Southern hospitality – for everyone
People tend to think of the American South as a place where bigotry runs rampant. But there are amazing cultural experiences to be had – if you know where to look. Here are five cities in which liberals can safely hunker down, Calvin Cashen writes
All my life, I had assumed that my home state, Texas, was a rapidly progressing Southern state; an affirming place for minorities. It was not until the Supreme Court of Texas opposed the legalization of gay marriage in 2015 that I realized I had been living in the middle of a social divide between parties locked in constant battle.
It's not easy being an American liberal in 2017, let alone a Southern liberal. Considering the broken and somewhat precarious state of the U.S. political system, I always feel a little embarrassed telling U.S. Northerners – let alone Canadians – where I'm from. People tend to think of the South as a place where racism, sexism and bigotry run rampant. But that's a mentality that stems from the collective tendency to generalize without first-hand experience.
In light of U.S. President Donald Trump's recent immigration ban (and other actions), I know some Canadians are reconsidering travel to the United States this summer – or at least to red states in which the majority voted Republican. This includes all of the Deep South. However, to avoid this huge swath of the United States is to deny yourself an amazing cultural experience.
So here's a handy list of Southern cities in which liberals can safely hunker down.
These cities voted blue in states largely run by Republicans, and enforce legislation that accommodates LGBTQ and minority communities.
Many stereotypical mental images are associated with Texas: ten-gallon hats, big belt buckles and politicians with megaconservative policies. It's probably surprising to learn, then, that most large metropolitan cities in the Lone Star State land to the left on the political spectrum. This is especially true of the state's capital.
Austin is filled with clever gestures that breathe life into the place. American flags fly throughout the city, a beautifully patriotic adornment, glistening at sunset. Austin's art scene is just as vibrant. Murals can be seen around almost every corner, contributing to the endearingly grimy aesthetic the city is known for.
While Austin's world-revered South by Southwest music, film and technology festival is held in the spring, there's an array of activities to keep travellers occupied during the rest of the year. For example, you could head to Hamilton Pool Preserve, a natural swimming grotto that formed when the dome of an underground river collapsed in the distant past.
And then there are the innumerable taco joints found throughout the city. It's conventional wisdom that Austin culture starts and ends with the taco, as the city is host to some of the world's best Mexican restaurants. For early birds, the Veracruz All Natural food trucks make migas tacos that are sure to appease that morning appetite. As its name implies, Veracruz All Natural offers inventive combinations made fresh with meticulous craftsmanship. Veg-heads need not worry. For specific dietary needs, there's Grizzelda's. Sure, the restaurant's menu features a typical selection of meats, but its one-of-a-kind eggplant, mushroom, Brussels sprout and dark mole concoction is a must-have.
Inner-city Memphis has detached itself from its Confederate roots.
Although the majority of Tennesseans lean to the right, Memphis, even with its contentious civil-rights past, probably sits further to the left than California and Washington, and embraces a decidedly refreshing religious diversity and tolerance. If that weren't enough, Memphis is a culinary melting pot.
The city is famous for its restaurants – but above all, its barbecue.
Whether you're itching for short ribs or pulled pork, Memphis has phenomenal barbecue joints. Leonard's Pit Barbecue, for example, is the city's oldest existing barbecue establishment, in business since 1922. (But if you hate waiting for a meal, it's best to avoid touristy places such as Leonard's.) Chopped pork sandwiches served with coleslaw on top are a Memphis tradition.
For music lovers, there's Beale Street, also known as the "Home of the Blues." And just south of Beale Street in the South Main district, there's Central BBQ. With its self-service sauces providing some extra fun, this is the best dining option for those looking for variation with a bit of nuance and an irresistible down-home flavour.
And, of course, Elvis fanatics can fly in to gaze at the altar of the King himself.
Getting around Memphis is a breeze; vintage trolleys regularly roll through downtown and alongside the Mississippi River.
Open expression of liberal values might have been unthinkable in Birmingham a decade ago. But Alabama's liberal population has pushed back with vigour. Almost two years ago, Democratic presidential contender Bernie Sanders drew a boisterous 7,000 people to a campaign rally in Birmingham. In fact, 89 per cent of residents consider themselves Democrats.
The city itself has much to offer: the Museum of Art, the Hall of History, the Alabama Museum of Natural History and Aldridge Gardens.
When the sun goes down, entertainment is never far out of reach. If you don't have time to explore many of Birmingham's numerous night-life offerings, head to Paramount, which is sure to feature entertainment and a thoroughly curated selection of drinks. Located at 20th Street and Second Avenue, this bar doubles as an old-school arcade that specializes in American-style cuisine. What sets Paramount apart from its competitors, though, is its retro-tinged aura. Corporate establishments often use nostalgia as a backdrop; a marketing gimmick disguised as authenticity. But Paramount and its charming reverence for the past is anything but a gimmick.
On the other hand, if you're in the mood for indulgence and mellow relaxation, you can always try a mint julep on a rooftop balcony or patio.
Despite the stark contrast between the Georgia city's evangelical and liberal populations, Atlanta is a bastion of social diversity where disenfranchised groups freely take refuge.
For several years, it has been distinguished as an epicentre of the South's gay and lesbian population, even boasting a Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce that promotes the economic development and prosperity of LGBTQ businesses and non-profit members in the community.
Tourists can enjoy the Georgia Aquarium, which is the largest in the Western Hemisphere. The aquarium defies conventional stereotypes, in part because of its diverse wildlife, intimacy and friendly atmosphere. It's also one of few aquariums where you can scuba dive with the sea critters.
When it comes to exploring Atlanta, the tourist hubs start and end downtown.
If the hustle and bustle isn't your vibe, culture connoisseurs can congregate at the city's numerous concert venues for a show or performance. The Atlanta Botanical Gardens, meanwhile, cater to the sensibilities of nature lovers, offering 30 acres of lush greenery and landscapes.
While North Carolina may not be the most liberal-friendly state, it does have its share of left-leaning hot spots. Asheville's Different Strokes Performing Arts Collective, for one, specializes in a unique brand of socially conscious theatre. The collective's main goal is to increase and sustain equal opportunity within North Carolina's arts community. Its riveting and consistent output of work aims to address topical social-justice issues, which encourages audience members to confront and ruminate on these topics.
If Asheville's nightlife is any indication, it's clear the city knows what entertainment is about. No matter the occasion, a fun, enveloping ambience is sure to pervade even the most average night on the town. Asheville's streets are lined with rows of bars and lounges, most of which serve a rotating collection of drinks, cocktails and locally brewed craft beers. Local favourites include The Admiral and Thirsty Monk. O. Henry's is the oldest operating gay bar in North Carolina.
You'll feel compelled to explore every last bit of this gorgeous environment. Your explorations should include Asheville's nearby mountains, which offer a bird's-eye view of ancient ecological and geological history. These lofty peaks stretch for miles and are connected by the region's foremost scenic car route, the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Whether on foot or car, travellers can zip across the chain of mountains in a day's time. To the north on the Blue Ridge Parkway sits Mount Mitchell, which rises 6,684 feet high, making it the highest mountain in eastern North America. But no mountain is more recognized in Asheville than Grandfather Mountain. Its peak reaches nearly 6,000 feet and is home to 70 endangered species. Asheville's mountains are so awe-inspiring that simply driving through the countryside is enough to keep anyone entertained.