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The Burbs Have Eyes

Brand management meets extraction

One of the challenges of moving away from the woods is helping your city friends understand where you come from. For years since leaving my tiny hometown in the upper tier of Pennsylvania, I’ve experimented with all sorts of explanations. Direction markers are a start: three hours northeast of Pittsburgh, two hours southwest of Buffalo, two hours to Erie, five to Philly. But lest the map be confused for the territory, the landmarks come next: just outside of town stands the Kinzua Bridge, once the world’s longest and tallest railroad viaduct, more famous in death than in life since being toppled by a tornado in 2003. The Allegheny Reservoir, site of the forced removal of almost seven hundred Seneca Nation members from their land just fifty-nine years ago, fills the valleys to the west. (In targeted ads and copy, the region is often paired with the word primeval.) All around us lies the Allegheny National Forest, half a million acres of woods and streams and natural gas wells, grown up from a brush patch in the aftermath of craven overlogging a century ago. Below that, a few hundred feet underground, is America’s first billion-dollar oil field and below that you’ll find the Marcellus Shale, a deposit of natural gas so deep and so distant that until recently it was believed that only God could fuck it.

To really hammer the vibe home, I sometimes mention to my friends that there’s just one McDonald’s in my home county, and in the parking lot, next to the drive-thru menu, there’s an active oil well, rocking like a drinking bird. It’s been drawing petroleum since the 1870s and in 2021 received a fresh red, white, and blue paint job.

Peoples, histories, environments—the makings of a place are a lot for a summary, so imagine my relief when, driving home in the year 2012, I pulled off the highway and saw an enormous, earth-tone road sign that read, “Welcome to the Pennsylvania WILDS.” I pumped the brakes and checked the exit, thinking that I’d somehow driven into a different part of the state. Maybe that’s what the marketers who came up with the name had in mind.

Most small towns are every bit as tied to the whims of industrial capitalism as cities.

The Pennsylvania Wilds™ is, in the words of the PA Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship, the nonprofit that owns the “Wilds” trademark, “a place and a movement.” On the back end, it’s a brand. A place brand. Think of those carefully honed slogans developed by tourist boards or private destination management organizations (DMOs): “I Love NY” and “Keep Austin Weird” and “Virginia is for Lovers” and even the less-inspired ones that grace T-shirt shops in natural areas like “Get Lost,” “See Rock City,” or “Find Yourself Here.” Place branding is a reflection of the postindustrial reality that our local overlords, both private and public, see their work as entrepreneurial. While midsize cities pivot from smokestack chasing to simping for Google and Amazon, small towns across Appalachia swoon over road trippers and remote workers. But what is it, exactly, that we are trying to sell them?

The answer, in part, is nostalgia.

DMOs like the PA Wilds Center find the holy trifecta of rural experience to be natural beauty, regional heritage, and a slower pace of life; those are the things I like about my hometown too. But a slippery notion of authenticity underpins Americans’ conception of rurality, even if most small towns are every bit as tied to the whims of industrial capitalism as cities. For a visitor, it’s a sense of authenticity that matters, which urban sociologist Sharon Zukin has called “the experience of origins,” the aura that a place or event preceded you and would exist without your presence. But the origins of extraction are as messy as the process—it’s an industry built on boom-and-bust, with depletion as the goal, seemingly at odds with the renewable, agrarian stereotypes of rurality and especially incongruent with a region seeking to pitch itself as wild. (And indeed, it’s not just the Wilds™ leaning into the term. “Wild, Wonderful” was reinstated as West Virginia’s slogan in 2007, after the desperate-sounding replacement “Open for Business” riled up residents.)

The PA Wilds brand is one of the earlier place brands in the extracted parts of the rural east, dating back to 2003 when a group of “community stakeholders” came together and decided that a cluster of twelve counties, where people have lived for at least ten thousand years, should be called something different. Similar, if less well-funded efforts are ramping up across most of the decently pretty parts of the region; by my eye, the progress is measured in microbreweries. They’d sprung up all over parts of West Virginia, where I spent much of my twenties, and a few have emerged recently in the The Wilds™. There’s one with an enormous sign near the interstate (brand-speak calls it the “I-80 Frontier”) called, unironically, “Lost in the Wilds.”

Many people take pride in regional brands like the PA Wilds™, and I don’t blame them. Rural people are so commonly reduced to political punching bags that it’s nice to feel like you have something to be proud of. But the artificiality of branding shines through. Place brands have a tendency to leave locals feeling resentful or at least miffed. My hometown, a tiny hilltop borough of eight hundred where all the downtown storefronts have been empty for a decade, is too small and insignificant to generate revitalization funding, but a couple towns over there’s a new brewery often called “Trust Fund Brewing” by working-class locals, a nod to both the prices and the fact that it was started by a family who made their wealth in timber and oil/gas. Even if you haven’t been there, you’ve been there: string lights, orange metal barstools, exposed ductwork, the bastard baby of a waiting room and a fast casual joint (but the beer’s good, and the bartenders are nice).

Though the place is new, it creates the experience of origins through a collection of old tools hung museum-style and historical photos of loggers looking surly and heroic. While it seems to be in line with the PA Wilds™ design guide—wood and patriotism are “design themes”—the space is decidedly more suburban than the dark, deer-mount-and-old-beer-bottles look of most local bars.

David A. Banks, author of The City Authentic: How the Attention Economy Builds Modern America calls this type of space “predictably unique,” a reduction of local character and history into aesthetic. This can refer to everything from the same OBX-style bumper sticker for every small town to the uniformity of microbreweries. Drive through small towns from North Carolina to the Adirondacks, and the breweries will mostly look like the ones popping up in the wilds. It’s a postmodern take on authenticity, in which carefully chosen ephemera from the past are worn like a wardrobe, conferring identity onto the type of non-places that urban and suburban travelers are likely to feel comfortable. History’s not dead, it’s just being taught at the bar.

To enter a brewery like this is to be told a story in two parts: the first is the Golden Age of extraction, when nation-building resources were plucked from the ground by brave and proud men (note that this is where the story starts, never with the Indigenous people) and there’s today—a pristine wild land waiting for you to enjoy. In between, sure, there may have been some missteps, but the matter of natural resource management is a settled affair. In order for the story to work, the environmental restoration from extraction must be complete. This is why logging is more attractive for heritage place branding in the PA Wilds™ than oil and gas, a more politically fraught issue, despite the fact that just as many people in the region identify with their family’s history in petroleum. These bars have names like Logyard or Big Timber or Axemann or Stumptown, and you’ll see beers like the Logger Lager, Frost Notch, (named for a felling technique), the Whipsaw, etc. But you’ll never see a beer called the EPA IPA, even though federal environmental protection is every bit as responsible for creating a viable tourist destination as a history of logging.

But I’m not trying to dunk on breweries; they’re just following the playbook they’re given. The problem is that cultural planning, as Banks discusses, increasingly treats culture as a product to be packaged and sold. In Appalachia, where public-private partnerships abound and grant money drives development, the better story you’re able to tell and the more chances you get to tell it. The Pennsylvania Department of Conservation of Natural Resources, for example, has an official program devoted to creating and supporting tourism and industry based on certain “heritage areas,” regions oft defined by their past dominant industries. The PA Wilds™ lies inside of the “Lumber Heritage Region,” a private 501(c)(3) organization “that accentuates the importance of the lumber industry for the past, present and future” in addition to being a place and brand.

History’s not dead, it’s just being taught at the bar.

If this sounds byzantine, it is. If it sounds like Exhibit A of the nonprofit industrial complex, well . . . The Lumber Heritage Region partners with local governments, small businesses, heavy industry, historical societies, media outlets, and other collaborative brands, like the PA Wilds™, to help develop the region’s economy. One wing of their website exists to provide rosy information about the logging industry. Another lets organizations apply for mini-grants, many of which go to fund public history projects. Potential conflicts of interest abound: when I checked out Lumber Heritage Region’s board of directors, I saw the name of another timber baron nepo baby I know (in high school, he and his buddies used to steal whole reams of paper and throw them away to “support the industry”). In the “Oil Heritage Region” to the west—which I’ve previously written about—oil companies fund public museums on the industry’s history. Rural labor history, then, is pinned: the buoyant optimism of tourism on one side, and industry greenwashing on the other. 

Drive west from the Lumber Heritage Region to the Oil Heritage Region, and you’ll pass about a half-dozen wooden Bigfoot statues—none of which existed before the Discovery show Bigfoot Hunters came to town, spurring the promise of Squatch-related tourism—and from there turn south, and in two hours you’ll approach Pittsburgh, and beyond that, the “Rivers of Steel Heritage Area,” the very name acknowledging the rivers only in relation to their role in resource production. Once you cross the border in West Virginia, you’ll be in “Almost Heaven,” the new tourism slogan borrowed from the John Denver song that confuses geography from three states, but also in “Mountaineer Country,” the regional brand referencing the recently defunded state university. From there you’ll pass through the “Mountain Lakes Region” (there are no natural lakes in the region) and the “Metro Valley” (the locals call it chemical valley, or sometimes cancer valley). Eventually, you’ll reach the “Hatfield-McCoy Mountains,” the new regional slogan for a part of coal region made famous for the feud that contributed greatly to negative hillbilly stereotypes.

If, along the way, you find yourself so struck by a brand you’d like to relocate, good news! There’s a fund for that. But only if you bring your job with you, via remote work. Tourists are the primary target for place branding—and tourism, when compared to heavy industry, is lighter on the land and the people—but the increasing goal of rural place-branding initiatives is to lure remote workers into resettlement. As Lily Geismer has argued, tech-based solutions for rural inequality go back as far as the Tennessee Valley Authority, and Democrats have long promised that internet access would “move more people out of poverty and unemployment,” as Bill Clinton claimed over two decades ago. Failed Appalachian Regional Commission-backed projects like the infamous attempt to train coal miners to code continued the tradition of framing rural economic woes as a lack of tech access, but remote work incentives mark a distinct shift in thinking. Instead of finding tech jobs for rural people, tech workers can just move to rural areas.

Two years ago, the PA Wilds™ initiated their “The Wilds Are Working” program, in which you can “get paid to experience a remote work lifestyle in the heart of the PA Wilds.” It works like this: each summer (the winters in McKean County are some of the coldest in the Eastern United States) a handful of applicants are selected and offered stipends, gift cards, and free housing to bravely move to a place where thousands of people already live. Backed by the Appalachian Regional Commission, the program has spent $210,000 over the last few years.

One mid-twenties, self-described “nomadic worker” from Philly recently wrote about her three-week sojourn to the town of Kane, where I went to high school, in a long-form essay in Philadelphia Magazine. She paints an imaginative picture of a “single winding road” leading to “a remote part of Pennsylvania next to millions of acres of wilderness,” despite the fact that Kane accounts for less than ten percent of the county’s population and similar sized towns abound. The language could be mistaken for brand copy and proof, perhaps, that the brand sells for its audience. It’s mutually flattering; the wilder and more remote the location, the braver our nomad. Like Jesus, she is to be tested in the wilderness.

What’s more interesting is the moment when branding and politics bump heads. She’s simultaneously concerned with images of rural, postindustrial resentment (“Fuck Biden” flags disturb her) and overwhelmed by the town’s attempts to appease people like her. Downtown, as she tells it, is more like her gentrified Philly neighborhood than it is like the burbs. But visiting as a remote worker confers her “mini-celebrity” status. She feels as if she were on “a very small ship with a very small crew, floating alone in a vast and empty sea.” (Nomads, naturally, understand seafaring.) Ultimately, she concludes that she feels “a little more connected to humanity” in the city. All aboard.

So far, only one participant has moved to the region.

Similar programs have been tried then nixed in Vermont (they funded too many workers and flooded the housing market) but West Virginia is leading the way in paying yuppies to move to its countryside. Buoyed by state, university, and private funding—courtesy of the super-scammy Brad Smith, former CEO of Intuit—the program gives remote workers $12,000 cash and a bunch of free outdoor activities to spend a year in one of a select few towns. The thinking here is peak neoliberal community development, the idea that the wealth of comparatively richer remote workers will trickle down to the community at large. The same ideology that Banks says is being applied to small and midsize American cities, “being built to be playgrounds for authentic leisure experience” seems to be applied to small towns. Our remote worker writes that “everything I needed could be found on the petite main stretch: coffee, dinner, clothes, a gym, even hiking gear.” The needful things that once occupied walkable downtowns, like hardware stores, groceries, and doctor offices, aren’t mentioned. If tourists and remote workers are to enjoy a remote lifestyle experience, does that mean that the role of local communities is to serve them? Who gets to chart the course of that very small ship?

Personally, I wouldn’t give a shit about my childhood friends and neighbors pretending they’re all descended from lumberjacks or making up stories about Sasquatch to entertain families from the Philly suburbs if it meant that the buildings downtown could stay upright and the local hospital would remain open. But the issue is a twofold matter of dignity and practicality. People who live in extracted communities have been made, by virtue of geography and class, to give so much for the development of this country and have received so little to show for it. Sometimes their stories are heroic; other times they’re tragic. But place branding and the heritage marketplace leave little room for tragedy, let alone nuance. I’ve seen the ways more complicated stories of rural work: Mitch Troutman’s work on anthracite miners reclaiming mines as their own; the “don’t frack our history” campaigns seeking to protect historic sites from gas drilling; or the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum, a wildly successful community-led initiative to tell the story of one of the largest labor uprisings in U.S. history. These roadshow initiatives help give agency to community members as well as educating visitors capable of seeing through the bullshit.

While heartening, those examples run up against the fact that nostalgia is an export, and small towns can’t make enough from it to survive. Across the rural Eastern mountains, schools are underfunded and consolidating, public infrastructure is lacking, and hospitals are closing at alarming rates. (A community-owned hospital in remote Clinton County, in the heart of The Wilds™ , is so close to closing that they’ve started a GoFundMe.) These same factors that reduce the quality of life for the people who live there are serious barriers to anybody wanting to move there, but instead of pursuing more radical, systemic reform, monied groups like the ARC continue to address inequality through trickle-down solutions.

The reality is that place branding and leveraging heritage assets can probably give some struggling rural economies a boost. But how long before we reach a critical mass of pickle shops and bike rental stands? Besides, not every small town sits next to thousands of acres of public land or a lake stolen from the Senecas. Many mountains are already too razed for hikers. Many streams are too poisoned, many valleys too lit from frack-gas flares to attract stargazers. Downtowns like my own are too far gone to support cute cafés and have lost too much infrastructure to be worthy of nonprofit buzz or corporate investment. It seems, then, that there are two options: a staycation spot, or a sacrifice zone. Neither option, for now, is up to the people who live there.