American Futures Heads West

By James Fallows

Through the month of November, my part of the American Futures convoy was in the hangar, because of two long-haul business trips I was making, to Australia and China. John Tierney and Deb Fallows have been skillfully reporting in the meantime. 

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Very soon, the next issue of the magazine will appear with an article about our project, and starting this weekend we'll have reports online and with our Marketplace partners about the next stop along the way. 

This next town is different from others in two ways. For one, we flew here via a United Airlines Airbus, rather than a Cirrus SR22 -- it would be a very long way in a little airplane.

For another, this is a place I'm trying to look at through a new lens after knowing it all my life. Now that we have considered examples of resilience and of comebacks, successful or merely attempted, in South Dakota, western Michigan, northern Vermont, and far Down East Maine, we're asking some of the same questions about the small town where I grew up, in the baking and once memorably-mocked (by Joan Didion) "Inland Empire" of Southern California.

The surrounding area of San Bernardino and Riverside counties has been one of the ground zeros of the subprime-mortgage disaster. The town of Redlands itself has long prided itself on an unusually high level of "social capital" -- parks, libraries, concerts, civic groups, historic homes, a university -- but has suffered its own setbacks. My half-joking shorthand for my hometown has long been "the poor man's Pasadena," not because Redlands is so poor (it isn't) but because Pasadena, from Caltech to its Craftsman-architecture neighborhoods, is the grander version of how this small town looks.

A century ago Redlands was one of the world's famed orange-growing centers, as shown above. In the 1960s, which when I think about it was half a century ago, orange grove jobs, as a picker and as a smudge-pot handler, provided my first paying work. But most of those groves are now paved over, and the remainder are in a struggle against a new biological threat.

Without anyone talking much about it, this was a military-dependent town, which had to reconsider a lot of things when a giant nearby Air Force base closed down. Now it is the improbable home to a tech company that is a powerhouse around the world but not yet a household name in the United States. This is our other American Futures partner, Esri, and its creation story -- why, exactly, its thousands of employees are based here, so far from San Francisco or Seattle or Cambridge; and how they have changed an insular place by arriving -- is part of what we have come back to find out.

Over the next week-plus, we'll be comparing what we've found in this small(ish) town with its analogues in Holland, Sioux Falls, Burlington, and Eastport. Then, after a holiday break with our children, we'll be back into the Cirrus and headed south, for stops in the Carolinas, Georgia, northern Florida, and Mississippi and Alabama. Watch this space. And eat navel oranges.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/12/american-futures-heads-west/282321/