I was born in Charlotte. But I grew up in rural Mecklenburg County. There used to be such a place – and, indeed, quite a few such places still exist in our increasingly urbanized state.
My family lived on 40 acres, mostly forest with a freight-rail track running through it. When the train came by, the engineer waved. We waved back, even after we had piled rocks and coins on the track to see what would happen. We planted beans and shucked corn and picked blackberries. We fished the pond on the other side of the cow pasture. For part of my childhood, we had a box on a rural route, not a street address.
I now live in suburban Wake County – sort of. My neighborhood is bordered on all sides by farms and stables. It’s not unheard of for me to look out my window and see folks riding by on their horses. Our German shepherd snarls and barks at the riders, as if to shout “How dare you? Don’t you know you’re in the suburbs?”
North Carolinians have been talking for years about the rural-urban divide, and we ought to be. But we don’t really live in rigidly separated “rural” places and “urban” places. And the largest share of North Carolinians live in places they and others would call suburban.
I spend much of my time doing political analysis, where oversimplification is commonplace. When politicians and reporters say “urban areas vote Democratic” and “rural areas vote Republicans” and “the real battleground is the suburbs,” they are saying things that are true, in a sense, while not saying all that is true about those things.
For example, in 2016 Donald Trump won North Carolina with about 2.4 million votes. Hillary Clinton got about 2.2 million votes. She won almost all counties classified as “urban” while Trump won most counties classified as “rural.” But what does it mean to “win” a county? Based on how exit-poll respondents described their own neighborhoods, as opposed to how others describe their counties, about 620,000 urban North Carolinas voted for Trump. Nearly half a million rural North Carolinians voted for Clinton.
And, by the way, Trump won a somewhat-larger share of the suburban vote than he won of the rural vote. Did you know that? Pesky details – they’re always spoiling things.
The Institute for Emerging Issues, based at North Carolina State University, is all about “spoiling things,” to the extent those things are preconceived notions and faulty definitions that divert or obstruct us from addressing our state’s biggest challenges.
The institute has developed a project called ReConnect NC, anchored by a series of six Emerging Issues Forums on the overall topic of strengthening the ties that bind us all together. The second such event, held Feb. 11 in Raleigh, focused on bridging rural, urban and suburban North Carolina. How are they different? What do they have in common?
Indeed, a major theme of the day was that these labels can both inform and misinform. As my personal story illustrates, but other speakers explained with reams of data, our lived experiences often differ in ways that don’t align well with county lines or other jurisdictional boundaries. For example many North Carolinians commute daily from rural or suburban to urban, from one city to another, from one suburb to another, or some other way. Traffic in freight, information and ideas also tie seemingly disparate people and places together in powerful, and sometimes even improbable, networks.
The institute’s Raleigh forum made the usual news, with legislative leaders talking about emerging needs in rural broadband and school construction while Gov. Roy Cooper pitched an expanded Teaching Fellows program and other educational initiatives. But what was transformational, I think, was the overarching theme of rejecting rigid categories and simple explanations of complex problems.
What comes next? The next forum is Oct. 15 in Charlotte. I’ll be sure to stop at the Hood homestead on my way to put a penny on the railroad track.
John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation. Follow him @JohnHoodNC.