'What Is Special About My Town': Butte, Lawrence, McAllen

Middle America, from top to bottom

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Continuing the series, reader suggestions on three more places to visit in our American Futures project. Above shows blue for previously discussed cities, green for the ones discussed today. The map shown here is a screen shot; for "live" version go to the project site.

Two testimonials today on behalf of Butte, Montana, and three tributes to McAllen, Texas. Less acclaimed but surely no less worthy is Lawrence, Kansas.

Read on for readers' opinions:

Butte, MT (2011 population: 33,704)

Two notable entries here. First:

"The Mining City," Butte was once called the "richest hill on earth" and boasted one of the largest populations east of the Mississippi.

The home town of Evel Knievel, Butte has gone through the copper boom, to a massive post-industrial bust, to a recent renaissance based off an embrace of environmental technology, new manufacturing, and an amazing embrace of arts and culture rooted in its die hard Irish population. I am an aerospace-design engineer (work for Boeing), who owes a large debt to this amazing community for looking out for me during a tough childhood.

Flying to Butte should be an amazing experience. Butte is a stopover point between the coasts, is located on the Continental Divide, and is relatively close to Yellowstone or Glacier Parks.

Butte also has great food.


Butte is an ugly small town nestled in some of the most beautiful mountains you will ever see. It has an amazing history, starting with the wars of the Copper Kings, which the rest of the state of Montana refuses to forget. It has an open pit filled with acidic mine waste and it is the reason for the largest Superfund Site in the country, It has suffered from economic devastation with the closure of the mines in the early 80's and from very bad corporate decisions that destroyed a blue-chip company (Montana Power). Butte, Montana should have died and disappeared.

Yet, for all that, Butte still exists, mainly because the old ethnic families refused to leave, even though their old neighborhoods were swallowed up by mining, even though they lost their jobs, even though their children had to leave to find employment. Even though Butte is outwardly ugly, there is such beauty and grit in its people, that if you've ever visit there, you will never forget this little town.

You can map the devastation that mining did to the environment from the air; you can map how the economic disasters changed the town from the air; and you can actually follow the Superfund Site from the air. Butte also has a vast collection of maps and photographs from the past for comparison, so Butte will be satisfying for you on many levels.

Lawrence, KS (2011 population: 88,727)

You can't get much more "middle America" then Kansas, and Lawrence is the microcosm of the various contradictions in the region. It is a blue city in a very red state, a state that has been leading the way, for better or worse, as a conservative-policy experimentation zone, yet at the same time, featuring an old progressive tradition that hasn't entirely gone away. Lawrence itself is a relatively well-off college town that has survived, with difficulty, the great recession and is starting to rebound. Many of the big debates in the town are over the same issues that animate national discussion, writ small, such as the role of government in promoting economic growth, how to attract more high-tech industry to the town, and even broadband-internet policy. 

As for national attention, Lawrence receives little of it, outside of a random mention in the sports pages (the Kansas basketball team is traditionally one of the country's best). The last time Lawrence was in the national news was way back in 1983, when "The Day After" was filmed (and took place) here...a topic that some old timers will happily talk about, and the movie Reagan said helped push the world towards détente.

We also have some wonderful local food, coffee and locally-brewed beer, and the airport is right outside of town.

McAllen, TX (2011 population: 133,742)

Three notable entries here:

McAllen is THE border boomtown. Long the poorest region in Texas, McAllen is today the fastest growing area in the state. Thanks to NAFTA and other factors, a boom in retail, health care and other services has transformed the city since the mid-1990s. Its proximity to Mexico and relative isolation from other Texas cities lend McAllen a unique 'Valley' culture that has persisted.


Staggering growth fueled primarily by wealthy Mexican Nationals emigrating to US and transforming South Texas. In 1980 poverty stricken backwater, now a metro area with nearly a million people. Miami on the Rio Grande. A reality that contradicts all conventional notions of Mexican immigration. Not a very attractive place. Sub-tropical with unrelenting heat, wind and dust. Mexican culture dominates all aspects of money & politics. The gringos have long since given up control. Spanish not required, but certainly helps.


Ground zero for many of the issues that will face the US in the next 50+ years - demographic changes, education, immigration and border protection, crime and drugs, economic growth (it was probably most resilient MSA during the recession) and international trade, to name a few. It's also an extremely unique slice of Americana. People are very patriotic and proudly Texan, Friday Night Lights and all of that, but it's heavily influenced by Norther MX culture. Quite an amazing hybrid. For example, I belong to a group of fans of the US national Soccer team (American Outlaws). The group is new, growing like gang busters, and we stand in stark opposition to the fans of the MX national team. If you watch a game with them, you hear (surprise!) a lot of Spanish spoken, which I am sure would raise eyebrows anywhere north of San Antonio. But it feels normal here and still very American. That's part of what makes living here so interesting.

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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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