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A Better Life, Out Where There's Plenty of Space


Watertown, New York.-- Away upstate, the scenery changes and prosperity fades. New York's rural far north is a landscape of abandoned dairy barns, Victorian farmhouses disappearing into the brush, hand-made For Sale signs and salt-scarred automobiles.

Is this Clinton or Bush country? The established upstate traditiois to elect Republicans, but a governor of Arkansas ought to have a better understanding of this hilly hardscrabble land than a Houston-Washington-Maine Yalie. In many ways, Watertown is closer to Pine Bluff than to Kennebunkport.

On the other hand, rural areas, even truly poor ones with both statistical and actual needs, tend to have an instinctive horror of the smooth-spoken fellow who shows up in their yard declaring that he's from the federal government and he's come to help. To a lot of suspicious folks, Bill Clinton resembles that guy. This perception could give George Bush an advantage up here, if he had any idea how to take advantage of it.

We had the election pushed far back in our minds, actually, as we wandered through a big piece of rural New York recently on a family trip with no real itinerary. We followed back roads up through Pennsylvania and the Finger Lakes region before setting a course for the St. Lawrence.

The journey was useful, if only because it served as a reminder that what's taken for truth in one place can seem absurd in another.

If you watch the network news or read the big magazines, yocould easily get the idea that most of rural America is in crisis, with hookworms in every child and despair on every face. This is a distinctly metropolitan perspective, and that's the perspective that forms the news.

A typical news account takes a new government report, locatea politician to comment on it approvingly, and appends a correspondent's interview with a rural resident that appears to confirm the report's findings. If it is a filmed report, it might add some stark footage from the files, perhaps a strip-mine-polluted stream or a mobile home with a broken tricycle mired in the mud outside.

This isn't to suggest that such reports are intentionally biased, odeliberately misleading. In large part they're only the products of the rural-urban cultural divide that still exists in our country, a fissure that also contributes to the prevalent rural assumption that to walk down any downtown street in a major American city is to take your life in your hands.

A friend of ours in Watertown used to teach in New York CityThen she moved, apprehensively, to a new life and a new teaching job in a small and far from affluent town upstate. To her amazement, she found that the upstate schools were as well equipped as anyone could wish, with books and computers and lab equipment far better than she'd had in the city. It wasn't the end of the world after all.

A recurrent theme in government and metropolitan worries abourural poverty areas is that there ought to be some sort of statistical parity with cities and suburbs. In other words, if a family living on $15,000 a year in Philadelphia is living in poverty, then by definition a family living on $15,000 in Idaho or Garrett County or upstate New York must be living in poverty, too.

But it ain't necessarily so. That family with a reported $15,00income living in an upstate village might have a productive backyard garden. It might get deer meat from the neighbor next door and apples or potatoes from the farm across the road. It might keep its heating bills down by burning wood. And it might take advantage of the untaxed underground economy by, say, trading child care for automobile repairs.

The future of even the most down-at-heel rural areas is, in thlong run, fairly bright. Rural areas have space, a finite resource. Space means a better life for those with access to it. And money, whether it comes with retirees or entrepreneurs, seeks out the places where human life is plainly better.

Rural areas will continue to worry about finding jobs for theiyoung people, and the brightest young people from the country will continue to move to the city, as they have for centuries. But some of them will come back, and meanwhile others will be moving in the other direction.

In the Watertown Times here there was an item about a younman from Sackett's Harbor who had just graduated from Syracuse. He had edited the college paper there, and won an internship with the Wall Street Journal. A bright kid, obviously; his career probably won't be in Sackett's Harbor.

But Sackett's Harbor, a tiny little place on Lake Ontario, is doinall right for itself, thank you. City people come in growing numbers, by car or boat or RV. Some are moving in and opening stores. You can buy gourmet foodstuffs in Sackett's Harbor now, at least in summer, and go to the theater.

If the young fellow from the Syracuse Class of '92 chooses tmove back to Sackett's Harbor in 15 or 20 years, he'll probably find his hometown considerably changed. He may like it better that way, or he may not. Like so many other things, it's all a matter of perspective.

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