The Southern States

Having spent the last four months getting familiar with NYC life and navigating the idiosyncrasies of living in this global city, it was time to take to the road and explore beyond the 5 boroughs of New York, to see what the rest of the US had to offer. The Fulbright exchange programme is, at it’s core, a cultural exchange programme; where people from different backgrounds and different perspectives have the opportunity to share their experiences and build greater appreciation of each other’s differences and, importantly, the stuff we have in common. So whilst I have benefitted greatly from my work at the University in New York, it is also clear that the US is not simply about the 22 square miles of Manhattan. Indeed, my colleagues here have repeatedly stated that the ‘real’ America is to be found beyond the Hudson River and that I should take the opportunity to explore.

With no accommodation in NYC for ten days and our landlord being good enough to let us store most of our belongings in his basement, we hit the road. We jumped on a flight to Atlanta, to pick up a rental car and head in an anti-clockwise loop through the southern states of Georgia, Tennessee, Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and, briefly, Florida. Something like 2,500 miles was the plan…. here’s a whistle-stop summary of how we got on:

The small town of Chattanooga was the first stop on the trip, famed for ‘Lookout Mountain’ which is part of the Appalachian mountain range. On a clear day, you can see 7 states from the top, we made our way there using the incline railway, which was first opened in 1895 and, with a maximum gradient of 72%, is one of the steepest funicular railways in the world.

The Chattanooga Police Department lost one of their officers in a hit and run accident a few weeks ago. It’s a small department, just 500 officers, serving a population of 180k people. Whilst I’d read about the department and the recent death in service of one of their officers, I hadn’t expected to have cause to meet one of their cops in an operational capacity. Until, that was, a car drove into the back of us at a red traffic light and we needed an officer to come and do the necessary paperwork. Not much damage to the vehicle, but some whiplash injuries for us.

Having lost some time because of the car accident (or car wreck as they would say on this side of the pond) we were behind schedule and feeling rather shaken. We had a quick stop at the Jack Daniels factory in Lynchburg, Tennessee. Interestingly, Lynchburg is located in Moore County, which is a ‘dry’ county (no alcohol sales permitted). Of the 95 counties in Tennessee, ten of them are dry. Special dispensation has now been given to the JD factory to sell bottles of booze in their gift shop and to allow samples to be enjoyed by visitors who undertake a tour of the distillery.

It was then on to Nashville, to find some proper country music which we had been so looking forward to experiencing. There was a noticeably slower pace of life here, particularly in comparison to our hectic existence in NYC. In the way that out-of-towners do, we were dawdling at some traffic lights, trying to work out if we had time to cross. A nice chap in a cowboy hat driving a massive monster truck lent out of his window and, in his fantastic southern dialect, told us we had plenty of time to cross and that he would wait for us to do so. A lovely gesture. In New York, I would probably have been shouted/sworn/hooted at in similar circumstances.

It was then on to Memphis, for a drive-by glimpse of Graceland and then across the Mississippi River into Arkansas. We witnessed an absolutely stunning sunset as we crossed into the wide open plains of the state which is well known for wide expanses of wilderness and parkland. We headed for the most populated city, and capital, Little Rock. Arriving late, with dwindling money and no obvious food options nearby it was a bowl of cornflakes for dinner before an early night – if ever this trip has seemed glamorous, this was certainly one of those evenings that certainly didn’t feel that way!

Crossing the border into Texas was the next big milestone. It was somewhere we had both been looking forward to seeing and it certainly didn’t disappoint. It is the second largest state in the US, by both area and population. Texas is known as the ‘Lone Star State’, to reflect its former status as an independent republic and as a reminder of the state’s struggle for independence from Mexico (in 1836). Industry is booming in Texas, with agriculture, technology, petrochemicals, aerospace and biomedical sciences all contributing to a thriving economy. Wikipedia tells us that if Texas were a sovereign state, it would be the 10th largest economy in the world.

Walmart became our go-to shop-of-choice for breakfast/lunch/dinner (more cornflakes) and it was nice to be able to pick up fresh fruit, water and cans of drink at something like 70% less than we have been used to paying in New York. People had been telling us that NYC was expensive compared to the rest of the US, but it was only once we hit the road that we really got a sense of how much cheaper it really is.

On to Fort Worth (just outside Dallas) and a very spacious hotel room, a real luxury for a change, that was most welcome. Fort Worth is at the heart of Cowboy Country – and it certainly didn’t disappoint. We were checked into the hotel by a lady called, I kid you not, Dallas. When she asked for my name, I was tempted to say Epsom, but I guess my comedic response may have been a little wasted on her. Anyway…back to the cowboys. On recommendation from a friend at John Jay, we headed for ‘Stockyards’ which is a heritage area, celebrating the rich history of Fort Worth as a centre for cattle farming and all of the associated ways of life that go with being the ‘Cowtown’ of the US. While some of this stuff is for the tourists, in the most part it is absolutely authentic and represents a way of life that exists for many of the folk in this part of the world. The music, the clothing, the food and the hobbies (mainly involving horses) represent an identity that is unique. It was undoubtedly one of the highlights of my time in the US, to go to the rodeo and have a small glimpse at how these folks live their lives.

I was a bit taken aback by the way in which the animals were treated; cows being wrestled to the floor by their necks and tied up, all in the name of sport and entertainment. Although I kept telling myself this was a cultural thing and a necessary part of the rural way of life, it didn’t make it feel any more comfortable when watching it as a sporting endeavour. I think we have to be very careful when, if stuff like this doesn’t feel right, we just put it down to ‘cultural differences’ and therefore allow it to go unchallenged. If something looks wrong, it probably is. It was a great experience to witness the rodeo and the bucking bull and the art of getting a lasso around the neck of a sprinting cow, but it’s not something I would particularly want to see again. Animal rights groups in the US are doing lots of work to advance the cause for better treatment of animals involved in rodeo sports. It is notable that the federal ‘Animal Welfare Act’ exempts rodeos from the protections it provides to animals and that many states exempt rodeos from their anti-cruelty statutes.

We then moved on to Austin. We had heard very good things about this city and it certainly didn’t disappoint. Built on the Colorado River, Austin is an absolute gem of the Southern States. It is the first city I have visited in the US where I found myself reaching for the job-search websites to see what employment prospects looked like. I would happily live there. The streets were wide and clean, a nice mixture of old and new architecture, an impressive university, great restaurants, nice bars, and a sporting culture built around waters-sports, cycling and running make this an extremely livable city. To top it all off, the live music scene is just amazing. An Uber driver gave us a really useful summary of what has been taking place in the city over recent years. He described a rich melting pot of “southern comfort, western style, techies and religious folk from Waco all coming together to make the perfect cocktail. It wasn’t planned, it just happened”. He also observed that the age demographic is having a really positive impact on the city. He described the “old crusties” who had been in elected positions of power for too long, failing to embrace change and invest in new infrastructure, who had now been voted out and replaced by younger visionaries who are making the right investments in the right places. One of those soundbite stats the cabbie mentioned was that 152 people a day are moving to Austin – although this is also supported by the latest annual federal estimate.

Much of the housing in Austin has been, or is being, refurbished. The result is really impressive. Tree-lined roads, with plenty of land around each property and some great architecture that is staying true to the local look and feel but creating new living spaces that would be the envy of many cities across the globe. Now is certainly the time to snap up a probate property, turn it into something special and enjoy a very healthy return on investment! The new properties being built along the Colorado River, viewed from the top of Mount Bonnell, were really something special.

I got the impression that Texas has a very strong state identity, and Austin certainly embraces that identity. The Texas Longhorns American Football team is the big gig in town, part of the University of Austin – their clothing range is everywhere and it gave a nice sense of the city coming together in support of a common purpose.

It was then onto New Orleans, Louisiana. We had an idea that Mardi Gras was happening at about this time of year and noticed that hotels in the city were eye waterlingly expensive. We hadn’t put the two things together, but soon realised we were arriving at the very height of the festival! Imagine trying to drive a car down Ladbroke Grove whilst Notting Hill Carnival is on – that was us trying to squeeze our car through the traffic and into a car park, just as the floats were coming through. We managed it and our hotel was on the route, which is great…. if it’s your cup of tea. New Orleans had been right up there as one of the must-see destinations of our time in the US. Through a lack of foresight and some bad luck with the weather (it was cold), I don’t think we saw the city in its best light, which is a shame. The French Quarter is clearly beautiful, a trip up the Mississippi on a Paddle Steamer was one of those bucket list experiences you just have to do and the live music emerging from every bar, cafe and restaurant was, of course, impressive. Unfortunately, Mardi Gras [also known as Fat Tuesday, refers to the carnival celebration that starts in early January, just after 12th night, culminating on the day before Ash Wednesday] was not the time, in my opinion, to be in town. If neon lights, drinking in the street from dawn, and people throwing up in the street is your thing – book it in for next year. If not, take the wise option of visiting this beautiful city when the carnival is not in town.

We then headed a little further east, briefly through Mississippi, ending up just over the border in Florida at a great little town called Pensacola. Clearly a very affluent place, built around a harbour with plenty of independent restaurants and boutique shops. One of those places that would clearly be great in mid summer when the sun is shining and the fresh Florida orange juice is flowing.

It was then the final leg of the journey, heading north through Alabama, back to Atlanta. This was probably some of the most spectacular scenery of the whole journey. Interstate 65 goes through rolling countryside with forests as far as the eye can see. We didn’t see any of the devastation from the tornado which had come through just two days before, but had certainly taken note of the public safety guidance on the Weather Channel that morning: what to do if a tornado strikes when you’re driving your car. In summary, jump out the car and hide in a ditch – on the assumption that the car will probably be lifted into the air and thrown back down again when the wind has moved through.

We stayed with friends in Atlanta overnight before jumping on a plane back to NYC the following morning. It really was a great experience and I’m so pleased that we did get to see beyond the New York bubble. In much the same way that it is all too easy to have a London-centric view of the UK (which I am probably guilty of) the same is inevitable here. With everything being so close by in NYC, particularly in Manhattan, and the ease with which you can walk everywhere or get the subway, it was an eye opener to see that the car is simply the only option to get from A to B in most of the areas we visited. Albeit this is made so much more possible when a tank of petrol costs no more than about £17! We could never have done that journey in the UK, it simply would have been far too expensive.

So with just about a month left of the Fulbright adventure, we’re now back in the same beautiful brownstone in Harlem, although this time in a different apartment – almost twice the size of the one before! It feels like such a luxury to have two rooms rather than one.

I’ve just completed a review of an article which was submitted for peer review to an academic journal. I was first asked to review it last summer and then again just before we came away, on both occasions it needed a bit more work. I’m pleased to say that it is now significantly improved and I have recommended it be published. I enjoy doing these reviews, trying to be supportive of the researchers who have submitted their papers, but always looking to make sure the academic integrity of the journal is maintained.

So this week it is back to the dissertation, more work on the book proposal and some preliminary work on a piece of research I am hoping to initiate with some of the folks at the University, which will then be progressed once I am back in London.

Thanks for reading.

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