The Washington Post
Let’s get nostalgic for city life
The Memorial Day celebration in Voorheesville, N.Y, makes me feel positively American. Families line Maple Avenue in lawn chairs and strollers to watch the parade: troops of Brownies and Cub Scouts, the high school marching band in its brassy exuberance, the volunteer firefighters in their shiny trucks and the “float” that is basically a flatbed truck topped with hay bales and middle-aged rockers.
After the parade, everyone streams into the village park, where local officials speak, the American Legion gives away hot dogs and beer, and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” blares through loudspeakers.
That’s right, “Sweet Home Alabama.”
Other songs are played, too, I feel certain. But in the wake of Alabama lawmakers’ extreme attack on reproductive rights earlier in May, that is the one I noticed at this year’s Memorial Day gathering. Whatever the song’s politics may or may not be, I am usually helpless to resist its guitar riffs and willing to accept it as an unofficial anthem of American summer. This time, it struck me as odd that a patriotic celebration in upstate New York would feature a paean to the blue skies of Alabama.
Odder still is a ballpark in a major U.S. city playing “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” for its seventh-inning stretch. Did you know that every game at Camden Yards in Baltimore features a song praising farm life and poking fun at city folk?
In addition to “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” and the “Star-Spangled Banner,” Camden Yards cycles through the patriotic standards “God Bless America,” “America the Beautiful” and “This Land is Your Land.” Every one of them celebrates farmland and open space. From “amber waves of grain” to “purple mountain majesties”; “from the mountains to the prairies / To the oceans white with foam,” there’s not a city in sight.
When we picture our country, we picture the countryside. “Sweet Home Alabama” resonates from sea to shining sea because Alabama is shorthand for “rural.” And “rural” is shorthand for “American.” America was rural when the Constitution was drafted — just 5 percent urban when Thomas Jefferson praised farmers as “the most virtuous” citizens. But the country has been majority urban since 1920. Today, the U.S. population is 82 percent urban.
So what’s wrong with a little nostalgia for (very) bygone days?
It skews the nation’s politics. It allows politicians to extol rural and small-town America as the real America and to play down issues of particular concern to cities, such as infrastructure, clean air and water, and gun violence. It keeps voters from seeing the bias as a problem. If, when we think “American,” we think “rural,” then the people we picture are less racially and ethnically diverse than Americans really are. Rural residents are more conservative about same-sex marriage, gun control and abortion rights, according to Pew Research Center. Urban Americans are more likely to value diversity and to see government as a force for good. Maybe we should start thinking of those values as American values.
For a century, cities have been home to the majority of Americans. It’s time we get misty-eyed over them, too.
I’ll start. A few days after Memorial Day, my family and I went to New York City to see Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton.” I had heard the score many times, but I never before realized how much the musical celebrates New York: mythologizing a famous immigrant’s arrival in New York, where “you can be a new man,” and honoring the everyday urban experience. “There’s nothing like summer in the city, someone in a rush next to someone lookin’ pretty.”
We took the subway afterward from 42nd Street. It was rush hour, and the 6 train was packed. We had to stand separate from each other and reach around strangers to hold onto the pole as the train jerked into motion, carrying a population (I later calculated) larger than that of the town I grew up in.
I tried to catch my son’s eye, to telepath a line from the musical: Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now. But he was already looking. Everybody different from the next body. Close as they could be to make room for one another. Shoulder to shoulder in every shade of skin. Some with their heads wearily tipped back, some managing a few pages in a book, some deep in conversation, some on their phones, some just trying to keep their balance. I could not have felt more American.
I thought: There’s time before July 4. We need to turn this into a float.