In this series, guest columnists respond to one of three topics selected by ELGL co-founder Kent Wyatt. Emily Edmonds, Program Manager, NC Growing Together, CEFS, NC State University, writes about the difference between local government in eastern and western North Carolina.
I’m a Western North Carolina native, but as a rural girl, I’ve been driving all over this (ginormous!) state for the past five years, chasing work and meeting cool people and facing unforeseen fears like what’s the etiquette for meeting strangers in towns smaller than mine? and oh my poor brain! this farm is two THOUSAND acres when ours was only 30 acres when I was growing up. It’s awesome.
While I’ve been developing one of my life’s most complicated and serious relationships with Interstate 40, I’ve learned a lot more than I ever expected about this great state I call home. North Carolina is home to 85 rural counties and 15 metro and suburban counties – 100 in total – and the tribal lands of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Those counties are spread across three distinct geographies – the mountains, the piedmont, and the coast – and span over 12 hours driving from state line to state line.
(Fun fact: I-40 spans 420 miles of this very looong state, beginning in the Great Smoky Mountains and ending just outside Wilmington, NC. The Mountains to Sea Trail aims to do the same thing for people and bikes that I-40 does for cars.)
When I was a kid on epic ten-hour road trips from the mountains to the coast for the annual summer vacation, Eastern North Carolina was just “that flat part you drive through to get to the beach.” But my recent travels showed me that eastern NC has more in common with the hollers of my mountains than I ever thought possible. The communities in both regions are small, tight-knit, and bound together by history and faith and the great traditions of shared food.
In both western and eastern North Carolina, though, the resilience of these communities is being challenged by the loss of jobs, land, opportunity, and access to resources that urban residents often take for granted. On both sides of the state, there’s little access to high-speed internet, potholes in the roads, limited cell coverage, and empty shells of buildings where manufacturing, textiles, cotton gins, and logging companies once stood. There are also endless examples of how the highway system that carries so much of our nation’s commerce and profit isolates the towns who weren’t fortunate enough to be in the path of the road-building projects.
I’ve also learned that rural people everywhere in this state – regardless of their history, the story of how they got here, their demographics or their reputations – are unfailingly kind and welcoming. Walking onto farms or into coffeeshops in Eastern North Carolina, I’m always comforted to feel right at home in that good southern rural hospitality. Once they realize I’m from a place a lot like theirs, it’s like being in my own Mamaw’s kitchen in the mountains – people in small communities understand one another on a basic level of commonality, whether you realize it at first or not. It takes longer to make friends in rural places, but in both eastern and western North Carolina, they last a lot longer, too.
Most of all, I’ve learned that communities in both the eastern and western regions of the state (and the rural counties in the middle that are often lumped in with the relatively yuuuuge metro areas of Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham) face many of the same incredible challenges…with the same work ethic, integrity, and dedication. They are struggling with seeing generations of their children grow up, leave for college, and never return. They are practically begging the telecom companies to bring their development-driving high-speed internet to their regions, with limited success. They’re trying to figure out how to build affordable housing, provide emergency food, address limited water and wastewater infrastructure, get doctors and beds in their hospitals, and provide services like trash pickup and road maintenance on budgets that shrink each year.
Most of these communities – and the younger citizens who live there – are also trying to overcome decades of racial inequity in their public service systems and find a way to keep the rural values they hold dear while changing with the times and moving beyond the strict cultural and religious doctrines of their childhoods (check out The Bitter Southerner for some great pieces on this subject). On top of all this, in both eastern and western North Carolina, counties and towns are constantly being forced to react to natural disasters that dwarf all other problems, with unforeseen emergency management crises from wildfires to hurricanes and limited state and federal resources to help them recover.
Yet in many cases the resiliency of rural communities is beginning to win out. Small cities and towns are chasing economic development in new ways – not by attracting smokestacks but by building small, localized economies based on the strengths of their specific place (see Kinston and Bryson City for a couple of great examples on both sides of the state). Rural communities are turning back to agriculture and new creative agritourism to drive development, with wedding venues, farm tours, and bestselling TV cooking shows. And they’re beginning to meet urban leaders who recognize that rural-urban relationships are critical to the future of this state – and working together to build government structures that are more equitable and just for everyone.
It takes all 100 counties, after all, to make North Carolina the great state I’m proud to call home – and I’m excited to see where our resilient, hardworking citizens and leaders take us in the next decade.
PS: If you are in North Carolina and want to share your town’s story and connect with other rural places, check out www.ruraloptimism.com.