Summers around Cleveland tend to be slow. Teach for America comes in June and leaves about six weeks later. As the corps members are arriving, professors and students are fleeing town. Most of them only get one time a year to go on vacation, do research, and rest. So not much happens between June and early August.
Thus I decided to take advantage of the time and travel back home myself. Its become something of a tradition to return in the first two weeks of August. For the last two years I’ve gone to a conference which occurs around now. Even though I didn’t go, it was the perfect time for a vacation being near my birthday and all.
Spending time back in the New York area was refreshing. The trip helped me reaffirm my feeling that New York will always be home. Its where I’m from. I know the culture and the people. My family is there. While life in Mississippi is good I am and always will be a New Yorker.
But being home also made me realize just how much wealth there is in New York. I’m from the suburbs (Rockland County specifically). Yet even there one sees an endless line of strip malls, shops, cars, and traffic. Go across the river and one sees more still. Not everyone is well off of course. But most people are. The suburbs I grew up in are filled with block after block of houses with multiple cars in the driveway, fences, and dogs in the yard. People drive the latest models from the common Honda Civic to Beamers, Mercedes, and Volvos. I did not personally see any Ferraris, but they’re around. All the big chain stores have branches in the New York area, usually more than one (there are a few exceptions such as Walmart, Cracker Barrel, and Chick Fil-A which only has one location in the whole state – at NYU). We’ve also got a lot of boutique stores. The city sets trends in both fashion and culture. People dream of moving to the Big Apple. Its residents are the first to get everything from movies (which sometimes debut in New York and LA before anywhere else in the country) to technology and more. Living in New York, one easily forgets about the troubles afflicting the rest of the country, particularly if one is wealthy. It is the heart of American prosperity. New York is Rome.
Mississippi is a completely different world. There are certainly pockets of prosperity. But much of the state struggles with deep poverty, particularly the Delta. When there is wealth it is very concentrated along with the political power in the state. Mississippi lacks nearly everything New York has. Chain stores are less numerous and the ones which dot the land tend to be looked down upon by well to do Northerners: Walmart, McDonald’s, Burger King, etc. The nation has long since written off the whole state as backward, ignorant, and worthless. Of course the picture is more complicated in practice, a fact I try to draw attention to with this blog. Yet the perception is there and its a hard one to shake. It consistently ranks near the bottom of nearly every metric one can use to measure prosperity.
The reasons are many. A lot of it has to do with location. Mississippi is not especially strategic, sitting as it does in the middle of the Deep South. Furthermore much of the economy revolves around agriculture and to a lesser extent logging and tourism. None of those industries produces widespread prosperity. New York, by virtue of a large natural harbor and a mild climate, has been a commercial and financial hub for centuries. Moreover the culture is more progressive. There is a constant influx of new people and ideas as folks from elsewhere in the country – and indeed the world – relocate to the city. The result is an ethnically diverse population a fact which has major political implications. By contrast, Mississippi is rarely a destination for transplants and those who do relocate tend to blend in with the local culture. With few outsiders influencing the state, nothing ever changes. The political system remains controlled by the same people – and the same party – public life remains dominated by religion, and the culture remains rooted in ideals much of the country has long since abandoned.
Clearly New York and Mississippi represent very different Americas. Arguably much of the above applies to the Delta, which is the poorest region of the state. Other places may be different. And New York is far from perfect. It’s had its fair share of racial issues, not just in the recent past, but going back decades. There’s a lot of poverty in the city and the gap between rich and poor is arguably far wider. New York State, after all had 88 billionaires as of 2014, second only to California. Mississippi has none. So the reality is complicated.
But the depths of poverty in New York don’t even come close to what I see in the Mississippi Delta. The difference is especially pronounced in Upstate New York, which is full of quaint small, if isolated, towns as well as cities. Certainly much of Upstate has seen better days, but its not as bad as the Delta. The critical difference, in my opinion, is a state government (largely controlled by the progressive New York metro area) willing to invest in its people.
The Delta was once described as “the most Southern Place on Earth”. That does not mean its most representative of the Deep South. Rather its a land of contrasts and extremes, a lens through which people elsewhere look at themselves. Its certainly not a simple place. Along side the poverty and despair are glimmers of hope. The new Grammy museum is attracting attention and there is a small, but steady stream of tourists who come to learn the history of the blues, a musical genre which came from this region. It may not be Rome, but its story is worth telling.