Pushed Out in the American West

Going deeper on rural gentrification with sociologist Ryanne Pilgeram

Ryanne Pilgeram, a University of Idaho sociologist, was a kid when her family lost their Montana ranch to the farm crisis. They were forced out, culturally and financially, and the experience helped lead her into a career studying the rural West gentrification crisis. In her new book, Pushed Out: Contested Development and Rural Gentrification in the US WestPilgeram tells the story through the lens of tiny Dover, Idaho, a former timber mill town that lost a battle in the 2000s over the development of a resort community. 

I spoke with Pilgeram about her experience and research for my recent story on rural gentrification in the Guardian, but there’s so much more to be said. Because she’s spent years working on this issue and is one of the first to name it, I wanted to go deeper with her about what’s happening in the Rocky Mountain West and how communities can brace for what feels inevitable. The outlook can seem a bit bleak, but Pilgeram says we’re in a moment right now when things could change. The trick is to be prepared and proactive.

Our conversation is below, with the text edited down for length and clarity.

Q: Why did you choose Dover, Idaho, as a case study of rural gentrification?

It seemed such a perfect case study in some ways. It’s very bounded. It was easy to wrap my head around. Often communities tend to grow in unincorporated areas. This was not the case. Because it was so bounded, decisions about this particular piece of land had to go through the city council, and the city council was made up entirely of working-class old timers. Why would they make this decision? Why would they not protect the place?

Q: Did you get the impression that people in small, rural communities believe that development and growth are the only ways forward?

No. For some people, this is a blessing in some ways. The impression I often got, which is equally flawed, was there are outside political forces shaping the discussion.

(Since the book was released) I’m like the gentrification counselor. People are pouring out their stories. I get the impression that so many people are so worried about this on so many levels. I’ll be the keynote speaker for an Idaho planning conference, the whole agenda is around planning for development.

Q: What advice are you giving?

People who are running the city council, or who care about this, be forward looking. What do you want your community to look like in 20 years? Who will live in your community in 20 years? What kind of jobs will they have?

It seems like we aren’t asking what communities want, we’re waiting for developers to come in and tell us. Even when the city (of Dover) tried to push back, the developer took them to court.

Maybe I romanticize Montana, but my impression growing up in Montana is that we put a value on working people and we understood they are part of our communities. These problems are bigger than they can address.

When I asked someone what advice to give rural communities, their answer was: “Hire the most expensive lawyer you can afford.” But are communities like Anaconda (a working-class town in western Montana) going to be able to afford to hire a lawyer like that?

We need to plan for growth, and for climate change, people who do remote work people are going to come to Montana and the West. I think we’re at this moment where people can see how fragile the service economy is and we have to build communities where everybody has a place.

One of the critical of the themes is infrastructure. We basically starve poor people of infrastructure and then condemn their land because of poor infrastructure. When we use resources to tell people, ‘oh you can’t live here anymore,’ we let things fail and reclaim that space for development.

Maybe part of this is thinking about how do we make sure everybody has access to infrastructure? Water, sewer, electricity, internet – there should be a legal responsibility for those things.

Q: Why do you think there’s been reluctance in the rural West to call what’s happening gentrification?

It’s a term that tends to be highly urbanized and highly racialized. Sociologists look at it differently.

There are just fewer people who write about rural communities. I’m not the first, but I have no qualms using it. When we think about it, often gentrification gets talked about in terms of displacing communities. In the West, it’s a slower process of displacement. The social and cultural displacement happens quickly, but the physical displacement is slower because older people own their homes. Rural gentrification tends to be generational. So grandma and grandpa still live there, but the kids can’t. People are trying to figure out this generational piece.

There’s also a resistance to talking about race and social class in rural communities.

Q: Do political leaders play into that resistance to talking about class?

I think sometimes it’s less of a reluctance than it is a blindness to social class. Most of the people who run for office, to them, working class or poorer people, the people who work in the service sector, are really invisible. They feel really disenfranchised, which makes it more difficult for them to organize.

There’s not really the same weight given to the working class as it had 30 years ago. For example, right now, are we in a mass unorganized labor strike? It might make the labor of service workers more visible to call it that.

People ask me, “What does your book provide? Oh, I don’t know, the truth that poor people have feelings?”

Having your story told is powerful. And I don’t think local media does a good job with it. We’re making people invisible.

Q: Has anyone been able to manage this crisis well?

Not that I’ve seen. Everyone is asking me for that example and I haven’t found it. It requires incredible political will and planning, and probably requires effort form both state and national level. You feel like Plentywood (a small farm town in the far northeastern corner of Montana) is gentrification-proof. But these are global issues, it’s a global economy. International buyers in other places are affecting rural communities now.

Q: Why have people had so much trouble recognizing the heart of problem, and instead the conversation has largely been us vs them?

When I started writing this book, these conversations weren’t even really happening except in a few pockets of academia. It seems to me there’s a real appetite for it all the of sudden. We are in a moment where there are real possibilities. It has started to affect the middle class as well. That’s a big part of it

People are now saying, ‘I worry about this, this was supposed to be my birthright.’ The system is failing. We should be able to believe in the system, that if we work and do our part, we have a place in the community. That includes working class people, that includes poor people, and it always has.

Q: What can people do in the meantime?

For places like Butte or Helena or Hungry Horse, one of those places that’s the next to fall, organize now. Build a group of concerned citizens who do the work of meeting regularly, who have a vision, who show up at city council meetings. So much of this happens in the dark, but it’s important to have a group of people who are willing to be witnesses and are willing to speak up, to essentially pretend to have more power than they have.

Oftentimes the city government doesn’t even follow the law. Starting before there’s a development project is critical. Run for office. Learn the bylaws, learn everything you can. What we do matters, but when we’re in the middle of it, it can feel like tilting at windmills.


Coming up next in the Western gentrification files, how a well-intended art project about the extractive industries became an exercise in cultural extraction.

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