by Mike Templeton
This article was originally published on the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition.
For the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition, the issue of identity has been one of the core ideas that fuels much of our research and advocacy. But how we come to know ourselves as Appalachian, or maintain that sense of identity, is far more complex than we first imagine. For people who spend their lives in the Appalachian region the idea of “being Appalachian” may never come into question. For urban Appalachians, a sense of Appalachian identity can become problematic. Do we claim this identity ourselves, is Appalachian identity a function of how we are perceived by others, or is identity a complex negotiation between the two? I had an opportunity to talk with an urban Appalachian who now resides in New York City about this topic and much more.
Matthew Whitenack runs a company called GothamGuru, a travel tour agency and traveling guide for people who want to get the most out of a great (and enormous) city like New York, and he does it with the unique flair that only an Appalachian can. As Matthew explains, “I often say, ‘New York City has the best of everything—no matter who you are, where you’re from, or what you’re interested in, you just need a local to help you find it.’ And, as someone who grew up in the mountains, I’ve become adept at delivering a New York City experience with an Appalachian sensibility.” It is his unique background as an Appalachian who has transplanted himself to New York City that makes it possible for him to bring something to understanding New York that others cannot.
Matthew Whitenack is from the coal town of St. Paul, a town in Wise County, Virginia. He is the son of a father who started out as a teacher, then spent some years as a coal miner, then went back to teaching after injuring himself in the mines, and of a mother who worked in vocational rehabilitation. Given this background, my immediate question to Matthew was, what brought you to NYC? His answer is simple: “NYC brought me to NYC.”
The self-evident appeal of New York City is not lost on me. I’ve been there a few times, and it is easy to become swept away by such a large and cosmopolitan urban center. But Matthew also had practical reasons to move from Virginia to the big city. He continued, “I have always loved and been involved with the arts – writing, performing, music. We took a family trip to NYC when I was 12, and I vowed to return. After attending Emory & Henry College for undergrad, I moved to NYC to go to grad school at NYU and never left.” From small town Virginia to New York City, Matthew Whitenack can bring a unique insight into the issue of identity for urban Appalachians.
Matthew explains that he brings the insight of a person from the Appalachian region to discussions of what it means to be an Appalachian. Rather than relying on tired stereotypes of whatever seems to be on the best seller lists, he has worked to bring greater complexity to understanding Appalachia and Appalachians. Matthew explains, “Recently, since the pandemic started, I’ve opened an online bookshop that with curated book lists. I feature Appalachian authors, and I have a list of suggested books to read instead of Hillbilly Elegy.” There is much more to know about Appalachian identity and the Appalachian region that Vance’s book allows, and Matthew has used his unique position as an urban Appalachian in New York City to bring more to this discussion: “I have often, on the subway and other situations where I see people reading JD Vance’s book, engaged them in discussion about why they might want to read other books if they’re truly interested in learning about the history of Appalachia past and present.” That Appalachian identity is complex and not reducible to a two-dimensional formula is something an Appalachian is qualified to say, and Matthew Whitenack takes the opportunity to make this case.
Matthew Whitenack is no stranger to UACC. He told me he met Core member Pauletta Hansel at the Appalachian Writers Workshop at Hindman Settlement School 7 or 8 years ago. He goes on: “The Writers Workshop is one of the most important ways I remain connected to Appalachia.” Writer Matthew Whitenack is just as active as he is in his other ventures. He is currently working on a novel featuring a character from the Appalachian Mountains who now lives in New York City. The novel explores the ideas that “there is a tension and a constant awareness of one’s heart and identity being somewhat bifurcated.” Of course, some of this work of fiction comes from experience. Matthew told me he finds himself on social media “calling out generalizations and tired stereotypes about people from our area.” Again, the tensions at work in sustaining and understanding one’s own Appalachian identity as an urban Appalachian are at the heart of both his personal experience and creative work.
But Matthew Whitenack’s career is GothamGuru. This is how he butters his bread. Even here, though, we find Appalachia at the heart of things. GothamGuru is a travel and tour company. Matthew tells me it “is 50% focused on providing travel services and custom tours to people visiting NYC and 50% creating trips for people traveling everywhere else.” He arrived at the idea for this work in the course of his own travels with his family: “The initial spark for the company came from the trips over the years that I’ve created for my parents when they came to NYC to visit me.” Since his initial contact with NYC was as a young person from Virginia, he developed a sensitivity to the ways people may want to experience a city of such intensity. As he explains, “as someone who grew up in the mountains, I’ve become adept at delivering a New York City experience with an Appalachian sensibility. I call it ‘Big City WOW with Small Town Charm.’ And since most of my first NYC travel clients were from Appalachia, my Appalachian identity has had a major influence on how I’ve developed the company.”
The fortitude and creativity that Appalachian people have historically brought to everything we do puts urban Appalachians on solid ground to carve out new and exciting ways of living and thriving, even in a city as large and intense as New York City. Matthew Whitenack’s example is one that the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition likes to note and celebrate since his work and his distinctly Appalachian approach is one that is the real mark of success. GothamGuru can be found online at https://www.gotham-guru.com/. Note that GothamGuru also has an online bookstore with a fine selection of Appalachian poetry, fiction and nonfiction available; the bookstore can be accessed through the website or at https://bookshop.org/shop/gothamguru.
original title: Matthew Whitenack Brings Appalachia to the Big Apple
Mike Templeton (original writer) is a writer, independent scholar, barista, cook, guitar player, and accidental jack-of-all-trades. He lives in downtown Cincinnati with his wife who is a talented photographer. They spend their free time walking around the city snapping photos. She looks up at that the grandeur of the city, while Mike always seems to be staring at the ground.