Appalachia. Appalachia. (Pronounced APP-uh-LATCH-uh, just in case anyone might try to lead you astray with some long vowels.) If that doesn’t sound like the name of a magical wonderland, I don’t know what does.

I’m biased, though — likely because those steel-blue hills and gray skies make up the landscape of a large portion of my heart. I’m a born and bred daughter of steel country, ride-or-die for Pittsburgh in everything I do, quite literally inking my love for my homeland on my arm.

And yet, it seems that surprisingly few people really know where or what Appalachia is. Ask 11 people to define Appalachia, and you’ll get 11 different answers (I tried this in the Grist newsroom just to confirm). Pittsburgh can’t be Appalachia because it’s a city; Alabama can’t be Appalachia because it’s too far south. The region of our fair nation that is arguably the most interesting is inarguably the hardest to understand — which is exactly what makes it so fascinating.


Garen M.

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To start, let’s talk about where you can draw the borders of Appalachia. You could tip over the world’s largest Keystone Ice just above the Pennsylvania-New York border and let it spread over 1,000 miles southwest to cover a sizable chunk of northeastern Mississippi — at least, that’s the consensus of most geographers. You would cover more than 400 counties and 25 million-plus people in between, according to the Appalachian Regional Commission.

Some would argue that the region stretches even further afield, at least culturally: Colin Woodard, author of American Nations, redefines the borders of the Appalachian regions by examining voting returns and migration patterns. He writes that the Appalachian influence extends across Texas and Oklahoma, describing it as “a culture formed in a state of near constant danger and upheaval, characterized by a warrior ethic and a commitment to personal sovereignty and individual liberty.” If you’ve ever cringed through a Steelers-Bengals game of late, you may have some concept of what that means.

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Why should you care about this enchanted, angry place? Its beauty, for one — from the lovely old steel-money cities to the hills around them. Its people, who love it fiercely. Its role in our nation’s energy, if you care about that sort of thing. The stark difference between its flourishing cities and otherworldly rural parts.

You interested? Let’s go.

The C-word

Let’s play a word association game: I say Appalachia, you say … coal. It’s ugly, it’s awkward on the tongue, and it’s more or less an expletive in environmental circles, but that’s what you say, because that’s what you think of. The cause of a third of the world’s carbon emissions happens to be the most infamous export of my homeland. It is what it is.

Appalachia was the seat of the Industrial Revolution — a period of time you may know as “the reason the U.S. is so rich, and also the fundamental reason the whole planet is kind of fucked now.” But why did it happen there — among the soft-domed mountains of West Virginia, the rolling hills of Tennessee, the glassy rivers of Western Pennsylvania? I talked to geographer Jim Russell about what made industry grow out of Appalachia:

“I like to think of Appalachia as where industry took hold because of the physical geography.

Manufacturing [was] located in a few places because they had all the ingredients — you had to have the transport — so, rivers — and the rivers cut through the hills, and in the hills you found your coal. That’s a hallmark of Appalachian topography [that] defines the region.”

When I asked Russell if the nature of that geography is unique relative to other regions of the country,  he responded, “Oh yeah, without a doubt.”

Today, Appalachia’s role in coal production is shifting. Because coal mining and exploration has been going on there since the late 1800s, the region contains 82 percent of the country’s coal mines — but because those mines are increasingly tapped out, it only produces 27 percent of the nation’s coal. (That doesn’t mean production is waning entirely: as The Atlantic points out this week, the amount of coal mined in West Virginia in 2010 exceeds the amount mined in the 1950s. That, however, is mostly attributable to mine mechanization.) Most coal produced in the U.S. today comes from far west, in Wyoming and Montana.

Mountaintop mining in Kentucky.

Mountaintop mining in Kentucky.Doc Searls

Even as coal is dying — kicking and screaming — across Central Appalachia, a 2015 study from Duke shows that the impacts of coal mining on the landscape are still very, very apparent: Parts of Central Appalachia are 40 percent flatter after 40 years of coal mining in the region.

From Duke:

“We tend to measure the impact of human activity based on the area it affects on a map, but mountaintop mining is penetrating much more deeply into the earth than other land use in the region like forestry, agriculture or urbanization,” said Emily Bernhardt, a professor of biology at Duke and co-author on the study. “The depth of these impacts is changing the way the geology, water, and vegetation interact in fundamental ways that are likely to persist far longer than other forms of land use.”

It can be hard to rustle up much feeling for impacts to “geology, water, and vegetation” — but consider the very real impact that all that has on that other Appalachian resource: people. A report from Grist fellow Clay Aldern discloses the very real impacts that mountaintop removal mining has on the mental and physical health of those living in communities around it. You’ve heard about the physical impacts of terrible air and water quality — as recently as 2014, a state of emergency was declared after the local water supply for Charleston, W.Va., was contaminated by a coal production chemical plant spill. But there are real, quantifiable mental impacts, too: Residents of mountaintop removal counties are 1.5 times as likely to exhibit symptoms of depression as those of counties without it — even when controlling for socioeconomic factors.

Let’s talk about those factors, though. West Virginia — the only state to be entirely contained within Appalachia — has the second-lowest median income in the country. The same year as the West Virginia water crisis, The New York Times did an analysis of the “hardest places to live” in the United States, based on factors like education, income, and disability. Six counties of Eastern Kentucky — right in the heartland of Appalachian coal country — ranked as the most difficult to live in. An accompanying portrait painted of the region in The New York Times Magazine is one in which coal is spectral at best, employing just 54 people in Clay County, Ky., the poorest in the country. But no other industry has come to life to take its place. As Russell explains:

“You can go through a lot of areas, and you know it’s a coal town even if there’s no coal industry anymore. You can see how it’s laid out, you can see it in the building stock and the population. You can particularly see it in the clear economic distress. If there wasn’t coal, there’s really nothing else, because [development of these towns was] about the proximity to coal, which really doesn’t put you in proximity to anything else economically useful. And that’s a problem.”

The legacy of coal in the region is so strong that — fun fact — every Pennsylvania house deed includes a stipulation that the property is not protected against mine subsidence. Translation: If your house falls in because a dormant coal mine has turned up a sinkhole on your property, tough potatoes. (You can buy insurance against this fairly nightmarish scenario across coal country.)

The EPA’s forecast for this year shows that in 2016, for the first time, natural gas will replace coal as the top source of electricity for the country. What’s the source of all this cheap natural gas? The Marcellus and Utica Shales, which stretch across the northern end of Appalachia and currently produce 44 percent of the nation’s shale gas.

You might think that’s a win for a region looking to rebound from the era of coal, but natural gas is no picnic. Some research has indicated that the methane impact of fracking rivals the CO2 impact of coal — and that’s to say nothing of the degree to which chemicals used in the fracking process (and we don’t even know what those are) have contaminated the air and water of communities by wells.

You see a pattern, then: Appalachia is a land that knows from being pillaged for its resources and left to die.

The real tension, however, lies in the fact that it’s the rural areas that are ever more decimated — while Appalachian cities are suddenly flourishing. Yes: It’s time to talk about the other other c-word.

Cities? What cities?

Geographer Russell tells me that this is a “Golden Era of Appalachian Cities.” I’ve seen this firsthand: My own beloved hometown is a wildly different place than it was when I left for college nearly a decade ago. Bon Appetit and The New York Times breathily fawn over the city’s growing food scene, neighborhoods you used to avoid at night if you had much sense are now the ones with all the nightlife, and a Google flag — a literal flag! — waves over the site of the Nabisco factory that used to pump the scent of cookies a full mile to my front door.

None of this is because of coal — well, immediately speaking. Russell explains to me that the robber barons who built Pittsburgh up throughout the 19th century — Frick, Mellon, Carnegie — endowed the city with money where it mattered; ie, the universities. Because of that, the city now thrives on health care, education, and tech.

You see iterations of this evolution in Birmingham, Chattanooga, and — you’ve probably heard about this one — Asheville, lauded (infuriatingly, if you ask me) as the only cool, progressive city of the South. If you haven’t, here’s an excerpt from the NY Daily News:

Though it’s been relentlessly hyped — visitors to this town of 87,000 topped 9 million last year — Asheville can still surprise with food, culture, and even fashion that rivals bigger burgs. And its singular mix of worldliness and hominess gives it a character unique among cities below the Mason-Dixon line.

I sent this to my colleague Katie Herzog, an Asheville native, who responded (as she is wont to do): “This article enrages me.” A year ago, Katie wrote about how Asheville has changed:

Asheville has become a different place. It’s not just the downtown lofts, the Urban Outfitters, the high-rise hotels where weekly flops used to be — it’s the people who have changed. It has a world-renowned food scene and a multitude of bars, breweries, and now distilleries, but you don’t see locals or even many freaks anymore, just packs of visitors taking selfies with buskers. Many of the businesses that survived rent increases have thrived, but they serve a richer crowd now, those attracted to the city by articles in the Times, GQ, and Wine Spectator.

I feel the same exact way about every doe-eyed style section piece about Pittsburgh: incensed, and struck by a twinge of heartache that the place I love more than anything else is changing into something I don’t know anymore. Claiming that a city is cool based only on its shiny new accoutrements is not just lazy — it’s disrespectful. Cool by nouveau New York standards, fine, but any Appalachian worth her weight in anthracite will tell you we don’t give a shit about that trash. Sure, I might like being able to get some artisanal cocktail with rhubarb-infused bitters or whatever when I go home, but not nearly as much as I pine for $3.75 vodka-grapefruits in the Irish bar where they play old reruns of Penguins games in the off-season and my friends can chain-smoke inside. I haven’t found that anywhere else, and I don’t expect to — that is how you know it’s Pittsburgh-special.

Polish Hill, a neighborhood in Pittsburgh.

Polish Hill, a neighborhood in Pittsburgh.Jo Guldi

My objection to this changing landscape comes from a place of privilege and some naïveté, perhaps — my friends’ parents, for example, are equal parts delighted and relieved that a city they thought would never come back from the death of the steel industry is now thriving.

You don’t have to drive 30 minutes outside the city to see just how small that radius of success is. And Russell explains that this is true across Appalachia: While the cities thrive in ways that couldn’t have been dreamed of 20 years ago, the rural areas are poorer and more desolate than ever. “I think the big thing here is that people outside the region haven’t found these cities yet. And once they do, that divide between urban and rural is going to be exacerbated,” he says.

The playing field isn’t level within the cities, either. For Pittsburghers who grew up in neighborhoods that are now gentrifying, primarily African-Americans, the city is an entirely different and less hospitable place — and you will find the same to be true across Appalachian cities, Russell confirms.

But for all the change happening, some things are constant. The precipitous, sloping hills dotted with crooked little houses that arch up from the riverbed still look the same as they always have. The Pittsburgh Plate Glass building still looms, sharp and glittering, over the skyline. The dusty trails in the giant park by my parents’ house have not shifted, it seems, since my much-shorter, more-scuffed legs explored them. I have not seen the mountains of my childhood leveled. I have not seen the rivers made putrid with coal ash. I have not seen my hometown empty out, devoid of opportunities for employment or anything else.

When outsiders talk about Appalachia, they rely on the superficial: They write it off as a no-good land of hillbillies and Hillberg carbines, or they hold it up as the next great place, an undiscovered country of mountains and just-so mojitos. It is messier, less straightforward to talk of towns and people destroyed and divided by the very industries that brought them there. It’s messier still to talk about how those industries still thrive there, in different form, promising glossy change and growth for a scarred region.

Maybe the reason people have trouble defining Appalachia is because it is a place that is impossible to define. There is nowhere more beautiful, more tragic, or more conflicted in the country. It’s a place where the damage that is to come — damage that will be unkind to those who live on these lands, and unevenly so — leaves almost no room to worry about the damage that has already happened.

When attempting to describe Appalachia, however, perhaps native son Bret Michaels (yes!) unconsciously did it best: “Every rose has its thorn.” And if you’ll take me up on it, I’d love to talk more about my favorite place over $1 beers while that perfect song blasts on the shitty sound system in the most tobacco-ridden bar in town.