The word “transition” does not quite adequately describe my recent transplant to Manhattan from my hometown of Vestavia Hills, Alabama. Perhaps “transformative” or “life altering” would better embody the sentiment. Since moving to the city to join the MFA in Design for Social Innovation program at SVA, I have received quite a few inquiries regarding life in the Deep South. The majority of them can be summed up as going something like this:
“Alabama? Wow, it must be very different living up here?”
After receiving this response from a countless number of genuinely curious people (and some not so genuine), I found myself digging deep and reflecting on what the true differences really are, and what they might mean. I have found that there is a lot of pressure trying to speak for an entire culture of people. One could argue that it’s downright impossible.
Current popular television shows such as The Walking Dead, True Blood and Hart of Dixie, among others, have played into some long-held stereotypes. Heavy Southern accents, overalls and scary redneck racists abound. Stereotypes, both good and bad, make it all the more critical to paint an accurate portrayal of what life really looks like below the Mason-Dixon line. I cannot claim to sufficiently speak for Southerners everywhere. However, I can draw from my own experiences and my own truths in hopes that it does justice in providing a small patchwork of insight stitched into the larger quilt that makes up this rich culture.
The differences between New York and Alabama are superficial, yet worth pointing out.
Pace of Life
Scratching the surface, an immediate difference is the pace of life. Seen from the eyes of an outsider, traffic in New York is not just congested, but frantic. Checkout lines resemble those seen at amusement parks rather than grocery stores, and people walk at lighting speeds from one appointment to the next. In contrast, while there are plenty of traffic jams and looming deadlines in Alabama, somehow the overall urgency of life seems to be somewhat less.
Delving a bit deeper, the manner in which the general populations express themselves seems to be at odds with one another. While there are certainly plenty of exceptions on both sides, overall Southerners tend to have more of a “buttoned-up” attitude to life. “Yes ma’am and no sir” are staple responses and considered just good manners. This stands in stark contrast to New Yorker’s flair for self-expression (and one of the main attributes that drew me to this city). This self-expression can be viewed in many forms. Performance art can be viewed in the streets on any given day, protests and sit-ins are not at all uncommon, and the PDA so often seen in the streets and public transit of New York would be considered a spectacle back home.
Graduate high school, attend a state college, get a good stable job, get married and have kids—typically all under the age of 30 if at all possible. This is the common social norm down South. Certainly this sequence has shifted with the wave of millennials and their characteristic “can do” attitude and aspirations for attaining their ultimate “dream jobs”. On the whole though, this traditional life plan remains in tact and is still quite prevalent. Deviation from this norm is typically met with raised eyebrows and skepticism. In a word, I suppose this explains the main difference between Vestavia Hills and New York City. Tradition. For better or worse, the South holds on to a strong pride in its long held traditions, and most choices made are informed by this core value.
Yet, ultimately, we have to remember that what motivates and unites us is ultimately the same.
Love, Acceptance and Self-Fulfillment
Upon further reflection, the aforementioned differences are merely superficial observations. At the Design for Social Innovation (DSI) program at SVA, we are encouraged to dig deeper and draw overarching conclusions from observations such as these. We are pushed to view the “big picture” rather than getting bogged down in the details. We are taught to uncover the true motivations and needs that lie at the heart of cultures and to view them as intricate interconnected systems. At DSI, we have also been taught that at the very core, all people want the same things, and thus all actions are motivated by these essential needs: love, acceptance and self-fulfillment.
With this in mind, my response to what makes living in the Deep South so much different from New York City shifts. The next time I am asked, I will respond that living in Alabama is not so very different from living here. After all, we are all striving to attain the same needs. We are simply taking different approaches to arrive at the same ultimate destination. When viewed through this lens, you can find common ground with any person or culture you may come across. Forming the habit of searching for the common needs and motivations, rather than surface differences proves to be a transformative personal experience, and even larger than that, is the first vital step in engendering sustainable positive change in the world.