The Washington Post

Let’s get nos­tal­gic for city life

- BY KATE CO­HEN Kate Co­hen is a writer in Al­bany, N.Y. American Legion · Lynyrd Skynyrd · Lynyrd Skynyrd · Alabama · New York County, NY · United States of America · Baltimore · Thomas Jefferson · New York City · Lin-Manuel Miranda · Hamilton, Canada · Voorheesville, NY · Sweet Home Alabama · Oriole Park at Camden Yards

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.

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