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A Conversation with Urban Appalachian Scholar Phillip J. Obermiller

by Niki King

Look up “urban Appalachian” and you’re sure to find the Urban Appalachian Council, which has worked since 1974 to “promote a decent quality of life for Appalachian people of Greater Cincinnati” through direct services and advocacy.  They’ve also created an astounding body of research, that taken together, traces the experience of Appalachians in Cincinnati and other Mid-western cities over the last 40 years. This fall, The HillVille caught up with Phil Obermiller, a longstanding member of the Council’s Research Committee who has written extensively on the subject, to find out what’s new.

Q: What are some of the current trends you’re seeing in Cincinnati’s urban Appalachian population?

Despite the services that specialize in transporting deceased migrants back to the mountains to be buried, there is a real awareness that people’s connection to their homeplace is diminishing generation by generation, even among some of the original migrants. There’s a myth out there that everyone wants to come back to the mountains. The fact is their children or their grandchildren are here in the cities. Their neighbors of many years, co-workers and homes are here. There may be some nostalgia about going back. Certainly some people who are able to afford a cabin on Lake Cumberland, or something like that, can re-establish those connections. But very few people actually have family places left, relatively speaking. Among those who do, quite often those places are “owned” by quite a number of people within the family, each claiming the same land.

Also, housing is an issue for people who still have some sense of that place. Where are they going to live? How are they going to obtain medical services? How are they going to find retirement homes and nursing homes to care for them away from their urban family networks? The reality of the situation is often different than the nostalgia or the myth.

Q: How do you think the population has changed in the last 40 years?

The survival issues have changed. When the migrants first came it was all about jobs and housing. The basics: How do I get settled, find a place for my family, a school for my children? Now that migrant population, which is getting smaller, by the way, is also aging, so today the issues are more around health, for instance. The housing and job issues have been largely resolved. For the subsequent generations, the children of the migrants, particularly in low income areas, substance abuse is seriously affecting those younger Appalachians, and that’s another major change.

As you know Appalachians in Cincinnati are no longer migrants, they’re urban Appalachians.There are not great numbers any more in the port-of-entry neighborhoods(like Over-the-Rhine and Lower Price Hill). Many of those families have moved or been moved to first and second ring neighborhoods here in the city. There seems to be a westward drift. The Mill Creek is an industrial valley that sort of cuts Cincinnati in half north to south. Many of the industrial jobs the migrants originally took were in the Mill Creek Valley and along the riverfront and that determined how neighborhoods were established. Interestingly enough, Mike’s research shows that poverty is now moving westward across the city.

As for the second generation, not everyone is in the city. They’re moving to the outerbelt and beyond. We have a large circle freeway called I-275 here and that’s where the development is. Many people, including Appalachians, are gravitating toward the jobs, the schools, the housing and the relative safety of that area. So Appalachians, particularly subsequent generations and those who’ve assimilated a bit are also going in that direction. You can tell by the large churches that are out around that outer belt. Those are the new places of worship.

Two things are happening in the (downtown) neighborhoods of Cincinnati. Gentrification makes it impossible for people to live in certain areas because the prices are too high. Secondly there’s ethnic succession that’s been going on for a long time. For example, Appalachians in Lower Price Hill replaced the Germans who moved into the suburbs. Now there’s a Hispanic population moving in. There’s always a succession going on where neighborhoods are able to still exist. In some cases neighborhoods are no longer able to exist.

There’s been a dramatic population drop in Lower Price Hill. We used to say there were more Appalachians living in urban neighborhoods in cities such as Cincinnati than there were in some rural counties actually in Appalachia. Ironically some of those areas are looking more like the rural counties, in terms of population.

Q: How is the level of participation in the UAC and urban Appalachian events and organizations? Are you seeing a decline as the population ages and second and third generations lose a sense of their Appalachian identity?

I think some institutions within the urban Appalachian community are getting stronger and some are declining or disappearing. For example, the UAC research committee has changed to reflect what’s going on. It used to be that scholars from Illinois and Indiana and parts of Ohio and Kentucky would meet and share their research about urban Appalachians. Now we have a much more concentrated group that includes Appalachian people doing their own research. So the research is now for and by Appalachians. There has been a lot of participatory research conducted in Cincinnati. Community-based research sponsored by the UAC or with it’s support is going on and I think that’s a good direction, a direction of sophistication and community control, something you don’t have when you are new to the city and just gaining ground.

I would also say the UAC has kept the researchers grounded. It still strives to do that even though some of us are university based, making sure the research reflects the reality rather than the supposed, theoretical approach to things.

There’s another point about some institutions getting stronger and some going by the board. Some of that is a generational change. The early leaders, founders of the movement, are now gone or retired. There’s a new group of leaders coming in, well educated, in tune with the philosophy of the organizations, and able to sustain them in their work. For example, the Lower Price Hill Community School has a dynamic new director. UAC continues to flourish under its new director, Greg Howard. Not to say that it’s easy. It’s hard, hard work. But it’s heartening to see the new generations take over the reins.

On the other hand, some things have gone by the board. We lost our Appalachian newspaper, The Appalachian Connection, and AppalPAC, an independent organization that tried to support Appalachian policies and political issues in elections. We’ve also seen some changes in Dayton and Cincinnati in terms of cultural events. UAC’s in its 40s, and Our Common Heritage is just about as old, and both of those organizations support community cultural festivals. For the first time two years ago Mountain Days was not held, and Cincinnati’s Appalachian festival was cancelled due to weather this past year.

There are positive things going, at the same time it’s always a struggle to keep things going.

Q: How did you get involved in the urban Appalachian movement?

In the late 1960s I began to work with an Appalachian street worker by the name of Ernie Mynatt who was a detached social worker employed first by a church organization and later by a foundation to tend to the Appalachian community in Cincinnati. Ernie had a great affect on me. Through him I became a colleague of Mike Maloney and was fortunate enough to be working with Mike at the founding of the Urban Appalachian Council. (Since then) my involvement has mainly been through the UAC’s research committee.

Q: Are you from the mountains yourself?

Yes, but not those mountains, my mother was born in the mountains of Italy. I’m from North Canton in northeastern Ohio. I grew up behind the Hoover sweeper factory, so I have some understanding about company towns, for instance, riding my bicycle up to the YMCA swimming pool and finding it caged off with chain link fence because the company needed that space to expand. So I have some familiarity with a mountain background through my mother. And I have some familiarity with migration – she and her parents came here on a boat.

Q: What first drew you into the movement, was it because Ernie was so inspiring?

I think a lot resonated with me in terms of my own background. Ernie introduced me to another set of people who had an analogous background. Ernie kind of got you going then left you on your own. After that there was an Urban Appalachian Identity Center and then the Urban Appalachian Council, so there was always a touchpoint where I could connect with Appalachians.
There’s no one Appalachian community, there are a lot of neighborhoods, a lot of different people, and they don’t always unite with a single voice. There’s a lot of diversity in terms of social class and race, a lot of diversity in how people identify with their own Appalachian heritage or even want to. So there’s not a capital ‘c’ community anywhere in this city, or anywhere that I know of. It all has to do with local circumstance and how people come together around interests and issues.

Having said that, there’s an openness to people like me, with my Italian and German roots. The urban Appalachian movement has always been open to everyone. That’s a standard Ernie set early and Mike Maloney emphasized in turn. There are no insider/outsiders. There’s only everyone who’s dedicated to the movement.

Q: How has the movement been able to survive in Cincinnati versus other cities where it hasn’t?

I think it’s the leadership and with a philosophy that was laid down in Cincinnati that wasn’t laid down anywhere else. Part of it was the structure Mike Maloney developed when he was at the University of North Carolina. Ernie too, with his openness to everyone, there was a certain charisma, that’s what put Cincinnati in good stead in terms of long term institutions. The contrast between them was that Ernie was not an institution builder but a charismatic leader. Mike was the builder and organizer. They complemented each other.

Mr. Obermiller is a senior visiting scholar in the School of Planning at the University of Cincinnati, a fellow at the University of Kentucky’s Appalachian Center and a member of the Urban Appalachian Council’s Research Committee.

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