Is Appalachian Kentucky our state's Detroit?
Not Detroit, the "Arsenal of Democracy" when the U.S. won World War II, but today's Detroit, now $20 billion in debt and the nation's largest bankrupt city?
Answer: partly yes, but mostly no.
Yes, meaning an East Kentucky of lost jobs, blighted landscape and many people fearful for the future — there is a similarity.
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But no, Detroit was a hub for commerce — shipping, manufacturing, farming, construction, finance — long before Henry Ford built the first Model-T.
East Kentucky was never that diversified, from Daniel Boone's Wilderness Trail in the 18th century to the wartime trains north in the 20th century, packed with job-seekers for defense plants.
Now, after 200 years of extracting its natural resources to enrich Americans elsewhere, East Kentucky is an exhausted rural industrial region in a new knowledge economy.
Unlike Detroit, however, where the City Hall screwed up, this is not a place of busted debtors. It is the reverse, a land of impoverished creditors. Oh, I know the scornful questions: Since $23 billion was spent by Washington "fixing" things, why is East Kentucky still poor 50 years after Harry Caudill wrote about it? Or, why don't they buy a bus ticket out? Or, could they dam up the Big Sandy, the Cumberland and Kentucky rivers and turn the Eastern Kentucky coalfields into a huge national park with three lakes?
Yes, I heard those and meaner comments on my turn at "saving" Appalachia with a federal agency 30 years ago. But, unlike the other "saviors" who bragged on what money would buy in just a few years, I had a secret.
Descended from the first settlers of the region, I knew the history had a different timeline.
Those billions were not enough. Restitution is still due for 200 years of digging, cutting, and abusing land; also killing, cheating and control of people and courthouses by absentee owners and their minions, the local elites in a colonial economy.
That said, there is no silver bullet, but there is revival in diversity: Better trained, better paid and more respected teachers in more rigorous schools. Connect the paychecks that flow from education and health care. Another connection: Fight for broadband. Use the "big roads" out to "earn-and-learn" apprentice jobs in plants like Toyota. Repair the environment, perhaps with a new youth corps like the fabled CCC of the Depression era, and create a new narrative in tourism: ecology, heritage and recreation. Get a better civic life. This is what restitution would mean. There is a staff already available. It is the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) in Washington. Don't laugh. It works if you work it. It did when I was there.