Personal Essay: Whether it’s Urban Appalachia or Southern California, Quality of Life is All Relative

photo by A. MalikRay Garcia moved from San Diego to Ashland, Kentucky, about two years ago. He and his two brothers, Sergio and Ron, own and run a restaurant in town that offers locals a Southern California-Mexican style of cuisine not found in Ashland or, as Ray said he’s discovered, in Kentucky.

On a recent rainy Sunday afternoon, I interviewed him for a magazine article about the restaurant and its influence on Ashland. As a native Ashlander whose parents and sister live there (and probably always will), I leave Lexington and head east 120 miles on Interstate 64 about once a month to visit.

With a population of about 22,000, Ashland isn’t at all as urban as the urban Appalachian cities of Chattanooga, Asheville, Pittsburgh, and others. It is and always has been, however, a Mecca of sorts for the northeast part of Kentucky, with its two malls, city park, and dining options.

Something Ray said to me during our talk stuck in my head. He said he’s noticed that people in Ashland are “down on themselves” and where they live. Young people are eager to leave Ashland for bigger and better places, and some almost apologize to him for Ashland when they learn he’s from a much bigger, more cosmopolitan place.

But after living and working in the Ashland area for almost two years, he doesn’t see it that way. “What’s wrong with this place?” he always asks the naysayers. He said he thinks those in Ashland should feel prouder of where they live.

Ray’s a pretty observant guy. For me and my friends, it didn’t matter if we were in fifth grade or preparing to graduate from high school: we were eager to leave Ashland and never return. In addition to the usual “it’s so boring here” and “there’s nothing to do,” we latched on to a supposed truth that living in the same town all your life was very, very uncool. This, of course, isn’t a supposed truth exclusive to Ashland or even to urban Appalachia as a whole. I do wonder, though, if it’s more prevalent here.

The more I thought about Ray’s observation, the more I realized two other supposed truths exist when it comes to establishing roots, whether it’s in urban Appalachia or Southern California.

Any place is what you make it. Ray and his family are from San Diego, so they grew up in a town very different from Ashland and even the larger urban Appalachian cities. But as we chatted, it was obvious he’s happy to be in Ashland. Plus, he works so much, he told me, that it doesn’t matter whether he’s in San Diego or in Ashland – his focus is on his restaurant and his family.

Often, living in a city is like choosing which college to attend: on some level, they’re all very similar, and how you spend your time there is what matters.

It’s all relative. I have a friend who grew up in Louisville, went to graduate school in Boston, lived in Charleston, South Carolina, for a while, then moved to Lexington – and thought she’d descended into hell. On the other hand, before moving to Lexington two years ago, I lived in Danville, a Kentucky town of about 16,000. In Lexington, it felt as if a whole new world had opened up.

What if Ashland’s residents became cheerleaders for where they lived? Large and small cities across urban Appalachia are learning to celebrate themselves with city magazines, festivals, and other local community initiatives. Pride and hope in anything – yourself, your friends, your city – serves as a big agent of change, and change can often mean improvement. Ray and his family have brought a unique style of food to Ashland and are helping to uncover a small community within the greater one. If most of Ashland’s residents could believe in it the way Ray does, there’s a good chance he’ll need to stop asking, “What’s wrong with this place?”

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