The White Ghetto
Excerpt: Owsley County, Ky. — There are lots of diversions in the Big White Ghetto, the vast moribund matrix of Wonder Bread–hued Appalachian towns and villages stretching from northern Mississippi to southern New York, a slowly dissipating nebula of poverty and misery with its heart in eastern Kentucky, the last redoubt of the Scots-Irish working class that picked up where African slave labor left off, mining and cropping and sawing the raw materials for a modern American economy that would soon run out of profitable uses for the class of people who 500 years ago would have been known, without any derogation, as peasants. Thinking about the future here and its bleak prospects is not much fun at all, so instead of too much black-minded introspection you have the pills and the dope, the morning beers, the endless scratch-off lotto cards, healing meetings up on the hill, the federally funded ritual of trading cases of food-stamp Pepsi for packs of Kentucky’s Best cigarettes and good old hard currency, tall piles of gas-station nachos, the occasional blast of meth, Narcotics Anonymous meetings, petty crime, the draw, the recreational making and surgical unmaking of teenaged mothers, and death: Life expectancies are short — the typical man here dies well over a decade earlier than does a man in Fairfax County, Va. — and they are getting shorter — women’s life expectancy having declined by nearly 1.1 percent from 1987 to 2007. (This is a re-print of an article by Kevin Williamson from 16 Dec 2013 in National Review. I must’ve missed this when it first ran or I surely would’ve drawn attention to it then. My earliest years were spent in Gratz, KY (Pop 101 at the time, smaller now, I believe) in Owen County, KY, about 60 to 75 minutes west of where Williamson is writing about. Gratz then had 3 churches, 2 general stores, a garage, a bank, a hotel, and a Masonic Lodge (yes, for about 100 people). Being on the Kentucky River, until the WPA built bridge over the river in the 30s, Gratz was a transportation hub for farmers wanting to ship things by barge. My grandfather then owned a coal yard and received barge-loads of coal which they toted by hand to delivery trucks. Truman was President when I was a small boy. After we left for Indiana (Truman was still President), we eventually went to New Jersey, but frequently visited Gratz over the next two decades. As our lives matured and older relatives died off, those visits dwindled and ended in the middle 1980s. From Williamson’s story, not much has changed. Among the few groups that have survived relatively intact are the Plain People most call the Amish. Life is much closer to the edge, there. Nothing is close by or easy to get at. Even in the 1980s, a lot of older homes still had back yard privies. Ron P.