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16 June 2009

The "Real" Aiken

For some time now, I've had an idea for a short book that takes a look at the City of Aiken, South Carolina, from the perspective of someone who a.) grew up in the town and b.) is not a Northerner or tourist. Most books written about Aiken tend to cater to Aiken's tourists or to people who have an idealized vision of Aiken as a quaint little town. They focus on Aiken's many historic landmarks and public events, such as Hopeland Gardens or Aiken's Makin', the annual craft festival, which are all important parts of what makes Aiken such a unique place.

These books are excellent for their market--people visiting Aiken or people who are new to the area (the two are essentially one in the same; the Greater Aiken Chamber of Commerce reports that most visitors to the Chamber are those looking to move to Aiken). Being a town that relies heavily on tourism--restaurants in Aiken receive about 60% of their business from tourists annually--this situation simply makes sense. Aiken is also a Southern town with a large, non-native population. I don't have exact numbers, but Aiken attracts a large number of Northerners--we call them "transplants" around here--every year, either as retirees or as engineers who work at the Savannah River Site. Tourists and transplants come or move to Aiken because they want it to be a quaint, adorable Southern town, a la Mayberry, so the books they purchase about Aiken reflect this desire. It's economics, plain and simple.

While these books offer a fine introduction to Aiken, however, they also ignore a great deal of what makes Aiken such an interesting place. Yes, Aiken is a wonderful place to live (or to retire, as the case may be), but it's not just great for trendy local restaurants or award-winning golf courses. Aiken is a living, breathing community that embodies the best--and sometimes the worst--of the New South.

Therefore, I've been knocking around the idea of a book that would explore, through extensive oral interviews and background research into Aiken's history, the multifaceted, complicated nature of Aiken. Aiken is not just a city of wealthy Northern retirees or prominent Southern business leaders and politicians. It is a town with a striking range of socio-economic conditions, races, philosophies, religions, and creeds. I wouldn't say it's some kind of multicultural mecca--most everyone is white, middle-class, and Republican--but it's more varied and alive than its retirement community status would suggest.

Also, it's dangerous to assume that Aiken is just a haven for Northern retirees and engineers. One group in Aiken that has come to wield significant influence is the so-called Smart Growth organization, which would more aptly be titled "No Growth." Smart Growth proponents claim they want Aiken to grow, well, more intelligently, but there's very little hard evidence of how they want to achieve that goal. However, it has become apparent that many supporters of Smart Growth are recent immigrants to Aiken from above the Mason-Dixon who want to shut the door behind them. They want to keep Aiken exactly as they have found it.

Here is where these white-washed depictions of Aiken become problematic, if not out-and-out dangerous: they encourage newcomers to view Aiken as a town caught in an ideaized stasis, simultaneously ignoring the fact that Aiken is a living, growing community of small businesses, growing families, and hard workers. I hope, should I ever undertake my work on the "real" Aiken, that I can demonstrate that Aiken is not just a huge retirement community, but that it is in fact a growing, evolving town that needs the flexibility and cooperation of its citizens to expand.

Aiken can still be a great place to live and vacation, but we need to remember that many Aikenites are still trying to make a living, and aren't just sagging a few balls before they kick the bucket.

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