I’ve thought a lot about what I want to say about the election. Not much, as it happens. I’d prefer to take action to heal and improve our country. Instead, I want to talk about my hometown.
Since the election — and before it too — the media have written a lot about the divides in our country. Of the many divisions we have, the biggest right now seems to be political party. Democrats are clustered on the coasts and in the large cities between; Republicans are spread across rural areas, small towns and suburbs. Writers are scrambling to talk to people living in the rust belt, the swing staters who chose our next president.
I’m from Rockford, Illinois, and though it is in a blue state, it is about as rust belt as you can get. I find that people know Rockford either for its high unemployment, or, more fortunately, as the home of Cheap Trick.
A large portion of the city’s economy is manufacturing based, and the city always suffers more than average during recessions. The unemployment rate reached 17 percent during the last recession.
Growing up there, I didn’t feel that I was missing out on anything. Our neighborhood had modestly sized homes with giant yards that the many kids in the area ran through (No fences!). Though the schools were perpetually in dire financial straits, I had a lot of good, caring teachers. The city didn’t have much in the way of culture, but there were plenty of parks and many families that had been there for generations. People were proud to be part of the city even though it was constantly being put down in the media for its violence and gangs and lack of opportunity.
When I arrived at the University of Illinois for college, many of the girls in my dorm were from the Chicago suburbs. Plenty of others had come from small towns, different states or even other countries. But it was the suburban kids who stuck in my mind. In high school, some of these kids had been able to choose between poetry, American novels, and Shakespeare for their English requirement. I had chosen between English and Honors English. And they could place the dozens of Chicago suburbs on a map, knew which towns were north, south and west. Their schools had competed with each other in football or debate. Some of them didn’t recognize the name of my hometown. Rockford is 80 miles west of Chicago, but it might as well have been in a different country.
When you’re from a place that people put down or ignore, it’s easy to feel both insecure and defensive. On the first day in one of my journalism lectures, the professor asked students to name their favorite newspapers. I said “USA Today” and quickly realized that if an opinion could be wrong, then mine was.
I was surprised when I found internships and won a major writing award and was recommended for a contract university job by a professor. I was not sophisticated, and eventually everyone would figure out that I was just a girl from Rockford. I started dating a guy from a wealthy suburb who had gone to one of those high schools with all of the fancy classes. When I brought him to Rockford, he asked, “Why do people live here?”
I must have forgiven him because he’s my husband now. Maybe not. Here I am still talking about it. I’ll convert him on Rockford someday.
Greg and I live in Austin, which is the opposite of Rockford. Our city has a ton of high-paying tech jobs and is growing explosively and has the terrible traffic to prove it. It’s interesting talking to my parents, who are still living in the same house, who have watched many houses on their street sit empty after foreclosures. In the other houses are same families from my childhood. When I go home, I am visiting my parents and the neighbors.
In Austin, we have bidding wars for houses. Greg and I have lived in our neighborhood 11 years, and every single house has turned over at least once. Without a doubt, my parents and I have different views of how the country is doing.
I have found wonderful friends and co-workers here, people who share my interests and passions. Still, that Rockford insecurity burbles up. As a child, I did not know people with doctorates, nor did I go to the ballet and the theater, like some of my friends. My parents gave me every opportunity in terms of lessons and travel, but I was not living in a highly cultured place.
I told Greg the other night that I am a striver, that I’m constantly reaching to get to places where I don’t quite think I belong. Most of this is due to my curiosity, no longer my need to prove myself. And by most accounts, I do fit into this world, the world where people read James Baldwin for fun and know which type of sushi roll they like.
As the Rockford girl and the Austin woman, I know that it hurts to be stereotyped as the small-town simpleton and also the snobby city dweller. If you think you couldn’t learn to love a perfectly prepared duck egg with shiitake and watermelon rind, I’m telling you that you could. And if you think you couldn’t eagerly eat at a place called Beef-a-Roo, I’m telling you that you could.