I was deeply impressed when I read J. D. Vance's memoir Hillbilly Elegy a few months back. It's been pitched heavily during the election and its aftermath as a window into Red State America, but it's honestly far more interesting as a memoir than as a piece of sociology or political writing. Vance takes you inside a culture which was alien to me, but he does it with an eye that is honest and sympathetic at the same time. We see both how his combative grandparents and drug-addicted mother cared about him and hurt him. And at the same time we see how even with the significant family issues he came from, the fact that his mother and grandparents pushed him to do well in school and to stay clean gave him advantages that many others in his town didn't have. I strongly recommend the book.
There's an interesting short piece in the NY Times yesterday in which Vance, who for the last couple years has been working in Silicon Valley, talks about his decision to move back to Ohio. Not to the rust belt Ohio of his youth, but to Columbus.
In recent months, I’ve frequently found myself in places hit hard by manufacturing job losses, speaking to people affected in various ways. Sometimes, the conversation turns to the conflict people feel between the love of their home and the desire to leave in search of better work.
It’s a conflict I know well: I left my home state, Ohio, for the Marine Corps when I was 19. And while I’ve returned home for months or even years at a time, job opportunities often pull me away.
As one of my college professors recently told me about higher education, “The sociological role we play is to suck talent out of small towns and redistribute it to big cities.” There have always been regional and class inequalities in our society, but the data tells us that we’re living through a unique period of segregation.
I’ve long worried whether I’ve become a part of this problem. For two years, I’d lived in Silicon Valley, surrounded by other highly educated transplants with seemingly perfect lives. It’s jarring to live in a world where every person feels his life will only get better when you came from a world where many rightfully believe that things have become worse. And I’ve suspected that this optimism blinds many in Silicon Valley to the real struggles in other parts of the country. So I decided to move home, to Ohio.
It wasn’t an easy choice. I scaled back my commitments to a job I love because of the relocation. My wife and I worry about the quality of local public schools, and whether she (a San Diego native) could stand the unpredictable weather.
But there were practical reasons to move: I’m founding an organization to combat Ohio’s opioid epidemic. We chose Columbus because I travel a lot, and I need to be centrally located in the state and close to an airport. And the truth is that not every motivation is rational: Part of me loves Ohio simply because it’s home.
I recently asked a friend, Ami Vitori Kimener, how she thought about her own return home. A Georgetown graduate, Ami left a successful career in Washington to start new businesses in Middletown, Ohio. Middletown is in some ways a classic Midwestern city: Once thriving, it was hit hard by the decline of the region’s manufacturing base in recent decades. But the town is showing early signs of revitalization, thanks in part to the efforts of those like Ami.
Talking with Ami, I realized that we often frame civic responsibility in terms of government taxes and transfer payments, so that our society’s least fortunate families are able to provide basic necessities. But this focus can miss something important: that what many communities need most is not just financial support, but talent and energy and committed citizens to build viable businesses and other civic institutions.
This was of mild interest to me because I live in the Columbus area myself. and perhaps a bit more so because I'm a California native who has settled here in Ohio. Every so often this gives me cause to think about place and culture and what it means to us. There are things about the Los Angeles area that will always feel like home to me: the mountains always on the horizon, the dry heat of summer, the snaking freeways.
However, after leaving because housing prices were rising much faster than our income -- and I didn't mind leaving the state's politics behind even then -- I've found myself increasingly alienated from the culture and politics of my home state. This is true in general terms that feature often in national news, but also in ones that don't get as much play. For instance, I put a lot of value in belonging to a fairly solid Catholic diocese with faithful young priests coming out of a seminaries and churches built 100+ years ago that actually look like churches. It would be very hard to decide to move back into Los Angeles Archdiocese or San Francisco Archdiocese.
I don't function as any kind of a mouthpiece for what the blue state world is like. I hardly feel that I even know anymore. The streets of my native city are familiar, but the culture isn't anymore. I suppose moving "back home" would thus be a different thing than for Vance. Indeed, for this native Californian, Ohio may now be more "home" than the Golden State ever could be again.