What we try to achieve speaks to our character—

The tenacity of Harlan, KY


I recently went to Harlan, KY and sat in on a workshop for freelancers given at the It’s Good 2 Be Young In The Mountains / #‎IG2BYITM conference. First, I was surprised to find a group that was so vibrant in Harlan, KY. It put a lot of what I go through living in Louisville in perspective, and it gives me a fresh look of how to accept the many hurdles of living here.

Ale 8 is the drink of choice in Southeast Kentucky.

The conference took place in downtown Harlan, amid the all the closed shops. On a Saturday afternoon there were only a few shops open, a pizza restaurant, and two pawn shops. Based on the size of the pawnshops, I think the entire town might be in pawn. There were even a couple motorcycles in pawn. Then, there was the Harlan Tourist and Convention Commission center; it was vibrant and full of life — the Appalachian youth.

How people earn a living in the US is changing, and Harlan is changing, too. Coal isn’t the savior of the town; it has let the town die. A walk through downtown is evidence that what once was working, can no longer support a small Southeast Kentucky town. The working class is gone, and the boomers that once had to move away to find work are now returning in retirement. It makes for an odd Realestate market. I was stunned that some of the real estate prices (Zillow) in Harlan were nearly $500,000, and it seemed many of the 3 bedroom houses were over $200,000.

The youth that remains in Appalachia are tenacious. They’re staying there if they can, and returning as soon as they can make enough money to come back. One Harlan freelancer said, ‘I go to Louisville, and make gobs of money, then move back.’ I could hear the struggle in his voice; I hear his belief in Harlan. Harlan was worth saving.

The freelance economy, a fiber connection, and a good espresso could revitalize Harlan.

As we sat around that table in the Harlan, much of the conversation could have taken place in Louisville. There was discussion about trying to find more clients, mobility, taxes, professional services, keeping your skills fresh, and ultimately the economic shift to the freelance economy.

It seems like much of the money that is being poured into infrastructure in the area is being poured into roads. That’s thirty years too late. The new infrastructure that’s needed is high-speed internet.

The physical opportunities for these freelancers to thrive are further away now than they ever were; the opportunities are in ‘New Frontier’ cities. The opportunities used to be in Louisville, Lexington, Indianapolis, but now those opportunities have spread to the corners of the globe. The Appalachian youth produce photographs, written articles, and event planning services.

It will be interesting to see what the Appalachian youth discover about the new world; for, they have a different view than the rest of us have.

In their voices, I can hear the saviors of Harlan.