A Forest of Signs and Wonders

13 thoughts on “A Forest of Signs and Wonders”

  1. As a member of tiny group of humans who identify both as Kentuckians and urbanists, I’m going to push back on this one.

    For starters, Richwood, Kentucky is hardly your standard Kentucky community. It’s an exurb of Cincinnati, literally 18 miles south of downtown and just a few miles south of Florence (a major Cincinnati suburb) ands the Ohio/Northern Kentucky International Airport. Boone County (the home of Richwood) is not “emptying out;” rather, it has experienced at least 20% population growth for the past 50 years, with the population jumping from 13,015 to 126,413 between 1950 and 2014, thanks mainly to Cincinattians fleeing the city. Richwood literally did not exist until quite recently. My point here is that the people here are among the least likely in the state to qualify as the “good and righteous people of Kentucky,” in so much as such ‘good ol’ country bumpkin’ stereotypes really exist. If you drove a half mile off the Interstate, you would find extremely affluent exburban neighborhoods filled with 9 to 5 Ohioans.

    As for your characterization of this community as poor/economically unsustainable: Boone County is in fact the second wealthiest county in Kentucky (by per capita income,) even wealthier than creative class hub Fayette County (my awesome hometown) and horse baron utopia Woodford County. The situation is positively the opposite of “painfully tragic;” this is a region of enormous opportunity for average Kentuckians. Ironically, the area you’ve chosen to profile–Boone County’s industrial corridor–is precisely the reason why Kentuckians (though perhaps not Ohioans?) are flocking into the region: industrial uses with significant externalities and huge land demands need inexpensive land, removal from other uses, and the labor Northern Kentucky can supply (given the proximity of so many declining nearby towns, which, I can tell you, are likely much more bucolic/aesthetically pleasing than Richwood.)

    My point here is not to say that this place is pretty–aesthetically, it isn’t–but that is has its place. All urban environments have their ugly places. New York City has areas like Newtown Creek and Jersey City. They’re spread in pockets all across Los Angeles. They’re not Jacobsian urban paradises, and they’re not supposed to be. Trying to make them otherwise misses the point, and just opens up some other area to become the new industrial zone, likely meaning a longer commute and more congestion for the millions of people who work in these places.

    You know this, I know this. So why write a reply? Because it’s simply dishonest to roll into Northern Kentucky and throw a pity party for the state and its people (or at least its recent transplants) because we have a few unattractive Interstate exits. Kentucky has its ugly areas, as do all states and cities. These spaces are important for reasons detailed above, but they’re only a small part of a larger urban ecosystem. Kentucky is positively full of beautiful small towns and cities. Lexington is tops of many lists for emerging tech hubs, and has an amazing downtown. Louisville is having a bona fide downtown renaissance. Covington and Newport, not too far from Richwood, offer both awesome urban living and economic opportunities for everyday people (the latter applies less and less urbanist darlings like San Francisco and New York.) Then, of course, you have the dozens of small towns (Bardstown, Augusta, Berea, Danville, etc.) that regularly appear on click-bait “Best Small Towns in America” listicles. Shining a spotlight on our unattractive, if necessary, industrial areas and parroting the Kentucky decline narrative is mildly insulting, and worse, unproductive to the cause of creating stronger communities.

  2. Hey Johnny, it was great having you at our church last week! I enjoyed your visit, our conversation, and really appreciate this provocative article. You have raised some interesting thoughts and challenges as we have definitely felt the obstacle of establishing a sense of community while not physically residing in a “community.” The church family is strong and connected and is a safe haven hopefully for all, but there is definitely a sense of something missing, as you have alluded to. I too long for the return of the “public square” or the “main street” where people naturally gather and real connection is felt. I believe God grieves as well as He all too often observes our isolated and sometimes stagnant lives circling around conveniences and trite offerings. He wants more…and we do too. Thanks again for the visit and for the article!
    Darin – Union campus pastor at First Church of Christ (non-denominational Christian church)

  3. Long time reader, first time poster, and only because I live in KY.

    There’s no need to patronize Kentuckians. We’re “good and righteous”, “passionate”, blergh.. That seems to be the norm when writing about rural KY. First extolling the virtues of us simple folk, and then follow it by a “but”. In this case, we have no taste and are too stupid to realize what’s good for us. Just launch into the part after the but already!

    Don’t worry, I’m kidding. More seriously though, a few disjointed comments:

    I agree with you, these towns are not towns at all. I also agree with you, most people here do not contemplate this. If at all, it is more of an argument for aesthetics, which is pretty much irrelevant for most here. They may see the negative aspects (e.g. driving 30m to work), but the solution for most is not more urbanity, it’s cheaper gas, more roads, … Also, what a lot of people like about these places – the dead quiet, the space our redneck hobbies require … – is completely antithetical to the urban experience. People rationalize their choices and circumstances after the fact. The resurgence of advocacy for urban living is in no small part due to rationalization too. As white collar work increases, more people need to be in the city, and here too negative aspects are easily dismissed: “Well, it may be noisy outside my window, but at least I live eco-friendly”, or, “I may be surrounded by asphalt and concrete, but at least I can walk to work.” etc… etc…

    Rural KY is not sprawl perse. There is a centuries long tradition of living dispersed here, long before the car. The current ghastly look is the result of transplanting the suburban typologies into the country (just as the suburban form overtook many downtowns too during urban renewal).

    There is no way urbanites can win this battle against the rape of the KY landscape on the basis of aesthetics, ecology, or wistful contemplation on the loss of bucolic vistas. I fear the war is being waged by hard economics. The emptying out of rural KY is real, and painfully tragic. Agriculture – which never has been a real engine of prosperity in KY – requires less labor year after year, as do the heavy industries here. This is a downward spiral. Unlike some other rural regions, most of KYs small towns are too remote to get swallowed up in the orbit of growing metropolitan regions. An exceptions is perhaps the Bluegrass between Louisville and Lexington, but that area has long been prosperous to begin with. When the people leave, the town disappears as well. What you have now is some cheap connecting tissue keeping it together – a mcdonalds, a jiffy lube. The situation may not be so dire, some towns will reinvent themselves as tourist destinations (as many have already), land a manufacturing facility, whatever.

    Not all doom&gloom; the flip-side is that the old urban centers in the Ohio valley are healthy and growing. Cincinnati – KYs most important city (haha) for sure, but Louisville too is doing ok.

    1. Good to have a local perspective.

      There’s a reason stereotypes exist… North or South. I don’t recall saying people in Kentucky had bad taste or were too stupid to know what was good for them. These same exact landscapes exist everywhere in the country.

      Honestly, New Jersey once looked exactly like the rural Kentucky landscape – except Jersey has been at the sprawl game longer so much more of the state is now covered in Jiffy Lubes. Check out Secaucus some time if you want to see how the Kentucky trajectory ends.

      Economics will indeed determine the future of urban form. Cheap gas and more roads will work for a little while longer. But that story will play itself out at some point. As I’m fond of saying… failure fixes itself. Places are abandoned as people migrate and adapt. No one will ever mourn the loss of their local drive thru liquor store.

      Personally, I’m not a big city guy. I like Norman Rockwell Main Street towns. Kentucky (like most of the rest of the country) walked away from theirs in favor of plywood and vinyl tract homes in isolated subdivisions and cinder block strip malls on the side of the interstate. I can’t imagine these places lasting more than another couple of generations. They’re disposable by design.

      1. Your comment on disposability is interesting. I live and work in the outer Bay Area, and much of the 1960s through 1980s housing stock is NOT aging very well. It has not been well maintained, on the whole, by a non-affluent population, and the housing was not very attractive or well built to begin with. The typology of every family in its own tract home is appealing to many people and has been sold to everyone who can at all afford it (even at the cost of 45 mile commutes), but when passes along bike paths that go through backyard areas, it is amazing how utterly unused many people’s backyards (the whole point of the single family dream?) are….we are talking dirt and star thistle and collections of junk, in too many cases.

        I recommend George Carlin’s rant on the destruction of the American landscape on YouTube. He is far harsher than you (LOL)

    2. You make some excellent points, as does Johnny, the author of this blog post. I especially appreciate your pronouncement about rationalizations; I also find this to be true of nearly everyone. In the same family you may have different options about the desirability of different neighborhood arrangements, and different families have different tastes. To try to be objective about this whole issue, one needs to reflect that, historically, people moved to streetcar suburbs, and eventually to “Levittown” for a REASON, (I.e, city life lacked many charms for many). — it is no surprise that many places are skipping the Towne Centre entirely these days. Is this MY preference? Not at all. I am also sure that as soon as the folks who moved to Levittown’s kids became teen-agers we had the first group of Levittown’s disconnected (I even have evidence, in the form of one of those 1970’s alternative comic books where the artist details the hell of being young in Levittown was for him. I myself did not fancy my sub-rural location in a 1920s home as a teenager, but it was a GREAT place to be in elementary school, as long as you had at least one friend within walking distance, and the grown men seemed to enjoy being masters of their domain.)

      Truth is, people both tend to make the best decisions they can based not only on their means and preferences, but also their knowledge. This is where you are both right at the same time, as Johnny is no doubt right in thinking that for SOME in this town (could really be anywhere in the USA) it is indeed a matter of “the frog in the well knows nothing of the great ocean) and meanwhile, some of the folks there may have actually lived in fancy big city places like Frankfort (. 😉 nice town actually) or Rome even, and just like things the way they are there. The other thing is we as a species tend to want to remake the world in our own image — we see this with religious zealots vey clearly, but we also see it with folks who live in weird tract homes in the middle of nowhere hating quinoa-chewing urbanites or urbanites hating everyone who doesn’t live downtown. Hating is too strong a word, but you understand.

      Personally, I see a very American thing goin on: MULTPLE trends occurring simultaneously. I have also watched the return of urbanism and the rise of “New Urbanism” (it’s really ALL new urbanism, if you look hard and compare what is happening now to what was historically.) with great interest, but I’ve also watched the rise of a new powerful trend that we in the USA have pioneered that seems to suit many people’s purposes just fine and may have many ADVANTAGES over the traditional city center: the emergence of the multi-nodal “city”.

      This interests me because it is a rather “new” form (not entirely, since cities like Berlin and Paris were sorta like that before they completely swallowed up other surrounding towns, like LA has done more recently). For these people, there is absolutely no reason why they CAN’T live in a 3 BR freestanding house on a tree lined street for a reasonable price and still have a short commute to an appealing “downtown-lite” node with sidewalk cafes and employers—–all while living in a major metro area.

      Now, I have indeed seen this done poorly, like in northern Virginia, but even there, there are both nice areas and areas that are expensively fixing the “mistakes” (which weren’t really mistakes at the time) to give more of the “suburbs” better senses of place and humane feelings. There’s no reason we can’t just plan things this way from the get-go, if the market wants it.

  4. As usual your photos are eye-catching. The signs in the distance are sculptural and you I would assume there are some codes attached to them as they are all about the same height and dimensions.

    Your comments about the church drawing it’s congregants from such distances made me think about the settlers there back in the 1800s. I think a lot of them used their horse and buggies on Sundays to get to the meeting place. Worshipping was possibly a whole days affair then, but I would guess that they did spend more time with each other after church socializing in their community.

    Kentucky was a slave state and I while I never traveled their back roads, I do remember traveling through the back roads of Tennessee in the 60s and seeing all the derelict slave (and perhaps poor whites) cottages along the back road. Even then I eyed them with the idea of making them livable again.

    1. All good points.

      Re: slave states… Technically, Kentucky was on the side of the Union Army during the Civil War. My guess is that Kentucky’s economy was evenly divided between trade and industry vs. agriculture and slavery. The merchants and manufacturers held more sway and were more pragmatic when it came to picking side. But I don’t imagine the entire population was wholehearted about the situation.

      1. Yes, Kentucky was like Missouri in that there was a Lot of nasty, and bloody, in-fighting between often lawless factions that to a greater or lesser extent were aligned (or pretended to be) with either the North or the South.

      2. As with most of Appalachia, racism was widespread but slavery was minimal. The rugged terrain didn’t lend itself to slave labor. West Virginia took this to its ultimate conclusion – forming a new state rather than be aligned with the plantation slaveowners in the eastern part of the state. East Tennessee nearly did the same thing.

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