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The Great Gentrification

On the evolution of Hoosiers, Okies, and carpetbaggers.
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Rear view of an Okie's car, passing through Amarillo, Texas, heading west in 1941. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

Rear view of an Okie's car, passing through Amarillo, Texas, heading west in 1941. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

Hoosier, Okie, and carpetbagger. As much as Americans move, we hate newcomers. The Hoosier:

The best evidence, however, suggests that "Hoosier" was a term of contempt and opprobrium common in the upland South and used to denote a rustic, a bumpkin, a countryman, a roughneck, a hick or an awkward, uncouth or unskilled fellow. Although the word's derogatory meaning has faded, it can still be heard in its original sense, albeit less frequently than its cousins "Cracker" and "Redneck."

From the South "Hoosier" moved north and westward with the people into the Ohio Valley, where it was applied at first to the presumably unsophisticated inhabitants of Southern Indiana. Later it expanded to include all residents of the state and gradually lost its original, potent connotation of coarseness in manners, appearance and intellect.

Hoosier is among the many slurs applied to migrants from Greater Appalachia. When the hillbillies move in, there goes the neighborhood. They do things funny. They are more savage than human. Locals only, go home inbred.

The Okies hold a more prominent position in American migration folklore. And well they should. The impressive exodus from Oklahoma and the unwelcome in California:

Southwesterners had been moving west in significant numbers since 1910. However, not until the 1930s did this migration, particularly to California, become widely noticed and associated with Oklahomans. During the Great Depression decade Oklahoma suffered a net loss through migration (outflow minus inflow) of 440,000. Although Oklahomans left for other states, they made the greatest impact on California and Arizona, where the term "Okie" denoted any poverty-stricken migrant from the Southwest (Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Texas). From 1935 to 1940 California received more than 250,000 migrants from the Southwest. A plurality of the impoverished ones came from Oklahoma. ...

... The families packed their belongings and set out on a journey of three days or more down Route 66 to a supposedly better life in the Far West. This migration began in earnest in 1935 and peaked between 1937 and 1938. When the migrants got to Barstow, California, they had to decide whether to follow Highway 66 into Los Angeles or turn north toward California's central agricultural valleys. Some 38 percent of the Southwestern migrants chose Los Angeles. They did not find a warm reception. Briefly in 1936 the Los Angeles police established a "bum blockade" at the California borders to keep out undesirables. The new residents who had skills might find a job with reasonable pay. Others lived with friends or after a year's waiting period went on relief. "Okies" quickly blended in and became part of the city's largely Anglo population in the 1930s.

The classic story of "Okie" migration involves those who settled in the San Joaquin Valley. From 1935 to 1940 more than seventy thousand southwesterners migrated to this fertile inland region, hoping for a small plot of their own. It would not happen. Instead, they began harvesting cotton and fruit, pushing out Hispanic and Filipino laborers. The influx of migrants depressed wages, satisfying farm owners, but the "Okies," unlike the Hispanics, tended to stick around after the harvests. Because they arrived impoverished and because wages were low, many lived in filth and squalor in tents and shanty towns along the irrigation ditches. Consequently, they were despised as "Okies," a term of disdain, even hate, pinned on economically degraded farm laborers no matter what state they were from. The California Citizens Association formed to find a solution to the "Okie" influx and succeeded in extending the waiting period for California relief to three years. The federal Farm Security Administration (FSA) provided several clean camps designed to be governed by the residents and to foster a sense of self-respect. But these were only models for state and private organizations, which were not prone to build any kind of residences.

At least Hispanics, like college students, were itinerant. At some point during the year, the real residents got their town back. Real residents were the earlier migrants from destitute Vermont who came after the Spanish. Trust me, it makes perfect sense. Down with Okies.

Carpetbagger maintains relevance today, a common way to discredit someone running for political office. One has to pass the authenticity test before locals will listen to you. Better to get screwed over by a native son or daughter. Some historical context:

Carpetbagger was the pejorative term applied to Northerners who moved to the South after the Civil War, specifically those who joined state Republican parties formed in 1867 and who were elected as Republicans to public office. Southern Democrats alleged that the newcomers were corrupt and dishonest adventurers, whose property consisted only of what they could carry in their carpetbags (suitcases made of carpeting), who seized political power and plundered the helpless people of the South. This assessment of the carpetbagger became standard in late-nineteenth-century histories and retained its currency among some historians as late as the 1990s. Since the 1950s, however, revisionist historians have challenged the validity of the traditional view and assessed the carpetbaggers more favorably.

Emphasis added. For some reason, the rooted are powerless against the migrant invasion. The carpetbagger hoard had its way with the South. Ill-begotten or not, any successful Northerners were not appreciated.

Reconstruction Queens, New York, struggles in the wake of Superstorm Sandy: "Rockaway worries some outside relief workers are carpetbaggers." The provocative title belies the author's attempt to humanize the outsiders streaming into community to help:

These sorts of developments — and the subsequent discussions they engendered — added to suspicions that residents might be given the short end of the recovery stick, which is more than understandable given how often this community has been dealt that hand. But caught up in this growing insider-outsider dynamic were activists and volunteers who were perhaps simply trying to help a community whose natural disaster had been preceded by an economic one, as well. I was conflicted. I valued help and solidarity from outside volunteers and activists — including some who came with a wealth of experience from other recovery efforts, such as those following Hurricane Katrina — but I also felt the community should be in the driver's seat.

Still, the question of who were legitimate “community members” preoccupied me. New York City as a whole is grappling with the question of gentrification, so it is possible that this particular political dynamic — consciously or subconsciously — was underlying it all. On the other hand, I had a specific concern that local power brokers and schemers who had failed the Rockaways for decades with their shoddy leadership (at best) and corruption (at worst), simply wanted to block any influence from the outside lest it interfere with their own.

Eventually, I came to the conclusion that there are no clear lines or hard rules that would make a recovery effort both efficient and ethical. Who were “true” community members? What amount of time living here made you a bona fide resident? Which residents should have more influence than others — someone who just recently rented a room, a resident of seven years like myself, or a third-generation resident? Which “outsiders” were to be trusted, if any?

Instead of questioning the intent of people (outsider or resident), the claim to citizenship is the central concern. The political dynamic underlying it all is xenophobia. Outside relief workers and gentrifiers are the latest in a long line of historical scapegoats. Hoosier, Okie, carpetbagger, and now hipster.