The America We Choose to See

Special to the Caldwell Journal (by Daniel B. Rundquist)…As Americans, we value our uniqueness. It is grounded in our right to free expression from our Founding and so is deeply woven into our culture. But not everyone sees America as unique and interesting these days. In 2015, a Norwegian writer, Karl Ove Knausgaard was hired by the New York Times Magazine to travel America as an outsider, and report his experience. He describes the American landscape as devoid of any unique character whatsoever. He writes, in part, “…the landscape had been the same, a sort of centerless, semi-urban sprawl of highways, subdivisions, shopping malls, warehouses, gas stations, and factories.” Of course, this is not a surprise to hear coming from a European. Europe has millenniums worth of art, architecture, archaeology, culture and traditions surrounding its citizens every day to remind them of their history and diverse origins. In stark contrast, America likely has no significant standing man-made structures more than 300 years old. From this perspective, America is still a relatively young nation.

Knausgaard illuminates an important point here, though. What does our architecture, art, literature, media, clothing, food, and everything else “American” say about our culture today? Even our coinage for most of our existence seems generic, with a style we certainly copied from the old Romans—portraiture of a person or a personification of Liberty on the obverse and eagles on the reverse. One apartment building in one city looks exactly like any other anywhere else. Is this “flavorlessness” truly what America has become, and why is that? If we are the people who take pride in our right to “freedom of expression” then why is it so difficult for a modern European to see anything distinctive about our nation? If I had general advice for Knausgaard in his travels, it would be for him to drive the entirety of Route 66 for starters.

However, the root of this issue of modern American “flavorlessness” has probably grown out of apathy and necessity. Most of us are not artists, architects, or city planners. We have developed a mode to produce everything to facilitate what will sell, what is practical, and what can be afforded. No sensible city planner would ever recommend an expensive and totally new design for the town that the people did not like or could not be afforded just because it was creative and unique. Likewise, the local diner is not going to change over their menu to all new creative foods that people just won’t pay to eat. So what we end up with is what Knausgaard saw—a largely generic America that has been reduced to the most efficient common denominator in almost everything from cheeseburgers to gas stations and grocery stores. But this, too, is now shifting.

There are notable exceptions happening here and there over time that are encouraging to see. I am in the food industry, and so I will relate this observation to illustrate my point. When a major grocery chain left our market years ago leaving big empty stores behind, it was Mark Yambor who entered the space locally with his Fairvalue banner in Caldwell County. In Hickory, Rick Knighton took over a similar large store space on Springs Road with his Galaxy banner. Both of these entrepreneurs have solidly established their stores as unique and apart from the old format they replaced. Here are local folks dedicated to superior service and quality, which is a great American story.

Regional grocer Lowes Foods, based in Winston-Salem has boldly changed their format over the past few years and made themselves into a truly unique American shopping experience for their guests. I can’t even begin to list all the many new departments and features here. You’ll just have to go and visit a few of their stores.

Craft beer seems to be taking off in America. Local eatery, Granite Falls Brewing Company has established itself in the former Pepsi plant in Granite Falls, making fine craft beers and serving up some of the best food to be had anywhere, and they are not alone. Even Lowes Foods now brews craft beer in its newest concept store. Just up the road a piece on highway 321 we have the cities of Lenoir, Blowing Rock, and Boone. All these are distinctly different areas that have their own flavors, art, architecture and bold American culture.

American communities are reinventing themselves at the local level. City planners, retailers, and others across the nation are beginning to re-use and repurpose stressed and abandoned areas for parks, shops, eateries, upscale living spaces, and so on. It’s a shame that Mr. Knausgaard cheated himself from the American experience with what seems to be a bit of ordinary tunnel vision. People often see what they want to see. I am sure that I could tour his home in Europe and only see urban blight if that’s all I was looking for.

If “sameness” is all Mr. Knausgaard sees, forget the architecture—I could show Mr. Knausgaard all the different rocks we have right here in North Carolina. We could start with the Blowing Rock, then move on to Chimney Rock, Sliding Rock, Hanging Rock, Table Rock, and finally Clingmans Dome—all rocks, but not a one of them the same.

Not everyone has to be an artist or an architect to contribute to the story of American uniqueness. It would seem that in his self-guided tour of America, Mr. Knausgaard sadly missed the best parts of the nation. If he ever finds himself on this side of the pond again, I would be proud to treat him to a tour of our slice of unique America to be found right here in our western North Carolina.

Dan Rundquist is a Caldwell Journal Contributor.

Copyright 2017 Caldwell Journal on behalf of Dan Rundquist. All rights reserved.