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Wealthy Seattleites Are Transforming Rural Washington

A new strategy to revive struggling small towns is seeing success—but also giving rise to cultural and class conflicts.

  • February 8, 2022
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  • Interview
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  • By E.J. Iannelli

In 2014, sociologist Jennifer Sherman moved to Paradise Valley, a (pseudonymous) area spanning roughly 60 rural miles in Washington State. Unlike a growing number of new residents in the area, she wasn’t relocating to this idyllic spot on the eastern side of the Cascade Mountains for its natural beauty or its proximity to outdoor recreation. She was there to study the effects that a recent influx of people—mostly wealthy urbanites from nearby Seattle—was having on Paradise Valley’s communities.

Paradise Valley was a very deliberate choice on Sherman’s part. About a decade earlier, she had studied an area in California—dubbed Golden Valley—and documented the findings in her 2009 book, Those Who Work, Those Who Don’t: Poverty, Morality, and Family in Rural America. In many ways, Golden Valley offered a stark counterpoint to Paradise Valley. Whereas Golden Valley had never fully recovered from the loss of its logging and ranching industries, the forces of neoliberal globalization, and the Great Recession of the early 2000s, Paradise Valley, which had faced similar setbacks, appeared to be thriving. Their very different outcomes largely came down to the role of something called “amenity-based tourism.”

Amenity development, like its name suggests, turns natural resources such as rivers, lakes, mountains and forests into commodifiable features. In the amenity economy, the mountain that might have been clear-cut or strip-mined a century ago by extractive industries instead becomes a climbing spot, a hiking destination, or a wildlife refuge that exists in a semi-preserved state. Those amenities draw out-of-towners, who in turn bring ancillary demands—and, crucially, disposable income—for food, entertainment, lodging, and other creature comforts. This, or so the theory goes, then gives rise to a vibrant service economy that can replace the now-defunct manufacturing or industrial economy, with the added benefit of having a much smaller environmental footprint.

The allure of a smooth, win–win solution to an entrenched, systemic problem is why the amenity economy is often touted as the solution to challenges that have arisen from the combination of rural deindustrialization, population loss, and geographic isolation. Yet during her research, Sherman quickly realized that the outward success of Paradise Valley glossed over far more serious rifts and struggles between two groups that she classifies as “old-timers” and “newcomers.” As she writes in her 2021 book Dividing Paradise: Rural Inequality and the Diminishing American Dream, “Among the documented potential downsides of amenity development are issues including gentrification, social and cultural clash, and reorganization of local power structures in favor of better resourced in-migrants—all of which are visible in Paradise Valley.”

Sherman has distilled these revealing case studies and her nearly two decades of research into a talk for Humanities Washington titled “Diamonds in the Rough: The Gentrification of Rural Washington.” Presented in partnership with the Thomas S. Foley Institute for Public Policy and Public Service, this talk traces the complex history of modern rural communities, outlines the unintended consequences of amenity development, and presents some possible positive paths forward.

Humanities Washington spoke with Sherman about her research and how it informs her talk. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What was it about Paradise Valley that intrigued you?

I had actually visited Paradise Valley as a tourist to take part in outdoor sports activities, and I was really struck by it. In some ways it reminded me so much of Golden Valley in California, where I spent a year of my life. It looked very similar and had a lot of similar amenities. But it was also really, really different in the sense that it was thriving, whereas that other community had been kind of dying at the time. So that made me interested in investigating the impact of amenity tourism. What are its effects on the population that had lived there for a long time? Were they still there? Were they still doing those same types of jobs? How was this set of changes in economic development affecting them?

What sort of impacts did you see?

There are a number of different impacts, some of which I would characterize as changing land use, and some of which are a little bit more pernicious in the sense that they create social inequalities or economic inequalities or both.

In terms of land use, amenity tourism is often connected to in-migration, such as second-home ownership or retirement migration. As a result, you go from land being seen as kind of public good that everybody shares in common, or as an economic resource that can be used for agricultural or industrial purposes, to being something that is supposed to be privately held or kept in a pristine state. You end up with debates over where people can and can’t go, or fences going up where there never were fences before. Old and new come into conflict. A lot of what I’ve heard about over my time was the changing nature of a hunting license. What does it cost? Who can get it? Is hunting something everybody can access or is it something that becomes accessible only to those with enough resources to do it?

And that brings me to this larger question of inequality. For starters, an amenity-driven economy doesn’t create living-wage jobs; it creates a lot of service-sector jobs that don’t pay a living wage. So you have this impoverished workforce for whom hard work is just not going to pay off.

On top of that, successful amenity development is almost always accompanied by gentrification, which generally means the in-movement of groups of people who have more resources than the people who were originally there. In the case of Paradise Valley, more than half the homes in the area are now owned by people who don’t inhabit them full-time. That drives up housing values and pushes local populations out. You also see different interests. When an urban neighborhood gentrifies, one group often displaces the other. That’s not just reflected in housing access but also in the nature of services—the stores, the bars, the restaurants. All of that’s going to start to look more like the new population that it does the old population. That process ends up marginalizing the more working-class population that had been living there.

The newcomers who come to this place with really good intentions put a lot of energy into creating these services where people can go to get help if they need it. But they don’t really recognize that those services are antithetical to the cultural norms of the same people that they think they’re helping.

Isn’t displacement—newcomers moving in on old-timers’ territory—just an inevitable natural phenomenon?

This is the story of so much of human history: one group of people displacing another. The tough part is when the displacement occurs because of access to different types of resources. It isn’t simply that one group of people moves in and we’ve got two different styles. What’s happening in this community and many others like it is that the two groups of people have such different access to various resources that it’s not really a level playing field. It becomes really easy for this group of newcomers—a term that’s reductive, honestly, because it makes it sound like it’s all about who got there when—with all the resources to very quickly wrest power away from the folks who were there longer rather than kind of merging their interests. You can think of this as a form of cultural imperialism. There’s an assumption that everybody is going to want what we want. But, in fact, different groups of people have different cultural norms, different desires, and different things that appeal to them.

And you concluded that this inadvertent cultural imperialism comes down to something called class blindness. What is that exactly?

I basically define class blindness as the tendency for those with social-class privilege to be unaware of it and not recognize it as a form of privilege or advantage. It’s sort of the social class corollary to colorblind racism, which is the idea that if you don’t recognize race, it must mean you’re not racist, whereas what it actually means is that you’re doing nothing to challenge a racist set of social structures or that you’re just contributing to them and benefitting from them without doing anything to challenge them. And class blindness works in much the same way. People who are class blind tend to be unwilling to admit that those types of resources give them a big advantage and put other people at a disadvantage. That makes it a lot harder for us to see those disadvantaged individuals in a sympathetic light, to see them as being worthy of help.

Isn’t class blindness at odds with the more progressive, left-leaning political views the newcomers claimed to hold?

A lot of people who were actively or maybe unconsciously practicing this form of class blindness were also people who consciously cared about things like poverty or inequality. They really did care about those issues on a more general or ideological level, but then they couldn’t connect that ideological concern to actual individuals who were experiencing the problem. It’s not that people were trying to be discriminatory. It’s just that when you don’t know people very well, it’s easy to look at them and imagine that they have the same opportunities that you have, and a failure to achieve what you’ve achieved must be due to a failure to make use of those opportunities. But the real problem is that those opportunities are not equally distributed to all people in your society.

So the newcomers’ actions led to a sense of hostility and disenfranchisement among the old timers. Did the old timers play a role in exacerbating this dynamic?

Through my career, I’ve looked at stigma and judgement around things like poverty, unemployment and economic need. We’ve done such an effective job at stigmatizing this type of struggle that people have a hard time seeing themselves as any kind of larger group. So there’s a tendency among those who are facing struggle to say, “Well, I’m different from those others, who are morally flawed.” And that’s part of the same larger understanding of America as the Land of Opportunity, that everyone should be able to achieve the American Dream, and anyone who doesn’t is personally flawed. So, even though you may be struggling yourself, you’re not immune to that very individualized way of understanding economic struggles as being an individual’s fault—as opposed to the result of society’s structures. That really undermines cohesion among the old timers for sure.

And beyond that, there are rural cultural norms built around things like being independent and hard-working. The desire to prove that makes it hard for people to ask for help, even when they really need it. That sort of ends up undermining the whole social services structure. The newcomers who come to this place with really good intentions put a lot of energy into creating these services where people can go to get help if they need it. But they don’t really recognize that those services are antithetical to the cultural norms of the same people that they think they’re helping.

[Land goes from being seen] as a kind of public good that everybody shares in common, or as an economic resource that can be used for agricultural or industrial purposes, to being something that is supposed to be privately held or kept in a pristine state.

Is a place like Paradise Valley simply fighting an ineluctable global trend toward extreme socioeconomic disparity?

In my book, I repeatedly tried to make the point that Paradise Valley is really just a microcosm of American inequality, which of course is a microcosm of international inequality. But we wouldn’t see anything like this kind of inequality occurring if we just didn’t have such vastly different levels of access to wealth and opportunities and life chances.

The loss of blue-collar work that paid a living wage and its replacement with these disposable jobs that are part-time, poorly paid, that have no benefits, that are hire-and-fire at will and give people no security, that’s an American trend, and it’s really behind so much of the polarization of our nation on a larger scale. We’ve seen a loss of access to those basic tenets of the American Dream—that idea that if you work hard, you should be able to have a basic, comfortable life. So we have a vast section of the population that can no longer achieve it and a much smaller number of people who have way too much and don’t know what to do with it. The fact that you have such a large class of people who can afford a second home and such a large class of people who can’t afford a first home or even a rental home, that alone is a travesty, and it’s certainly not an isolated problem in Paradise Valley. It’s really a national epidemic at this point.

The scale and scope of the problem seems colossal. What are some practical corrective steps we can take?

Especially in these Humanities Washington talks, I like to end on some sort of hopeful note. There are multiple levels at which we can address these kinds of issues, and it would probably take efforts on all of them to reverse the trajectory we’re on now. But I don’t think it’s impossible.

As I tell my students all the time, you can’t solve social problems on an individual basis. A social problem calls for a social response. And the most important, of course, is at the national or state policy level. There are ways in which we could design our society that would be more equal and give everybody more equal chances. We either need to figure out how to make work pay or we need to think about the types of support our working-class population might need to achieve a basic standard of living—a combination of subsidized access to housing, healthcare, childcare and daycare, and sick-leave policies or maternity policies.

Within our own communities, we need to find ways to provide social services that humanize the experience rather than re-create stigma and judgement. When we’re thinking about how to help those in need, it’s important for us to recognize that they’re human beings, that they’re part of our community. Take that opportunity to get to know them, to build bridges, to make people feel welcomed and appreciated as they ask for help. That not only strengthens community ties but also strengthens people’s ability to ask for help.

And, finally, at the individual level we should recognize that as humans, particularly in a highly unequal society, we have a tendency toward what sociologists refer to as homophily, which is the tendency to associate or be drawn to other people who are the most like you. I try to encourage people to think about making that extra effort to get to know the people who are least like them. Talk to them a little bit. That way, we can start to understand each other’s motivations a little bit better, to understand where people are coming from. Once you get to know that people are facing something that you’ve never thought of or have never experienced, it undermines that ability to be class blind. It’s a way to overcome the tendency to assume that anybody who’s not like you must have something wrong with them.

E.J. Iannelli is a freelance writer, editor, and translator based in Spokane. He’s a regular contributor to regional newspapers and magazines as well as the Times Literary Supplement.





Check out Jennifer Sherman’s talk, “Diamonds in the Rough: The Gentrification of Rural Washington,” online and in-person. View our calendar for the next talk.


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