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'Louisville, Not Kentucky:' Dissecting The Commonwealth's Urban-Rural Divide

Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons

Savannah Barrett has heard it all before.

She's worked and lived across the state and she's often told where to find the "real Kentucky."

It's not Grayson County, because it's too flat. Not Louisville, either - too urban.

The fierce pride of place held by many Kentuckians is "really beautiful," she said.

But it's also a bit of a problem.

Barrett is a member of the Rural-Urban Exchange steering committee. The group works to bring people together from across the state in an effort to "build a more collaborative and connected Commonwealth," according to the group's website.

The group, in its work, examines the divisions that dissect the state - divisions that are rooted, largely, in perception, Barrett said. But whether they're real or not, Barrett said these divisions are barriers that impede progress for communities across Kentucky, including Louisville.

"It's a really unfortunate cartography of belonging," she said.

An 'Island Of Inclusiveness?'

This divide between Louisville, Lexington and the rest of the state has been highlighted recently.

Last week, California Attorney General, Xavier Becerra banned state-sponsored travel to Kentucky, saying a new religious expression law passed by the Kentucky General Assembly is discriminatory.In response, both Louisville Mayor Greg Fischerand Lexington Mayor Jim Gray sent Becerra letters requesting a restriction waiver for Louisville and Lexington--not Kentucky.

At a press conference to make his case for such a waiver, Fischer cited the city's record for inclusiveness and openness.

Both pleas were ultimately rejected by Becerra.

But despite the effort, when asked about the divide between Louisville and the rest of the state, Fischer rejected the notion.

"I see us merging together as one beautiful Commonwealth," he said. "That's the way it should be."

But for some residents, the divide is a bit more palpable. OnFischer's Facebook page,residents touted his decision to request the waiver by leaving comments isolating themselves from the state.

"Proud Louisvillian, embarrassed Kentuckian," wrote one person of the ban.

"Louisville stands out as an island of inclusiveness and progressive thinking," wrote another.

"Most of the people of Louisville are nothing like the backwoods, rural folks throughout Ky," said another.

"Louisville should be a sovereign city," quipped another.

Louisville Metro Councilman Brandon Coan also responded to Becerra's travel restriction with a tweet.

"Louisville is not Kentucky, sir," he wrote shortly after the news broke.

In an interview Friday, Coan said, looking back, he could have chosen his words a bit better.

"Because Louisville is part of Kentucky," he said.

'A Shared Future'

Still, Coan stressed that Louisville - his home city - is different from the more rural areas of Kentucky.

A lot of that difference is rooted in the city's diversity, he said.

"It's more diverse in every way than the rest of the state," he said. "That diversity fundamentally underlies the different perspectives we have on all sorts of issues."

Like in politics, Coan said. State legislators from Louisville have clamored for gun control, but their calls have gone unanswered by rural, more conservative leaders in the General Assembly.

In the recent presidential election, Jefferson County, along with Fayette County - home of Lexington, the state's second most populated city - were the only two counties to not return a majority of votes for Donald Trump.

Still, citing political differences isn't enough to convince Savannah Barrett, or Coan, that the people across Kentucky are vastly different beasts.

Barrett said there are people in Louisville who voted for Trump, just as there are people out in deep rural areas that advocate for LGBTQ rights and arts programming.

The two areas depend on each other, too, she said.

Louisville depends on Kentucky for fresh food and energy and cultural aspects, she said. Rural Kentucky depends on Louisville for its economic contribution.

Without one, the other will falter, she said.

"The idea that Louisville is someway removed from the state of Kentucky is ludicrous," she said. "It is a shared future."

Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.

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