes has skewed the idea of what Appalachia is.
“There’s historically been the perception that Appalachia is only a rural place, a rural region. And it’s really not,” says King. “To the north and to the south, you have some really urbanized areas. And for a lot of us, that’s how we grew up, in cities and towns. So we wanted to give rise to that identity.”
Both King and Newberry have family roots in small villages in Appalachia, but each grew up in larger, more urban parts of the region. And despite moving around and to other cities, each felt an unbreakable connection to Appalachia and eventually returned.
“Even living in a city, I feel like the values and culture that I got in my Appalachian roots are very present here,” says Newberry. “I started finding a community of people with similar experiences, and it validated that we are Appalachians even if we don’t fit the dictionary definition of poor, white southerners from the mountain regions of the South. There are people of color, there are people who live outside of the mountain region, there’s all these variations to the definition and those are the things we want to illuminate.”
The site will be updated twice a week, and its first batch of stories includes an interview with an Appalachian scholar, essays on life in the region and a discussion about what urban Appalachia is. They’re hoping to highlight some of the urban trends underway in Appalachian cities, and to focus on lifestyle and cultural coverage in addition to breaking news. Travel guides are in the works, as is an issue on breweries and wineries in the region. There’s even plans to cover the return of legalized moonshine.
As defined by the Appalachian Regional Commission, the 205,000-square-mile region bleeds into sections of 13 states from New York to Mississippi, with only West Virginia wholly encompassed. Included in that region are cities like Knoxville, Pittsburgh, Birmingham and even Louisville, where Newberry and King are based. They've defined their coverage area to be any city within the region with a population above 30,000.
In addition to the cities located within the region, the site is also going to focus on cities outside the region heavily influenced by migration of Appalachian residents. Cincinnati, for example, has a large Appalachian community. One in four residents is of Appalachian descent.
“It had such a large outmigration of Appalachians for jobs that they carried their culture with them, as happens with a lot of migrants,” says Newberry. “For the past 40 years there’s been an urban Appalachian center, there’s neighborhoods centers, there’s whole neighborhoods that family units basically picked up and moved to and recreated the connections they had in the hills.”
Within the urban communities of Appalachia, there’s still a strong history of the rural past. Newberry and King say that most people in the region are hybrids of these two lifestyles.
“I’m really interested in exposing that connection between the urban and rural,” Newberry says.
“And we all do have that,” King follows. “I would say the majority of us have some experience with rural Appalachia, whether it’s your parents or your grandparents.”
And in that experience lies what King and Newberry hope to be their audience. Less than a week old, the site has already drawn in readers from all over the region, and beyond.
“This definitely is a passion project, but we do see it as a long-term project. This is really what we feel we have to say to the world,” Newberry says. “We feel the world needs a place to have these things said and heard and talked about.”
With that conversation, stereotypical rural Appalachia may begin shifting toward a more accurate and urban identity.
Image credit: Appalachian Regional Commission