Welcome to Greenville and 'The Upstate'

A region that has willed its way to a new economic and civic identity.
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Ballet class, yesterday afternoon at the South Carolina Governor's School for the Arts and Humanities in downtown Greenville, S.C. It's a "residential public high school for emerging artists." Photo Deborah Fallows

My wife and I have been so busy talking with people and seeing things in Greenville and its environs in "the upstate" region of South Carolina that we haven't yet taken time to stop the interviewing and begin the chronicling. That will begin here soon.

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In the economic-development world, this part of a still-generally poor state is renowned for how thoroughly it has made the transition from a textile-based economy, which was still viable even 20 years ago, to become the center of one of the country's most successful advanced-manufacturing clusters. Its most famous facility is the BMW auto works, which continues to expand and which ships most of its output to markets overseas. Michelin is also here, and a GE division, and the successful electric-bus company Proterra. The industrial turnaround of this area has become a familiar story -- about which we heard some quite unexpected angles, as we will describe.

The bigger surprise is all the aspects of civic life other than major factories that have evolved here. These range from public art, to environmental and public-spaces initiatives, to a revitalized downtown that urban-planning teams from around the world visit to study, to an in-town minor league baseball stadium, to educational innovations we have not seen in other places and had not anticipated here. The photo above is from the South Carolina Governor's School for the Arts and Humanities, about which Deborah Fallows will be saying more soon. She also will report on an unusual and impressive engineering-themed public school -- for kids starting in pre-K.

This afternoon I talked with Kai Ryssdal, of our Marketplace partners, courtesy of the engineers and studio managers at the local station known as Conservative Talk 94.5. South Carolina is of course a conservative stronghold, as are its upstate counties. Jim DeMint was born and raised in Greenville and was its congressman; Bob Jones University is based here. But one of many intriguing aspects of Greenville's economic and civic-improvement development effort is how deeply they have relied on "public-private partnerships," in which state and city governments have taken active steering roles for corporate and philanthropic efforts. More on that as the chronicles begin. The point for now is that this is the kind of public intervention that some conservatives might deplore in the abstract, but the results both in attracting industries and in creating a remarkably livable/walkable community can't be denied.

Old commercial building downtown on the Reedy River, one of several intentionally unrestored structures in Greenville. Many downtown restaurants, stores, and offices are from buildings of the same vintage that have been renovated and put back into use.

Greenville and its surroundings resemble some other "resilient" cities we have seen, and of course are unique in many other aspects. This is a placeholder note pending further dispatches. Now, off to more interviews, including at a tech-startup incubator with a "public-private" emphasis. It's not the building shown below, but it has a similar theme.

 

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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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