A Hidden Renaissance
In this special issue of Civic Renaissance, we learn how a city in the foothills of Appalachia can offer lessons on resilience and revival
Back in June, as part of my Novak Fellowship reporting on civic revival in America, I visited a small town in the foothills of Appalachia where something unusual is happening.
My husband, our then-six-month-old son, and I visited North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, and quickly realized that it is at the center of a revitalization afoot in our country that is going largely unnoticed.
In today’s print issue of USA Today, I penned an essay about what we learned from our visit to Wilkes County, and what lessons it can offer us on how to foster a Civic Renaissance in our own communities and lives.
(If you happen to subscribe to USA Today, I would be thrilled if you might consider saving the story on page A8! I have called six coffee shops and grocery stores—and they either do not carry USA Today or do not have a copy! Talk about the perils of print news…)
The story of Wilkes County is emblematic of a broader, understudied, narrative of renewal within our country, and a closer look offers a path to a brighter future.
In 2014, Anchor Coffee’s Millennial founders, Greg Brady and Nathaniel Griffin, started roasting beans from their homes, sharing their passion for coffee with family and friends. Demand for their craft grew, and in 2015, Anchor Coffee was born. Their passion-turned-vocation filled another urgent need, too. Decades of economic and communal struggle had left a vacuum: Wilkes had no communal hub. Anchor Coffee revived the community “living room,” and quickly became a catalyst for even further social and economic renewal. Now they host concerns, community group meetings, games nights, and more, providing a safe, family-friend venue for gatherings.
This was an important achievement. Wilkes’ trajectory in recent decades tracked the negative stereotypes of white, working class Appalachia—depicted most viscerally in the bestselling memoir, Hillbilly Elegy. Decades of struggle against macro-level trends such as globalization and automation—and domestic crisis such as the opioid epidemic—only made things worse. Lowe’s Home Improvement moved their headquarters from Wilkes, and took many jobs—as well as economic vitality—with it.
But the truth is more textured than this monolithic stereotype of a culture in crisis and decline.
Wilkes’ story shows that these areas and people are irrepressible—and can rise above their challenging circumstances and can succeed, too.
They embody the other-orientedness that is necessary to see a community rebuild after a challenging time. They bring to life the civility, and the “Front Porch” disposition, that is necessary for our freedom and our flourishing—the very topic of my forthcoming book.
The resilience and rebirth of this town has significance far beyond Appalachia.
Wilkes’ story is America’s story too.
There are people across our nation who observe the brokenness in our country, and recognize there is little they can do to change the macro-level problems we are facing. But these people know they can be part of the solution by being decent, caring and kind to those around them in their everyday.
This is where a Civic Renaissance begins—with each of us in our daily conduct.
Anchor Coffee’s original location was in the basement of a rundown building less than 100 yards away from the original Lowe’s Hardware store. New life is emerging from the ashes of the old. This rebirth is happening in Wilkes and around the country.
This Renaissance is something from which we all can learn.
How are you bring part of renewal in your everyday? Do you have any examples of the Hidden Renaissance where you are? Let me know! I’d love to write about it.
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I actually have read (audio book) HILLBILLY ELEGY and just recently saw the movie of the same name on Netflix. I thoroughly enjoyed both the book and the movie, the true life story of the author who rose above his painfully difficult and economically depressed childhood to a very successful life as a distinguished college graduate, successful career as a lawyer and happily married man.
You have added more interest by telling more of the story. Thank you for sharing this little piece of Rural America through your pictures and personal eye witness account, giving us a glimpse of a happier place that many of us might not ever have the opportunity to visit.