UNIONTOWN, Pa. — When Ahmad Endee immigrated from Jordan, the 33-year-old master watchmaker did not settle in Manhattan, N.Y., or Los Angeles.
He came straight to this former coal town of 10,000, to practice his craft and live the American dream.
One look at Joyce's Fine Jewelry on Main Street and you understand why he did: The store, nestled between a small park with statues of President Thomas Jefferson and his treasury secretary, Albert Gallatin, formulating their plans for the first national road (which runs right through town), and a larger park dedicated to legendary local newsman Walter "Buzz" Storey Jr., is nothing short of dazzling.
Outside, the remake of the 19th century building stops passersby in their tracks; the interior is more befitting of Rodeo Drive than coal country, its showcases filled with pieces handcrafted by owner Brandan Katzeff – diamond rings and necklaces, emeralds and precious stones in a variety of settings, watches priced from $28 to six figures.
Why all this in a small town in the middle of nowhere?
"I always thought I wanted to live in a big city and put this small town behind me," Katzeff said. "Turns out, once I went off to the big cities, I soon realized it wasn't the lifestyle for me."
Katzeff said that his customers come from around the world for the store's unique, world-class services, from the original jewelry to the special events held for customers, to the antique and rare timepieces that Endee cleans, repairs or adjusts in a dust-free lab.
"Being in a small town is never a geographic burden for us," Katzeff said. "If you do superb work and you treat people well, folks will travel great distances for your services."
In short, offer the best and the brightest people will come.
Farther along Main Street, Brent Baker is walking his dog, Crosby, from one end of town to the other. Like Katzeff, Baker loves living in a small town: "The pace of life is so much better than a big city, and I am not a fan of the suburbs."
Parts of the town do not share the jewelry shop's prosperity, of course; storefronts stand vacant with "For Lease" signs beckoning risk-takers. Other storefronts are doing okay, though, with small non-chain clothing stores sprinkled between the vacant properties.
Baker, a Williamsport, Pa., transplant and Penn State grad, came to Uniontown "for a very specific reason. I followed my girlfriend who is in medical school."
A forestry major, the former park ranger has not yet found a job in his field. He's been told that "the national parks aren't hiring until they understand what to expect" from President Trump's proposed cuts to the federal budget.
Baker voted last November for Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein – one of only 232 people in Fayette County to do so – and he considers himself pretty progressive; he acknowledges that, despite living in a small town heavily registered with Democrats, he's in Trump Country.
"I think we are all much more tolerant of each other's points of views in a small town than what you see play out on cable news or social media," he said. "Look, there might be some good things he does and, if he does, that's good for everyone. And if he does things that are not so good, then you speak out."
The United States has seen considerable urban growth in the last 100 years; suburbs around large cities have expanded, too.
Yet, that expansion has come at a price – for small towns and rural America.
In 1919, 54.4 percent of all Americans lived in small or rural towns; in 2010, just 19 percent did.
In those years, the cultural touchstones that wedded urban and small-town America have slowly, painfully eroded, until we've reached a point of having very little in common culturally, economically, or religiously.
The elites, who have the power, money, influence and education in every aspect of society, find the way of life of those living in small towns to be intolerable. They think that, because you live in a small town, you're pining away while waiting for the next factory to be built, or have succumbed to heroin addiction, or lack the education and motivation to mobilize yourself to get out of there.
It's gotten so bad that, since Trump won the presidency largely on the backs of voters in small town USA, some elites on both sides of the political aisle want to lop them off from polite society.
Or, at least, lop off the towns where they live.
They've calculated that, since the manufacturing and coal jobs quite literally were why places like Uniontown existed, the end of those jobs should close the towns down as well.
They overlook folks like Katzeff or Baker, who are trying to carve out a life and make a difference in these towns.
"What do they expect us to do, all move to the big cities?" Baker asked. "Imagine that for a moment, everyone who lives in a small town moves to large urban areas, placing a burden on the housing, jobs, food supply, infrastructure, water – I mean, it would be unsustainable."
"Small towns are rich, vibrant areas with great potential," said Jim Cellurale, sitting in the midst of a massive remodeling that he and his brother are undertaking to bring a shuttered Uniontown restaurant back to life.
"As far as going for where the jobs are, well, sometimes you have to be that job creator," he said.
The 41-year-old father of three comes from a long line of small-business owners who trace their family's small-town entrepreneurship to the industrial robber barons who shaped this region: "My great-grandfather worked for Henry Clay Frick," a titan of 19th-century industry.
Two of his three children have decided to carve out their lives in the area after graduating from college; the youngest is still in high school.
Cellurale gets irritated when elitists narrow-mindedly assess people in small towns as being a homogenous bloc of angry Trump voters. "I voted for Clinton," he said.
America's small towns are in crisis but certainly do not belong on the chopping block. The problems in small towns – opioid epidemics, a lack of social services and easy transportation, subpar or nonexistent broadband Internet service, a void of high-paying jobs – are challenging. That does not mean they are impossible to solve, nor does it mean small-town residents expect public handouts.
What they want is respect and a voice in the process, something the elites need to be better at sharing.
Salena Zito is a columnist for the Washington Examiner.