The Southern Road: Traveling Through The New Industrial America

If you’re not from the American South, you probably have an image of it in your head. It might have squealing pickup trucks and Daisy Dukes. Or hoop skirts and cotton plantations from “Gone With The Wind.” Maybe the streetcars of New Orleans, or the twang of Paula Deen.

What if I told you that the American South has become a land of opportunity, where people no longer have to leave home to find their fortunes? What if you knew that more than a third of all the cars sold in the United States are made there? And that its population is no longer just white, black, and Hispanic, but European and Asian?

In August, I traveled 4,000 miles over two weeks across the New Industrial South. I plotted a road trip that took me to all the car and truck plants between Mississippi and South Carolina that have been built in the past two decades. I talked to autoworkers and managers, chefs and mayors, university officials and farmers, wait staff and retirees.

And I came away thinking that people up north have no idea what’s happened below the Mason Dixon line. Thanks to the auto industry, and everything that came with it, the South is full of cities where there’s been growth, where people buy new cars and homes, and send their kids to new schools and to play on new skate parks. Towns have new city halls. Instead of selling the past, economic developers are salivating over a new future.

If you only visit one of these places, say, Birmingham, Alabama, you see some of this, but not all of it. Driving the entire region, however, fills in the picture in a complete way.

Over the next weeks, we’ll be exploring the impact of the South’s new industry in “The Southern Road: Traveling Through The New Industrial South.” We’ll have lots of tips to help you plan your own southern road trip.

Most of all, we’ll provide impressions. And this was my main one.

Traveling the Southern Road made me think this is what it must have been like in Detroit, and Cleveland, and Gary, Indiana, and Pittsburgh for our parents and grandparents. While those cities are striving to write their next chapters, you can go see the story of the new American economy playing out right now, all across the South.

%Gallery-164205%The contrasts are striking, beginning with terrain. My trip began in my hometown, Ann Arbor, Michigan. Once I passed Lexington, Kentucky, en route to Greenville, South Carolina, I found myself driving around sweeping curves and up and down hills. As I crossed Tennessee and North Carolina, I was in mountains. And the geography stayed interesting as the miles clicked up, reminded me quite a bit of New England, only lush and verdant in a different way, with live oaks, moss and pines.

The variety was staggering. If you prefer to stay in luxury hotels and dine at some of the country’s top-rated restaurants, you can do that in Chattanooga, Tennessee, now the home of Volkswagen’s new plant. Or in Birmingham, Alabama, which has Mercedes-Benz just west of town and Honda within an hour’s drive to the east. Downtown Greenville, South Carolina, bustles at night, in no small part due to the BMW plant right by the airport.

Do you want to couple history with your auto town visit? Then head for Montgomery, Alabama. That’s where Hyundai built its first American factory, only 10 minutes from the spot where Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat. Near Tupelo, Mississippi, there’s a brand new Toyota factory a few exits down from Elvis Presley’s birthplace and the hardware store where he bought his first guitar.

Perhaps you’d like to see what happens to a small southern town when a car plant becomes its neighbor. Canton, Mississippi, fits that bill. So do Lincoln, Alabama, and West Point, Georgia. These towns also have gorgeous lakes and recreational areas only a stone’s throw away.

Many of the plants are open for tours, and the most elaborate, like Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and VW, have visitor centers where you can drop in even if you’re not going to see how the cars are built. Several of the plants have gift shops, where you can buy golf balls, shot glasses, T-shirts and picnic baskets. (Too bad Kia’s gift shop isn’t open to the public because it had the cutest souvenirs – the toy hamster and sock monkey that have appeared in its ads.)

Other plants don’t allow the public to visit, but even if you don’t set foot in one of the factories, it’s easy to spot what happens when one of these big auto plants comes to town.

The first thing you might notice is new highway exits, new overpasses and new roads around the plants. They’re often part of the incentives that the states paid to land these factories.

The next thing to look for is development. Fast food restaurants and new hotels are the first signs of growth. But you’ll also see billboards for new subdivisions, and you’ll notice even more in the way of smaller factories – these have been opened by the suppliers to these big car companies. Often, they’re set next to the freeway a few miles down, because they often sell parts to more than one automaker.

What I found on the Southern Road is that the impact of these factories goes a lot deeper than what you can see on the surface. When you have newcomers from Germany and Japan and Korea, their culture comes with them.

That’s why you’ll find the makings for a Japanese breakfast, like miso soup and steamed rice, on the breakfast buffet at the Lexington, Kentucky, Residence Inn. That’s why you can now rent a loft apartment for business entertaining at Soby’s, the popular restaurant in Greenville – because BMW and other European companies wanted a private place for a small group.

To be sure, the South hasn’t become one big Manhattan, and no one would mistake any of these cities for Los Angeles. Southern culture is still widely apparent, from men automatically holding open doors for women, to gas station lunch counters and lots of fast driving. Divert from your Mapquest directions, and you’ll find long stretches of farmland and dusty roads.

But you can stop for Starbuck’s on the way to your plant tour. And you might even wonder, “What would it be like to live here?”

Micheline Maynard is a writer and author based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She previously ran the public media project Changing Gears, and was Detroit bureau chief for the New York Times.

Setting Up Your Trip:

These are some of the car companies that have public tours or facilities for visitors.

BMW Zentrum, Greer S.C. (plant tours, customer delivery center, and more). Open Monday-Friday, 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Call 1-888-TOUR-BMW or www.bmwzentrum.com

Mercedes-Benz Visitor Center, Vance, AL (museum and plant tours). Museum open daily, tours given Tuesday-Thursday. Call 888-286-8762 or www.mbusi.com

Volkswagen, Chattanooga, AL. (gift shop and tour) Eight tours a week, Tuesday through Friday at 9 a.m. and 1:30 pm. Inquiries: tours@vw.com

Hyundai, Montgomery, AL (visitors center and tour). Tours given Monday, Wednesday, Friday, also a Thursday evening tour. Call 334-387-8019 or www.hmmausa.com

Nissan, Canton, MS (gift shop and plant tour) Tours by reservation. Call 601-855-TOUR.

Honda, Lincoln, AL (plant tour) Tours on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. By reservation at www.hondaalabama.com/

‘Food Forward’ PBS Series Debuts With ‘Urban Agriculture Across America’ Episode

cowsIn less than a century, the United States has gone from being a mostly agrarian society to an urbanized one. Most of us live in cities and, despite our growing cultural fascination with food, most Americans have no idea where the ingredients on their plate (or in that wrapper) are actually coming from.

That’s where “Food Forward” comes in. After a three-year effort, the premiere episode of this innovative new PBS series, as first reported by the Huffington Post, is airing nationally throughout April (see schedule after the jump). In “Urban Agriculture Across America,” the “Food Forward” crew travel from the Bay Area to Milwaukee, Detroit and New York City, talking to urban farming innovators such as Abeni Ramsey, a single mother in West Oakland.

Formerly relegated to feeding her family Top Ramen, Ramsey was inspired some years ago by a farm stand she spotted in her neighborhood, operated by West Oakland’s City Slicker Farms. As part of City Slickers’ initiative to nourish under-served communities, their staff and volunteers build garden boxes (designed for small-scale, intensive production) in residents’ yards.

Ramsey got her garden box and soon had a backyard full of produce. Next, she got chickens to provide her family with protein in the form of meat and eggs. Today, she’s the farm manager of the East Bay’s urban Dig Deep Farms. Dig Deep sells and delivers produce to local communities through its CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture) program and works in collaboration with Oakland’s acclaimed Flora restaurant.

Says Flora chef Rico Rivera, “We order the produce, she picks it and it’s here the next morning.” Adds Ramsey, “It’s a modern idea that you get all of your food from the store. People have been farming in cities…since there were cities.”

[Photo credit: Flickr user Martin Gommel]rooftop gardenJohn Mooney, chef and rooftop hydroponic farmer at Bell Book & Candle in Manhattan’s West Village, is another interesting subject as is urban beekeeper Andrew Coté, who collects specific blends from hives around Manhattan and Brooklyn.

While the idea of keeping bees in the midst of a metropolis may seem an unnecessary objective, or a somewhat precious craft food enterprise, it’s anything but, as Coté points out. “Bees help pollinate the city’s community and rooftop gardens as well as window boxes.” Localized honey also contains pollen that helps allergy sufferers living in these neighborhoods.

Of Detroit, “Food Forward” co-creator/producer Stett Holbrook says, “It blew my mind. It’s a city that has been devastated by industrial collapse and the exodus of half of its population, but the resilience of the residents still there to remake the city – literally from the ground up – was truly inspiring. Urban agriculture is a big part of the renaissance.”

According to its website, the objective of “Food Forward” is to “create a series that looks beyond the world of celebrity chefs, cooking competitions,” and formulaic recipe shows. From my perspective, it also goes beyond the seemingly endless variations on scintillating (not) reality series on baked good empires, riffs on “Homo sapiens vs. Arteriosclerosis” and “Twenty Crappy Things You Can Cook With Canned Goods.”

Instead, “Food Forward” looks at what it calls the “food rebels” across America – farmers, chefs, ranchers, fishermen, food artisans, scientists and educators – who are dedicated to changingurban farm the way we eat and finding more sustainable alternatives to how food is produced and procured.

“Food Forward” succeeds (if the pilot is any indication) in a way that documentaries of this genre haven’t (despite being excellent on all counts: see, “The Future of Food,” “Food, Inc.,” etc.).

It’s mercifully not about food elitism, either. Rather than leaving you depressed, angry or guilty, the show inspires, entertains and sends a message of hope. Future episodes will focus on school lunch reform, sustainable fishing and meat production and soil science. Some segments are animated, either to better illustrate a point or to engage a wider age demographic.

“Food Forward” is “written, produced and directed by a veteran team of journalists, cinematographers and storytellers that includes: director Greg Roden (PBS, FOX and National Geographic channel’s “Lonely Planet” and the Los Angeles Times, Dallas Morning News, and San Francisco Chronicle); aforementioned creator-producer Holbrook (Food editor for Metro Silicon Valley and The Bohemian in Sonoma County, and contributor to the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Saveur and Chow.com); Brian Greene (Food Network, Discovery Channel, NBC), and director of photography David Lindstrom (PBS, National Geographic and Discovery channels).

On April 22, the pilot will air on WTTW in Chicago at 5:30 p.m. and WLIW in New York at 2:30 p.m. On April 28, it will air on Washington DC’s WETA at 5:30 p.m. For future episodes, check your local PBS listings, visit the “Food Forward” website or www.PBS.org/foodforward.


Sustainable cities to watch in 2012

sustainable citiesThink of sustainability, and San Francisco is probably the first city to come to mind. But a new crop of green urban centers is emerging, and they’re not where you might think.

Leon Kaye, editor of GreenGoPost.com, recently published a list of his picks for emerging sustainable cities to watch in 2012. Some spots were to be expected, like Detroit, with its preponderance of urban renewal projects, and Accra, which recently topped Siemens’ and Economist Intelligence Unit’s index of Africa’s greenest cities.

But there were also a few wild cards. Mexico City made the list for its 10-point Climate Action Program, which aimed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 7 million metric tones between 2008 and 2012. The plan included massive improvements to the public transportation system, including the construction of Latin America’s largest rail system and investments in green roofing, water conservation, and waste management.

Also on the list was Naples, Italy, whose trash crisis has made headlines since 2008. Once city residents started realizing that the government wasn’t going to take action, they started taking matters into their own hands. Through grassroots activist movements, like guerrilla gardening and flash mobs, Neapolitans are slowly beautifying their city, and this year will host the UN’s World Urban Forum.

The other cities on Kaye’s watch list were Adelaide, Australia; Belgrade, Serbia; Brasilia, Brazil; Doha, Qatar; San Jose, California; and Seoul, Korea.

[Flickr image of Mexico City via Alfredo Gayou]

‘Mile Runners’ are in it for the long haul

A group of frequent flier hustlers is so obsessed with wracking up miles they are willing to do absurd acts such as flying around the world in 48 hours or going through Detroit five times on a single trip just to earn freebies.

For $320, Randy Petersen accrued a marathon of 35,000 miles for the following flight sequence: YXU-DTW-ATL-SFO-JFK-DTW-ATL-SEA-YVR-MSP-DTW-NRT-LAX-DTW-MSP-YVR-DTW-YXU-DTW-MSP-YVR-DTW-JFK-NRT-ATL-MSP-YVR-MSP-DTW-YXU. That’s a roundtrip flight from London that passes through Detroit, Atlanta, San Francisco, New York, Detroit (again), Atlanta (again), Seattle, Vancouver, Minneapolis, Detroit (third time), Japan, Los Angeles, Detroit (fourth time), London (again), Minneapolis (again), Vancouver (again), Detroit (fourth time), New York (again), Japan (again), Atlanta (third time), Minneapolis (third time), Japan (third time), Minneapolis (third time), Detroit (fifth time) and finally back to London.

Petersen, who co-founded the frequent flyer community MilePoint.com, seems to think the upgrades are worth hours of sitting on planes and in airports. “It’s a ratio of travel time vs. distance flown vs. cost vs. end game,” says Petersen. “A mileage runner for value always wants to accrue miles at a low cost and then redeem at a high cost.”

Is the multiple-leg jog throughout airports around the world worth perks like a priority boarding, access to airport lounges, and maybe a few free tickets? It’s a question Shira Levine examines for Fox News.

Arab American National Museum examines legacy of 9/11

Arab American National MuseumWith the tenth anniversary of 9/11 just two days away, the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, is examining how the Arab-American community has been affected by the terrorist attacks.

U.S. Rising: Emerging Voices in post-9/11 America runs from September 8-11 and is a series of forums and events both in Detroit and Dearborn. On the actual anniversary of September 11, the museum will offer free entry all day.

In an interview with Art Daily, museum director Anan Ameri said the attacks were a “wake-up call” that showed just how little most people knew about the Arab-American community and how many bad stereotypes were out there. One response has been the virtual exhibit Reclaiming Identity: Dismantling Arab Stereotypes. This looks at the origins of various stereotypes and compares them to the reality.

Starting on Veterans Day, November 11, the museum will host the exhibition Patriots & Peacemakers: Arab Americans in Service to our Country. This exhibit will focus on the community’s role in the U.S. army, Peace Corps, and diplomatic service.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]