A Song of America's Downtowns

A heartening surprise of our travel so far: the breadth, seriousness, and—in some places—success of the effort to revitalize small-town downtowns. Or, what 3 programmers from Uzbekistan taught us about America.
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Downtown Columbus, Mississippi. Retail and restaurants on the ground floor, apartments and condos above. (James Fallows)

Last weekend my wife and I had three young software developers from Uzbekistan staying with us at our house. (It's a long story.) They were charming young men—Pavel, Igor, and Roman—who had come to America for a tech meeting in North Carolina and had driven from there up to Washington, to spend a little time touring before their flight back to Tashkent.

We mainly wanted to hear about Uzbekistan, but inevitably we had to ask: What's surprised you most in what you've seen in America? "I am surprised that it can be hard to know where a city ends," one of them said, describing his trip north on I-95. "In our country, you come to the end of the city, and it Ends. Here it keeps going on."

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He was talking, of course, about American sprawl. The reality and effects of sprawl are more blatantly visible from a densely trafficked Interstate than some other places, but obviously they're a feature of much of the American landscape. We've thought a lot about sprawl, and in evolving ways, as we continue our flying trip. This is a placeholder note to hint at things that make us feel both better and worse.

The worse part: In virtually every place we have been, if you travel a few blocks from the most attractive or commercially viable revived downtown, or turn your head in a slightly different direction, you will see the familiar wilderness of Quickie Mart, Dress Barn, gas stations (which are morphing into grocery and liquor stores in many places), Applebees, Lowe's, Olive Garden, and the other 50 brand names any America can reel off. They make the country look the same; they're not walkable; their businesses are not local; and so on. (I'm talking here mainly about commercial sprawl; residential sprawl is a related but different phenomenon.)

This is convenient! Rental car license plate that tells
you where you are, and where you came from.
(Hardee- har, it's from Washington County, Miss.)

For instance: Downtown Sioux Falls, SD, is going through a wonderful revival, but the periphery of the town has sprawl-based retail centers for shoppers driving in from smaller prairie towns. The downtown and historic-residential areas of Redlands, Ca., have beautiful Craftsman-era houses, public parks, and preserved orange groves, but two miles away is a typical ugly-congested freeway/mall conglomeration. Downtown Greenville, S.C., is a real gem, but the main road from there to Greer and Spartanburg could be any car-dealer, discount-mall, burger-joint, tattoo-parlor stretch anywhere in the country. St. Marys, Ga., has one of the oldest and most beautiful downtown residential areas in the coastal South, but the I-95 exits and related convenience stores are just around the corner. Really the only exception to this rule has been Eastport, Maine, which is too far from other population centers or thoroughfares even to support a sprawl zone. The closest it comes is a relatively new Family Dollar store a mile from downtown.

Here is a tiny and benign example: the view out the front of our motel in Columbus, Mississippi. Benign because everyone loves Waffle House, and because I've cropped out the rest of the sprawl.

That's part of our American reality; it's part of our landscape; it's part of the push toward drive-through convenience and discount pricing that, for both better and worse, has shaped America's development. Sooner or later I will work up an Esri map to show the spread and location of mall/sprawl.

On the other hand: Before visiting these cities one by one, we had no idea of how central the process of reviving historic downtowns would be to the overall sense of life in smaller towns, or how widespread—and, in a positive rather than homogenized way—and similar these efforts would be.

Downtown West Point, part of the "Golden Triangle" of Mississippi, yesterday afternoon.

Right now we're in the middle of the Golden Triangle Region of Mississippi—which as people here know, and many others may not, is the area bounded by the cities of Columbus, Starkville, and West Point. Each town has its own small airfield, and they share a bigger regional airport that's become the center of a surprisingly diverse tech-industrial zone. This area has a more tangled story of economic, social, and political change than some other places we have visited, about which there will be a lot more to say.

For now the point is the power and the popularity of the historic-downtown revival formula. It involves preserving the "bones" of the old buildings, which in much of the country means turn-of-the-20th century store fronts, and WPA-era public buildings.

Restored storefronts, Columbus, Mississippi.

And then reviving those structures with the right mutually reinforcing combination of the "Three-Rs": retail, residential, and restaurants/bars. 

Main Street, Columbus, including office of Commercial Dispatch newspaper.

Some of these schemes are further advanced than others, with Greenville (SC), Burlington (Vt), and Holland (Mi) in the lead among places we have seen, and tiny Winters (Ca) and large Sioux Falls (SD) pushing hard. For now the point is our surprise at the breadth and consistency of this effort in otherwise very different parts of the country, and the encouraging results when it succeeds. When people can live downtown, they can walk and shop and eat and drink downtown, and a virtuous cycle of life and revitalization has a chance.

If you look very closely, you can see me in the window of the Coffee House on 5th in Columbus, typing this dispatch just beneath the words "Wi-Fi Hotspot."

One more look at downtown West Point, Miss.

Also from West Point:

And Columbus on a sunny day yesterday (the store name is Deep South Pout):

And on a cloudy day today:

And, also in Columbus, the Lowndes County Courthouse, site of the upcoming National Day of Prayer.

In a few upcoming posts I'll try to give more examples of this effort, from Greer, South Carolina to Winters, California. Now, off for some industrial interviews.

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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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