Driving down I-75 South with Maggie Rogers’s new album blasting through the speakers, a group of girlfriends and I begin our spring break. En route to the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest in the Northern mountains of Georgia to go backpacking, we take turns driving and napping. I look out the window expecting to see some classic highway treasures like the usual chains that fill exit signs: fast food restaurants, gas stations and the few-hundred Waffle Houses. But one thing that caught my eye I hadn’t noticed on the freeway before was the high number of Dollar Generals we passed.
I’ve done the drive from Michigan to Georgia before, and even all the way down to Florida, but I never noticed the amount of dollar stores that line the highway. I may have been younger and obsessed with counting the number of Waffle Houses (because we don’t have them in Michigan), so I wasn’t aware of the quantity and the fact that they are easily accessible from the highway. Also, I don’t have much experience in dollar stores other than going to buy little chachkies for birthday party goody bags.
For the majority of my life I have lived in West Bloomfield, an affluent suburb of Detroit. I never thought much about it besides comparing my privileged suburban experience and identity to the cities nearby. I have a clear distinction in my mind between cities and suburbs. The city is concrete, with expensive tourist areas, low-income areas and gentrified, hip neighborhoods. The suburbs were created for people leaving the city after World War II in search of new homes, “safer neighborhoods” and white flight that ensured segregation. But I’ve never really learned much about rural areas besides the knowledge that some are farming towns.
So, on my drive south, when we stopped in small towns on the way, I began to critically compare where I grew up in the suburban North to the rural South. Even though there are similar chain stores everywhere, there is a clear difference between rural and suburban towns: the type of stores that are available, the distance between them and the size of the homes in the area.
At an exit in Georgia, I walked into a dollar store and looked around at what they had to offer. I was surprised to find a large amount of cleaning supplies, frozen and packaged food items. I began to think about how it is nice that they have these items at a low price all over the place, but when did this start happening and why have I never noticed before? It turns out there are as many Starbucks as Dollar Generals in the Midwest and Southeastern states and twice as many Walmarts, nationally. Dollar General was created by a father and son in rural Kentucky to meet the needs of people in small towns when local stores were closed or had run out of the essential items.
Now, Dollar General is a huge corporation with shops in the suburbs and cities too. Even with its expansion to other areas, the corporation continues to highlight its small town roots and purpose of opening shops throughout the country to meet the need of those in small towns. After learning about their history and where the majority of them are located in the country, I feel like I have a stereotype of what dollar stores say about the areas these stores operate in.
I didn’t think much about the Dollar General experience until we entered Ann Arbor on our way home. My friend mentioned to our car that when she goes on road trips to the South, it makes her feel fortunate to grow up in the North and live in a city like Ann Arbor. And I began to think I felt the same way, but I wasn’t really sure where this pride in the North came from. Maybe it was after seeing Southern rural life, the numerous Confederate flags we passed or the feeling of being ready to be home after a trip away. I have never lived anywhere else than Michigan, and I’ve realized that this makes my view of our country different than those who are raised in the South and rural America. My view of American life is from where I have lived, the places I’ve traveled — which are mainly big cities and suburbs — and the people around me who have shaped my socialization.
All of this thinking reminded me of our presidential election when media outlets reported Trump won the election by receiving a high number of voters from rural Americans. Since this event, I think liberal people from the North have continued to think poorly or pity people from these areas because of the lack of polling and media coverage in these towns before the election, which ultimately impacted who won.
As I continue to reflect on my trip to the South and my own position as someone from the North, I’m aware that I am looking at the rural South like some faraway, foreign land that I can analyze and study. But there are rural, small towns in Michigan with differing opinions than my own, and their experiences impact the way they see our country as well. No matter where you grow up, the setting creates a framework and lens for the way you judge and think about other places and people in our country. With this in mind, I’m going to continue to challenge myself to think critically about the way I view the South and rural America because my Northern, suburban perspective impacts the way I interpret what is going on in this country.
Ellery Rosenzweig can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.