Eastport, Maine, Population 1,300

On a per capita basis, one of the grittiest and most inventive places in America.

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What you see above is the view from Eastport, Maine, looking toward the famed Campobello Island in Canada, yesterday morning. Eastport is where my wife and I have spent most of the past week, on the most unusual and one of the most rewarding parts of our American Futures travels. We've just returned from a long (and very bumpy) small-plane flight back.

This evening our partners at Marketplace had a very nice intro report on Eastport, featuring the 100-year-old Raye's Mustard works -- which has survived far beyond its original business reason for existence, as the Marketplace report explains. We are fans of Raye's and its products -- and will soon conduct, with our colleagues in Atlantic-land and other passers-by, a taste-test of the 20 different mustards we collected at the HQ this week. There are 21 rather than 20 bottles shown below, for cheerleader-pyramid-style symmetry. You will pick out the dupe.

Tomorrow evening Marketplace will have an extended report, and my wife Deb and I will kick off a series of our reports too. Two things are immediately obvious about this town:

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First, given how small it is (our beloved Sioux Falls, South Dakota, is more than 100 times as large) how much is going on -- from the community production of The Glass Menagerie we saw on our first night there to the large-scale infrastructure efforts.

Second, how conscious people there are of their community's place on the historic cycle of decline and recovery. A century ago, the town had at least four times as many residents as it does now. Everywhere you go, there is an account of the wharves, the factories, the jobs, the businesses that used to keep the community going.

Most of the other places we've visited are able to look back on a big bet, a turning point, that shifted their fortunes in a positive direction. Sioux Falls, with its attraction of the credit-card industry 30 years ago; Burlington, with its salvation of its lakefront-downtown; Holland, with its own effort to defend its downtown against suburban malls; even La Jolla, with the big bets that drew the bio-tech and super-computing industries there. Eastport, which has endured a number of disappointments through the decades, seems plainly to be in the middle of placing a number of such bets, as we'll try to describe. Seeing people who are trying very hard, but who can't yet look back and tell a tale of success, has its own drama. "We're a startup," one of the people we interviewed this morning said. "Really, the whole town is a startup."

We'll get into that starting tomorrow, from the ambitious plans for the port and aspirations to lead in clean-energy generation, to the building-by-building plans for restoring a downtown. For a moment, here's a look at the process this evening's Marketplace report described. That yellow stuff, flowing down the ramp in the foreground, is mustard, as it comes out of the century-old grinding wheels at the Raye works:

And this is one of the ancient grindstones, outside the shop.

More on this starting as soon as we sleep off the latest round of travel. We met a significant share of the town's population, and we thank them for their approachability.

Much of the town, from above, as we came in a few days ago.

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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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