By Bill Woods
Beginning in the 1940s, Cincinnati became the destination for thousands of individuals and families migrating from rural Appalachia, and over the years a distinct urban Appalachian community developed here. How is this community faring today? At the Community Issues Forum at Christ Church Cathedral on April 4th,
Michael E. Maloney, a longtime urban Appalachian leader and scholar, and Maureen Sullivan, former Director of the Urban Appalachian Council, provided some answers to this question.
The recent book, "Hillbilly Elegy," noted Maloney, has brought a lot of attention to Appalachians, both rural and urban. J. D. Vance's story of growing up as a child of a drug addicted mother who had migrated from rural Appalachia goes beyond his personal experience by offering some negative stereotypes about Appalachian culture in general. In fact, Maloney is one of the contributors to a newly published book of essays, "Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to Hillbilly Elegy." The message of Maloney and the other authors of this book challenges Vance's generalizations about lazy hillbillies and white welfare queens, and it portrays a much more diverse population and culture.
This greater diversity and more complex culture were also portrayed in a poem read by Maureen Sullivan at the beginning of the Forum. The poem represents a compilation of statements by Oyler School students of Appalachian descent. Sullivan and Maloney emphasized that today's urban Appalachians are diverse and can't be labeled with any simple stereotypes.
Maloney, who is also an urban demographer, went on to describe how Greater Cincinnati's current Appalachian population is spread throughout the region, with over half the people living in towns and suburbs beyond the inner city. In Cincinnati itself, neighborhoods where Appalachians live have changed over the years. Over-the-Rhine became a major residence for Appalachians in the 1950s and 1960s, but by the 1980s, Lower Price Hill emerged as their primary neighborhood.
In terms of numbers, Maloney noted that approximately half a million people of Appalachian background live in the Greater Cincinnati region. Economic hardship remains a problem for a large number of Appalachians. He estimated that 8,000 families in this area are below the poverty line, and this number translates into about 30,000 people. Hit hard by the 2008 recession, many Appalachians have never completely recovered from this severe economic downturn. Neighborhoods like Lower Price Hill, explained Maloney, are in worse shape today than they were twenty years ago.
One problem that has always confronted urban Appalachians is the unwillingness of governments and other institutions to recognize them as a distinct group. A current example, cited by Maloney, is the initial failure of leaders of the Child Poverty Collaborative to include Appalachians in their planning. For this reason, leaders like Maloney and Maureen Sullivan strive to make themselves part of major initiatives to improve the lives of Cincinnatians. For instance, Sullivan and Maloney are involved in the Equity Coalition, a recent effort to deal with income inequality and the continued growth of poverty in the city.
When asked whether urban Appalachians are losing their identity after one or two generations away from the region, Maloney and Sullivan replied that the answer is both yes and no. For some, they confessed, the identity has become blurred or ceased
to have relevance. Others remain staunch upholders of their roots. Maloney pointed to the interest shown by public school students in Lower Price Hill and college student he has worked with in recent years. Ironically, he noted, a new pride of identity has emerged in the rural Appalachian region.
Both Sullivan and Maloney are concerned about creating a new generation of leaders who will replace them as Appalachian spokespersons. They recently created a leadership project, and they are working to strengthen the Urban Appalachian