Photo: James Kirkikis/Shutterstock

6 of the Most Resilient Communities in the United States

United States Travel
by Mary Ellen Dingley Mar 16, 2016

1. Pittsburgh, PA

Pittsburgh was mentioned as one of the cities in the 100 Resilient Cities project, and in a recent Atlantic article on how America is pulling itself back together. Pittsburgh was once a giant in the steel industry but when that economic base collapsed the city’s population faced a rapid and tough decline in the 1970s and 1980s. Pittsburgh’s economy was in shambles and half of its people moved away.

Problems of blight and a sharply shrinking population can tear cities apart, but not Pittsburgh. It has since turned itself around to become a tech city, and is now redefining itself thanks largely to the arts community. How a steel industry town transformed into a hub for the public arts is due to large charities, but also to the smaller, locally-funded projects like the City of Asylum project. City of Asylum helps oppressed artists and writers come to Pittsburgh from their respective countries. The project houses them, often in formerly abandoned homes, bringing them a safe space to live and work. Theatres, new restaurants and a strong local comedy scene have also sprung up in recent years. Pittsburgh is a prime example of a city that adapted to change rather than crumbling under crisis.

2. Gullah Geechee culture

Gullah and Geechee cultures are the names for the descendents of slaves living on the islands of Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Florida and they have kept alive centuries-old traditions that can be traced back to specific West African groups. The Gullah and Geechee traditions have been studied by linguists and anthropologists for decades. Anthropologists and ethnomusicologists have been able to trace specific songs back to their origins in West Africa and currently the tradition of “ring shouting” is kept alive by groups of “shouters.”

Through abduction, enslavement, and now resort and vacation home development and climate change, the Gullah and Geechee people have fought for their unique language, culture and land use. Some people feel that “their entire culture is being sold” as this Vice video reports. Leaders such as Queen Quet, Chieftess and Head of State Gullah/Geechee Nation, fight for the survival of their people in the face of these challenges.

But even with all of these trials, there is some hope. Funding has been reauthorized by the federal government to support the The Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, and a recent grant was awarded to support a cultural heritage center and conserve Gullah Geechee land in the town of Navassa, near the North Carolina/South Carolina border. The Gullah Geechee communities have held onto a culture through hundreds of years and across thousands of miles — that is resiliency in action.

3. Alaskan Native coastal communities

On the coast of Alaska, native communities have lived off the sea for thousands of years and have managed to continue a subsistence-based existence even when they stopped living as nomads. These communities still use traditional hunting grounds, pick berries, and fish from the sea, but now they are facing challenges brought on by climate change.

The Inupiaq, Yupik and Aleut communities have been especially hard hit by the rising temperatures. The melting ice shortens their walrus hunting season, a problem when walrus provides not only nutrition, but materials for traditional ceremonial crafts, often used as a source of income. The rising waters are forcing many to move from their homes. But yet they still plan to continue living as they always have, and some villages have found new locations, not far from their hunting grounds. The town of Newtok is being seen as a model for how other towns may need to adapt to climate change in the future.

These communities are fighting to live their subsistence and sustainable way of life, while staring down the massive challenge of climate change. President Obama has asked for money from Coastal Climate Resilience Fund to aid these villages.

4. New Orleans, LA

It’s been nearly 11 years since Hurricane Katrina, but many people still believe that New Orleans is under water. But the city emerged from the devastation and tragedy its soul intact. Six months after the hurricane, New Orleans celebrated the centuries-old tradition of Mardi Gras. The scars are still visible in New Orleans. There are homes with spray-painted FEMA Xs on them, which mark that the home was searched and people were found or not. There are abandoned lots, overgrown and empty — especially in the Lower 9th Ward where less than half of the population has returned.

But the city is nothing if not resilient.

Take the tradition of a Second Line, the block parties and parade combination that is done at funerals and weddings, but also as a neighborhood celebration for a Social Aid and Pleasure Club. Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs are now sponsors of fun neighborhood events, but historically they were types of community insurance providers, helping with costs of funerals or other financial hardships, especially in poor communities of color. Ronald Lewis, director of the House of Dance and Feathers, collects the history of these clubs, the Second Lines, the Mardi Gras Indians and the Mardi Gras krewes. He led the first Second Line in the Lower 9th Ward after Hurricane Katrina. No storm and no mass exodus of people stopped that tradition of community love and togetherness from happening.

Today New Orleans battles crime, food deserts, and government corruption, with the same tools it always has — community involvement and a rich tradition of the arts.

5. Clarkston, Georgia Refugee Community

Clarkston is a small city clinging to the edge of Atlanta. The area is probably better known for its great Southern food and music than for its multiculturalism, but Clarkston has actually welcomed 750,000 refugees from around the world. The International Rescue Committee in Atlanta helps refugees settle into the Clarkston community by helping them find apartments and teaching them how to use the public transportation system.

These refugees have lost everything while fleeing violence in their home countries, but in Clarkston they have not only started their own lives anew, but have built a welcoming community for all. Refugees have started Ethiopian and Nepalese restaurants, thrift stores with clothing from many cultures, and they’ve begun to host welcoming events for newcomers at the Clarkston Community Center. There was a lot of worry when Republican governors vowed to block more refugees from resettling, combined with the negative portrayal of Muslim refugees, but the mayor of Clarkston promised to keep welcoming refugees, and the refugees themselves work hard to support themselves and others while maintaining their culture and beliefs.

6. Cherokee Nation

The Cherokee Nation is the largest sovereign tribal nation in the United States. Their native lands were the Southeast, with a capital in what is now north Georgia. But with the discovery of gold they were pushed out and, by the command of President Andrew Jackson, forced to head West on what is now called the Trail of Tears — a route where approximately 4,000 people died of disease and starvation. This Trail of Tears has remained infamous as a stark example of genocide in the United States.

Yet the Cherokee Nation still exists, now centered in Oklahoma, and still celebrates its heritage and culture with language classes, annual festivals, and arts and culinary courses. They are building a new healthcare center, they donate to local schools and parks, they have a heirloom seed project, and they have recently passed a bill to further protect their arts and culture. As a people who have faced tremendous hardship — the loss of their lands, the decimation of their people, and attacks on their language and culture — the Cherokee have still maintained pride and unity in their heritage.

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