Flying across a landscape on a clear day, at low altitude, always reveals things you had not known. From 1,500 feet up, about the height of the Empire State Building, you are far enough from the ground to discern patterns not visible at street level but close enough to pick out details that to airline passengers would be just blurs. From 2,500 feet above the ground, nearly the height of the world’s tallest building, you can see far enough in all directions to notice how cities interleave with suburbs, or how the course of a river, a ridge, a tree line shapes the farmland and settlements around it.
Often the speed and perspective of the aerial view make economic and social gradients amazingly vivid. For instance: Last fall, on a clear, warm Saturday, my wife and I flew in our small propeller airplane, at 2,500 feet, along the full extent of the Maine coast, from the New Hampshire border north. An hour in, when we passed over Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island, it became clear that we were simultaneously crossing not just a geographic but a gentrification line.
Behind us, to the south and west—in Kennebunkport, in the thriving city of Portland, in Rockland and Camden and other well-known resort towns—houses with big porches had faced out toward the sea, the waters had been crowded with sailboats and other pleasure craft, and we could see families with children walking or taking bicycle rides. As the miles past Bar Harbor wore on, the houses got smaller and less summery, the sailboats gave way to commercial fishing rigs, and the major sign of human activity was the occasional pickup truck bouncing down a road. This was too far for most vacationers or second-home shoppers to come. The population of Maine is poorer (and whiter) than America as a whole, and much older. The communities generally get poorer and older as you move north and east, a shift whose effects were quite visible even from above.
We were headed that day to the easternmost point in the state, and for that matter the entire country. This is the tiny town of Eastport, population 1,300, which sits across a mile-wide strait from Campobello Island, which is on the Bay of Fundy in the Canadian province of New Brunswick. Physically, Eastport resembles the more celebrated resort areas along the Maine coast. Rocky fingers reach out into the sea; pine trees line the low hills; the downtown waterside structures are mainly two- and three-story brick storefronts, most of them built soon after a fire in 1886 destroyed all the wooden buildings of the old downtown. Eastport’s residential areas are mainly classic New England clapboard, at dramatically cheaper prices than in other seaside sites. You could buy a rundown house with a water view on two sides for less than $100,000. Eastport is so compact that as we circled over Campobello to land at Eastport’s small airport, we could easily keep all its houses, office buildings, and retail shops and cafés in view. That same view took in the 20 large, round enclosures in the bay in which 500,000 farmed salmon were swimming in circles nonstop.
A century ago, Eastport was a center of the Atlantic Seaboard sardine-canning industry, and its population was more than 5,000. The population has decreased in every census since then, and Maine’s state economist recently projected that if current trends prevail, by 2025 it will fall below 1,000. The people who remain in town are old even by Maine’s standards, with a median age of 55. By national standards they are also quite poor: across the country, the median household income was about $50,000 in 2012; in Eastport, it was less than $27,000. The income is even lower in the adjoining Passamaquoddy tribal reservation.
We had come to Eastport because we had heard that this little, hard-pressed town was the scene of an audacious and creative recovery attempt. By the time we left, a week later, we were convinced of the breadth and intensity of the effort. Whether this will be enough to return the town to economic and demographic health, I can’t say, nor can anyone living there. But the next time you hear some generality about the need for “resilience” and “reinvention” in America, give a thought to the 1,300 people of Eastport.
We came to Eastport as part of a project called American Futures. Since last summer, my wife and I have been visiting smallish cities, usually much bigger than Eastport, in which promising feats of economic or cultural reinvention are under way. The road-trip-by-air angle is partly a gimmick, but not entirely. America is full of small cities you would never happen to go through, because they’re not on an interstate or between points A and B. Eastport is an example. Yet virtually every town in America is, like Eastport, within a reasonable drive of one of the nation’s 4,000-plus small airports. This has been an intentionally skewed (and obviously unscientific) sample, in that we’ve looked for cities on the rebound to see what distinguishes them. But there have been more of them than we expected, including ones as seemingly beleaguered as Eastport.
Our original idea with this project was to find answers to questions we’d formulated ahead of time. Why was this city able to maintain a manufacturing base? How did that city revive its downtown? But as we have learned through our years of travel in Asia, Africa, and elsewhere, the most-important questions are usually those you didn’t know to ask before you made the trip.
One of the surprises so far has been the power of the local “turnaround narrative,” that is, the way people in a town understand and try to apply the lessons of their success. For instance, the little lakeside town of Holland, Michigan, has long had a healthy manufacturing base, but in the 1980s its historic downtown was on the verge of being hollowed out by new suburban malls. Rich local families that still owned the local factories put their own money into a downtown-revival program, including a weird-sounding but effective system that uses waste heat from the city’s power plant to warm its streets and sidewalks and keep them snow-free all year long. Everyone in Holland knows this story, and uses it to underscore the ongoing importance of committed local leadership.
We’ve visited other cities, with other stories, and will keep collecting more. After we put up an online request for suggestions, readers offered nearly 1,000 nominations for small cities in the midst of reinventing themselves. This isn’t a random sampling of America, but it says something about the local tenacity and ingenuity that observers have associated with our country from the time of Tocqueville onward. Eastport is emblematic of the towns we’ve visited so far in that its people are telling their own success story, as part of willing it to come true. At the end of each conversation we had in town—at least 50 in all, a statistically significant sample!—I asked whether Eastport seemed to still be declining, to have leveled off, or to have begun an ascent. “We’re beginning the ascent,” people told me, or “we’re poised.” “We’ve always thought of this as a 20-year effort,” an Eastport native named Hugh French told me. “We’re 10 years in.”
French’s parents moved to Eastport in the early 1950s. His father became the town doctor, and in the 1960s his mother founded a still-going twice-monthly paper, The Quoddy Tides. French and his brother Edward were raised in town, went away to college, worked in big-city America, and decided to return. Edward and his wife, Lora Whelan, now run The Quoddy Tides; Hugh and his wife, Kristin McKinlay, have set up a local museum and art institute and have converted a derelict downtown building into studio space for their artist-in-residency program. “Each thing you do, it adds to the whole,” Hugh French said as he showed us around some of the studios—and a new coffee shop, and a gift store. “It builds.”
We talked with him at his Tides Institute and Museum of Art just after arriving in Eastport. A few hours later, on our first night in town, we went to the local presentation of The Glass Menagerie, last year one of the three major productions that Stage East, a part of the Eastport Arts Center, puts on annually. (There is also a local string group that performs classical music.) The man taking tickets was the newspaper editor, Edward French. “I think we are reinventing ourselves,” he told me the next day.
What, specifically, does that mean? Varied and startling efforts. Here are some:
Reviving the port. Maine’s fjord-like coast gives Eastport the deepest natural harbor in the lower 48 states. (Valdez, in Alaska, is slightly deeper.) I learned to check myself before saying to Eastporters that their city was the easternmost point in America, or in any other way suggesting that it was remote. “We like to think we’re ideally positioned,” Chris Gardner, a lifelong Maine resident and former policeman who, as the Port Authority director over the past five years, has overseen a major increase in shipments through Eastport, told me. “We’re a day closer in sea time to Europe than New York is.” As the melting Canadian arctic permits more northwest passages to Asia—such passages were not possible without icebreakers 10 years ago, but they are expected (or feared) to be routine 10 years from now—Eastport becomes by far the closest U.S. Atlantic Seaboard port to China, Korea, and Japan. “We in Eastport think we are living in a crown jewel,” Gardner told me. “We automatically wake up with an advantage.”
Depth and location do not in themselves ensure a port’s commercial success. Eastport’s lack of a rail connection to the rest of North America is a major handicap to the port. The money that shippers save in sea-freight costs because of Eastport’s favorable location is often less than the extra money they have to spend to bring cargo in on trucks. The city has been lobbying hard for state and federal help in restoring the rail link that connected Eastport with the Maine Central Railroad until it was abandoned in 1978. But even without a rail connection, it has steadily increased its shipments by sea. One of its specialties is container ships full of (live) pregnant cows, bound for Turkey.
Pregnant cows? European beef and dairy herds, reduced by mad cow disease and other factors, are now being rebuilt, largely with American stock. When cows make the sea voyage while pregnant, their calves can be born on European soil and have the advantages of native-born treatment. To put it in American terms, the mother cows would not be eligible to run for president, but the calves would. A company called Sexing Technologies, based in Navasota, Texas, has devised a sperm-sorting system to ensure that nearly all those calves will be female, a plus for dairy herds. Chris Gardner convinced Sexing Technologies that Eastport would be an ideal transit point, and since 2010 some 40,000 cattle have been loaded aboard ships there.