Diary of a Transplant: Bridging the City/Country (“Us” Versus “Them”) Divide

  |   September 27, 2012  |  Comment


We encountered the “us and them” situation — us being downstaters, and them being locals — on our very first trip upstate to look for property,  although at the time we didn’t realize we’d stumbled into such a loaded polemic. We just thought it was common sense.

Visiting Sullivan County for the first time, we wondered: Why don’t the locals get it together and capitalize on the proximity of the city and start bringing in the bucks? Elevate their economic status? Get some Fair Trade lattes up here already. And some micro-breweries. And, like, clean up the place a little?

Typical city people, we were. Arriving somewhere relatively unspoiled, and immediately demanding to know why it didn’t have the same people, food and aesthetics of the place we’d just come from.

Once we settled (near Hudson, first in Columbia County, then in Greene County), we learned a little more about the disconnect between city and country expectations. And I continued to experience (in my own head) the urban sentiment that wanted to turn every town into Soho North, and every hamlet into a twee Hollywood set.

But what we slowly figured out is that a lot of country people don’t want city people to take over and reinvent their towns. In fact, far from welcoming city people into their midsts, quite a few actively opposed the takeover of their town by New Yorkers. Huh? Say what? How could anybody not want to see beautiful hipsters shopping at precious farm stands, and for those townies over there to clean up all the crap in their front yard?

Even more, we discovered, there was actual hostility toward the very notion of city people.

Transplant friends told stories both petty and terrible of prejudice they’d faced as former New Yorkers. In the truly worst case I know of, one friend was literally almost run out of town by the old guard in his picturesque little town on the Hudson. The zoning board harassed him, tried to destroy his business, and stalked his family for evidence in their court cases. It’s an appalling story.

Most cases were more mild. A friend told of being cold-shouldered at parties and neighborhood events when it was discovered she was from the city.

A local, explaining the widespread acceptance of a town leader who happens to be gay explained that: “Around here, the only people we discriminate against are city people.”

A local kid took it a little further, explaining why a display at a county fair was all messed up: “It was set up by city people, and you know they don’t really know how to do stuff?”

A local farmer, in a conversation about the sometimes stunning lack of animal knowledge among city people offered this: “They’re stupid. They don’t know shit. I don’t know how they get their asses out of bed in the morning.”

With all this hostility and suspicion, it’s no wonder that a locally born and bred friend warned us with great seriousness not to tell people where we were from. “I hate to think how they’ll treat you,” she said.

We have never hid that we are city transplants, and we have been treated fairly, even warmly, by everyone we’ve met, at least as far as we know. (Even by the farmer I mentioned above, who knows exactly where I’m from, and still seems to trust that I know how to get my ass out of bed in the morning.)

But the funny thing that’s been happening, is that now I kind of get the prejudice. Where once I wondered why no one had the initiative to put some zinnias into a galvanized bucket, hang out a charmingly hand-painted sign and jack up the prices, now I get that some people don’t want a city gloss on their low-key lives. And I’m not really sure I want it either.

There are people who chose to live in the country, and in an undeveloped place like Greene County, precisely because they like the lack of fancy. They don’t go to Hudson, they don’t care about what shoes are cool this fall, and they don’t want to do business with high-maintenance city people. (And, yes, many of them are former city transplants.)

And now it’s happening to me. (Okay, sort of. I still wish that somebody would, please, just come up and open a cool coffee shop. I don’t need a vegan boutique like Chatham has, or a gluten-free bakery, or an arty movie theater. But a good coffee shop would be great.)

But I also love the lack of intensity, the I’m-minding-my-own-business attitude, the practical knowledge and abilities of almost everyone I meet up here, the shortage of i-Pad-hunger, the lack of what-do-you-mean-you-haven’t-been-to-Thailand? conversations.

I don’t think that tension between city and country will ever go away. But I love watching my place in the polemic shift.

  • JerseyGuy

    I am from New Jersey. I purchased 50 acres of vacant land in Delaware County – where my in-law family has had a country home for 50+ years. I had been a weekender for 12 years at the time of my purchase. A property across from me went up for sale. Long Island people bought it. They only own 6 acres. However, they started to use all of the adjacent land as though it was their own. I had to buy much larger NO TRESPASSING signs and put up caution tape to keep them out. Everybody in our little hamlet can’t stand them. They ride quads all over, shoot guns, etc. They had destroyed what we enjoy about country living- the privacy, peace, and quiet. I think many people from city and suburbs who come to the country try too hard, and should be low-key at first. Explore what your area is like before you try to impose your lifestyle on those around you. Yes, many of my neighbors who are natives or long-time weekenders like myself do ride quads, shoot guns, etc. But, we do it in a respectful, low key way so as not to impose ourselves upon those around us. I enjoy the quiet and privacy that my 50 acre farm provides. I just wish that others would do the same.

  • leslie s.

    This was SO enjoyable to read, so I thankyou! And, ill give ya a little laugh, my best friend’s dad up in Ulster County, told me he p***** in the reservoirs every chance he gets, just for kicks. Oh, and he added that, that’s why you city folk just loveee nyc water!

    Leslie s.

    • sean

      I didn’t really laugh at the idea of some guy pissing in drinking water. It’s a nasty thing to do.

      • kandyharris

        What’s that thing that WC Fields said about how he never touches water because of the unseemly acts that fish commit in it?

      • leslie s.

        I agree, not very funny, I think my reaction to my friend’s dad was, “huhhh???? But whyyyyyy?!” Also, I think I was stuck on stupid for awhile after, just an example of how much discontent some of the country folk have for city folk.

  • Laura Shea

    Why you hatin’ on Chatham?! 🙂

    In all seriousness, I really enjoyed this post. I was the American abroad who was embarrassed on behalf of all the other too-loud, too-obnoxious Americans. I was the city dweller, born and bred, who never wanted anything but to leave the city. And now, I am finally living the country life of which I’ve always dreamed. I’d no sooner let on that I’m from the city than share the horrifying amount we paid in rent for a one-and-a-half bedroom apartment in Brooklyn for nine years.

    I completely get not wanting to change the way things are, as I totally enjoy it (and, I have to admit, have started accumulating random detritus in my yard already). You can come by for coffee anytime; I’ll grab the fancy city stuff and we can chat about how much we don’t miss expensive strollers.

  • larissa

    Jersey guy, that is an awful story and just shows it’s more about attitude than where you come from. There are jerks on both sides.
    Laura, so glad you guys are living the dream. So are we. I’m definitely coming for coffee. (Just don’t make me go to that vegan boutique…) 😉

  • larissa

    and thanks Leslie! Yikes, no more more tap water for me!

  • TheFort

    Great article and very helpful.

  • CMK

    I have moved, a lot, and learned that WI people dislike those from Chicago. Mainers dislike “Massholes” and, now I know, that NYC folk are not liked….anywhere?!

    In WI, a “local” stuffed a dead raccoon in a newcomer’s mailbox. Eeww.

    • lesliesiminson

      That’s histerical!

  • Kim

    Luckily, so far we haven’t had any issues with us vs. them – but there are a lot of other weekenders around us, and many local people depend on city people for their livelihoods – grass mowing, house cleaning, snow plowing, etc.
    But, I have heard the term ‘citiot’ more than once – though thankfully not referring to us.

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