When it comes to pissing off rural America, I think I'm one up on Barack Obama.
Presidential candidate Barack Obama has been under fire for suggesting that rural Americans are bitter. I've got Obama beat. I pissed off an entire rural county and caused some of the bitterness Obama just talks about. In fact, the local paper there reported that some folks would like to give me a Deliverance-style welcome next time I'm in town.
Let's back up for a minute. Last fall, I did a story for Crosscut on Garfield County, one of Washington state's poorest and least populous. It is the only county in the state, in fact, that is losing population. Driving though Garfield's county seat, Pomeroy, I wondered why the place seemed so distressed compared with other towns in southeast Washington. The Walla Walla miracle seems to extend to places like Waitsburg and Dayton, but it runs out of gas on the highway to Pomeroy. My intention wasn't to pick on Pomeroy, which is a charming if somewhat scruffy old-school farm town with a lovely county courthouse. I wanted to understand what the potential was for the rural economy. Could Garfield County, home to controversial Snake River dams, be rejuvenated by saving salmon or growing gourmet crops? It's a topic I explored in stories on Walla Walla and salmon.
The very questions I was asking put Pomeroy and Garfield County at a disadvantage. My premise was that the place looked like a glass half-empty, not half-full. But in my research, I discovered that others, too, were asking these questions. The piece I did was hardly investigative journalism — contrary to the claim of a woman I interviewed in Pomeroy, I did not proclaim that I was doing an "expose" on the place. I don't know any journalist who actually uses that word, and if I had been doing an expose, I wouldn't have announced it. The facts and figures I reported came from public sources, including an economic development report I was handed while I passed through town.
So from my perspective, I was doing basic journalism — albeit drive-by journalism. I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised that people shot back. But I was startled by the anger and "betrayal" some felt. Alesia Ruchert, managing director of the Palouse Economic Development Council in Pomeroy, wrote to the local paper, the East Washingtonian, to clarify her role in "the Knute Berger scandal." She was taking heat because I had interviewed and quoted her in the story. She described her reaction to my piece as "heartache" and accused me of taking her comments out of context. She apologized to the whole community for cooperating with me and seemed to rue the day I showed up unannounced on her doorstep.
In my view, I did nothing wrong. I felt bad that she was taking any blame for my story. She did her job professionally, providing a journalist with facts, insight, and additional resources. She also struck me as someone who cared deeply about her community. I was also surprised that she and many of her neighbors read my piece as an attack on their way of life. Ruchert wrote me, "You made us sound like a bunch of uneducated hicks living in a barren wasteland." In return, she painted me as The Creature of the Blogosphere who came from the big city to attack the ways of rural folk:
... I will not again be a source for a piece that serves no purpose but to criticize, belittle, and place judgment upon our community based on the mores of a sub-culture that is all but foreign to the hard-working, family-oriented, responsible, well-adjusted real people of Garfield County.
I thought her critique was interesting for its own mistaken assumptions, that a blogger from Seattle has by definition questionable mores, isn't hard-working, family oriented, well adjusted, or responsible. OK, I'll admit to some moral failings and maladjustment — I'm a columnist — but her indictment strikes me as the flipside of Obama's "elitism," which is rural self-righteousness. News flash: City people aren't saints and neither are the hardy crofters of the Palouse. Her aggrieved tone and moral outrage, however, leads me to believe that she might have a future as a blogger.
I heard from many people in Garfield County after the story appeared. Also former residents and fans of Pomeroy who live elsewhere, people who've grown up, left, and are sad they can't go home again. I also heard from a few who couldn't blow town fast enough. But most who wrote did so to defend their turf and their people.
Collin Morrow, who grew up there and now lives in Bellingham, wrote:
The most genuine, honest, unpretentious people I know, are from Pomeroy. Pomeroy is a sacred place to me, and not just because this is where I grew up. All we hear about up and down the I-5 corridor are traffic problems, high housing prices and various other unintended consequences as a result of this growth. A place where houses are affordable, crime is nonexistent, and traffic congestion is limited to the occasional farm implement should be praised, not denigrated.
He also questioned why I included some statistics about Garfield County's lack of racial diversity. According to census numbers, it's the only county in the state that has no African Americans:
I'm not really sure what you're trying to prove by stating the lack of diversity. While this is true, and I do believe greater cultural diversity is beneficial, there is nothing intentional from the community that has influenced this statistic. The fact that you mentioned it at all reeks of implied racism, and is frankly despicable.
I did not mean to imply that Garfield County was racist. I was highlighting things that set the county apart — if it had the largest percentage of blacks in the state, I would have mentioned that. Even so, he felt I was trying to throw a white sheet over their heads.
Shannon Barr, an Idaho college student who spent most of her formative years in Pomeroy, wrote to let me know there is no place like home:
We are down home, country music loving, decent Americans just trying to make a living in a community that we don’t have to worry about locking the doors or letting our children out to play. We may not have the highest salaries or education rates in the state of Washington but cost of living is much lower in Garfield County and you can make a perfectly decent living on $35,000 a year. Pomeroy is not dying. The young generations and individuals like myself will not let go of our community. We thank you for your concern but believe me when I say we will continue to battle your negative points of view and defend our small town, because we love it — and that is all that matters.
It was letters like this where I began to get a sense of where I'd gone wrong, because as a Seattle native and Northwest mossback, I am the one usually defending my homeland against the perceived depredations of the ignorant outsiders. Now, in the eyes of some people of Pomeroy, I was the evil outsider trying to foist immoral and unwanted urban values upon them. In the article, I specifically defended their right not to become some kind of yuppie ag-tourism town if they so chose, but the premise of the piece was: Why aren't they blooming? In my question, they heard harsh judgment. The truth is, I would love to return to the days when Seattle was livable on $35K. It was strange to find myself in a role reversal as a mossback being chastised by, what, wheatbacks?
Another college student from the area, Becky Marie, stepped up to set me straight about rural advantages:
Members of a farming community are more than happy to help a stranger. If there is a tragedy in your family, the community pulls together and helps you out. If a loved one passes away, you will have 50 casseroles waiting on your front door step. Would you find that kind of love and affection from so many people in Seattle? You mentioned that Garfield County is dried up and offers zero appeal to tourists. My mom works at the Pomeroy Grange Supply and she has had many compliments about the landscape and the beauty of Pomeroy from tourists. Pomeroy has the ability to be a great town. People in large cities forget about these small towns and leave them in the dust.
This response was interesting to me for several reasons. One, I now know how to judge my own funeral a success: anything less than 50 casseroles and my life will have been a failure. More importantly, she points out the human dimension my narrowly focussed piece left out: It's the people, stupid. My story was a business and tourism story, not a people story, and that was a flaw.
Becky Marie says that "Pomeroy has the ability to be a great town." What defines a great town is up for debate. I heard from some unexpected sources, such as Kent Kammerer, organizer of the Seattle Neighborhood Coalition (and sometime Crosscut contributor). Kent has spent a fair amount of time in Pomeroy (he has friends there). Kent wasn't so sure people in Garfield County want change, despite what it might say in the economic development brochures:
I have talked with some of the folks there ... and I suspect that there may be more to the city than first appears. I suspect they don't want to grow. The ranchers don't want the roads littered with tourists because it interferes with the movement of their grain trucks, combines and fertilizer operations. You may have also discovered that the city is exchanging some of it's younger residents for retirees. I met two folks who moved there from Seattle. Homes are dirt cheap and many very modern inside and well built. The local hospital is fair to good and a mere 45 min. away is Clarkston and Lewiston. ... I suspect Pomeroy is not a woe-is-me dying city but [has] an unspoken sort of subversive desire to keep it ... a quiet town.
Agreeing with that view was Pomeroy native (born and raised) Charleen Taylor, who now lives in Seattle. She actually thanked me for the story and wrote:
On a number of occasions I've spoken with folks on what we can do to revive Pomeroy. It all boils down to having a community that is open to and wants change. So many folks living there are people who have now returned to live out their retirement and are just fine sitting in their big house on the hill and enjoying the slow pace. A number of people, myself included, have considered moving back, but to what?
Another commenter on the story, AJ, weighed in about the struggle with change:
I also lived in Pomeroy. A lot of people are trying to do great things there. The problem is that there will never be enough resources to do anything with the town, because the old farts won't support any change. They want things to stay just the way that they've always know them. The problem is that change is inevitable, but if we don't embrace it, only negative change will prevail! People who think that Pomeroy is the world's most wholesome place need to get their heads out of their colons and look outside.
At this point, I began to feel like I'd stumbled into a family feud. The the argument wasn't so much with me, but within the community itself. Pomeroy's fate is in its own hands, not mine surely. But I'd come along and punched a sore spot.
Some correspondents invited me back to talk with more people and get to know the place better. I'm no country boy, but over the years I have tried to help bring urban and rural together. Back in the 1980s, as executive editor of Washington magazine, I helped to organize a farm-city swap with the Washington Wheatgrowers Association, a program that put scores of city families onto farms during harvest so people would get to know where their bread comes from and what it takes to run a modern wheat ranch. True, I looked ridiculous riding in a combine, but the program was a great way to raise the Cascade Curtain a few inches. It opened my eyes, which is one of the reasons Pomeroy intrigued me in the first place.
But I admit to second thoughts about revisiting Garfield County after reading the East Washingtonian. Early this year, there was a bit in publisher Mike Tom's column about the controversy over my story. He wrote:
I was involved in a conversation with an irate resident who thought that the writer had basically portrayed Pomeroy and its people as similar to the setting and inhabitants depicted in the movie Deliverance. As such, this resident thought it fitting the writer be invited back to play "Old McDonald Had a Farm" and given the opportunity to, ummm, make animal impressions. You know, "with an oink-oink here, and and oink-oink there ..."
Just let me clarify here, for those who haven't seen the movie, that what Tom is referring to is a scene in which hillbillies sodomize a city-slicker, who had been on a canoe trip, while making him squeal like a pig. OK, to continue:
While I thought this might be entertaining but not necessarily appropriate, I offered my suggestion that a canoe trip down the Pataha could be arranged, with the visitor plucked out by musicians sporting guitars, banjos, and poor dental hygiene.
Whee doggies, talk about your public relations benefits!
I'm sure some people might find that a tempting invitation, but I think I'll pass.