The Fourth of July must be the most unified moment in the U.S. calendar, one of the only holidays during which traditions hold true regardless of region, ethnicity or faith. In Mesa, Ariz., or Miami, for fundamentalists as sure as atheists, today will be an explosion of flags, friends, parades and grilled food. And like every year, we could surely use it: Division has become the theme of our daily lives. More and more, research confirms that Americans essentially occupy a different reality depending on class, social values, population density, education and a growing list of other signifiers.
But I’ve spent the past five years traveling between three communities that embody different aspects of our supposedly divided nation — liberal and conservative, exurban and rural, historic and newly built. And for all their dissimilarities, I’ve seen from these travels that we have more in common than we think. Unfortunately, though, our greatest shared experience these days is growing income inequality, which has expanded in every single state since 1979 and now is at levels not seen since the 1920s. The effects look different depending on the setting, but everywhere has been transformed by it. The rich everywhere have more than ever, and the poor can’t make it anywhere: This is our shared story in 2018.
Most days, I live and work in Montgomery County, Md., a growing, diverse neighbor of Washington. I drive daily through leafy streets speckled with protected green spaces, onto a county pike lined with upscale chain stores and immigrant-owned businesses and on to my kids’ nationally ranked public schools, where they take part in a Chinese immersion program. It’s expensive to live here, and not everyone does it comfortably, but by any reasonable standard, this place is an idyll. It’s also a reliable bastion of tony East Coast liberalism.
But many weekends, I head west, over the Blue Ridge Mountains and into Winchester, Va., where I’ve been reporting a book about the lingering legacy of native daughter Patsy Cline. Winchester is barely 90 miles from Montgomery County, and it has its own notable public school system and booming commercial districts. But it’s also a long-standing Republican stronghold, a business-first region where Colonial history and a time-honored power structure still hold sway.
Most of my trips have also included nights spent in Berkeley Springs, W.Va., just up the road and across the state border, where a sleepier, weekend-getaway charm prevails in the form of day spas and an impressive Sunday farmers market. This is a much tinier town — a village, really — and the higher-end aspects of Berkeley Springs are more newly arrived, the fruit of an effort in the 1980s and ’90s to revive its old 19th-century reputation as a D.C. tourist draw. It’s a tenuous rebirth, however, one that was recently offset by a terrible blaze that took out two prominent storefronts adjacent to the central parkland downtown.
It’s an easy drive, not even a half-day, to traverse this circuit across three communities that theoretically have little in common: suburban liberal utopia, wealthy Southern business enclave, rebounding mountain hamlet. That very closeness has made their similarities more noticeable to me, however. You can hear a Baltimore Orioles radio broadcast on the whole route, for example, and enjoy the same kind of natural scenery on a day hike. But more pressingly, these communities all suffer from the same affliction that plagues the country at large, especially Maryland and Virginia, where the top 1 percent took every single dollar of economic growth between 2009 and 2013.
In all three of these places, as in America writ large, the major story of the past few decades is ultimately one of money moving upward. The terminology is different: In suburban Maryland, we talk of “sprawl”; in Winchester, people gripe about yuppies and Northerners; and in Berkeley Springs, the divide is between “from-heres” and “come-heres.” But the narrative is the same, a story of fraying community bonds and outside money remaking a place for its own benefit. It’s chain stores taking over old neighborhood standbys, or new developments driving up property values and taxes. Some people are getting richer, others are staying poor, and the two groups have progressively little to do with each other.
This July 4, as we all end the day staring at our neighborhood fireworks, we might reflect on this commonality, one that’s too often shrouded by language. Right now, there are neighborhood-defining businesses closing in Montgomery County to make room for luxury condos, just as there are Winchester residents going bankrupt from medical bills while their nearby bosses’ bank accounts swell. Somehow, we call one “gentrification” and the other “rural decline” or some such, but it’s the same process. Inequality in contemporary America is like those fireworks: We experience it in every community, yet we think of it as a local event. We should talk more about the fact that we’re all ultimately watching the same show.