Urban Symbolism

There are a number of elements that tend to reinforce America’s increasing urban/rural divide–the sorts of differences that emerge among people who live in areas that are more or less densely populated. But we shouldn’t overlook the influence of symbolism–longtime images of dubious accuracy that have cemented our mental images of the country’s cities and countrysides.

Probably the strongest image that comes to mind when we hear the word “countryside” is bucolic–something between “Green Acres” and “Little House on the Prairie.” Mention “small town America” and we think “Mayberry.” Urban imagery is very different and much darker–as Paul Krugman pointed out in a column back in July, we tend to call up the various hellholes portrayed on television and in works of fiction.

But why do so many Americans still believe that our major cities are hellholes of crime and depravity? Why do so many politicians still believe that they can run on the supposed contrast between urban evil and small-town virtue when many social indicators look worse in the heartland than in the big coastal metropolitan areas?

To be sure, there was a national surge in homicides — although not in overall crime — during the pandemic, for reasons that remain unclear. But New York is still safer than it was a decade ago, vastly safer than it was 30 years ago, and, for what it’s worth, considerably safer than, say, Columbus, Ohio.

These stereotypes persist, despite the fact that, if anything, the roles have been reversed. While cities continue to have the challenges that occur when large numbers of people live together, emerging data locates more serious problems in the much-storied “heartland,” where–as Krugman noted– large numbers of men in their prime working years don’t have jobs and where “deaths of despair” have been steadily increasing.

If the waning accuracy of our urban/rural mythology was simply a product of imagery lagging reality, that would be one thing. But as Krugman and others have pointed out, the Republican insistence on the accuracy of that imagery is having destructive, even deadly effects on policy.

Some reporting suggests that one of the reasons the Trump administration downplayed the Covid-19 pandemic in its early stages was the belief that it was solely a large-city, blue-state problem; there were definitely many assertions that the risk was severe only in places with dense populations. And there were many pronouncements — some of them with an unmistakable tone of glee — to the effect that the pandemic would kill big cities and the states that contain them.

Of course, the harm done goes well beyond Trump’s fatally-flawed pandemic response. Support for the GOP is disproportionately rural, and the party responds to that reality by insisting to its rapidly radicalizing base that the inhabitants of rural America (overwhelmingly White and Christian) are the “real” Americans–and that their tax dollars are being siphoned off to support urban neer-do-wells.

Besides helping to cripple our pandemic response, the myth of rural virtue and urban vice means that many Republican voters seem unaware that they are among the major beneficiaries of the “big government” their party says it wants to eliminate. That is, they still imagine that the government spends money on urban welfare recipients, not on people like them.

For example, do red-state voters know that federal spending in their states — much of it taking the form of benefits from Social Security and Medicare — greatly exceeds the taxes they pay to Washington? In Kentucky, the most extreme example, the annual inflow of federal money per capita is $14,000 greater than the outflow.

Meanwhile, those of us who live in those urban hellholes of Republican imagination enjoy the benefits that only density can provide–not just the inviting coffee shops, restaurants and bars, multiple entertainment and education options, bike paths, parks and museums that are the stuff of tourism advertisements, but the salutary lessons to be learned through interaction with people who are, to varying degrees, unlike ourselves.

There are plenty of downsides to both urban and rural life, and good policy should address them. We need to figure out how to provide healthcare and stimulate economic development in rural areas. We need to improve police training and provide more affordable housing in our cities. Etcetera. But–as with so many of the truly serious challenges we face–we can’t solve problems we adamantly refuse to see.

Substituting mental images for complicated realities obscures our vision of both urban and rural America.


  1. You are so right about stereotypes. When I tell some of my friends and family that our daughters and their husbands and families live in San Francisco, they say, “Oh my, I’m sorry.” I ask why they say that and their response is always similar. They describe streets laden with used needles and human feces and sin and debauchery. They have no idea whatsoever of the beauty, diversity, architecture, food, arts, and climate of the city and the Bay area. Yes, the streets of San Fran are imperfect at times, and the homeless are visible, but it is a wonderful city.

  2. So, why do those same Republicans carve up urban landscapes so they can control what happens in those cities?

    I believe their mental imagery is shaped by Biblical imagery where they are the chosen ones being guided by God to save those in the cities from their sinful ways.

    Methinks their real motive is control.

  3. This morning there was a letter to the editor in the local rag asking why we can’t just have dental coverage and other goodies that are in the reconciliation bill. That’s a good question, but I doubt he’d want to hear that the Republicans in Congress and the Senate don’t want him to have them or that he might be part of the problem if he just fills in the Republican dots on his ballot, as way too many of my neighbors do.

  4. The rural landscape has vastly changed even in my Boomer lifetime. Many of the small rural towns I traveled through as a boy, have shrunk dramatically and with it the jobs, especially those locally owned businesses.

    The big city offers many social and cultural outlets: Restaurants, museums, movies, live theater, sports teams, parks, etc.

    My in laws were farmers near a rural small town. With the exception of the local schools the church was the social-cultural magnet. The bible thumper’s were expected not only to go church on Sunday but also during the week. Who you were in this community was defined by where you went to church.

    The GOP IMHO has really offered nothing to rural America, except to appeal to increasingly reactionary social and cultural ideology.

  5. Rural America has been devastated by the opioid epidemic which in part was created by doctors who overprescribed opiates and the pharmaceutical companies whose profits were increased by it. This all started when JACHO mandated that pain be a vital sign. The president of JACHO in 2000 was a director of a chronic pain center who prescribed opiates for benign chronic pain. There is no doubt in my mind that rural communities also have drug dealers in their rural counties. When I lived in small towns we rarely heard a police or fire siren. We rarely heard an ambulance siren. We had our own county hospital in Rushville.

    Rural towns used to have enough doctors, small hospitals, thriving small businesses and plenty of jobs. This has changed due to the free market system. Walmart, CVS, and Walgreen’s have closed many small businesses. Agribusiness has monopolized farming. Factory jobs have been moved to China and other countries where labor is cheaper and there are few to no environmental regulations. OSHA does not exist there either.So, of course, these Americans feel left behind because they have been.

    High school teachers in rural communities would love it if Broadway actors performed in their communities. Many people in small towns will, on occasion, drive to Indy or a near by city to see a play or go to the symphony.

    Rural communities need effective servant leaders who can reinvent the economies of these small communities. They, too, could benefit from a local coffee shop, book clubs, and local theatre. They do take pride in their local sports teams.

    It’s true that many cities have reduced violent crimes. And yet, gun violence has risen markedly and is not being effectively addressed. I have often heard gun shots in my community in the past year. Before the pandemic, I did not hear them. And now, some foolish people have decided it’s okay to run stop lights while they are drag racing.

    Both cities and rural communities face challenges. Both need effective leaders. Both need the local, state, and federal government to pay attention to their challenges and their needs.

  6. Have you ever stopped at a McD’s just off the interstate in a rural area and sat close to ‘the table’ dominated by elder men all wearing stainless Stetsons. It reminds me of what use to be ‘the Grange’, the focal point of local civic gatherings to discern common concerns and issues in rural communities. Listening to the outspoken comrades is an insight into what matters most to rural civic gossip if not ‘gospel’. The dynamics seem to include hats who have serious cattle and others who seem to be all hat and no cattle. It is a world all to its own with indifference to the outsiders (no hats) traveling between cities.

  7. Come on, admit it, you did not think crime was worse in Columbus, Ohio than in NY City, did you? And, really, is anyone seriously wondering why “intimate murders” (those among family members) is up 40% in 2020 when we have 1) flooded the world with handguns and 2) put them in the impulsive hands without any checks of 3) people who cannot get along in 4) the same household for extended periods of time? Gee, what did we THINK would happen?

  8. Can’t remember what movie I was watching earlier this week when they showed a night scene on a city street. It reminded me of when Indianapolis was a bustling city; before the sellout to Simon Associates to become another of their mall locations.

  9. I live in California and I’m so tired of folks bashing us but are more than willing to receive my tax dollars for their deficits. Traveling across Wyoming, and the Dakotas a couple of summers back I was blown away by the amount of road repair being done. No one in sight for miles on end. Then it dawned on me. The roads were being kept open for the oil and gas industry. Yes those states had two senators and were owned by industry as there were few people. Am I tired? Yes. Do I want my kids to have decent healthcare? Yes. Do I pay my taxes? Yes. I’d like some return that benefits me and mine, and not just poor white folks in rural areas that rail against others. Those screaming most are those that benefit the most from those of us who pay more than we receive.

  10. There are more guns (by the thousands) in society than ever before. If guns were a deterrent to crime, the U.S. should be safer than ever in history.

    However, the media creates a very false impression of life in our cities. “If it bleeds,” it leads in so many newscasts. It’s so much easier to listen to a police radio and go to the site of a traffic accident or crime than to do investigative reporting of what citizens need to know to govern themselves. Both government and taxpayers suffer as a consequence.

    The media will proclaim the ‘public’s right to know’ anytime they feel someone declines to share a detail with them. But too often, the media aim for the sensational and fail to put stories and statistics into their less sensational context or proportion. The public has a right to know THAT too.

    Given the media portrayals, it’s amazing that so many folks continue to move from rural communities to our urban centers, but as Robin attested above, we have WalMart, agribusiness, and factories moving from mid-sized towns to foreign lands and to southern states to thank for that … as well as corporate dominance of campaign contributions to candidates at all levels of government. But it’s easier to identify and harass government officials and employees than the source of government favoritism – the faceless unknowns in corporate board rooms and executive offices.

    It’s amazing we have any democracy left. I fear it’s hanging by a thread.

  11. Robin Riebsomer: ‘pain as a vital sign’
    I protest continually the casual application of pain alleviation to my furbabies by my local vet.
    No, I say. I am given that eye of suspicion. Nature’s way is to make an animal be quiet when there is pain. I myself, rarely go more than a regular Tylenol.

  12. And when the day comes that food and goods can be produced entirely (and cheaper and better) in the cities, what happens to the rural areas?

Comments are closed.