A century ago, William Allen White made Emporia famous because it embodied the can-do spirit of small town America. The Veteran City has been in the news again lately, and now the messages are decidedly mixed. Forbes calls it a “charming, walkable and bikeable town with 14 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places,” but according to The Onion, there is “no better place in America to get the hell out of and never look back.” What gives, Emporia?
First, the good: Forbes contributor Laura Begley Bloom and collaborator Laura Cabera ranked Emporia second in the nation for affordable entrepreneurship opportunities. Gushing like Realtors, they praised the town’s “active main street, restaurants and a bustling performing arts theatre.”
“You’ll fall in love with this town,” they added, noting that the median rent here is only $600 a month — not bad for a town with two high-speed internet providers.
They could have effused still more. They overlooked the town’s famous Dirty Kanza (DK) bicycle races and the disc golf championships, which draw competitors from across the country and worldwide. Locals enjoy tai chi and yoga lessons at area studios. There is a microbrewery, winery, chamber orchestra, farmers’ market and chocolatier. Finally, Emporia is a rehabber’s paradise — even historic mansions can be had for less than $200,000. In short, this is a great little college town for creative professionals to start small businesses and sample local amenities.
The counter-punch was as savage as it was inevitable. In an unsigned piece, The Onion’s snarky satirists claimed that “factors such as housing conditions and the overall health of residents make (Emporia) ideal for packing one’s bags and never looking back.”
They added, “The local economy provides a range of dead-end jobs for people to quit because they don’t want to wake up 40 years from now having wasted their lives like their old man.”
The Onion may be satirical, but it cannot be ignored. Much like fake news, satire creates first impressions that stick around long after we forget the actual facts. The Onion’s editors probably chose Emporia at random, but some points hit home.
Lyon County ranks among the three poorest in Kansas, with nearly 20 percent of residents lacking health insurance. Except among schoolteachers, labor unions are virtually nonexistent, despite several factories and a large meatpacking operation. Many workers with a high school education or less put in long hours doing repetitive, mechanical work for low pay. If they become seriously injured or sick, they may eke out a living on disability until eligibility for Social Security — unless they are undocumented. Methamphetamine and opioid addictions lurk not far beneath the surface. Racism still haunts the town, too. A Somali community was rejected when they tried to settle here about 15 years ago, while the large and growing Hispanic population has stayed, but with no representation in city government. Local charities send schoolchildren home with food hidden inside their backpacks so it does not get stolen. Fifty percent of residents live in rental housing, some of it so dilapidated that tenants are afraid to fill their bathtubs lest they fall right through the floor. City code inspectors are underfunded and overwhelmed.
Forbes and The Onion are both correct. Why? Emporia is a town where the different social classes live mostly separate lives today. One group samples local confections, rehabs historic homes and stays in shape; the other just tries to survive. The divide is usually college-educated versus high-school or less, white collar versus blue collar, and increasingly Caucasian vs. Hispanic.
White made Emporia famous because it represented a certain vision of America. Today, with its deep class and racial divisions, this town still has a lot to teach us about the nation’s economy, culture and society circa 2018.
— Michael A. Smith is a professor of political science at Emporia State University.