Ode to Sooty Cities

If you’ve never been to central Kentucky, let me help you imagine it. Ever seen a bucolic postcard scene of painted white fences, grazing thoroughbreds, and multi-million-dollar horsebarns up against stunningly blue skies? That’s pretty much what it looks like between the Bluegrass Airport and our little town. When you first see it, it really seems like it must be fake, a put-0n for tourists, but then you hop on over to the scenic Bluegrass Parkway (everything around here has “bluegrass” in the title), and it becomes pretty clear that this is like driving into a postcard.

So while our house is within the border of a tiny town, those rolling hills of bluegrass are never more than a few miles away. And I like them fine. I even think they’re beautiful, but here’s the thing. It’s just not what warms my heart.

Now pause that thought for a moment.

Monday found us once again driving across middle America for a good eight hours in our little hatchback. If it seems like we’re always on the road, well, sometimes it feels like it. There are myriad reasons why we like driving to visit this part of the country, you know, seeing our families, catching up with old friends, getting to stop at Sheetz gas stations (you might think I exaggerate but let’s just say that we really do know what the first exit number is we can stop at to get my Sheetz fix once we make it to either Ohio or West Virginia). And there are, of course, a lot of things on the drive that we don’t particularly like, too, namely, the giant coal plant you get to see right at the border between Kentucky and West Virginia that always gives me a sinking feeling deep in my stomach. But that’s another blog post, if I ever dare.

On this particular route to the mid-Atlantic states, the first heart-warming, gooey feeling I get starts somewhere round about here:

That, my friends, is Charleston, West Virginia. (The photo was swiped from Flickr; I tried to link to the original but couldn’t, so this little wave of the hand to someone else’s copyright will have to do.) I’m guessing that most folks who live in central Kentucky–indeed, most folks in general–grimace at the sight of this and similar cities, but I find them charming.

There’s something about the city built in a steep river valley, with the history of soot and coal or steel, with the big metal bridges, the tall, skinny, grayish blackish brick buildings, church steeples rising up. It’s old-school industrial America at its finest.

I feel this way when we drive through Charleston or through Wheeling, but most of our trip avoids the smaller towns, since we stay on the interstate. Something about these places, though, resonates with me; they evoke the  little towns of central PA, where I grew up, driving along the Susquehanna River. Harrisburg is one of my favorites, but of course I’m a little biased. Indeed, perhaps the best example of my heartwarming sooty splendor is the Steel City itself.

Pittsburgh, of course, used to be even sootier. My dad remembers it from his childhood, and if you want an amusing read, try out H. L. Mencken’s famous Pittsburgh diatribe, “The Libido for the Ugly.” It’s a lot nicer now, thanks to environmental protection laws, the renovating of old factory buildings into multi-use spaces, and fun restaurants, but there’s something still sooty and charming about it.

Last night I was talking with someone from Texas who relocated to Pennsylvania four years ago. We were talking about Texas, about Kentucky, and about Pennsylvania, especially about how J and I feel about living in Kentucky. We said we liked it a lot, and then I tried to explain my fondness for industrial America. This Texan didn’t buy it, but she sympathized. She said she feels the same way when she gets into a wide, flat, sprawling city, as tends to be present in that whole ‘nother country (you know, the one I refer to as “the land of one-story houses”).

It’s all a matter of perspective, I guess. Where you were raised.

What communities you’ve known.

I wonder if I’ll ever prefer the white fences and fancy barns to the row-houses, steel bridges, old factory buildings of the mid-Atlantic states.

Seems unlikely.

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2 comments on “Ode to Sooty Cities

  1. Anna says:

    Interesting. It must have to do with where you were brought up, like you said. I get that warm feeling when I drive by West, TX (the town), of all places, heading south on I-35. Just looking out over those rolling fields dotted with stands of Live Oaks stretching out toward the horizon as far as the eye can see, with a big wide sky above and the sun sinking low in the clouds…makes me feel peaceful and content. Same thing with driving north on Hwy. 6 toward Valley Mills…peaceful, rolling pasture land strewn with wildflowers. Heaven. It’s not the people or the culture that I love, mind you. Just the landscape. I’ve a feeling I will love Kentucky bluegrass, too. Can’t wait to see it!

  2. elizabeth says:

    Thanks for your thoughts, Anna.

    A Baylor student told me once that he had been accepted to a school in western PA near where J grew up, but he couldn’t go there because when he went for his admissions interview, he felt so claustrophobic due to the trees and hills. He couldn’t handle the sky being so “small.” It reminds me of the first time we drove to Texas–I had the complete opposite reaction. The sky was so big it felt like it was falling down on me, smothering me or swallowing me up!

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