Over the last few weeks, I’ve been dwelling on an article I read about Charleston, West Virginia on Joe Baur’s travel blog. When my fellow West Virginian and friend Douglas Imbrogno (of WestVirginiaVille.com and The Web Theater fame) first posted a link to the article on Facebook, I was immediately captivated by the title -
West Virginia Could (Should) Be Amazing
Although West Virginia often draws praise for being gorgeous — as it certainly is — we are occasionally though of as a blight on the Union, a literal black hole, and a place where dreams go to die. By his article’s own admission, Joe Baur bases his opinion on Charleston, West Virginia on one brief trip through our state’s capital. Despite the brevity of his encounter, many of his observations about West Virginia reflect my own views. From his article -
Charleston, surrounded on all sides by mountains with the Kanawha and Elk Rivers crossing through, puts the city of 51,400 in the best position to be a mecca of recreation, creativity and adventure. Hopefully residents and regional leaders agree, solving the surrounding area’s struggles with poverty and obesity in one — admittedly grandiose — blow.
What Baur describes in his article is a kind of frustration shared by the four humble writers of Meanwhile in West Virginia. Just as the title of his article states, West Virginia should be amazing. As a state, we continue to blow many of our chances at being special (many of which are admittedly out of our reach) for easier, shorter-term “gains”. As I replied in a comment to his article,
As a 20 year old West Virginian, you’ve just perfectly described the predicament of the West Virginian condition. Although there’s a good amount of what you’re after (and what I’ve spent most of the last few years pushing for) in this beautiful state, there’s an oppressive amount of bad, too.
The root of the problem has always been exploitation. When we split from Virginia during the Civil War, we did so after years and years of being ignored and under-represented in their government. Forming our own state did little to help us though; the exploitation had only begun.
First by the timber industry, then the railroad, and finally (and currently) the coal industry, we were tempted into using our natural resources for a quick profit. West Virginia became a monocrop economy (in a way of thinking), dependent on the industry of the day to survive. Unfortunately for us, all of this industry giving us jobs was based outside the state; we became a dependent economy.
We’re basically stuck in this system right now. We’re underdeveloped. Our cities are little more than support centers for dying industries based outside WV.
In Huntington, right on the Ohio River at the junction of KY, OH, and WV, the situation is similar to the one in Charleston minus the (relative) influx of cash from the state government. The only real industry are the hospitals which specialize in fighting heart disease and the other diseases that plague our region — byproducts of underdevelopment and overdependence on relatively nasty industry.
The future of West Virginia is tied to how well we can learn to diversify our economy, our people, and our infrastructure.
Thanks for coming to West Virginia. Although this state is a mixed bag of good and bad, I hope you’ll come back and find something worth seeing.
While I stand by my comment there, I believe much more can be said about the future of this great state. Just in my lifetime, Huntington and Charleston have started in the direction of becoming lively, productive communities, correcting decisions that lead to their decline decades ago. Although state government continues to support a monocrop economy, there is an increasing focus on the development of industry and commerce that can secure our stability and even help to grow our state.
For my part, it has been far too long since I traveled across the state to collect, gather, and share. This weekend Bishop and I hope to change the drought of sharing about West Virginia as we set out to see as much as we can in two days. We’re going to see what’s out there that we haven’t seen before, and then we’re going to try to figure out how to make more good happen.
As we prepare for our journey, think about ways you can get out into West Virginia and help change our future. And be sure to check back over the next few weeks to see what we learned (and photographed!) while we were out there.