Jennifer Sherman in Paradise Valley, Washington. (All photos courtesy of Sherman.)

Did you guys listen to that blockbuster New York Times podcast, Nice White Parents? I did, on a cross-country drive with my privately-educated but (and?) endlessly-thoughtful best friend Chloë. For a large chunk of the Covid-induced gap year from our fancy college, through In-N-Out drive-thrus and California mountain passes, we discussed the show’s central theme. The argument of the podcast, for at least the first few episodes, is this: no matter how well-meaning you are as a middle-to-upper class white person, your influence is powerful and typically harmful to those with less status than you. 

Nice White Parents, for me, broadened the definition of gentrification. Hapless, liberal knowledge workers can be a force of inequality in their urban property accumulation and willingness to purchase $7 lattes, sure. But they can also redirect the resources of a majority black and brown public school toward a shiny new French program in service of making the school “better.” All the while, remaining out of touch with the district’s real needs. 

There were lots of new ideas about gentrification rolling around in my brain when our road trip paused for a number of weeks in the town of Downieville, CA (pop. 158). 

For instance, was my insistence on someday sending my (currently non-existent) children to my struggling, small-town alma mater less benevolent than I previously imagined? I’d always assumed that having more children with highly educated parents in our district would be a positive thing. But maybe my imaginary Harvard-legacy babies would only be class-blind soldiers in the war for further income stratification. 

In Downieville, most of our attempts to befriend locals included their bemoaning the havoc short term rentals and bay-area mountain bikers were wreaking on the community, a problem we were undoubtedly perpetuating. 

The guilty, vacationer-class dialogue between the pair of us inevitably broadened. Were we indirectly raising the rent in Downieville? Were private schools evil? Did upper-class white kids in poorer and/or more diverse public school districts unavoidably hold undue sway? Were we making the world worse simply by existing? Was our constant self-flagellation embarrassing and pointless?

In the end, Chloë’s incisive commentary on all of the above has stuck with me: “We’ll all be gentrifiers.” 

I recently had the privilege of reading Professor Jennifer Sherman’s April release, Dividing Paradise: Rural Inequality and the Diminishing American Dream, in which this question of agency and class plays out in a rural Washington community increasingly dependent on amenity-tourism. In a place where typically lower-class old-timers are both dependent on the tourism economy and at the whims of those creating it, the future is in question. Economically and socially rich people aren’t gonna stop moving to (or just enjoying) beautiful places any time soon. How can they do so responsibly? Is it possible?

Enjoy my discussion with Jennifer Sherman on those questions, below. 

Olivia Weeks, Daily Yonder: Can you briefly describe how you found Paradise Valley and how you decided to write a book about it?

Jennifer Sherman: As I explain in the book’s Prologue, I first visited Paradise Valley as an amenity-tourist on a rock climbing trip. On my first visit there I was really fascinated by the place, which reminded me a lot of the field site for my first book ( Those Who Work, Those Who Don’t), but it also seemed really different in some important ways. In particular, it seemed to be thriving while my previous book’s site had been in decline. It made me wonder about the plusses of amenity tourism as a form of rural economic development, but also the potential impacts on the people who had lived there through previous eras when industries like logging and ranching dominated the rural West. As I got to know the area better over the next few years, my curiosity grew. In 2014 when I was granted a year’s sabbatical from my teaching responsibilities at Washington State University, I chose to use it to move to Paradise Valley and study the community.

Paradise Valley, Washington.

DY: This book makes the case that growing economic inequality is an issue in rural places, too. Why hasn’t that been widely recognized, and why is Paradise Valley an important case study in inequality?

JS: There are many images and stereotypes that Americans (particularly those who don’t live in rural communities) hold about rural places, including that they are small, cohesive, and homogenous, and sort of frozen in time and isolated from many of the larger nation’s trends and patterns. I think a lot of people imagine rural communities this way, as mostly inhabited by working-class people who still labor in land-based industries like small-scale farming, and are thus somehow immune to the immense inequalities that have occurred in the last 50 or more years. When wealthy people buy second-homes in rural places there is also a common image of these newcomers as not really living there, and thus not really impacting the communities in any substantial ways. As my book explains, these images are at best overly simplistic, and for many modern rural communities now quite inaccurate. Paradise Valley is important because in many ways it has tried to retain its rural character and not let itself grow too fast or too uncontrollably, yet it still is facing massive inequalities as more and more people with social and economic privilege choose to purchase second homes and/or relocate there, often importing inequality from urban and suburban places.

DY: When it comes to so-called “newcomers,” it seems there’s an inherent privilege in choosing to rough it, or live without urban amenities. But the roughness itself makes that privilege hard to see. Do the challenges of adjusting to life in a rural place foster the class-blindness you discuss in the book?

JS: Yes, I think they do in many ways. As the book describes, many newcomers were very aware of the sacrifices that they made in order to start over in a remote rural place. They often had to learn new skills, face new challenges, and make sacrifices in terms of income and job options in order to move there. This sense of sacrifice, and subsequent triumph in the face of challenge, convinced many that they had succeeded in achieving the American dream of personal success through hard work and individual efforts. This focus on struggles and what they had given up – rather than on the advantages they brought in terms of wealth, education, job skills, cultural competencies, and social connections –  allowed them to imagine that everyone there should be as successful as they were, and that the failure to achieve the same level of success was an individual problem rather than the outcome of much deeper social and structural inequalities. This is the phenomenon of class blindness at work.

Paradise Valley, Washington.

DY: You write that “many newcomers did nonetheless recognize that a divide existed within the community and had real concerns regarding its damaging effects… For many it was difficult to pinpoint how to address this issue, however, and despite recognizing it as a problem, they often did not fully grasp how they could become part of its solution.” How much agency do middle-income newcomers have in creating social cohesion, or even just mitigating the “toxic impacts of deepening inequality”?

JS: This is such a tough question, and such an important one. I saw over and over again people justifying tendencies toward “homophily” – basically association with those most like ourselves. Many newcomers explained to me that they (and/or their children) just wanted to spend time with the people with whom they shared the most in common and felt the most comfortable. This is so human, and so understandable. But it is also the source of much social division, and the way that social inequality gets reproduced and calcified. As I suggest in the book’s Conclusion, in a small town in particular, people still have many locations where social interaction can occur, such as schools, churches, sports events, or other types of community gatherings. I believe that there are ways to make those institutions and events more inclusive, to ensure that all members of a community really do have equal access. Beyond that, I challenge us all to make the effort to take advantage of these settings to get to know the people we might otherwise avoid, and to try to understand their experiences a bit. While it might not mean that you change your views to match theirs, it provides the opportunity to better understand where those views come from and why they make sense – humanizing someone previously seen as “other.” It also perhaps provides the opportunity to understand why they aren’t able to live as you do, and the types of challenges they face. It creates social cohesion and a community in which members across the social class spectrum feel included and accepted.

These types of connections can be created in all sorts of ways, including just reaching out with kindness to those who seem to be struggling rather than shunning them as dysfunctional. The newcomers I met were so incredibly generous with others they saw as like themselves, but often just wanted to avoid those who clearly were struggling. Being friendly to those in need costs very little and can mean so much. As one old-timer in my book says, “If somebody looks tired or looks upset, I go to them. I say, ‘Gee, you have a beautiful smile.’ What does that cost me, to go over and tell somebody they have a beautiful smile? They usually look shocked but they look pleased. It doesn’t cost a thing to be kind.” I heard a lot from old-timers about how they missed the days when everyone in Paradise Valley waved at each other in passing. Such small acts of kindness go a long way toward creating and sustaining community, making everyone feel welcome and included, and increasing people’s confidence in interacting with each other despite their differences.

DY: Face to face interaction seems to be a crucial weapon in the battle against inequality. The pandemic has somehow both increased the likelihood that the rural poor will be surrounded by wealthy amenity-tourists and made it so that those groups will be less likely to bump up against each other socially. Does that seem accurate? Does it make you feel hopeless?

JS: Certainly the pandemic concerns me in terms of how quickly we are seeing small town real estate get bought up by people fleeing cities and/or buying themselves a rural sanctuary. But I’m trying not to feel hopeless. As things start to open up again people are craving connection, I hope that the new group of “Zoomtown” in-migrants will find ways to integrate into their new communities without walling themselves off from those who have lived there longer. I also hope that the pandemic has raised awareness of the importance of jobs – and workers themselves – that we once labeled “unskilled” but have come to see as “essential.” I encourage everyone, wherever they live, to think about service and food-sector workers this way and think about how to treat them as vital members of your community, whom you should care about just as much as you care about other community members. Seeing everyone as vital community members who matter to the health and well-being of your community is really key to creating the space for positive interactions to occur.

DY: What are the best resources you’ve found for people who want to work on wielding their class-privilege with more care?

JS: In general I feel that there is not enough attention paid to social class inequality, and that it is really hard for middle-class people in particular to recognize and admit to. Americans tend to like to see themselves as a classless society where everyone has the same chance to succeed, and failures are entirely due to individuals’ lack of effort. Getting past that understanding is the challenge I face in most of my work, so I will recommend mostly works that help elucidate the importance of social class. I appreciate the really accessible work of authors like Barbara Ehrenreich (Nickel and Dimed as well as Fear of Falling), Joan Williams (White Working Class), Marianne Cooper (Cut Adrift), and Jennifer Silva (We’re Still Here), who all bring attention to social class inequality and its impacts. Legal scholar and blogger Lisa Pruitt at UC Davis also writes some incredibly insightful commentary on this topic, with a focus on rural communities. Loka Ashwood’s For Profit Democracy also helps make sense of how economic inequality impacts the understandings of rural populations. Finally, I recommend Bruce Western’s Homeward, which is about urban incarcerated populations, for its incredibly empathetic understanding of “human frailty” and the ways in which decades of disadvantage go into creating the life trajectories that we often blame on single individuals (and then punish them for in ways that exacerbate those same disadvantages).