The true divide in America. No, not Trump.

The economic differences between rural and urban America highlight its racial, political and cultural diversity.

October 31, 2017 08:20 pm | Updated November 09, 2017 07:07 pm IST

The things causing strife in America are really the same things causing strife in countries all over the world. The ills of urbanisation.

The things causing strife in America are really the same things causing strife in countries all over the world. The ills of urbanisation.

This is a blog post from

Part 1: 24 Hours in Trump Country

America is big.

You feel it when you fly six hours from New York to San Francisco, but it really hits home when you drive cross-country. The 11-hour, 900-km drive from New Haven, Connecticut on the East Coast to Loudonville, Ohio, in the heart of the Mid-West was a window into America’s vastness. My friends and I were accompanying a fellow university classmate to her hometown to spend the weekend. Our average speed of 80kph is something most Indian drivers can only dream of. By the 6th hour, it was pitch black and late at night and all I could think was how much Americans love driving their cars.

We woke up the next morning in Trump country — though aside from the “Make America Great Again” signs on peoples’ front yards, you’d never feel it. Loudonville is a quaint one-horse town of 2,641 genuinely lovely people founded in 1814, 75% of whose residents voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election. And perhaps demographics explain this: it is 97.8% White and has a median age of 43. The median annual household income of $42,500 is lower than the national median, $49,445. An automotive component factory, which ran from 1913 till 1996, employed many local residents. It’s a rural, working-class, old White town: probably the poster child for the Republican base. And we were welcomed with open arms.


Aside from me — the only Indian in a 50-mile radius — our group consisted of a Mexican, a Pole and most alien of all, a New Yorker. People looked at us like we were from out of town but never with any malice. It made me question the perceptions I had of rural, middle-America and the mostly Republican voters who lived there, as potentially unfriendly towards foreigners — especially brown ones. But I’d never been to a community like this: the local newspaper prints every single crime committed in the village, including all parking tickets — much to the chagrin of errant teenage drivers. Loudonville was folksy in the best possible way.

We were visiting on the biggest day in Loudonville’s year: the annual Street Fair. It was mid-October 2016, the sun was out and everyone thought Hillary Clinton would win the election. Aside from the usual attractions at a fun-fair — food stalls, carousels and so on — there were livestock shows and even a tractor-pull. The residents took pride in showing off the size of their steers and their hogs and their kids. One of my graduate school professors had told me that these state fairs served an important function in American history: it allowed farmers from all over the country to meet and exchange seeds, farming techniques and ideas about how to deal with pests and disease. I exchanged a dollar for a corndog and it was great.


We had a picnic lunch at my friend’s family farm, following a hike in the surrounding woods. As we looked out across the sloping meadows that rolled away into the horizon, I felt far away from the world. Forget India — even my university felt like some distant, unnecessarily noisy planet. We passed some Amish folks riding in a horse-drawn carriage on the way to their farm. Time moves more slowly in the countryside. Maybe that’s why you feel you’re back in the past.

We spent the afternoon on a porch I’ll never forget. It was a large wooden deck sprawling out above the grassy knoll below, like the bridge of some long-since-grounded oil-tanker. On the way there, we bought some beers at a drive-through liquor store (yes, you read that right). We were visiting my friend’s high-school classmate and whiled away hours looking out at their acres of land as we played with their three giant dogs and their new-born baby. They were a military family, if I remember correctly, and the role of the military in American life seems to hit home harder when you leave the city. You begin to understand that it gives so many people a purpose and so many families, their livelihood. The rest of the world doesn’t understand America’s exorbitant military spending because we see its devastating consequences abroad, not its ubiquitous presence at home.


I think every urban American child should do a “semester-abroad” exchange programme with a rural American family during high-school and vice versa. There are some very fine people on both sides.


We picked up some seasonable Apple cider (the non-alcoholic variety) from Mowery Cider Mill, which has been pumping it out since 1901. We had missed Loudonville’s “Mohican Pow-Wow”, an annual celebration of the Native-American populations in the area. 1901 was about as much history as we’d get. America has an amazing ability to preserve and celebrate its modern history (every building over 100 years old has its own museum built next to it — a far cry from India’s monumental apathy). The far older history of the Native-American tribes seems slightly harder to find.

In the evening, I shot a gun for the first time. It was a unique rush and I loved it. In a friends’ back-garden, we were taught to properly load and shoot handguns and rifles from a private arsenal. We used empty beer cans for target practice and learned about why locals are so distrustful of Hillary Clinton. I must say, I don’t understand the visceral hatred of such a vanilla woman. She is not boisterous in her campaigning or particularly controversial in her rhetoric and yet something about her irreconcilably jars small-town America. But I’m not going to get into politics with the guy holding a rifle. Especially not after a few beers.

We finished the day at the local bar. This was one time where I felt conspicuous in my skin and in my clothes. Everyone in the packed bar turned to look at us as we entered and I remember smiling sheepishly as if to say, “I’m here for the beer too, guys”. But after we bought a round and started chatting with strangers, I forgot that I looked different to anyone in that bar. We talked about the Michigan-Ohio sporting rivalry that manifests itself at every possible occasion. The main lesson I learned is: you can enjoy another community’s company by focussing on what you have in common (ie. beer). They probably don’t support gay marriage or abortion but luckily, I wasn’t engaged or pregnant.

I think every urban American child should do a “semester-abroad” exchange programme with a rural American family during high-school and vice versa. There are some very fine people on both sides.


Part 2: The Hipsters are Coming

There were four stores on the block next to our AirBnB in New York: a liquor store, a laundromat, a fried-chicken shop and a dog-wash. One of these is not like the others. At Dog Wash N’ Go, on Malcolm X Boulevard in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant (Bed-Stuy) neighbourhood, patrons spend upwards of $150 grooming, bathing and baby-sitting their pets. Next door, across from the beautiful old brownstone buildings, you can buy a bottle of malt liquor for $1. It’s a tell-tale sign of the man-bunned spectre hanging over American cities: gentrification.


In 2010, Bed-Stuy was 70% Black and 10% White; it is currently 50% Black and 25% White. As white, college-educated millennials migrate to cities like New York, they tend to push out long-time residents (working-class, black tenants) as rents rise. Since millennials tend to have kids later than previous generations, many couples splurge on pets first. For $100, Dog Wash N' Go will give Noah and Maddison’s golden retriever a haircut.

I spent a month in an AirBnB in Bed-Stuy and on my last day, I too needed a haircut. I unwittingly walked across the street to Kadija’s Unisex Hair-Salon. There were 10 people in the hair-salon: four women getting their hair done by four female stylists and a terrified-looking 12-year old boy getting his hair trimmed by a burly male barber. All of them stopped what they were doing and gawked at me when I walked in. It was like walking in on your parents having sex. They were all African-American and I didn’t realise that I was intruding upon the sanctimony of a sacred black cultural institution: the barber’s shop.

“What you want?” said the man, breaking the silence after a few seconds.

“Do you do men’s haircuts?” I asked.

“What… what kinda haircut you want?”

“A… normal (?) haircut?” I made a scissor shape with my fingers. They all looked at each other in silence. Finally, one woman told me to go to another barber down the street, which did “men’s haircuts”.

I found the smaller barber’s shop with its proprietor inside, making a wig. He gladly agreed to cut my hair. After I told him how I wanted it, he began to go to work. His barber’s shop was modest but well-lit and had a great sound-system belting out ‘Bounce Back’ by Big Sean. After a few minutes he stopped and put down the scissors, picked up a shoe-box that was lying on the floor and took out a pair of brand-new Nike basketball shoes. He admired them for a minute and I asked him who gave them to him.

“This lady-friend of mine”, he said.

“Oh wow,” I said, “she is definitely a keeper!”


Gentrification made me think about the uneasy coexistence between rich and poor in urban India, often at much closer proximity. The difference there is that rich migrants are not moving into the same houses as current tenants.

“Naw. She just tryna chill…” his voice tailed off as he got back to cutting my hair. Then he asked me something I wasn’t expecting. “What are you, a Hindu?”

“Uhh… I was born into a Hindu family, but I don’t really believe in God”, I muttered as I saw his eyes narrowing.

“Well I’m a Christian and in the Bible, it says that women were put on this earth to work for men. To help men, you know what I’m saying?”

Now, my memory of the Bible is a little hazy but that’s not exactly how I remembered it. “I mean, men and women are here to help each other, right?”

“Don’t tell me you one of them feminists,” he said, “This a barber shop. You can speak freely here.”

I asked him about how gentrification was changing his neighbourhood, to change the topic. I had noticed that he was one of the few black proprietors in a primarily black neighbourhood. There were plenty of Chinese take-aways, all run by East-Asians; the numerous liquor stores were also run by East-Asians; the ubiquitous Delis that serve as grocery/convenience stories were all run by Arabs; the fried chicken shops were run by Punjabis; it was only the Soul Food joints and the barber shops that seemed to be run by African-Americans. Most establishments had plexiglass barriers separating the cashiers from customers. There were a few fancy restaurants and coffee shops distilling avocado lattes and other abominations, but they were still the exception. The main smell on the street was that of delicious jerk chicken being grilled out in the open the street-corner. Thank heavens for that.

I asked him whether the gentrification had meant that schools, health services or public infrastructure had improved at all — or whether it was unequivocally a bad thing.


“Ain’t nobody give a **** about no schools,” he lamented, “Alls I care about is that my customers all leaving.” It strikes me as a vicious circle: black residents leave a neighbourhood; black store-owners have fewer customers and so they also leave. Perhaps that’s an over-simplification. Gentrification is a hot-topic that much has been written about. It made me think about the uneasy coexistence between rich and poor in urban India, often at much closer proximity. The difference there is that rich migrants are not moving into the same houses as current tenants.

My hair was cut. It cost $20, which is about par by American standards. In a neighbourhood where $100 dog-stylists and $20 oyster happy-hours are popping up, I’m happy $20 haircuts and $6.50 jerk chicken still exist. The hipsters are coming and I hope they don’t ruin everything.

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