'What Is Special About My City': Coshocton, Bartlesville, Birmingham

Beginning a series.

A little over a week ago, readers began suggesting smaller cities with interesting stories worth chronicling for a ground-up sense of emerging American realities. Some of the responses that came in were simply city names and leads for further contacts. But hundreds upon hundreds involved little (or big) essays on why a particular city represented important aspects of the national condition.

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I am going to start quoting those, three per day, until the interesting ones run out. As soon as we resolve some bleeding-edge issues with our mapping software, I will refer you to a companion posting at our special 'American Futures' site with fancy maps showing the cities I am talking about. For now, words only -- oh, plus the screen shot above showing all the cities readers have suggested, with the three discussed today in blue. Here we go.

Coshocton, Ohio. A reader writes:

This is a typical rural rust-belt town on the edge of Appalachia in Ohio. It's a town with a rich history that goes back to the founding of the state of Ohio - like Chillicothe, OH, it was a large Indian settlement and gathering place. It was a major stop on the Ohio-Erie Canal that preceded the railroad expansion in the 1830-1840s. A rich history...but an uncertain future. 

However, it's a town that has really struggled through the past 20-30 years. The economic crash of 2009 was merely another straw on the camel's back. The classic industrial manufacturing that used to provide the middle-class income and wages for this town have largely disappeared. Industrial manufacturing has shed 2000-3000 jobs in the last 20 years. Automotive manufacturing, circuit board manufacturing, rubber glover manufacturing, paper mills, pottery, baskets, and printing/promotional products are examples of the jobs that have been lost in this community. The community suffers from a brain drain, because it's best and brightest that have economic resources tend to leave and never return - there's not much hope or future for many here to succeed in manufacturing or technology fields. 

There's hope and fear for the future here. A major employer is a coal-fired power plant that provides solid jobs for the community. What will future regulations about coal-fired power plants and energy do to the community here? How should it shift and change? Coshocton County also sits on top of the Utica Shale formation - as of today, there are only a few tracking wells in the county, but many more are no doubt in the planning stages. How will the new energy economy change this county in the future? There's mixed hope that fracking will bring jobs, and also fear that it will ruin the abundant water or farming in this community. 

Coshocton has expanded infrastructure in airports (5000ft runway) and wastewater, power, and sewer infrastructure, but it seems to have lost it's way in how to attract new business to the town that can help change it's future and chart a new course. My family's company has been here in this community for nearly 30 years and we have managed to buck the trend of steadily losing manufacturing jobs.

 We manufacture fine chemical products and have a nutritional ingredients business - relatively "high-tech" for this rural community and increasingly in demand around the world. The main product that we produce is an Omega-3 fish oil concentrate from Alaskan fish oils. We've seen huge growth in our industry and are now one of the largest producers of Omega-3 fish oils for dietary supplements in the United States. The bright future for us also comes with a measure of uncertainty - how will future FDA regulations surrounding nutritional products impact our ability to compete with the global markets for nutritional ingredients?

Coshocton is surrounded by a few towns of local interest - Dresden, OH that experienced a large boom with the growth of a basket company (Longaberger) that once employed 8000 employees and had hundreds of millions in sales. Today, it's struggling to survive, profit, and redefine itself as a multi-level marketing company. The headquarters in Newark, OH are uniquely shaped like a basket and they have a "Homestead" theme-park situated next to their basket factory in Frazeysburg, OH. (http://www.longaberger.com). 

There's also Millersburg, OH (Airport - 10G), center of Holmes County - the largest Amish/Mennonite settlement in Ohio. It's a unique place where horse and buggies are common on the road and back-to-the-basics farming, family ties, and avoiding excessive entanglement with the outside world defines life. You'll see buggies tied up at Wal-Mart in Millersburg and can get stuck behind them on a twisty two-lane rural highway. However, this community is getting crowded and because of large families that grow and the need for a substantial plot of farmland that can support another large family, there's somewhat of an exodus of Amish from this area to other parts of the nation where land is cheaper and opportunity abounds. 

Other towns in our area with similar stories of economic prosperity followed by downturn and change can be found in New Philadelphia, OH (KPHD), Cambridge, OH (KCDI), and Zanesville, OH (KZZV). South of here is Athens, OH (KUNI) - home of Ohio University.

I realize that you can probably spend the rest of your career flying your SR22 around the US and reporting on small-town USA, so I'm not expecting you to visit our specific part of the world. I doubt that your schedule will take you to the edge of Appalachia in Ohio, but I think that if you take some time to take a close look at this area in the hilly Ohio borderlands northwest of West Virginia and Pennsylvania that you will find some interesting stories and a different perspective on some of the concerns and challenges facing our nation in the future. 

Bartlesville, Oklahoma. Two entries here. First:

Small town (30K people) though large by OK standards. Former headquarters of Phillips Petroleum Co., it was a white-collar town in the middle of an agricultural/ blue-collar state. It was kind of a free-standing suburb with no large city around. It had the best high school in the state and a world-famous summer Mozart festival.  In the past 15 years or so Phillips merged with Conoco and moved its headquarters to Houston. A new Walmart distribution center on the edge of town may be the major employer now. The transition away from an abundance of white collar jobs may be an interesting twist on the changing face of the American economy. I was born and raised in Bartlesville but have lived in CA and TX since graduating from high school.

And:

In many ways Bartlesville is a microcosm of America. It is small town and big corporate (Conocophillips). It is post-segregation and still segregated. It has a fractured identity often living in its glory days thirty years ago while struggling to confront its declining economy. It is the headquarters of dozens of Indian tribes, but it is among the whitest places you'll ever see. Bartlesville is oil execs in Lamborghinis and cowboys in F150s. It is Jesus and meth, churches and casinos.

What is perhaps most peculiar is that it is all these things (and more) packed into such a small space, just 21 square miles with only 36 thousand people.


Birmingham, Alabama. A last one for the night:

Although it may be a bit larger and more recognized than you'd like for your particular story, Birmingham is a town that deserves recognition for the strides it is making in areas such as craft beer, food, art, music, and culture.  I grew up here, and although I may attempt to escape to better climates (I simply don't care for the heat here), this city has come a long way, and it would be great to see it get some more publicity that could potentially accelerate our progress even more.

Some of this change has occurred within the past four or five years, and this may be partially a result of the passage of a "Free the Hops" bill in the state legislature that opened the door for craft beer in Alabama.  Breweries are popping up all over the place, and people are buying their products.

Restaurants are also on the rise, with high quality farm-to-table food becoming more and more common.  As you know, the South is excellent for farming, and the incredible produce here, along with fresh meat from local farms and fresh seafood from the nearby Gulf of Mexico, makes it that much easier for restauranteurs to do well here.  Gone are the days when all you could get to eat in downtown Birmingham was greasy food or cafeteria style "meat and three", most of which used low-quality, frozen foods.

I suppose that part of the reason for Birmingham's recent advances is the low cost of living here.  This is not a particularly cost-prohibitive place, especially when compared to, say, New England or California.  But in my opinion there is a much bigger cause for the change that is happening here, and that is the fact that the city's young people are (and have been for some time) fed up with our image as "that place where they sprayed the civil rights activists with the fire hoses and bombed the black Baptist church".

Our image has never been particularly positive to most of the country, and there are a lot of people here who, rather than simply bailing on the city, are devoted to changing that perception.  People are moving back into the once-deserted downtown areas, and there are more and more people who really believe in Birmingham.  It is really a beautiful thing to see, because I thought that we would remain a backwards cultural desert for the rest of my life.  This progress is significant, and it is palpable.  There is an exciting feeling of potential in Birmingham that is growing exponentially, and it's hard to imagine it slowing down anytime soon.  And trust me, as a born and raised native with a family that has been here for generations, I never thought I would be able to use the words "exciting" and "Birmingham" in the same sentence.

I don't know if this is the kind of thing you're looking for or not, but if a reputable publication like The Atlantic were to shed some light on the progress our city has made, perhaps it could accelerate the improvements.

Despite my own potential desire to move due to the hot weather, all of the other factors that used to repel me from my hometown - lack of culture, bigotry, unofficial (but real) segregation, and more - seem to be moving in the right direction.  We still have a long way to go, but every little bit helps, so it is for that reason that I encourage you to consider Birmingham as a subject for your research.

Yes, this is very much the kind of thing I am looking for. Sincere thanks, and more to come. 

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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