Appalachian Eclipse

ALICE CORNETT

June 10, 1993|By ALICE CORNETT

London, Kentucky -- Is Appalachia losing its histori ''otherness''? Are its boundaries blurring and its people merging into the American mainstream? Crusading Democrats from Eleanor Roosevelt to John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Jay Rockefeller made political hay by their personal commitments to the region, but has anyone heard the word ''Appalachia'' on the lips of candidate or President Bill Clinton?

In terms of poverty, the rest of the country is getting to look more and more like Appalachia, so much so that many legislators no longer view the southern mountains as a special region to be nourished with generous infusions of welfare programs. Both the Reagan and the Bush administrations did their best to eliminate the Appalachian Regional Commission, a handiwork of the Kennedy-Johnson years. The Clinton administration proposes cutting the commission's budget so deeply that it would become a token agency able to do little more than keep the doleful statistics.

And they are doleful. In the current recession some central Appalachian counties have reached new extremes of poverty, so poor they no longer fit into the Appalachian Regional Commission's standard categories for measuring it: They've gone through the basement. Fringe counties in Ohio and Pennsylvania which benefited from having at least some diversification of industry are now feeling what it's like to be a part of serious Appalachia.

In sharp contradiction, on the eastern flanks of the mountains, urbanites from Baltimore and Washington are creating pockets of prosperity in choice vacation or commuting spots in western Maryland and the eastern panhandle of West Virginia, accelerating the influence of the metropolitan seaboard on the rural inhabitants.

The traditional out-migration of mountaineers reversed in the 1970s when the energy crisis stimulated a brief boom in coal mining. The exodus resumed in the 1980s but with a new twist. While Appalachians weren't looking, America's industrial heartland, where they had always found jobs, was shutting down.

New paths were then charted to the Sunbelt, to Texas, Florida or booming Atlanta. Jobs in the South didn't pay much, the migrants discovered, but at least the southerners weren't so ready to call you a hillbilly or a briarhopper.

Thirty years ago, when the plight of Appalachia was making world headlines, the federal programs, commodities, social agencies and volunteers flowed as a river. The Sixties, though, were a time of optimism, of great American cars and a high-riding dollar. Sending aid was relatively painless, and it made fellow Americans feel good. Someone coined the phrase ''Appalachia chic.''

Today, every corner of the country has its own unemployment figures to worry about, and Americans are running scared. With so much on their minds, they don't feel the old sympathy for Appalachia. Neither does a lean, mean Congress. In central Appalachia the economy is still coal-driven, but has slowed to a crawl, and the steady drain of jobs continues as it has for 40 years. Local governments in the mountains are often crippled by ineptitude; by nepotism and its bed-fellow, corruption; and almost always by lack of money. Even when these factors are absent, industrial development in Appalachia -- given the current economy -- is pretty much limited to wishful thinking. Development efforts may snare the occasional garment plant or furniture factory, but the only businesses which come looking for sites are landfills and waste incinerators.

In Cumberland, Maryland, and Grafton, West Virginia, where once coal trains shuttled to and fro day and night, the rail yards are eerily quiet. In Letcher County, Kentucky, weeds grow between the L&N tracks, and at the aptly-named ''end of line,'' the tracks were pulled up last year. Along the Big Sandy, skeletons of mine tipples rust or rot and entire communities have vanished.

This story, of course, is not new. What is new is the subtle shift in the perception of Appalachia by the federal planners and the think-tanks whose studies may influence the planners. One might as well say the non-perception of Appalachia, for recent studies ignore the region as it is defined by the Appalachian Regional Commission -- all of West Virginia and parts of 13 other states along the mountain chain.

The trend now is to think Mason-Dixon line. The South is then divided into the seaboard states, from Virginia to Florida; and the ''Inland South,'' the rural south reaching to the Gulf of Mexico. Thus West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee are grouped with Alabama, Mississip- pi, Arkansas and Louisiana, with whom they share the low dollars in per-capita income. The mountain areas of North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, bastions of southern Appalachian culture, are viewed as belonging with the seaboard states.

Fostered for a century, the recognition of Appalachia as a distinct region -- or, as in the folklore, ''a strange land inhabited by a peculiar people'' -- appears to be fading from the national consciousness.

Alice Cornett is a journalist in eastern Kentucky.

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