The Urban Archipelago

In the wake of the 2004 election, the editors of The Stranger, an alternative newspaper published in Seattle, wrote a wonderful rant about what they titled “the urban archipelago.” Looking at the red and blue of the election map, they saw that cities were blue dots in even the reddest states, and explained that division by a vast difference in urban versus rural values.

The most recent issue of The Atlantic confirms the nature of America’s divide: it is between cities and “what remains of the countryside.” The article states what is becoming increasingly obvious: “virtually every major city (100,000 plus) in the United States of America has a different outlook from the less populous areas that are closest to it. The difference is no longer where people live, it is how people live.”

This really isn’t news, although it is an important and under appreciated feature of American life. When I was in City Hall back in the 1970s, Indianapolis routinely faced the resentment of rural Hoosiers, a resentment reflected in the legislative priorities of those who represented them. That animus continues–we can’t get genuine home rule, or even legislative permission to decide for ourselves whether we will pay an extra tax in order to provide our residents with decent mass transit.

As Gail Collins noted in a column a few months ago, people living in urban areas understand the need for government–paved roads and public safety and garbage collection and all those other services that are necessary when people live in close quarters. That farmer out at the end of the gravel road, who rarely even gets a visitor and isn’t worth the effort of the burglar, doesn’t see much reason to pay taxes.

It goes deeper than just the need for public services, however. Living with other people shapes a certain worldview. It creates an identifiably urban value structure. As the authors of the Urban Archipeligo wrote in that seminal essay,

Look around you, urbanite, at the multiplicity of cultures, ethnicities, and tribes that are smashed together in every urban center (yes, even Seattle): We’re for that. We’re for pluralism of thought, race, and identity. We’re for a freedom of religion that includes the freedom from religion–not as some crazy aberration, but as an equally valid approach to life. We are for the right to choose one’s own sexual and recreational behavior, to control one’s own body and what one puts inside it. We are for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…..

Unlike the people who flee from cities in search of a life free from disagreement and dark skin, we are for contentiousness, discourse, and the heightened understanding of life that grows from having to accommodate opposing viewpoints. We’re for opposition. And just to be clear: The non-urban argument, the red state position, isn’t oppositional, it’s negational–they are in active denial of the existence of other places, other people, other ideas. It’s reactionary utopianism, and it is a clear and present danger; urbanists should be upfront and unapologetic about our contempt for their politics and their negational values. Republicans have succeeded in making the word “liberal”–which literally means “free from bigotry… favoring proposals for reform, open to new ideas for progress, and tolerant of the ideas and behavior of others; broad-minded”–into an epithet. Urbanists should proclaim their liberalism from the highest rooftop (we have higher rooftops than they do); it’s the only way we survive….

Let’s see, what else are we for? How about education? Cities are beehives of intellectual energy; students and teachers are everywhere you look, studying, teaching, thinking. In Seattle, you can barely throw a rock without hitting a college. It’s time to start celebrating that, because if the reds have their way, advanced degrees will one day be awarded based on the number of Bible verses a person can recite from memory. In the city, people ask you what you’re reading. Outside the city, they ask you why you’re reading. You do the math–and you’ll have to, because non-urbanists can hardly even count their own children at this point. For too long now, we’ve caved to the non-urban wisdom that decries universities as bastions of elitism and snobbery. Guess what: That’s why we should embrace them. Outside of the city, elitism and snobbery are code words for literacy and complexity. And when the oil dries up, we’re not going to be turning to priests for answers–we’ll be calling the scientists. And speaking of science: SCIENCE! That’s another thing we’re for. And reason. And history.

The recent article in The Atlantic confirms this division of values, noting that in November, 37 states voted on 174 ballot measures, and that the rural states that cast (entirely symbolic) votes against Obamacare were the same states that ban same-sex marriage and any use of marijuana.

The problem is that in Indiana–and many other states–we don’t really have “one person one vote.” Rural areas are vastly overrepresented. Taxes paid by city dwellers go disproportionately to rural areas. And the people who populate the General Assembly have lots of incentive to keep things that way. This last election put the values of rural Indiana firmly in charge.

The next four years are going to be very painful for those of us who live in Indiana’s Urban Archipelago.


  1. It’s disappointing to hear someone proclaim they possess “heightened understanding of life that grows from having to accommodate opposing viewpoints” and then to hear them go on to present a black and white “us vs. them” argument.

    Apparently they’re all for pluralism of thought, except for anyone’s thought who lives outside the city.

    I’m that farmer that lives out at the end of the gravel road. I live among the people the Urban Archipelago denigrates. Yes there are extremists. They’re a loud minority. There are lots of moderate conservatives. And there are even a fair number of liberals like me.

    People living in rural areas in red states are people, all different, just like urban dwellers. Urban Archipelago does themselves a real disservice with this sort of divisive writing.

    Oh, and I’m reading “Coyotes” by Ted Conover. Thanks for asking.

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