I grew up in a trailer park in Upstate New York. Having moved several times throughout my early childhood, I remember moving into the trailer with my mother and brother as an exciting moment: Even though I had to share my bedroom, it was the largest one that I had ever lived in. However, that naïve enthusiasm did not last. Floods in 2006 and 2011 devastated the region, and during the 2016 presidential election most Upstate counties, including Broome County where I lived, voted for Donald Trump. Living in one of the most economically downtrodden parts of the state, many of my high school friends and I dreamed of getting as far away from our hometown as possible.
If someone asked me what the area I grew up in is like, I would probably tell them how while New York is generally a blue state, Upstate has a distinctly conservative culture. I went to church on June 28, 2015—the Sunday after the Supreme Court declared bans on same-sex marriages in the United States unconstitutional: I remember my local pastor giving a fire-and-brimstone sermon about how Barack Obama and the courts intended to destroy the moral framework of “our” country. Further, many people in the area uncritically ignore the fact that Broome County has the highest incarceration rate in the state and profits off of the prison-industrial complex.
During my first year of university, my mom moved to a different town, my brother joined the Army, and I settled in Montreal full-time. Over my breaks from school, I worked various jobs instead of going back home. Outside of the occasion visit for Christmas, I have virtually no more ties there. I have never met a single person from my town at McGill.
However, despite my general apathy about the area and its conservatism, I do have fond memories of growing up there. While my hometown is still far from perfect, it has things that a city such as Montreal can never fully offer: I miss buying corn and pumpkins from my friend’s family farm, walking around in nature, eating wild berries, and seeing a full sky of stars at night. While Taylor Swift’s “You Need to Calm Down” music video, and mass media more generally might depict a neighbourhood like mine as full of “trailer trash” and write off poor white communities as beyond saving, growing up in this environment taught me otherwise. My experiences not only made me who I am today, but also give me hope that things can be better.
My time in the trailer park taught me how important it was to show solidarity with those in need. When I started working for the first time, I did not think it was unusual that some of my paychecks went to my mom to help her pay the bills. Similarly, in 2011 when remnants of Storm Lee brought 12 inches of rainfall and flooded the upper Susquehanna River basin, I remember community members coming together to help out the thousands of people displaced by the floodwaters. Some volunteered at shelters, and others set up grills to feed anyone in the neighbourhood who needed a meal. These circumstances illustrate the resiliency of people living in Upstate.
Given this tenacity, I find hope that the Upstate area is not doomed to remain in a state of perpetual malaise. The prejudices and conservatism that turned me away from the region do not exist in a vacuum—the compassion shown by the community throughout my life suggests a potentially more inclusive future. While I doubt that I will ever return there, to simply write off my hometown serves no purpose. Taking the lessons in generosity I learned growing up there into my adult life is the least I can do.