Deborah Fallows

Deborah Fallows is a Fellow at New America. She is the author of Dreaming in Chinese and co-author with James Fallows of Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America.
  • The Artists of Lemmon, South Dakota

    A "Welcome to Lemmon" sign on the road in to Lemmon, South Dakota
    On the road to Lemmon, South Dakota Courtesy of John Lopez

    In March of this year, as the coronavirus and its effects were unfolding, Dakota Resources, a 24-year-old community development financial institution (CDFI) in Renner, South Dakota, launched a series of Zoom coffee breaks for people from across the state. Every morning, at 10:30, a few dozen people logged in to talk for an hour or so about what was on their minds, and to share their stories. (More on this coming soon.)

    I was invited in and have joined as many of them as I’ve been able to. That’s how I met Judy Larson. Larson lives in Lemmon, South Dakota—or more precisely, 14 miles north of Lemmon, just across the border in North Dakota, where she and her husband operate their family farm and ranch with their five homeschooled kids. I knew from the beginning that she must be one of the activists of Lemmon; the tale-teller is her Zoom background, an image of the bold new greeting sign, Welcome to Lemmon, which was designed, crafted, and installed by local citizens, artists, and artisans.

    Larson talks frequently about the role of the arts in tiny Lemmon, population about 1,200. During our years of travel for our book, Our Towns, Jim Fallows and I witnessed similar stories about how the arts revived and reinvigorated other towns, from Ajo, Arizona, in the Sonoran Desert to Eastport, Maine, down east on the Bay of Fundy. Lemmon may not be as far along that path as these towns, but as Larson has described, its sights are set high.

    During this non-traveling COVID-19 era, I talked by phone and exchanged emails with Larson and a few of Lemmon’s artists. Here are the stories of two of them, Michael van Beek and John Lopez.


    Michael van Beek grew up in Bismarck, North Dakota, spending a lot of time on his family’s farms, where he found his ease with rural life, nature, and wild animals. I caught up with Van Beek one evening after his day in his pickup truck, during sunflower-bug spraying season.

    Van Beek said he enjoyed this season; it was nice to be out in the fields, looking at sunflowers all day. Besides sunflowers being beautiful, which Van Beek considers a priceless attribute, they are also a decent-paying crop for farmers. You can always count on the sunflower-oil market, and during the pandemic, there’s been a bump in black sunflower seeds, which people buy for their bird feeders.

    "Road to the Grand River" (courtesy Michael Van Beek)
    “Road to the Grand River” by Michael Van Beek (Courtesy of Michael Van Beek)

    Van Beek’s day job is at “the elevator,” which is the vernacular for Lemmon’s Southwest Grain, a 1981 consolidation of eight grain cooperatives. He is an agronomist, advising farmers on choosing seeds and troubleshooting issues with crops. He talks with a genuine Dakotan humility about advising the farmers, some of whom have been at their trade for more years than he is old. Also, with co-workers at a local farmer’s co-op, he tackles what sounds to me like everything to do with farming—from the tough work of loading, hauling, and delivering fertilizer, seed, feed, and grain with trucks, semis, and trains, to managing precision agriculture technology.

    Van Beek, 33, was a good artist as a kid, and went on to study architecture, landscape architecture, and environmental design at North Dakota State University (NDSU). Somewhat by chance, he began spending time at a friend’s ranch near Lemmon, which led to his job at the elevator five years ago.

    “Grand River” by Michael Van Beek (Courtesy of Michael Van Beek)

    Van Beek also kept at his art. He got to know John Lopez, an artist and Lemmon legend, who encouraged Van Beek. He accompanied Lopez to the Black Hills Stock Show, bringing and even selling some of his art. Lopez invited him to paint in his studio. Van Beek developed his skills as a landscape painter, including his two-year production of a very large mural, more than 20 feet long, for the Lemmon Public Library. He also led the community-design team for the Welcome to Lemmon sign, from concept to fabrication.

    Van Beek talked at length about what art has meant to Lemmon, careful to signal that he didn’t want to sound artsy-fartsy about it. I don’t think people from South Dakota are capable of sounding artsy-fartsy; I can say that, with my Midwest upbringing and ear. Van Beek spoke about how he thinks art can help people shape the places where they want to live.

    As for Lemmon, Van Beek says that the town has “the fodder” for making a good life. It has tangible attributes like affordable houses, jobs, a low cost of living, the outdoors, and smart neighbors. It also has intangible appeals, like a sense of opportunity and community. And he brought up a point that Jim and I became convinced of during our travels, that small towns like Lemmon are closer to democracy. He said that in contrast to bigger towns where he’s lived, where you may study about government, in Lemmon you can actually be part of it. You learn how to be on councils, second a vote, and more quickly gravitate to more responsible roles.  

    “The Land Before,” a mural by Michael Van Beek in the Lemmon Public Library. (Photo by Jennifer Suter.)

    Van Beek believes that art is now central to Lemmon’s aspirations of being a textured and accomplished town, and that people not only appreciate the role of art on that path, but are willing to support it. How did an evolution like this happen? Van Beek points to John Lopez, and what Lopez has done to catalyze Lemmon.


    I talked and emailed with John Lopez, now 49, who grew up on an isolated ranch outside Lemmon, 45 minutes from the closest town. In the late 1800s, his family were homesteaders in Colorado, in what Lopez describes as “poor, really rough country.”  His grandfather Albert moved to South Dakota with the Diamond A Cattle Company in 1920.

    Lopez told me he spent a lot of time on horseback, close to nature and animals. He was also a natural artist from a family of artists of all sorts, including quilters and needlepointers. The calendars of Charles Russell, Lopez said, made a big impression on him when he was growing up. After college at Black Hills State University, he got a job at the studio of Dale Lamphere, South Dakota’s current artist laureate, from Sturgis. As it happens, Jim and I met Lamphere in Sioux Falls as he was putting the final touches on the installation of his glorious Arc of Dreams, which spans the Big Sioux River just above the falls and at the edge of downtown. At Lamphere’s studio, Lopez met Dallerie Davis, who guided him from his self-described path of “fumbling about” to a direction he would take from then on.

    “Arc of Dreams,” by Dale Lamphere, over the Big Sioux River in Sioux Falls on July, 2019, shortly before its unveiling  (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

    A professional breakout moment in Lopez’s long, expansive resume was a commission by Davis for Rapid City’s City of Presidents sculpture walk, where he would spend the next 10 years, from 2000 to 2010, making a dozen life-sized bronze sculptures of presidents, including John Adams, Jimmy Carter, John Kennedy, and Teddy Roosevelt. Jim and I had also been to Rapid, as the city is called colloquially, during our reporting, and had spent a full day following the presidents’ sculpture walk.

    Lopez also described a momentous personal experience, when his Aunt Effie, his beloved true believer and champion, was killed in a car accident 10 years ago. Lopez returned to her farm to help bury her and build the cemetery fence, and to sculpt in her honor a statue of an angel for the top of the gate. He made a composition of scrap metal, in the style that would become the hallmark of his art.

    “Hugh Glass” by John Lopez (Courtesy of John Lopez)

    Lopez returned to Lemmon, for reasons I’ve heard from others from small towns with deep cultures. For Lopez, there was a pull to come home what he knew as a child and where his parents were growing older, and in his personal case, to ranch, have a horse, and own acreage.

    The city of Lemmon welcomed Lopez and asked him to sculpt a statue of its founder, G.E. “Ed” Lemmon. Lopez committed himself further, buying an empty lot in the heart of town to install it, now called Boss Cowman Square—named for Ed Lemmon—and a run-down former bar next to it, the Kokomo, which he has renovated into his studio, the Kokomo Gallery. Lopez describes this move as good for both Lemmon and for himself. It has become a go-to place for both residents and out-of-towners.

    The Kokomo Gallery (Courtesy of John Lopez)

    Lopez was doing well enough with the presidents’ work that, as he puts it with Dakotan humility, he could “go off on the scrap iron thing.” We talked about where he sources his cast-off metal, and his answer again pointed to the sense of people and place that are also important to Larson (whom Lopez has known since high school) and Van Beek.

    “Everybody knows everybody. I know a lot of different people scattered over large area. I have all their scrap metal at my disposal. One thing that really stands out about that: People I get metal from are real people and ranchers. Their stuff has history to it.” People seem to like being part of the effort. “Sometimes I’ll get a call,” Lopez says. “There’s an auction. And the person will say, ‘You can come pick through it first.’”

    Now for a twist to the story, surprising for sure in the middle of the Dakotas. Dotun Popoola, in Lagos, Nigeria, wanted to learn to weld and to fabricate artwork. He found Lopez’s images on Pinterest, contacted him, and dogged him until he wrangled an invitation. After Dotun made the trip from Nigeria and eventually came to Lemmon by bus. Lopez picked him up at the bus station and gave him shelter, instruction, and guidance. Dotun returned to his homeland but made another trip to Lemmon the next year, with his friend and fellow artist, Jonathan Imafidor, to paint the mural on the side of the Kokomo.

    Dotun Popoola and Jonathan Imafidor working on mural painting in Lemmon (Courtesy of John Lopez)

    Lopez describes a kind of “weird, dynamic, magical element” to the entire experience. Popoola and Imafidor became part of the excitement of renovating the Kokomo. The people of Lemmon bought lots of their art.  


    Judy Larson, with her own Dakotan humility, describes herself not as an artist but as a hobbyist, supporter, connector, and community enthusiast. “My talent lies in seeing things in people they don’t see in themselves. Connecting the right situation and encouraging and making opportunities happen for them.” She and her family are artists more than she lets on. Her husband is the lead guitarist for a band called Eclectic Wreck; she has a folk-arts apprenticeship on the accordion with the North Dakota Council on the Arts, and also plays guitar and accordion with Eclectic Wreck.   

    Larson describes more that is in process in Lemmon: a placemakers’ cooperative, an arts council, a newly remodeled theater that includes a live performance stage, a plan for an artist-in-residence program, various music programs in town, and discussions about what to do with the school when it is replaced with a new one. “The ‘underground creatives’ have been watching and have been inspired,” Judy describes.

    And she gives a lot of the credit to Lopez. “John really changed how we see ourselves as a community—we are an arts community, not just a cow town.”

  • ‘This Is What We Train For’

    "Quarantine Life" Courtesy of Richelle Gribble

    During our five years of travel around the country, my husband Jim and I often found that artists who revealed the perspectives on their hometowns were the people who stopped us in our tracks.

    It might be the mural painters in Ajo, Arizona, or Charleston, West Virginia; or the public-art sculptors of Greenville, South Carolina,  Rapid City, South Dakota, or Holland, Michigan; or the politically active artists, in San Bernardino, California, or Laramie, Wyoming. Sometimes they brought a sense of the town’s history or a fresh look at its culture. Sometimes they used their trade and artistic gift to make statements and move political action.

    Most artists were working at the edge. They seemed somehow different from the rest of us who color inside the lines. That is part of why I wanted to return during the pandemic to artists I have met and known, to see how they are taking in this terrible new life and how they are responding through their craft and work. What were they saying and what were they doing?


    I talked first by phone with Richelle Gribble, whom I had first met during her artist-in-residency in Eastport, Maine. Richelle is a serial artist-in-residence, having traveled for weeks or months at a time to places from the Arctic Circle to Wyoming to Berkeley. She is at home near LA now, working out of her kitchen. Her workspace, the counter and a pullout table next to it, competes with normal kitchen activities, and the result, Richelle described, is a mixture of paint tubes and tomatoes.

    Richelle works on both big pieces and little pieces, which is convenient now. In Eastport, she had a two-room storefront studio, where she could lay out collections of local flora and fauna, and compose really big pieces. Townspeople strolling the sidewalks would regularly stop by the studio to see what she was up to, which was a feature of her residency. Now the only person who drops into her workspace is her partner, who, she says, spends his days on calls and zooms.

    When I first met Richelle, her muse was everything around Eastport: the shoreline, the wildlife, and the nature around her. Now, she says, she is attuned to life closer in. In a project she calls Quarantine Life, she posts online a daily drawing of something she has just noticed, or experienced, or heard about, or felt. You’ll see shopping receipts, a discarded face mask on the sidewalk, sweet potatoes that are growing sprouts, a coronavirus rendering, and the well-organized, color-coded inside of her closet. Her goal is to track the days, she said, and her stack of drawings is growing taller and taller.

    She is also participating in a global crowd-sourced project that includes not only artists, but others who are journalists, physicians, ecologists, songwriters, CEOs, astronauts, and more. It’s called Great Pause Project.

    The plan is ambitious: Anyone in the world is invited to share written responses and photos on an online platform, to document and archive the pandemic experience. The hope is to learn lessons and gain insights that might otherwise be lost, and to create a tangible, collaborative record to craft the story of this time.

    An anonymous submission to Window Effect (Courtesy of Great Pause Project)

    Richelle describes one of the crowd-sourced initiatives, the Window Effect, where people contribute photographs taken from their windows. The impressions evoke everything from weather checks to glimpses through prison bars to effective shields against the virus to daydreaming. And another, the COVID-19 Photo Diary, is a photograph collection a bit farther beyond the glass windows, out into the neighborhoods.

    Great Pause Project also includes a crowd-sourced written survey, called the echo-location survey, which will build a record about life during the pandemic: People answer questions about how they are feeling, how they have changed, what they notice about their environment, how they see the future, and what lessons they take from living this experience.

    Richelle has long explored the idea of interconnectedness in the world through her art. She sees the pandemic era as a chance to have a broader reach by working very collaboratively with others. “If I share art just within my own circle” she says, “my art reaches a few people.” But if it becomes part of something bigger, she explains, “Others will say: Oh yeah, that’s what a global pause felt like or that’s what the COVID experience was.”


    I talked with Barbara Liotta, who is an artist in Washington, DC and for the record, a longtime friend. For decades now, she and I have talked about everything: children, husbands, families, her art, my writing, travel, swimming, books, and lots of other things. I’ve traipsed around rock quarries with her to source stones for her sculptures, watched her suspend a 57-foot net panel over the side of an 11-story building, and celebrated her openings. She has visited us on our faraway journeys, flown in our little plane, gone to my author events and had parties for them. We prop each other up. So naturally, I turned to Barbara to help me see her artist’s sense of life during this time.

    “Sun Neried” (Courtesy of Barbara Liotta)

    Barbara has a studio behind her house; it used to be a garage, with a concrete floor and high enough ceiling to hang her work. At the beginning, she told me, the lockdown made her feel like a character in a 1940s British movie.  We should “buck up and take care of each other and confront this thing by being good community members,” she said. While most of us were cleaning out attics or basements, she was sorting and arranging her enormous collection of formidable, heavy shards, chunks, and slabs. Serendipitously, she came across what she described as “beautiful, gold, sun-drenched granites” and she created a series of warm sun pieces to will in a different mood.

    Weeks passed, and as the pandemic with its tragic and awful state came to dominate everything, her work reflected the change. She told me. “As an artist, I can’t not address it, but the immensity of the shift requires that I let it sink in and allow my vision to mature.” The result? “I’ve been drawing and proposing a very dark, dark piece of exploded columns and shattered rock.”

    Exploded Column sketch (Courtesy of Barbara Liotta)

    Like for the rest of us, who seek some lightness or humor anywhere these days, one bright moment came on a video call with her son, an emergency room doctor in San Diego, and his new wife, as she was directing them how to install a small hanging sculpture she had shipped them. “A little farther back, off to the right, now left a bit,” she narrated the smartphone-enabled installation process. I saw this as a simple, lighthearted moment. Barbara saw an interpretation: “Art means civilization means hope,” she wrote me, “like an equation.”

    Like many other artists and many of the rest of us, her work has been sidelined from the public. An exhibit at the Gallery at MASS MoCA hangs inside for no one to see it. A symposium was canceled. Future events are falling by the wayside. While many artists have shifted online—musicians, singers, actors, performing artists—Barbara says that option doesn’t work for her. Her art is three-dimensional, and being present helps experience it. “The trouble with my work now is that it needs a venue,” she concluded, with the pain of the sculptor’s version of If a tree falls in the forest …. “It is my work, but my work is not going anywhere. It doesn’t count if no one sees it.”


    I also talked with Andrew Simonet, who cofounded and directed Headlong Dance Theater in Philadelphia for 20 years. He left that role seven years ago and pivoted to write young adult novels. He also founded an incubator called Artists U to help artists take practical steps to create a sustainable life as an artist. When I talked to him, Andrew was in Vermont, where he decamped from Philadelphia with his family.

    We talked about the work ethic of artists and how it syncs with this moment of pandemic. He explained something I hadn’t thought about before, but it made perfect sense when I heard him say it. Artists, he said, are “very comfortable with uncertainty. We push away from what we know.” And this way of living and working, Andrew Simonet argued, should be encouraging to artists who may need encouragement right now for how to meet the pandemic and push on to make their art.

    As artists, he declared, “This is what we train for.”

  • The Post-pandemic Future of Libraries

    A statue of Olympic marathon gold medalist Joan Benoit Samuelson wears a red bandana mask outside the library in Cape Elizabeth, Maine
    A statue of Olympic marathon gold medalist Joan Benoit Samuelson wears a mask outside the library in Cape Elizabeth, Maine Robert F. Bukaty / AP

    Even before librarians closed their doors against the pandemic, they started moving fast to keep their work going. They began shifting regular programming online; distributing stockpiles of mobile technology to the digitally needy; strengthening partnerships with schools and food donation sites; activating their maker-technology to produce PPE; helping prepare the homeless population with alternatives for shelter; and more. I wrote about libraries’ novel response to the novel coronavirus here.

    The ideas keep coming. Pick-up and drop-off services are emerging. The Alexandria, Ohio, public library offers curbside pick-ups. The Hillsborough County library in Florida opened a drive-through pickup for reemployment-assistance applications. People can also drop them off when completed, and the library will mail them.

    In Arlington, Virginia, the public library has already published several online issues of Quaranzine, a community-sourced collection of artwork, poetry, photos, and stories about life during the pandemic.

    The Hartford Public Library in Connecticut has moved their immigrant services online, including providing legal help to complete citizenship applications and prepare for citizenship interviews.

    Serendipitous moments spur other ideas. When researching the Raymond M. Blasco Memorial Library’s history for the upcoming annual report, Blane Dessy, the new director of the Erie, Pennsylvania, library, came across the annual report from 1918, documenting that the library had shuttered before—during the influenza pandemic. It inspired Dessy to begin working on an Erie County COVID-19 print and digital archive for future reference. “Here we are again,” he wrote me in an email, “and it strikes me that this pandemic will be an interesting story in the history of libraries in the United States.”

    Librarians are also thinking about how they will serve their communities once they open their doors again. Here are some of the comments I’ve heard, from the April 16 program from the Public Library Association’s (PLA’s) series of webinars, from communications with the Urban Libraries Council, and from some of the many librarians I met with over the past seven years during my travels around the U.S. with my husband, Jim, for The Atlantic and ultimately our book, Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America.

    Looking back to the present and future: The old-school telephone is back. Realizing that many seniors who showed up in person at the libraries aren’t comfortable moving online, Anythink Libraries, a district of seven libraries in Adams County, Colorado, have staffed up their midday hours to man a telephone call center. Users can call to “just say hi” or talk about what’s on their minds. The message the library wants to convey even during the pandemic, according to the director Pam Smith: “We are here for you.”

    Many school systems and the libraries that work with them have identified the gaps in how schools deliver their distance learning to their students. Many families lack the hardware or internet access or familiarity with technology to help their children do their schoolwork. Marcellus Turner, the executive director and chief librarian of the public library in the tech mecca of Seattle, talked about starting to fill in all those pieces to put more hardware in the hands of more students, offer more connectivity through Wi-Fi hotspots, and more tech help to guide newbie households through the processes. And in the meantime—there is always a meantime—they are filling the space with actual telephone calls to students who used to show up at the library for homework help to ask how they can help over the phone.

    And remember scrapbooks? The Anythink Libraries are moving their summer reading program, called mySummer, out of the libraries and into the houses, treehouses, tents, homemade forts and backyards of its readers. “It is all about inventing your summer which includes reading, thinking and doing,” Director Pam Smith wrote me in an email. The library is distributing notebooks and kits of crayons, chalk, and other items to anyone—young or old—who signs up for the program. They’re encouraging the “authors” to list the books they are reading and describe their summer adventures, to make artwork, take an imaginary trip, write about critters they find in nature, and lots of other ideas to spark creativity and imagination.

    Ramping up the virtual: Despite everything horrible about it, the pandemic presents a crisis-driven opportunity for libraries to push their online capabilities farther and faster than ever before. Libraries turned quickly to familiarizing their users with their vast holdings of online content, purchasing and sharing even more content, assembling collections of COVID-19 related links and information, shifting regular events like real-life concerts and group picnics to virtual performances with backyard family-only events.

    Kelvin Watson, the director of the Broward County, Florida, libraries, commented in the PLA’s webinar that use of social media on their website has skyrocketed. “Instagram,” he said, “logged 1,000 extra engagements.” The lesson? Watson said they are already purchasing more film equipment. so they’ll have a more professional-looking presence online.

    The Anythink Libraries offer online tech help, poetry readings, print-and-mail services, and cooking classes. As Pam Smith put it, they are presenting themselves as “Anythink Everywhere.”

    The online explosion is heady, but it comes with cautions. As Dessy of the Blasco Library emailed me: There is “a little backstory,” which is cost. “Each time a library user accesses our streaming services at no cost (to the user), there is actually a charge to the library.  Nothing is free.  Our streaming services usage has gone up dramatically, which impacts our materials budget, which impacts how much we spend on actual books.” He’s currently conducting a survey about how the users feel about the trade-off.

    Librarians are wondering what kind of expectations their users will have once they are up and running again. Will people want all the virtual offerings and the extra help, hardware, and services to continue? Will they want more? How will libraries support all expansions?

    Shoring up and expanding collaborations: Libraries have always been great collaborators. For example, the community librarians at the Deschutes County libraries in Bend, Oregon, who are master collaborators, work with dozens of organizations around town to augment each others’ work, from resume writing to tax counseling to small-business advice.

    Libraries are shoring up some of their traditional partnerships, like with schools. They are also expanding into some new and surprising partnerships.

    In Erie, a number of Dessy’s staff have been reassigned to the county Health Department as part of the COVID-19 response team for public communications, public-health research, and health equity.

    In Colorado, the Poudre River business librarians have been helping the State Office of Economic Development and International Trade answer calls from small-business owners about a myriad of issues around the pandemic.

    In San Francisco, some public librarians have become part of the city’s response team for contact tracing.

    The American Libraries magazine documents an extensive list of where and how librarians are being deployed to other tasks within the library and in collaborations with outside organizations.

    Reopening: In Pennsylvania, the Department of Education is working on a framework to help local libraries plan their re-openings. There will be mandatory health and safety guidelines, recommendations on how to secure COVID-19-related supplies, and lists of resources for federal and state guidelines from the CDC for community organizations and businesses. In Erie, Dessy is already working on a 60-day reopening plan. “COVID-19 is not an existential question for libraries,” he wrote me, “ but it will cause us to look at our vision, mission, and plans. That, in turn, will cause us to alter our methods.”

    Anticipating what the public will expect, Marcellus Turner, of the Seattle library, described how his pandemic-era trips to Target and grocery stores have become research trips. He notes the plexiglass, and he observes the processes and standards for health and safety for what that means for the future of the Seattle libraries. What can they model?

    And all librarians have to worry through other logistics: How will they clean the books? How will they open—phasing in with shorter hours, fewer locations, more contact-free drive-throughs?

    Kelvin Watson of Broward County expects that they’ll include a virtual aspect to every program they do in the future. And he thinks about the future needs of his community in a cascade of considerations that involves: More people will be looking for jobs, meaning there’s a need for more computers and workstations where people can conduct those searches. And how to rearrange the seating?

    For high-altitude planning, the Urban Libraries Council executive council announced that it is launching members’ working groups to address pandemic-related crises, and among those is one to look ahead and redefine the library’s role with the public, schools, businesses, and government.

    Pam Smith—director of Anythink Libraries—summed it up, and I bet she speaks for many: “I’ve never been prouder to be a librarian.”

  • A Rural Health Center With a Pandemic Plan

    An aerial photo of downtown Eastport
    Downtown Eastport, from above Courtesy of Don Dunbar

    The Rowland B. French Medical Center is the primary health-care facility for the residents of Eastport, Maine, a tiny Down East fishing town, population 1,400. Eastport was one of the first of some 50 towns that Jim and visited during our reporting across America for our book, Our Towns. We have returned there a half-dozen times since 2013.

    The French Center, along with two others in nearby Calais and Machias, together compose the Eastport Health Center. They operate on a community-based health-care model, which began as part of a rural health initiative from the era of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty to aid the underserved.

    When I first learned about the rural health-care centers in Ajo, Arizona, and then Eastport, they struck me as unusually personal and almost quaint in their attention to the local detail of the environment and the people they served. Outwardly, the two couldn’t seem more different, The Desert Senita Community Health Center in a former copper mining town in the middle of the Sonoran Desert, and the the Rowland B. French Medical Center on the powerful tidal waters of the Bay of Fundy.

    In another way, the centers shared a foundation that seemed efficient and smart in design and operation. Today, in the horrible and confusing pandemic era, I would tack on a few more adjectives for their model: prescient and exemplary.

    The key element is that long before the current emergency, both of them were designated as Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHC); they are two of roughly 1,400 FQHCs that serve more than 28 million people around the U.S. today. And with this designation, it meant that two of America’s smallest and most remote communities were required to make preparations for a public-health disaster like the one underway now.

    As I wrote earlier:

    FQHC designation is a godsend for rural health-care centers. It ensures that the centers will receive, among other things, enhanced reimbursements for patients covered by Medicaid and Medicare, and will offer a sliding scale for those without any coverage. It promises federal malpractice-insurance coverage for providers, extra partnerships for the centers, and more specialist care. Each center is unique in its profile, depending on the community’s needs. For example, the Rowland B. French Medical Center has providers for behavioral health counseling, podiatry, radiology, nephrology, and social support. Desert Senita has a regularly visiting cardiologist and ophthalmologist, a certified Spanish translator, and a special phone line with third-party translators for multiple languages.

    Being a FQHC comes with requirements and perks. In Ajo, I saw the stacks and stacks of paperwork required of FQHCs by the government to document every step of their compliance with governance, finances, and regulations. I also learned about the one-stop shopping so they could supply services to cover everything from dentistry, x-rays, pharmacy, translation services, rotating visits from specialists, and emergency preparedness. At the time, Jane Canon in the Ajo center described that emergency preparedness meant “self-ready” for everything from a massive power outage to an ebola outbreak. At the time, we both chuckled at “ebola outbreak.” That doesn’t sound funny anymore.


    I spoke by phone last Sunday morning with Ellen Krajewski, the director and CEO of the Eastport Health Center, to learn how emergency preparedness in Eastport has played out so far.

    We started with a few weeks ago, when it was business as usual at Eastport’s Health Center. People were coming in for their primary-care appointments, drop-ins, the usual. Then came the identification by the CDC of the coronavirus as a pandemic. As an FQHC, said Krajewski, echoing my conversation in Ajo, we are required to have emergency preparedness plans. “So,” she said, “we had a pandemic plan.” The trigger was pulled and Eastport immediately kicked into gear to engage the protocols and adhere to guidelines from the feds and the states for pandemic operations.  

    Here’s what the plan looks like and here’s how it has worked in reality:

    The pivots: The health center shifted from being an all-purpose primary care provider to accepting only acute visits in person and providing all other visits remotely, either by phone or virtually. It was tricky: While operations were clear to those inside the building, not all the residents in Eastport were aware of the news and, understandably, what that would mean to their usual healthcare behaviors. As now throughout the rest of the country, word needed to get around Eastport that the first step was not showing up at the center, but calling on the phone.  

    The center set up a series of questions by phone to determine how best to provide needed care, from those with what appeared to be illness unrelated to coronavirus to triaging patients with what may be coronavirus symptoms. The very sickest people go to the hospitals; the middle group may come to the center; the least sick generally stay at home.

    Some of both the regular patients and the potential COVID-19 positive patients needed to be seen in person, so the center set up work-arounds for organizing their physical space. They scoured the possibilities and came up with separate locations for seeing potentially COVID-19-positive patients and regular patients. They flipped a board room into a sterile room, with a trained nurse to administer COVID-19 tests. Krajewski told me that the center has a limited supply of tests, and they follow the CDC guidelines on who is eligible to be tested.

    Within 10 days, all the providers were trained and using remote technologies. “It meant a huge, gigantic change,” Krajewski said. But it was one they were generally equipped to do, despite their relatively-older, less tech-savvy provider population. Being a FQHC, the center was already heavily teched-up, and familiar with using the technology required to comply with all the usual FQHC reporting and protocols.

    On the patient end, it was more complicated. Eastport is a rural, remote area, where broadband coverage is spotty, and the population is less likely than much of the U.S. to be able to afford computers and internet subscriptions. Compounding the problems, Washington County—where Eastport is located—has one of the oldest populations in Maine, a state that has the oldest population of any in the country—meaning overall comfort with technology is rarer than usual.

    The equipment and testing: As of our last conversation, Eastport has an adequate, though limited, number of test kits; more have been promised. Test results have been slow in coming, but the speed is improving. They have not yet recorded a single positive test for COVID-19. Maine has promised some community testing sites around the state, but tiny Eastport won’t be one of them. Those will be located in a more populated area, far away from Eastport.

    Their original supply of equipment has sufficed. There are enough PPEs and masks, although the center has already back-ordered and duplicate-ordered, just in case. Eastport doesn’t have an ICU or a ventilator. The nearest so-equipped hospitals are in Machias and Calais, which are 60 and 30 minutes away, respectively.

    The staff: During our travels, we frequently heard about rural America’s challenge to entice new young staff into professional positions like doctors, nurses, dentists, and teachers. In fact, Eastport, in another farsighted effort, has already set up scholarships for high-school students pursuing medical professions, hopefully giving them a reason to stay and practice in their hometown.

    Today, the staff and providers at the center are generally older and are more likely to have comorbidity issues that come with age. The pandemic presents a new challenge to this provider base, where they naturally fear their constant exposure and feel more personally vulnerable.

    The finances: Finances for the center and payments for services are complicated now. On one hand, there has been some easing on federal rules and regulations for payments and coverage, making the system work more smoothly. On the other hand, fewer patients are coming to the clinic. Patients are reluctant to show up, and they are delaying their well visits. When Krajewski and I talked, the center’s roughly 150 visits per day had dropped to 22. Already 12 employees in the three centers of the Eastport Health Center network have been furloughed, and five others are working reduced hours. And while virtual visits are increasing, they are not replacing in-person visits either in number or revenue.

    The culture: For all of us, the specter of COVID-19’s arrival into our communities is scary and looming and bizarre. For all of us, there is a sense of unreality—until it becomes real—that maybe it won’t get here, maybe we can be immune from this tragedy. Because part of the cultural appeal of living in remote towns like Eastport and Ajo is being a good arm’s length away from national issues or intrusions, it makes sense that this instinct or temptation of “not me/not us” could be even stronger. It is a familiar and attractive idea that the virus will remain far away, like some other 21st century disasters.

    We will stay in touch with our friends in Ajo and Eastport to see what their futures hold.

    More from this series

  • Public Libraries’ Novel Response to a Novel Virus

    The Aurora Public Library in Colorado offers free lunches for people under 18
    The Aurora Public Library in Colorado offers free lunches for people under 18 David Zalubowski / AP

    America’s public libraries have led the ranks of “second responders,” stepping up for their communities in times of natural or manmade disasters, like hurricanes, floods, shootings, fires, and big downturns in individual lives.

    Throughout all these events, libraries have stayed open, filling in for the kids when their schools closed; offering therapeutic sessions in art or conversation or writing after losses of life; bringing in nurses or social workers when services were unavailable to people; and hiring life-counselors for the homeless, whom they offer shelter and safety during the day.

    Today, interventions like those have a ring of simpler days. But libraries have learned from their experience and attention to these previous, pre-pandemic efforts. They are pivoting quickly to new ways of offering services to the public—the core of their mission. When libraries closed their doors abruptly, they immediately opened their digital communications, collaborations, and creative activity to reach their public in ways as novel as the virus that forced them into it.

    You can be sure that this is just the beginning. Today libraries are already acting and improvising. Later, they’ll be figuring out what the experience means to their future operations and their role in American communities.


    Here are some of the things libraries are doing now. These are a few examples of many:

    Feeding the hungry: While schools have traditionally supplied lunches and breakfasts for American schoolchildren who economically qualify for them, libraries have always stepped in for after-school snacks and summertime food programs.

    With schools now closed, more libraries have become drive-through or pick-up locations for grab-and-go meals. This is happening in St. Louis County, for example, which is collaborating with Operation Food Search, a nonprofit that distributes free drive-through food pickups in nine of their libraries.

    In Columbus, Ohio, the Columbus Metropolitan Library closed so quickly that they were left with nearly 3,000 prepared meals on hand. They collaborated with the Children’s Hunger Alliance, which had supplied the meals, to recover, repurpose, and distribute the packets at three library locations.

    In Ohio, the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, together with the  United Methodist Church food ministry are offering ready-to-eat meals to all children 18 years old and under.

    3-D printing of PPEs and PPE collections: Many libraries are putting the 3-D printers from their makerspaces into use.

    In Maryland, the Prince George’s County Memorial Library System has sent two of its 3-D printers home with a staff person to soon begin printing shields for health workers’ masks. The library is donating labor and materials for this effort, and like other organizations around the state, is working with Open Works, Baltimore’s biggest makerspace community, to make sure everyone is compliant with specs for the production of the shields.

    Internationally, the Milton Public Library in Ontario, Canada, has partnered with Inksmith, an education technology company, to print face shield headbands for PPE masks.

    The Billings, Montana, public library is 3-D printing face masks for health care workers.

    The McMillan Memorial Library in Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin, is 3-D printing masks for the community. The Cedarburg Public Library in Wisconsin is 3-D printing masks for the fire department.

    The Oakland, California, library has repurposed bookdrops to collect new, packaged masks.

    Providing round-the-clock Wi-Fi access and hotspots: Aware that many of their customers rely on the library as their only point of Wi-Fi access, libraries in many communities leave their Wi-Fi open after closing hours. Those numbers are increasing. Also, many libraries have loaned out the entire supply of their portable hotspots to school children who need internet connection to do at-home school work. Others have purchased more hotspots to begin filling the gaps.

    The Brightwood Branch of the Indianapolis Public Library made sure all the hotspots they possessed through a Grow with Google partnership were checked out before their closed their doors.

    Taking care of the homeless: In Washington State, the downtown Spokane Public Library has opened as a temporary homeless shelter.

    In San Luis Obispo, California, the parking lot of the Los Osos Library remains open as a designated safe and clean space for homeless people who live in their cars to camp overnight.

    The Richland County Library system in South Carolina, working with the United Way, collected and delivered their 40 standing hand-sanitizing stations to local homeless shelters. They also bought and placed porta-potties outside their downtown libraries.

    Keeping people productive, safe, healthy, informed, and connected to each other: Many libraries have ramped up their online presence. There are lists and lists of resources for children’s activities; plans for improving adult job skills and dealing with job loss; hobby ideas; reading lists; ways to sleep better, meditate, and stay calm; ways to exercise; and ideas for virtual, social interaction.

    Also, libraries have always been trusted sources of information. Many are revising their websites and scaling up their social media for multiple purposes: bringing in more users and broadcasting the message of their diverse, digitally-available holdings; posting timely, accurate, curated information; and offering up-to-date public-service information on local efforts and issues like city services, public advisories, health directives and requests, tax and unemployment issues, and of course, COVID-19 resources.

    From the Anythink libraries in Colorado, Erica Grossman wrote to me in an email:  “We’re working swiftly to become a virtual town square—a place of information and connection.”

    Here is a grab-bag of examples of the trend she is discussing:

    • The Birmingham Public Library in Alabama has a list of valuable links, including one that shows exactly where to get tested and includes details of hours, location, and necessity for call-ahead appointments.
        
    • The Columbus, Ohio, library informs the community about blood drives by one of their partners, the American Red Cross.

    • Before they closed, the Prince George’s County Memorial Library System had placed a dedicated computer in each branch to help people complete their 2020 census forms online. Now, the library’s Nick Brown described to me how they have pivoted to virtual programming to keep the interest strong and the completion rates high—this in a county that was determined to be undercounted by 30 percent in the 2010 census.

    These are the early days of both COVID-19 and the creative ways that libraries will respond to it.

    More from this series

  • Looking at Libraries

    A "fly-brary," courtesy of the Deschutes Public Library, at the Redmond, Oregon, airport
    A "fly-brary," courtesy of the Deschutes Public Library, at the Redmond, Oregon, airport Courtesy of Deborah Fallows

    Continuing the photo essay about public libraries, which showed many examples of children’s rooms and adult spaces, this collection shows some of the multitude of activities happening at public libraries. It also includes some of the kinds of collections besides books, and some of the public places where books are available to borrow besides at traditional libraries.

    Makerspaces are becoming popular in libraries around the country. Some are sophisticated, others modest. Makerspaces harken back to Benjamin Franklin’s early days in the Philadelphia subscription library, where he conducted some of his early experiments in electricity. Ben Franklin was the founder, in a way, of modern makerspaces in libraries.

    Makerspace in the Brownsville Public LIbrary

    The southmost public library near the Rio Grande in Brownsville, Texas, has an observatory that is used occasionally. The library also hosts movie-and-popcorn events for children who are incarcerated in detention centers alone after having crossed the border from Mexico to Texas.

    Outside the Southmost library in Brownsville, Texas

    The modest makerspace inside the Dodge City, Kansas, library. It was put together by a young librarian who grew up across the street from the library. He has gathered mostly people’s cast off items, like sewing machines and audio recording equipment.

    The door to the small makerspace in the Dodge City Library

    Learning the ropes in the maker space at the Washington, D.C., Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library. The library is currently under renovation.

    The makerspace at the old MLK Jr. public library in Washington, D.C.

    Kids’ activities are held after a summer science program in the Dodge City, Kansas, library. The library invited a traveling program from Wichita. Middle schoolers helped herd the littler kids around the “challenges” after the program. There were hundreds of people participating.

    Summer kids’ program in the Dodge City library

    Here’s an entry from an art competition at the Greenville, South Carolina, public library. This was sponsored by the local Michelin company, and the requirement was to use old tires in the creation.

    An art contest entry made of tires at the Greenville public library

    Attention Walmart shoppers: This building is now home to the McAllen, Texas, public library. The internal space is vast, enough for exhibitions and receptions. The external space boasts plenty of parking and room for concerts, catered by local food trucks.

    The entrance to the McAllen public library, with food trucks and concert set-up

    Libraries catalog much more than books. When some people are looking for somewhere to donate their treasures, or others can’t bear to simply trash their memorabilia, they think of the library. At the A.K. Smiley Public Library in Redlands, California, archivist Nathan Gonzalez addresses some of the vast holdings donated by residents of Redlands. The town is in the process of building the first Museum of Redlands, populated largely from the outgrown archives of the library, and which the library will oversee. The library already oversees the Lincoln Shrine, an entire building of a nationally-renowned collection of Lincolniana, just across the lawn from the Smiley library.   

  • A Portrait of Public Libraries

    The topiary garden at the Columbus, Ohio, public library
    The topiary garden at the Columbus, Ohio, public library Courtesy of Deborah Fallows

    Since Jim Fallows and I began traveling the country for American Futures and Our Towns nearly seven years ago, there has been one beat that began as a surprise to me and grew into the most heartening story I’ve witnessed of American resilience. That is the story of public libraries and how they have responded to the challenges facing American towns.

    If you haven’t been in a public library lately, you probably wouldn’t recognize where you were if you entered one tomorrow. This is no longer, as I wrote early on, your mother’s library. The books are still there; the readers are still there; the librarians are still there. But sharing the same space are children busy with all kinds of active—and sometimes noisy—programs, inventors in maker-spaces, historians and amateurs researching genealogy, job-seekers scouring the internet, homeless people settling in quietly for the day, women and a few men heading to the yoga space, others watching movies, young entrepreneurs grabbing lattes, people considering the art exhibits, librarians helping others research a medical issue or housing issue or how to earn a GED, tutors helping school kids with math, people checking out hiking backpacks, fishing poles, wireless hotspots, snow shovels, and seeds for vegetable gardens.

    And in their offices are the librarians and staff figuring out how to fill all these wants and needs of their communities and to anticipate what can possibly be coming to their town next, like a hurricane or, God forbid, a shooting. I saw many backroom views of libraries, from the depths of their groaning archives to their automated transport and delivery systems of books among libraries. I also ran into many pop-up versions of libraries in odd places from front yards to public parks to the middle of a lake.


    After telling so many of their stories one by one, I wanted to show you what some of the libraries look like. These are my amateur photos of some of the libraries I’ve seen around the U.S., and even a few others I’ve visited around the world.

    The libraries were in cities as small as Eastport, Maine, population 1,300, and as big as Columbus, Ohio, population 890,000. Most cities were in between in size, largely ranging from 10,000 to 65,000.  I also visited public libraries in Shanghai, population 24 million, and across Australia.

    Here are some images that stay in my mind about libraries. This first of two collections features the children’s areas and the adult spaces. Coming up next will be what’s in the library beyond books, and alternative public libraries.

    The first photo here is inside the Peavey Memorial Library in Eastport, Maine.

    The children’s area of Eastport Maine’s Peavey Memorial Library

    Children’s rooms: Whenever I asked directors or librarians about the most important efforts in their libraries, or their top dreams and aspirations yet to come, they invariably answered some version of: “It’s the children; it’s all about the children.” And they homed in on reading readiness or school readiness or child development, particularly for the kids who need it most. Attracting children, and their parents, into libraries is a prime mission.

    Brownsville, Texas, built a wonderland of a children’s room and have newly gone all out into the ultra-modern space for teenagers.

    The children’s space in the Brownsville Public Library

    The Space14s (get it?) in the Brownsville Public Library

    A former Walmart has been transformed into the new and spacious McAllen Texas public library:

    The children’s space in the McAllen public library

    In my hometown of Vermilion, Ohio, on the shore of Lake Erie, the children’s area is built on the nautical themes familiar to the kids who grow up there. (I spent many a summer day in this library, but it didn’t look like this.)

    The children’s area of the Ritter Public Library in Vermilion, Ohio

    The San Bernardino Public Library’s central location has poured precious resources into the children’s room, hoping to attract many parents as well through their children and the offerings there. The collaborative mural featured world-renowned artist Phil Yeh.

    The children’s section in the Norman F. Feldheym Central Library in San Bernardino

    The Hughes Main Library in Greenville South Carolina:

    The children’s room in the Greenville public library in South Carolina

    The Demopolis, Alabama, public library was formerly home to a furniture store and warehouse. The children’s area is part of its pride and joy.

    The children’s room of the Demopolis Public Library

    The Deschutes Public Library in Bend, Oregon, changes the look of their children’s space from time to time. This one was all about superheroes.

    The children’s area in the Deschutes Public Library

    The small Highland Park Texas Harvey R. “Bum” Bright Library  has a very cozy children’s room and a librarian who always directs children to the right books.

    A happy child in the Highland Park public library

    The Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library, a branch of the New York Public Library in the Flatiron district, has a children’s braille collection.

    The children’s shelf of braille books in New York City


    Adult Spaces: The adult spaces in public libraries show an entirely different and often contrasting side of a public library. They range from extraordinarily elegant to cozy and welcoming, to dramatic, to waiting for that upgrade. Here is a sampling:

    The mezzanine level of the public library in Demopolis, Alabama, in the former furniture store and warehouse, overlooks the California-craftsman style main reading room. Bill and Melinda Gates visited some 20 years ago as a kick-off to their philanthropic donations of computers to public libraries.

    Overlooking the main reading room in the Demopolis, Alabama, public library

    Inside the Linn-Henley Research Library of the Birmingham Alabama’s Central Library, the walls are painted with murals by Ezra Winter. They are some of the historic showpieces of the Birmingham library.

    Inside the Linn-Henley Research Library in Birmingham

    The State Library of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia:

    The spectacular reading room in the Melbourne public library

    The reading room in the New South Wales public library in Sydney, Australia:

    Inside the public library in Sydney

    The reading room in Raymond M. Blasco MD Memorial Library, in Erie, Pennsylvania, overlooks the waterfront where the Tall Ships dock.

    A public-library reading room in Erie, Pennsylvania

    The McAllen Public Library in McAllen, Texas, has moved into the building of a former Walmart. The space for books is vast.

    Inside the McAllen Public Library

    The Brownsville, Texas, public library creates much of their own artwork. These are the end panels on the shelves in the reading area.

    Endpanels in the Brownsville Public Library reading area

    Overlooking the atrium in the stately Shanghai Public Library, where I watched hundreds of people working on laptops and drinking tea, in the foreign-periodicals section:

    Inside the Shanghai Public Library in China

    The small Elk Rapids District Library in Michigan provides a room with a view for its readers.

    Rock and read in the Elk Rapids public library

  • How Artists Build the Spirit of a Town

    The Tides Institute & Museum in Eastport Maine (left) and other historic buildings along Water Street Courtesy of the Tides Institute & Museum of Art

    During our travels to towns around the U.S., Jim Fallows and I have come across several artist-in-residence programs, for example in Ajo, Arizona; Eastport, Maine; and Tulsa, Oklahoma. Here is the report from one of those artists, Richelle Gribble, on her experience of being an artist in a new place, how it fits into her practice of art, and how she sees her role in the community.

    There is a second perspective of artists-in-residence, and it comes from the communities who host them. Why does a community bring an artist into its life? What do the artists and their presence bring to a town and the people who live there?

    For that perspective, I went to Kristin McKinlay, who developed and directs StudioWorks, the artist-in-residence program of the Tides Institute & Museum of Art (TIMA) in Eastport, where Richelle Gribble worked. McKinlay and her husband, Hugh French, founded and run the formidable and influential TIMA, as our colleague John Tierney has written about here.


    The inspiration for StudioWorks, McKinlay told me, was that a goal of TIMA was not only preserve history, but to “foster the creation of new work.” And for the town, the goals were equally lofty: to add to the cultural landscape, to bring a new energy, and to help revitalize the downtown. And for the arts: to support the work of artists.

    StudioWorks, as renovations finished up (Courtesy of the Tides Institute & Museum of Art)

    The artist residency fit with the mission of TIMA, which also includes publications, like this stunning book on Eastport architecture, partnerships with other organizations, letterpress cards, a poster series, and education initiatives.

    The Tides Institute launched StudioWorks in 2013. Since then, they have hosted a broadly diverse group of 57 artists from all over the world for stays of two weeks to two months. That number represents a big presence in Eastport, population 1,300. It also represents a big commitment, for 57 artists to travel the 250 miles “downeast” (north and east) from Portland or 115 miles east from Bangor. No one arrives in Eastport accidentally.

    Looking out to the Bay of Fundy from the inside of StudioWorks (Courtesy of the Tides Institute & Museum of Art)

    The program has grown through hard work and good luck. The Tides Institute bought and renovated a Water Street (the main street) storefront building for StudioWorks. As did many residents and tourists, Jim and I wandered in off the sidewalk early in our first of several visits to Eastport, to see and talk to Richelle at work. Soon, two houses were donated to the program, making for more living and workspace for the artists. Those were within a block of downtown and walkable to just about everything you might really want or need in Eastport. They also bought the old Free Will North Baptist Church, a building large enough to accommodate Undertow, Anna Hepler’s installation, which she describes as  “the hull of an empty ship in … the nave of an empty church,” which we also saw during a visit to Eastport.

    Free Will North Baptist church is now an arts workshop and installation space (Courtesy of the Tides Institute & Museum of Art)

    The program is funded by foundations, grants, and private funding and provides a $2,000 per month (or prorated) stipend for the artists. Artplace America, a grantfunding organization whose imprint we have seen across the country, was an early supporter, and its impact is akin in a more modest way to Carnegie’s in libraries or the WPA projects in schools, post offices, recreation facilities, parks,  and so on.


    The many artists brought many different perspectives to Eastport. Their work and connections have spilled out all over town; in schools, in library workshops, on the pier, along the waterfront, and door-to-door.

    McKinlay rattled off descriptions of some of the projects, many of which engaged with the essence of Eastport as a town that is intimate—in every sense of its proximity, history, economy, and culture—with water. Eastport’s placemaking is inseparable from its water.

    Here are brief descriptions of some of the work:

    Elizabeth Bennett hung drawings off the working fish pier along Water Street, right across the street from StudioWorks. The high tides brought water that erased parts of the drawings as it came in.

    Amanda Thackray made paper by hand using the local seawater, and printed on it the shapes of plastic garbage and marine trash that she found while walking along the coastline. Thackray wrote about her residency here.

    Amanda Thackray in the print studio (Courtesy of the Tides Institute & Museum of Art)

    Montana Simone, whom we met in Eastport last summer when we were there with an HBO film crew, preparing a documentary based on Our Towns, was deftly climbing and scrambling around the ramshackle old pier supports, next to the abandoned sardine canning factory. She wrapped two supports with huge canvases, leaving one in place for what would be two months to be marked and stained by the rising and falling tides.

    Montana Simone wrapping canvas at the old pier (Courtesy of the Tides Institute & Museum of Art)

    Onya Hogan-Finlay and Kim Kelly hosted an event for the community that included a walk; a picnic with local food shared on a specially-created cloth screen-printed with images of seaweed and other regional flora; and a drawing session on paper letter-pressed with the event title  “Low Tide High Tea.”

    The Low Tide High Tea picnic for Eastport residents (Courtesy of the Tides Institute & Museum of Art)

    Will Rose made animations about Eastport wildlife, and then followed up later from London for an artist talk with Eastport school kids via Facetime.

    Adriane Herman, inspired from her interests in pollution, trash, left and reclaimed items, and her commitment to recycling, worked with found items, such as discarded books and papers. She took her passion into the community in a few ways. She worked with teachers and students at the school on many projects, from zine-making to exploring the local burn pile as a subject for artistic study. She also offered a workshop series at the public library, Peavey Memorial Library, and volunteered at the ultimate local recycler, Eastport’s thrift shop, New to You.

    Adriane Herman with Eastport's Shead High School students (Courtesy of the Tides Institute & Museum of Art)

    Seliena Coyle undertook a “selfie” project where community members took and developed self-portraits using pinhole cameras and a makeshift darkroom.

    Seliena Coyle and the pinhole-camera selfie project on Water St. (Courtesy of the Tides Institute & Museum of Art)

    Alicia Eggert took 720 conceptual art photos spanning every single minute of a day from noon to midnight. She knocked on Eastport doors asking to photograph people’s timepieces—from grandfather clocks to microwave clocks to wrist and pocket watches. When Eggert asked for advice on how an artist with such a project might be received at the front doors, McKinlay answered, “The only risk is being invited in for pie.” By the end of the project, people opened their doors with the greeting, “We’ve been waiting for you.” One resident even lent Eggert his watch collection, saying she could fill in some missing minutes that way. McKinlay told me that this wide effort grew into a big wave of good public relations about the artist-in-residence program and contemporary art practice.


    McKinlay and I also talked about the economic impact of the program. For those who remain skeptics about the positive economic impact that the arts can have on a town, here are some answers.

    In Eastport, three abandoned buildings and a church have been renovated with local contractors and artisans into showpieces. The contractors become their own best marketers, displaying their products for future renovations from businesses and prospective homebuyers in Eastport. The buildings also then require maintenance, landscaping, and lawncare. A local high school student is employed as a year-round intern for the program. A few artists have brought young children with them, and used for-pay childcare in town while they worked. The artists-in-residence become part of Eastport tourism, including the considerable population of artists who live in town and galleries that display their work. The $2,000-per-month artist stipend is largely spent on local commerce.

    McKinlay told me a touching story of how the artists can contribute to both the hard economics and the soft cultural spirit of the town.

    Tracey Cockrell recording sound, Reversing Falls Pembroke (Courtesy of the Tides Institute & Museum of Art)

    Tracey Cockrell, a sculptor-in-residence, was building speakers out of seaweed and electro-conductive thread. She made field recordings around the region with a waterproof microphone. She went next door to the S. L. Wadsworth & Son Chandlery, the hardware store the artists frequent for supplies (and is also one of my favorite Eastport shops; you can find most anything there!), looking for Plasti Dip, a flexible rubber coating to waterproof her microphone. This time, the shop didn’t carry the product, but another shopper, overhearing the conversation, asked what color Cockrell wanted. She said she wasn’t sure yet. The next day, what should Cockrell find on the StudioWork doorstep, but a brown paper bag with the packages of Plasti Dip in every color. The good (and anonymous!) Eastport resident had driven more than 25 miles down the road to Calais and bought them for her.

  • An Artist-in-Residence Creates a Sense of Place

    Artist Richelle Gribble with her cotton spider web on kozo washi paper, created during her artist-in-residency in Japan
    Artist Richelle Gribble with her cotton spider web on kozo washi paper, created during her artist-in-residency in Japan Naoki Isoda / Awagami Factory

    We’ve seen artist-in-residence programs in a number of the towns we’ve visited. The first was in Eastport, Maine, where we ran into Richelle Gribble, a young artist based in Los Angeles, whom I consider an resident-artist extraordinaire. Over the past three and a half years, Richelle (as I’ll refer to her) has been an artist-in-residence in 15 different programs around the world, from a biosphere in Arizona to a ranch in Wyoming to the Arctic Circle in northern Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago. I’m not kidding about the Arctic Circle.

    Richelle is an accomplished artist with pages and pages of a CV that includes solo and select group exhibitions, awards and fellowships, public collections, curated projects, public speaking engagements, memberships in committees and organizations, and publications. She is 28 years old.

    When I was back in touch with Richelle recently, she had just returned from the Arctic Circle. I was interested in talking with her about the idea of residencies, how she approaches her time on location, what artists’ perspectives bring to a town, and what the experience brings to an artist.

    We decided to talk about her residency in Japan, with its famously complicated culture, and where my husband, Jim, and I had lived for about two years back in the late 1980s, when our children were young.

                                                        *   *   *

    Here’s what we talked about: Along our own travels around the country for American Futures and Our Towns, many people have asked Jim and me how we start our reporting when we visit a town. It’s a fair question, and our answer is that we do some research ahead of time—and then once on scene, we spend a day or two talking to the “usual suspects” (journalists, school administrators, city-government officials, business people, librarians, people in the arts, etc.) and ask them about the interesting and compelling stories and issues in town, and about the people we should meet. Then we head out to connect with as many people in as many on-the-ground situations as possible.

    I was interested in how this process worked for an artist-in-residence, so I asked Richelle the same questions: What does she do upon arrival? How does she build a sense of the place? How does that begin to translate into the art she makes? Her answers resonated with me.

    Pieces of the Land, kozo pulp, ink, colored pencil, graphite on washi, 8.25 x 11.75 x 1.25 inches. Artwork by Richelle Gribble. (Jonathan Ferrara Gallery)

    Richelle told me that during her first few days or weeks in a town (depending on the length of her stay, which can range from a few weeks to a few months), she talks to lots of people in the community, engaging in conversation and listening to their language and forms of expression. She takes in the colors of the landscape and environment, looks at plants, wildlife, architecture, animal migrations, maps, photos, and the foods everyone eats. She gathers an understanding and a collection of the materials around—whether from beaches, forests, glaciers, or cityscapes. And she takes note of how the local art is made: what materials the artists use, and what their techniques and practices are. The latter were especially important, she said, as she began her international travels where the world of art could be so very different.

    Then Richelle told me something that really hit home. She said she looks for recurring scenes, materials, or symbols that link one place to another, to show that all systems (social, technological, or physical) are linked around the world. This search for recurring patterns is something I did regularly via language when we visited new places. I would routinely write down interesting words or phrases that struck me—ones that surprised me or stood out. I would often make “word clouds” of a town, which taught me a lot about the culture of the place, and sometimes about universals. See a few examples here and here.

    In meta-terms, these starting points build toward to her goal to reflect the community or its ecosystem through her art. She hoped to build a sense of what towns have in common and what sets them apart from each other. And ultimately, perhaps, to find a greater interconnection of communities and a sense of perspective of the planet. That is a tall order, but one she bears in mind as she works locally to reflect global themes.

                                                 *   *   *

    Yoshinogawa: Richelle spent two and a half months in the city of Yoshinogawa, Japan, a farmland community with a population of about 40,000. It is in the prefecture of Tokushima, southwest from Kyoto. The residency was no doubt a prized one, allowing her to work at the centuries-old Fujimori family’s Awagami Factory. Minoru Fujimori took over the family factory in 1945, and was designated a “Sixth Class Order of Merit, Sacred Treasure” by the Emperor in 1986 for washi paper work (a Japanese traditional craft). Minoru Fujimori died in 2015, but the family continues the age-old eco-friendly washi paper-making technique.

    Blending and coloring raw kozo fiber for pulp painting at the Awagami Factory (Naoki Isoda / Awagami Factory)

    Richelle created an entirely new collection of artwork at the Awagami Factory, and she described to me the challenge of how to use the traditional materials and techniques in the contemporary art that she produces. It took some doing to try to replicate the traditional practices and mimic the gestures and movements involved, she said. Presenting her contemporary work to a community steeped and sophisticated in hallowed art forms, and explaining it through a translator, would be threading a needle of honoring the craft, reflecting the practice, and making her own art.

    Leading a collaborative drawing workshop at an elementary school (Tak Abe / Awagami Factory)

    Richelle found, as did we when we lived with our then elementary-school age children in Japan for two years, that the local residents were very interested in visitors and their ways. She taught workshops in local schools, met the city’s mayor, and attended press events. The Yoshinogawa residents were interested in how she innovated and elaborated on the traditional work she learned about, and ultimately, the Western perspective through which she interpreted and produced her art.

    Creating kozo pulp painting at the Awagami Factory (Naoki Isoda / Awagami Factory)

    Peeling pulp painting off drying board (Nonomura / Awagami Factory)

    Richelle described her main project: She used natural materials to make the pulp and produce a map, “painting the land from the land” she told me. She collected traditional kozo fibers, pounded them into the paper mixing with mountain water, and used natural indigo dye from the plants grown by the river. She wanted the residents to see themselves in her artwork, to be able to identify their own house within a larger map. It was her way of broaching the language barrier. If they couldn’t connect through language, she said, “we could share a place this way. (The art became) another way of understanding each other.”

    Pieces of the Land, ink, colored pencil, graphite on washi, 8.25 x 11.75 inches (Naoki Isoda / Awagami Factory)

    Sorting drawings on washi paper (Naoki Isoda / Awagami Factory)

    She also produced art on a small scale, drawing images of the many gifts the residents presented her, such as plants from gardens, and fruits and vegetables from their yards. She took photos of her drawings and placed them on a map she drew of the area, which she described as “showing the personality of the town in a more micro-intimate way through gifts exchanged and found objects in the area. It serves as a key or legend to give identity to the larger maps.”

    Mounting a large woven web to be embedded in kozo fiber (Naoki Isoda / Awagami Factory)

    Richelle also told me a charming spider-web story. Always on the lookout for spider webs, Richelle spotted them as she walked around town getting her bearings and her map sense. She was noticed. Foreigners are always noticed in Japan, in our experience. If our little boys got temporarily lost in our Japanese neighborhood, neighbors—even ones I had never seen before—would bring them home, knowing exactly who we were and where we lived. One older man was watching Richelle looking for spider webs, and after a time, he offered to guide her along her walks about town, pointing out the webs he had spotted on her behalf.

    Presenting “On Place” a new collection of paper-based artworks to local community at the Inbe Art Space in Yoshinogawa, Japan (Naoki Isoda / Awagami Factory)

    Her art became a way to be something way more than a tourist, to open the door to a different kind of more intimate experience with the country. More like being a scientist or a detective, she described it to me. A common component of residencies is an open-door policy, where people in the town can stop by. For Richelle, this was valuable, as much of her work was driven by ideas and messages she took in from her visitors. And for those who drop by, she thought, it is one of the few times that people get to see what happens in the studios, to learn how involved the process of making art really is—seeing the incubating, testing, and interaction, as she described it, to create the final product. They see the process from start to finish.

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  • Photos Can Trigger Change in a Town

    A view of a city through a camera lens held up by a hand
    Kononstev Artem via Shutterstock

    In 2008, National Geographic photographer Jodi Cobb and photographer and former Second Lady, Tipper Gore, talked about the role of photography at the then Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. The evening was called “How Photos Can Change the World.” Eleven years later, their comments (as reported by David Schonauer in Popular Photography) remain relevant and powerful:

    Cobb at one point hinted at the frustration sometimes felt by photographers with high aims. It is one thing to take pictures, she said, and another to do the kind [of] political “heavy lifting” that actually brings about change. Mrs. Gore replied that images are an essential part of the process ... [DF: emphasis added]

    During our travels with Our Towns and American Futures, Jim Fallows and I have seen many examples where the arts—whether photography, downtown revivals, productions, or memorial parks—are an essential piece, and often a trigger, in the evolution of communities and the lives of those who make or experience it.

    Over the years, a number of photography projects have focused on young people as the agents of such evolution or change:

    • The 100cameras project, founded in 2009, began putting cameras in the hands of kids who have faced trauma or challenges. The idea was to use photography to help them work through their troubles.
    • The Cameras for Kids Foundation gives kids in foster care cameras and lessons to help boost their confidence and skills.
    • The Boys and Girls Clubs have long sponsored national photo programs.
    • Since 1991, Fotokids also gives cameras to kids in Central America, with a goal to break the cycle of poverty with skills and creation.

    Recently, I learned about a locally-grown version of these photo projects from the state of Delaware. It is called the Our Lens Challenge, and we’re naming it another in our series of Big Little Ideas. These are simple, replicable initiatives with far-reaching positive potential. Others in the series are here and here and here.

    Here’s how this Big Little Idea works:

    The Our Lens Challenge in the state of Delaware is an exercise for young people to use photography to engage with their communities about an issue or an observation that is important to them. High school students learn to make photos, try their hand, choose the best one of their photos, and describe how it captures a perception of their town.

    As with other participatory public-arts initiatives that we have seen in towns across the country, this Big Little Idea is an opportunity to contribute a fresh perspective on a community that helps to tell its story. In this case, the bonus is to teach a valuable skill to young people and to invite them to be part of shaping and perhaps even changing the narrative of their hometown.

    The Our Lens Challenge team has made it easy for anyone who is interested in trying their Idea, by preparing a set of YouTube videos to guide participants, step by step, through the process. In Delaware, the Challenge was presented as a contest, and the winners would receive a $100 gift certificate from Amazon. A number of groups in Delaware collaborated on the Challenge, although it could be replicated with a leaner operation in your town. Here are the collaborators:


    Here are the YouTube videos. (Fair warning: You’ll see references to our book, Our Towns, in a few of the videos.)

    Video 1, Our Lens Intro: An introduction to “identify an issue in your community or highlight a bright spot that you want to showcase”

    Video 2, Opportunity Discovery: How to be inspired!

    Video 3, How to Learn More about Anything: A guide for using interviews and observation to become a master of the issue and help plan how to convey the message in the photo

    Video 4, Finding Your Story: An encouragement to share the positive story and spirit of Delaware

    Video 5, Photovoice: an overview of how to highlight your message and show your voice through a photo

    Video 6, Photo Basics: A walk through a series of photos, pointing out the elements of a photo and what they convey—e.g., how to create a “power pose” of subjects by shooting upward, or how to use lighting or focus to highlight a person or object

    Video 7, Caption and Reflection: Writing a title, a caption, and a personal reflection on the story you’re telling through the photo

    Video 8, How to Submit Your Entry: The nuts and bolts

    Video 9, Challenge Conclusion: Encouragement and congratulations


    The winners of the photo contest, from left to right: Lainey, Andrés, Aeryon, Deyon, and Zoe (Courtesy of Deborah Fallows)

    Jim and I were fortunate to view the winning photos and to meet the young winning photographers and some of the organizers of the Challenge. In an email with the infectiously enthusiastic executive director of Dual School, Zack Jones, whom I met in Wilmington, he reflected on his experience with the Our Lens Challenge.

    The power of something like the Our Lens Challenge is to tap into (the young people’s) wisdom and invite their voices to contribute to the broader discussion. It also invites young people to see the places they live in a more positive way. It's a reflective experience to explore your town and think deeply about how you will represent it to an outside observer.

    Here are the winning photographs, with descriptions from the student photographers (identified by school and first name) of what they want their images to convey:

    Lainey, Ursuline Academy, Expected Graduation: 2021

    Title: 7th Street. Reflection: This photo portrays the sense of community and family that thrives in a tiny cement skate park on 7th street. When someone fell, they were picked up. There were high fives and hugs. The sense of community I felt as an outsider was so powerful. People from all over the city, no matter what age or background come together to form a family. All they know are each other’s names. How much money they make or what sex or race they are, it doesn’t matter. In this skate park, they are who they are and all are welcomed.


    Deyon, Howard High School of Technology, Expected Graduation: 2022

    Title: Opportunity. Reflection: This is a photo of the Hercules plaza/building. This place is full of a lot of job opportunities that are age friendly. Many people that are employed here are happy with the work they do and the amount of time they spent working here and would recommend other people to work here.


    Clare, Archmere Academy, Expected Graduation: 2023

    Title: The Roots of Wilmington from Atop the Brandywine. Reflection: This photo captures an overlooking view from a popular point in Brandywine Creek State Park. It not only showcases the widespread natural beauty surrounding Wilmington, but also depicts many of the unique factors of our town. The central, robust tree represents the strength and connection of our community and is a proud reminder of the origins we share. The empty bench is reminiscent of the vast wealth of opportunities awaiting both young and old, while the departing car symbolizes the role our community serves in launching ideas, movements, and change into all corners of the world.


    Zoe, Ursuline Academy, Expected Graduation: 2022

    Title: New & Used. Reflection: This picture was taken at a bookstore in my hometown called Hockessin Book Shelf. This small but trusty shop could be seen as a representation of my town. With enthusiastic workers that are willing to help you with any questions you might have, the care that they show reflects the passion that my town has. My town has the best of both worlds with both a used and new feel. The small shops similar to this one, you can’t quite replicate this town anywhere else.


    Aeryon, Brandywine High School, Expected Graduation: 2021

    Title: The Flower that Grew Through Concrete. Reflection: This flower growing through concrete symbolizes how we are capable of pushing through the obstacles and hardships of our lives. Here in Wilmington, it is so easy (especially for our youth) to be detained by those around us and distracted from achieving our dreams. Stay focused and give 110% in everything you do! Hard work and keeping your end goal in mind will allow you to blossom into a successful person from a rough city. A flower that grew through concrete.


    Andrés, Salesianum High School, Expected Graduation: 2020

    Title: WHY - Salesianum School, My Friends, Our Service. Reflection: Why? Seeing these words inspired me and my friends and allowed us to reflect on the true reason we were there that day: to walk to our newest service opportunity. Thus, as ambiguous as the question “Why?” may seem, our answer is to help others and be there for our fellow community members. With our school and the rest of Wilmington in the background, the numerous aspects of this image represent an intersection of my school life and the culture, the friendship, the empathy, and the collaboration that is present all across Wilmington. The commitment of my classmates to serving those in need—and now this symbol that reminds me of our collective work—that is what makes my community special.

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  • The Modern Women of Rural America

    The author's sister (on lap), mother (left), great-aunt (rear), and great-grandmother in rural Minnesota, circa 1947
    The author's sister (on lap), mother (left), great-aunt (rear), and great-grandmother in rural Minnesota, circa 1947 Courtesy of Susan Zerad Garau

    Along the way of our reporting for American Futures and Our Towns, I ran into the stories of some remarkable women—living and dead. Eliza Tibbets, who planted the first navel oranges in California; Isabella Greenway, who helped shape the entire copper-mining town of Ajo, Arizona, went on to found an airline company and the iconic Arizona Inn, and became the first woman representing Arizona in Congress; Jerrie Mock, a housewife from Columbus, Ohio,  who chased the dream of Amelia Earhart to become the first woman pilot to circumnavigate the globe on her own; the Women of the Commons in Eastport, Maine, who are a big part of rewriting the civic, cultural, and commercial story of Eastport, Maine; and Tracy Taft, an educator and organizer who followed Isabella Greenway to Ajo, Arizona, to drive its change from a failing former-mining town to a thriving community based on the arts.

    Recently, I hit the motherlode, where well over 200 women from rural America met in Greenville, South Carolina for a gathering of the Rural Assembly, a coalition of nationwide organizations that advocates for rural communities. This one was the first ever Rural Women’s Summit. (Okay, I counted on one hand the number of men who were there, too.) They met to talk about civic life, incarceration, health, water, education, poverty, faith, relationships, conservation, family, entrepreneurship, all in the context of women living in rural America. They framed their comments from their experiences as women in the military, as organizers of movements, as filmmakers, journalists, artists, nurses, lawyers, civic leaders, mothers, convicts, politicians, faith leaders, actors, and more.

    “The diversity of voices and experiences in the room was meaningful and telling,” Whitney Kimball Coe, of the Center for Rural Strategies, told me after the conference, via email. “It pushed back on stereotypes of a monolithic rural America.”


    My own rural roots dwindled about a century ago, after my family had immigrated from Bohemia and Moravia, in the part of the Austro-Hungarian empire that later became Czechoslovakia, to the Midwest. Most of my relatives had lived in rural areas in Europe. My cousins and I of the American-born generation chanted that our forebears were butchers, bakers, and candy makers. My great-grandfather, who lived and died in the dozen-house village of Mlyny (mills in Czech) was the chief gardener for trees in Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s country estate, Konopiste.

    I went to see his trees, maybe some had been saplings in his time, about 20 years ago, and then found my way to his village, where an older woman told me the story she heard growing up of the two young boys from Mlyny who went to America to seek a new life. One of those boys was my grandfather.

    The author’s father (left), aunt (in white), grandfather (the baker), and uncle circa 1928 (Courtesy of Susan Zerad Garau).

    Mostly from photographs, I remember standing in the fields of tall corn in my great grandmother’s family farm in rural Minnesota. And as clear as it was yesterday, I remember the backyard garden in the West Side neighborhood of Chicago, where my grandparents ultimately moved, and where my grandfather (the baker) grew sunflowers that were twice my height. My rural connections are twice-removed compared with those of my friends from the small Ohio town where I grew up, who actually lived on farms. But I will defend some deep bloodline sense I feel when I see and listen to the stories of rural life in America today. Those are the feelings I took with me to the meeting of rural women.                                   


    I gleaned a few principles about the lives of rural women that I hadn’t appreciated before.

    The first is how aggravations from a single issue can quickly cascade into a series of complications that make problems worsen toward intractable.

    Let’s take water, for example. Martin County, Kentucky, in the coal country of Appalachia is, as one woman described it, a poster child for water crisis. We have all been enlightened by the stories of Flint, Michigan, which would not be public without the women on the front lines there, by the way. The  broken infrastructure of water protection and handling in Martin County—cleanliness, safety, delivery, affordability, sewage—in Appalachian coal country is another piece of the troubled water story around the U.S.

    This story of water there is intimate to the lived experience of the women who tell it and those who report it. By and large, it is the women who open the taps for water they use to cook, to do the laundry, to bathe the children, to drink. If the faucets deliver, which is not a given, the water often runs brown, sulfury, and smelly.

    Reporting from those who live or spend time in Kentucky, be that in newsletters or rural press, adds a nuance of understanding that delivers insistent stories of a contaminated water supply, leaky and crumbling pipes, wastewater pipe shortages, industrial leaks and spills, a declining tax base from mine closures, rising water costs, and all the humanly compelling drama that ensues.  

    Then the cascade begins. The women bathe the babies, who then develop rashes. The women drive them long distances to see doctors, which is costly and time-consuming. Researching medical counsel or the alternatives of telemedicine often demand broadband connections, which are scarce, spotty, or thin in poor, rural America. Navigating coverage of telehealth from insurance companies is, as you’d imagine, complicated. And of course, all these steps require technology, transportation, and bill-paying, not to mention the wherewithal to accomplish them.

    The problem of rural water into and out of rural homes is a speck in the universe of the bigger forcefield of water, which includes big agriculture, mining extractions, chemical runoffs, big industry, lobbyists, federal regulators, courts, big insurance. Crises like Flint's notwithstanding, those of us who live in non-rural America usually take our water supplies for granted—or we at least trust that if something goes wrong, it will soon be fixed. But that is not necessarily the case in rural America.

    It seemed clear that the case of bad water was not a one-off but rather an example of a pattern. I heard about other issues where one event cascaded into a flurry of others; violence on Indian reservations and the incarceration of women, especially mothers, were two of the worst.  


    The second thing I learned at this meeting of rural women is the particular way they address their problems and design solutions. It will not surprise you if I say that rural women approach solutions and take action with a driving practicality. Isn’t that how pioneer women and immigrant women and farming women survived?

    At the Rural Women’s Summit  (Courtesy of Shawn Poynter / Poynter Photo Co.)

    It may surprise you (it did me) that the rural women wrapped this practicality with sentiments that you might link with being too soft, weak, or self-defeating (read: emotional, vulnerable, caring). And that they sought solutions in the places that you might consider unimportant or even a throwback to an earlier pre-feminist era (read: the kitchen, the living rooms).  

    But on the contrary, I heard women suggest that these “women’s ways” (my words), when they  emerge comfortably and naturally, are powerful tools to make actions effective and arguments accessible to more people. The message I heard: Do not shy from showing vulnerability, caring, or emotion. Do not apologize for it. Use it. Go into the places that are your comfort zones for work that is uncomfortable and requires you to be brave.

    At the Rural Women’s Summit  (Courtesy of Shawn Poynter / Poynter Photo Co.)

    Here are a few specific examples for taking action:

    Run for office: VoteRunLead runs training programs and online tools to encourage women to run for office, and to help them win. A starting point is planting the idea, #runasyouare, for those who may think they’re not up to it and are reluctant to jump in. According to Erin Vilardi, VoteRunLead president, “There are over 1,000 women sitting in elected office through our program. We have rates over 50 percent for first-time candidates winning their races,” adding, “One in five of our alumni are from rural communities.”

    Practice radical hospitality: People’s Suppers and communal dinners are opportunities for public discourse about fraught issues, like LGBTQ issues, addictions, and arrival of refugees. Sometimes, faith leaders or places of worship step in to bridge gaps. Jennifer Bailey, an ordained itinerant elder at the African Methodist Episcopal Church and director of the Faith Matters Network, said, “Women can turn a box of spaghetti into a feast.”

    Create safe spaces: Basketball courts on church grounds, daycare centers, quilting clubs in living rooms, shelters, gardens, girls’ night out. Look for activities that build familiarity and trust, and are just nice as a vehicle for discussions, ideas, and actions.

    Take healthy steps at the source: get rid of deep fryers in hospital cafeterias; provide applications to SNAP and other food programs at food pantries; change the menus in school cafeterias. These are easy wins.

    South Carolinian Kyshona Armstrong performing at the Summit (Courtesy of Shawn Poynter / Poynter Photo Co.)

    Tell stories: Use different frames to tell the big stories, in local media or as freelancers or in entrepreneurial journalistic start-ups. These give (new) voice to issues. There were a number of examples of reporting at the source, like the Daily Yonder, High Country News, Southerly, and 100 Days in Appalachia.

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  • A River of Words in Pittsburgh

    City of Asylum houses on Sampsonia Way in Pittsburgh
    City of Asylum houses on Sampsonia Way in Pittsburgh Deborah Fallows

    As we’ve traveled around the country with our American Futures and Our Towns projects since 2013, my husband, Jim, and I have evolved from being skeptics to evangelists about the impact of public arts on communities. We have seen how towns’ self-image, their presentation to visitors, their marking of history or current experience, their civic engagement and quality of everyday life and interactions of residents can all be changed by the public arts.

    The array of art is created by everyone from professional artists to young children, bringing a rich collection of perspectives and making for opportunity for all to participate. Judgment seems to be more forgiving of arts that are public; sometimes the process of creation brings more value than the product.

    It may be daunting for people to start public-arts projects: Who gets to decide? Is it worthy? Will it be expensive? And so on. But we have run across some that are imagined and executed in a very simple way. Here is one unusual example that surely qualifies as a Big Little Idea that any town could try and that has delivered a big payoff.


    In 2011, Israel Centeno was living in Pittsburgh, in the neighborhood called the Mexican War Streets. It is a proud, eclectic neighborhood on the near north side of town, walking distance to a few of Pittsburgh’s bridges and the stadium, a park, and the riverfront, old warehouses in transition, and much more. Interesting people live in the neighborhood: young families who decorate their rowhouses at Halloween, creative types of all sorts, longtime residents, all of whom feel attached to their community.

    In the middle of this is a small street called Sampsonia Way, which I would describe as an American version of a Beijing hutong. Attached houses, a dusty street that is not quite paved, and an intimacy among neighbors. Centeno lived with his wife and two daughters in a renovated rowhouse there.

    Alphabet Fence at the Alphabet Reading Garden, City of Asylum (Courtesy of Renee Rosensteel)

    Centeno is a writer and poet who needed asylum from his native Venezuela. He was offered sanctuary to live and work there for a few years by City of Asylum, an organization founded and originally funded by a Pittsburgh couple, Henry Reese and Diane Samuels, an entrepreneur and an artist.

    City of Asylum is celebrating its 15th anniversary of offering asylum to exiled artists from countries like Iran, Burma, China, El Salvador, Iraq, and more. In exchange, the artists give back to Pittsburgh in the form of some kind of artistic work and public presentation. Several of the artists who have passed through City of Asylum are returning for that celebration. They will surely admire all the expansions that have happened since we first visited in 2014. There is a new park, called the Alphabet Reading Garden, also a newly renovated Masonic Temple building turned into a literary center for readings, a bookstore, a coffee shop, and performance spaces. Crowds for the artists’ public presentations have continued to grow.

    Israel Centeno’s Big Little Idea is called the River of Words. Here’s how it worked:

    Temperance, one of the words chosen in Pittsburgh’s River of Words (Deborah Fallows)

    Centeno chose 100 words, which to him held some special meaning for Pittsburgh and his evolving experience there. Among them were all kinds of words: talent, thought, baseball, temperance, equation, horizon, ginger, nostalgia, fear, plenilunio, God. Then, the residents of the neighborhood were invited to adopt and host a “word in residence” and to display it for the public. The reaction was astonishing. People went crazy, in a good way, claiming their words. “Vortex! I must have vortex!” cried one.

    A graphic artist, Carolina Arnal, and Gisela Romero, a graphic designer and visual artist, fabricated and affixed the words, from bold to lightly conspicuous, sometimes on a garden gate, by the front door, near a window.

    What began as a temporary installation in 2014 remains, as residents refused to give up their words. Henry Reese told me that only a few are gone, and those because the owners moved and took the words with them. When Jim and I returned early on after the installations, we prowled around looking for the words, wondering each time we found one about the backstory of the word and the owners.

    Now there is a map to follow for some of the words, which reminded me of the Map of the Stars near Hollywood.

    Hosts of the words tell stories about the installations, and how curious neighbors came out of their houses to watch, and ended up asking for their own words to adopt. They talk about how the words help create an identity for the community and to share that story with anyone who happens by. Sometimes, I daresay, they puzzle, which makes people stop, think, and discuss.

    City of Asylum's jazz-poetry concert (Courtesy of Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo / ArtPlace America)

    We all know the power of words. They can please or hurt; indict or free; validate, disarm, declare, symbolize, obfuscate, or clarify. Sometimes they can’t be translated, so we borrow them from one language into another. Sometimes they are used incorrectly, out of ignorance or for effect. They can stand for much more than their size alone, especially single words, or short phrases. Their meanings can grow and shrink over time. Sometimes we make them up when we need them for inventions or marketing. Some catch on. Others go out of fashion or disappear. Their pronunciations change; their versions change within their grammars or social mores. Alphabets change. What have I overlooked?

    River of Words may do all these things. It also marks a moment in time in the history of this community on the North Side of Pittsburgh, which is something the residents there seem to appreciate and acknowledge. That is a lot to say about 100 words.

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  • A Big Little Idea From Nashville

    The Nashville Public Library
    The Nashville Public Library Wangkun Jia / Shutterstock

    During our travels visiting towns and cities across the country for American Futures and now Our Towns, Jim Fallows (my husband) and I have encountered story after story of short, sweet initiatives that we have begun referring to, fondly, as Big Little Ideas. The ideas usually started from sparks somewhere in the community—maybe from a teacher or newspaper reporter, a librarian or rec-center staffer, a young entrepreneur, a city worker, a lawyer, an artist, or a neighborhood parent. Everyman or Everywoman.

    The ideas might be for a way to seize an opportunity, solve a problem, suggest a collaboration, or enhance a service. They are simple: the kind of thing that once you hear about it, you’re likely to say “Of course!” or “Why didn’t I think of that?!”

    The background issues these are addressing are not always grandiose, like climate change. But they have far-reaching, positive potential. They don’t require gearing up teams and processes. You can “try this at home” and be likely to replicate it much more easily than you could a lab experiment.

    We would like to share these Big Little Ideas, starting here, in a series we’ll call, yup, Big Little Ideas. We hope you like them, will be inspired by them, copy them, and will send us information about the Big Little Ideas that you’ve seen as successes (or even failures) in your hometown. Please email us here: ourtowns@theatlantic.com.


    In 2009, the Nashville Public Library (NPL) and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools (MNPS), inspired by then-Mayor Karl Dean, began a collaboration whereby student-ID cards double as library cards. Every student from grades 3–12 in the MNPS system automatically owns a card to the public library. Teachers do too. They call the project Limitless Libraries. (An aside: When I asked Mayor Dean about the idea, he immediately pointed out that this was a team effort, not just his. He was that kind of mayor.)

    What did this idea mean? First, the compulsory student ID placed the public library on the radar of every student in Nashville—surprising new terrain for many students and their families. It also put access to the library’s (age-appropriate) holdings and programming easily into the hands of the students, flattening any bumps that lay between students and resources. Students (and teachers) can request material from the library to be delivered and returned to their school library, where they study or work every day. The collaboration also moved school libraries into a bigger, more powerful citywide system, making it easier and less expensive to purchase their own materials.

    Has it worked? The NPL system has purchased more than $7 million of materials for the school system, and provided schools with borrowable technology like laptops and iPads, and even 3-D printers. It has also introduced $4 million worth of architectural changes into school libraries, modernizing them into state-of-the-art areas for reading, collaborating, and maker-spaces. The idea moved from a pilot program in 2009 to all MNPS school libraries by 2017. In the 2017–18 school year, the program served more than 90,000 students, teachers, and librarians and saved MNPS half a million dollars.

    In 2015, Barack Obama’s administration launched a program that quickly got library cards to more than 1 million students in 60 communities. It was called the ConnectED Library Challenge. You can read all the details of this nationwide effort, plus a how-to guide, here.

    The program has grown to more than 100 libraries and is called the Leaders Library Card Challenge, led by the Urban Libraries Council and supported by the Institute of Museum and Library Services. You can read about it here.

    One of the beauties of this Big Little Idea is that communities can tailor their efforts to their own wants and needs. For example, in 2014 Chattanooga eliminated the library membership fee for Hamilton County residents, making up the shortfall from its city budget. In Denver, the My Denver card includes students’ free use of the city’s rec centers and swimming pools. Milwaukee linked school IDs to virtual library cards, eliminating the need for physical cards for library use. Many libraries are eliminating late fees for students’ overdue books or giving them a way to work off their fines by attending programs or volunteering at the library. Staff from the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, in Ohio, visit every kindergarten in the 22-district school system to sign up kids for a child-only library card.

    And for those who are looking for an even Littler Big Idea, you might take inspiration from the Arkansas teacher and school-bus driver Julie Callison, who stocks her bus with a bucket of books for kids to read during the rides to and from school.

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  • The Library That’s Also an Art Gallery

    The Forsyth County Public Library
    The central library of the Forsyth County Public Library Deborah Fallows

    When it came to planning the new public library for downtown Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the people of the city had a lot to say, from the visionary to the practical. The library should “make an important statement” and “be a place for the public to be together,” Nan La Rosee, the central operations manager of the Forsyth County Public Library, told me during a recent visit.

    She went on to rattle off the wish list of specifics, from meeting spaces, an outdoor place to sit and gather, somewhere to eat, an architecturally significant building, and an art gallery to more seating areas, an atmosphere full of light and spaciousness, and on and on. About a decade earlier, the voters had passed a bond that would provide some $28 million to build the central library, so they were well invested and interested.

    The people’s ideas and more have been realized on a grand scale, with spaces to suit all kinds of activities and meetings and gatherings. I peered into the 290-person auditorium during a screening of Thor: Ragnarok, from the popular Avengers series then being run at the library. I walked by the big glass windows of the 10-person conference room, where a full house of young adults, laptops open, was in animated conversation about something—maybe a class, maybe a civic issue, maybe start-up plans. La Rosee said the always discreet librarians “try not to oversee too much” and strive to strike the right balance so that the meetings have a public connection and are not simply for private profit. After all, she reminded me, “the library was built from taxpayer money.”

    Inside the central library of the Forsyth County Public Library (Deborah Fallows)

    There are three smaller rooms with space for up to four people, one with assistive technology for the visually impaired; a sound-production room; and three more rooms tucked in a back corner of the inviting children’s space for private, supervised meetings among, for example, children, parents, and social workers. The library also has a demonstration kitchen and a computer teaching lab.

    When I asked La Rosee what the public has to say now that the library has been up and running for two years, she said they report back that all these spaces in the new library contribute to the sense that this is a “hub of Winston-Salem in touch with the people” (her emphasis).


    The central library of the Forsyth County Public Library is the main library for the city, but it is also a neighborhood library for a diverse population: those who live in the historic downtown homes, or in factories turned loft space, or in the subsidized housing, or the homeless. Nearly every other library I have visited in the past six years welcomes homeless people who spend their days there. Winston-Salem has addressed its homeless patrons in a creative way. The library was awarded a $150,000 multiyear grant from the state, provided by funds from the Library Services and Technology Act, for staff to learn how to help the homeless with job-readiness strategies and skills, and it hired a permanent peer-support specialist to work with homeless individuals to help them navigate through their often complex set of challenges, from housing and financial assistance to medical services and mental-health counseling.

    The Wi-Fi–enabled outdoor deck at the library (Deborah Fallows)

    New collaborations have happened courtesy of the new space. Wake Forest Baptist Health’s Sticht Center for Healthy Aging and Alzheimer’s Prevention, which is also a neighbor to the library, found the library a great place to reach out to new populations it could serve. It is in the second year of an ongoing series for the senior members of Winston-Salem on “aging well.” The children from the Downtown School, a nearby pre-K–eight magnet school where many parents who work downtown send them, visit the library regularly. Each elementary class visits the library monthly to learn library and research skills, or to get in-depth information for a class project. Older students come as a group for specific projects they are working on. The library is a natural, convenient, safe, and trusted place for seniors and children to try new things and to spend time. These meetings strengthen the texture and empathy of a community in the same way that YMCAs or public recreation spaces or free arts performances do; they provide the opportunity for town residents to simply be in the presence of others with whom they might not cross paths in their everyday lives.

    More perspectives from inside the library (Deborah Fallows)

    When I first walked into the library, I wondered for a moment: Is this an art gallery, or is it a library? The answer is really both. The welcoming open plan, the accommodating wall space, the changing perspectives of the interior you see as you wander from section to section and even floor to floor are a natural invitation to enjoy the library’s permanent collection of art from Ralph Philip Hanes Jr. and many others. Hanes, who was part of a sprawling civic-minded and philanthropic family of Winston-Salem, donated works that include Andrew Wyeth’s Watering Trough. There is much more: a sculpture by Jean René Gauguin, the son of Paul Gauguin, and a very, very large metal sculpture of an open book with the word library engraved in several languages, by the Alabaman Deedee Morrison. The sculpture greets visitors on the front lawn by the main entrance.

    Deedee Morrison’s sculpture Library (Courtesy of Fam Brownlee / Forsyth County Public Library)

    The stewardship of the library’s art struck me as both serious and fun. As for serious, the library cleaned and restored the Hanes collection before placement in its new home. As for fun, on the afternoon that I wandered in, La Rosee was just heading out to pick up more art pieces that people had donated to the library. The way she said it, when she kindly delayed her departure to talk with me, gave me the sense that this particular kind of (pleasant) errand occurred frequently.

    Another surprise is the North Carolina Room, described by La Rosee as the “crown jewel” of North Carolina historical and genealogical collections. There is a photograph collection from the region that dates back to the late 19th century; a map collection; the ever popular genealogy section; historical legal information; newspaper archives; travel, culture and folklore holdings; and on and on. You could spend days, months inside this room.

    Looking into the North Carolina Room (Deborah Fallows)

    On the technology side, Winston-Salem installed more than five dozen computers for public use, two dozen more used for training new users, seniors, or those seeking to upgrade tech skills for possible new jobs; for Spanish speakers; and with technology for those with disabilities. And looking ahead to the day when more users will bring in their own laptop rather than use the ones at the library (a planning notion that other libraries have mentioned to me as well ), the library has made plenty of room for empty table workspace with plenty of charging stations.

    Winston-Salem’s maker space is modest compared with those I’ve seen in many other towns, like Brownsville, Texas, and my hometown of Washington, D.C., which have lots of computer-assisted technologies like 3-D printers and laser cutters. Others have maker spaces like the one I saw in Dodge City, Kansas, which rely on donated equipment like sewing machines and basement-shop tools. The one in Winston-Salem has a modest collection of hardware, 3-D printers, and sewing machines, but La Rosee described it as more of a space for “making and doing” sessions and teaching.

    If you’re interested to follow the latest research on how people use libraries, how they value their local libraries, and some of the changing trends in libraries and library use, please go to the Pew Research Center’s collection of surveys and reports. (For the record: I worked at the Pew Research Center’s Internet Project in the early 2000s.)

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  • The Surprising Rural Health-Care Legacy of the ’60s

    A country road with "Good Health" written on it in block letters
    Gustavo Frazao via Shutterstock

    Of the many challenges for America’s rural communities, near the top of the list is access to health care. Rural clinics and hospitals are closing across the nation. When they close, it’s hard for younger families, and older residents, to stay in town—and harder to attract new businesses, or attract replacements for the doctors, nurses, and other health-care workers who may be retiring from their practices or just leaving town.

    Previously we’ve reported on the realities of smaller-town and rural health care in Brownsville, Texas, and Ajo, Arizona. This is a report from the smallest city we have visited in our travels, in spectacularly beautiful though remote far Down East Maine.


    Today’s health care in Eastport, Maine, traces its roots back to Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty and the establishment of the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO). In this, it is like a large number of other small communities across the country. Just as today’s libraries bear the century-old imprint of Andrew Carnegie, and many of today’s post offices and other public buildings are legacies of construction and mural-painting efforts launched during the Great Depression by Franklin D. Roosevelt, today’s remaining rural clinics are, in many cases, the effects of an initiative launched 50 years ago. Along with other OEO initiatives, such as Job Corps, VISTA, and Head Start, that remain to this day, this rural-health initiative has shaped the primary health care in poor or underserved areas long since it was started.

    Back in the 1960s, enter a young medical doctor and civil-rights activist with a vision. This was H. Jack Geiger, who had spent time in South Africa during medical school and had seen the positive impact that the community health-care model had in the very poor area of Pholela. Later, back in the United States, he spent time in the Mississippi Delta for the Freedom Summer project of 1964 as field coordinator for the Medical Committee for Human Rights.

    When he returned to Boston, Geiger connected his observations in South Africa and the Mississippi Delta. Along with a colleague, Count Gibson, Geiger proposed to the OEO to try out what he had learned by starting two experimental, community-based health-care programs, one in Boston’s Columbia Point housing project and the other in the Mississippi Delta. Eventually, these became models for the roughly 1,400 Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHC) that serve more than 28 million people around the U.S. today.

    During our travels for American Futures and Our Towns reporting, my husband, Jim, and I visited two examples of these community-based health centers: Desert Senita Community Health Center in Ajo, Arizona, and the Rowland B. French Medical Center in Eastport, Maine.

    Their FQHC designation is a godsend for rural health-care centers. It ensures that the centers will receive, among other things, enhanced reimbursements for patients covered by Medicaid and Medicare, and will offer a sliding scale for those without any coverage. It promises federal malpractice-insurance coverage for providers, extra partnerships for the centers, and more specialist care. Each center is unique in its profile, depending on the community’s needs. For example, the Rowland B. French Medical Center has providers for behavioral health counseling, podiatry, radiology, nephrology, and social support. Desert Senita has a regularly visiting cardiologist and ophthalmologist, a certified Spanish translator, and a special phone line with third-party translators for multiple languages.

  • The Gift of a Public Library

    The Peavey Memorial Library in Eastport, Maine
    The Peavey Memorial Library in Eastport, Maine Courtesy of the Tides Institute & Museum of Art

    Andrew Carnegie was the force of Gilded Age philanthropy behind the building of public libraries. Along with other recognizable names who made their fortune in the late 1800s and early 1900s—Rockefeller, Ford, Mellon, Morgan, Stanford, Harriman, Heinz—Carnegie’s influence endures today largely because of the way he gave away the vast fortune he amassed.

    For about 35 years beginning in 1883, Carnegie donated money from his steelmaking empire (which became U.S. Steel) to build nearly 1,700 libraries around the country and another 800 around other parts of the world. He was careful about his “formula” for agreeing to construct the commanding, elegant buildings, a formula whose elements remain fundamental in the basic operations and democratic spirit of public libraries today. The libraries were required, among other things, to support staff and maintenance, to gather at least some of their funding from public sources, and to be open and free to the public to use.

    It has been stunning to see the physical and spiritual legacy of Carnegie libraries—large and small—as we have visited more than 50 towns around the country for our Our Towns reporting project. It has been inspiring to bear witness to how libraries have evolved from the simple idea of serving the wants and needs of the public to becoming crucial, essential public institutions of communities in this modern era.

    Around the turn of the 20th century in Columbus, Ohio, an audacious city librarian named John Pugh hopped the train for New York to knock on Carnegie’s door, and—appealing to their shared Celtic background— charmed Carnegie into donating $200,000 for the construction of the imposing granite and marble main library in downtown Columbus. Today the building has been newly renovated and expanded, retaining its original main building and entry, where the words OPEN TO ALL are carved in granite over the door. From the library’s main reading room, you can look out the two-story glass windows onto the seven acres of topiary park with more than 200 different types of trees.

    The Carnegie Center for the Arts in Dodge City, Kansas (Courtesy of the Carnegie Center for the Arts)

    In Dodge City, Kansas, a small but distinguished group of residents, inspired by the town’s women’s club, appealed to Carnegie in 1905 for support to build their public library, as he had previously done for five other towns in Kansas. He gave them $7,500, and they agreed to ante 10 percent of that sum annually to maintain it. The town’s population grew and eventually outgrew the small library. Today it is home to the Carnegie Center for the Arts.

  • Flying Down East

    The view from our plane this week, headed to Maine
    The view from our plane this week, headed to Maine Deborah Fallows

    We were flying away from Washington D.C. again, leaving the Sturm und Drang of our hometown in early August for a point nearly as far east on the U.S. map as one can get. It is “Down East,” in the vernacular of Maine, and the town of Eastport, where residents say the sun first rises over the United States, as does the moon, which gets far too little attention.

    James Fallows, banking the Steel Edition Cirrus SR-22 en route to Eastport (Deborah Fallows)

    In Eastport, it is difficult to rise before the fishermen do; they are often out by dawn, returning with a catch before most of us see the sun, and then they head to the local Waco Diner, which is ready for them with bacon and coffee.

    Close in to shore this morning, seagulls cry back and forth to each other. Winches lower lobster traps onto boats for setting in the bay. A few townspeople arrive at the new town pier in pickups stocked with their fishing gear. They cast their lines some six feet down from the pier to the water at high tide, and as much as 25 at low tide. The tidal difference is greatest when the moon is full, as it is now. I watched the fishermen catching mackerel, smelt, and herring for their dinner tables.

    The port’s pilot boat glides silently offshore; I know a big ship is scheduled to arrive at the port this week, maybe like the Industrial Ruby, which came and went last week, loaded up with wood pulp for China. It’s a Dutch-built and -owned ship, registered in Liberia, with Russian and Ukrainian officers and a Filipino crew.

    Looking at the piers of Eastport (Deborah Fallows)

    Many elements in Eastport help you touch the whole world, in a hugely romantic way rather than the fearing and dark way in which many elements in our hometown touch the world. Ships heading for China; evening flights departing the east coast for early arrivals in London or maybe Paris, their lights flickering and their huge jet engines barely whispering in our ears.

    Canada is right across the water; from Eastport, you see the island of Campobello, where Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt spent summers with their family. Within a few days in August of 1921, FDR contracted a sudden series of symptoms that were finally diagnosed as polio. Eventually, he was ferried across the water to Eastport, and taken by train to New York. His dark-red house with the dark-green roof, surprisingly comfortably rambling, still stands at the top of lawns that slope down to the water. His small sailboat sits dry on the lawn. The trains have long since gone away.

    Downtown Eastport this week, from its pier (James Fallows)

    On land, workers are hammering at Eastport’s 1887 Masonic Block, owned by the Tides Institute, replacing the crumbling wood beams with monstrous steel ones to keep the building standing for two centuries more, at least. It’s worth the trouble to be sure that the west side of Water Street remains solid with its row of red brick buildings.

    New steel beams going into the Masonic Block (Deborah Fallows)

    Just uphill is the Peavey Memorial Library, which desperately needs some attention like the Masonic Block is getting so that more of Peavey’s bricks don’t crumble. Like many other public libraries, they are looking every which way to find the funds for this. There was a music festival behind the library all weekend, free but for library donations. There’s a thermometer drawn on a poster out front marking donations rising like degrees, and according to the Quoddy Tides, Eastport’s biweekly paper, a grant writer from Bangor, Maine, has been hired to seek money from outside Eastport.

  • A Public Library of, by, and for the People

    Murals of teenagers on the wall of the teen space in the Brownsville Public Library's main branch
    Murals on the wall of the teen space in the Brownsville Public Library's main branch Courtesy of Deborah Fallows

    The public library system in Brownsville, Texas, has a long history of inventing and then reinventing itself to be of, by, and for the people. The library story began modestly at the end of the 19th century, with the personal collection of Irish-born U.S. Army Captain William Kelly, who had settled in Brownsville and become a renowned businessman, proponent of Brownsville’s first public schools, and a civic activist. His daughter Geraldine recollected later in the Brownsville Herald, “He had a very fine library, which he used continually and loved.”

    In 1912, a group of Brownsville’s intellectual and high-minded women calling themselves the Learners Club started the town’s first subscription library. (Other women’s clubs have been promoters of early libraries: In 1905, the women’s club of Dodge City, Kansas, inspired some of its prominent citizens to ask Andrew Carnegie if he would support building one of his libraries in Dodge City. He did.)

    A decade and a half later, the Learners Club and the city teamed up to transform the Brownsville subscription library into a public library in a larger space. It moved a few more times over the next decades, before partnering with Texas Southmost College and locating the public library on its campus. There they stayed until 1991.

    Then, with the city’s support, the Brownsville public library pivoted toward its modern era.

    Jerry Hedgecock, who has been with Brownsville libraries since 1993 and is now the director of the Public Information Services Department in Brownsville, described to me how the library was able to start back in the 1990s, in effect from scratch, with the driving mission to make the library a go-to destination for the residents of Brownsville. They erected a new building and ushered in new ideas and new programs.

    The Brownsville Public Library’s main branch (Courtesy of Deborah Fallows)

    After some early years, which Hedgecock described as, “to be honest, very boring,” they prepared to change emphasis so as to offer more services. It was all about being relevant to the community, he said: “What do the people want? What do we want?”

    Library plans were farsighted; they were creative and intended to reflect the culture of the town and region; and they were executed efficiently and also patiently, adding projects piecemeal, year by year. With a line item in the municipal budget supporting them ($4.8 million in 2019), a library foundation that contributes to capital projects, and the still vital Learners Club and a Friends group pitching in, the library evolved.

    End panels on bookshelves of the Brownsville Public Library (Courtesy of Deborah Fallows)

    One year, old wallpaper was removed. Another year, end panels with blown-up photos of important images of the region were affixed to the rows of bookshelves. To be both efficient and personalized, the library created a graphics department to make their own artwork, with double wins of being less expensive and more Brownsville-personal than what was available from generic catalogs.

    Computers at the Brownsville Public Library (Courtesy of Deborah Fallows)

    The library currently owns and makes available to users 259 computers, as online access is critical to this community. But the library’s leaders expect that as more people become able to afford their own computers, the need will ratchet down, and the library will switch some of the computer space to suit different needs.

    As with every other library I visited, use of space was a top concern. (This is despite the common impression that libraries must have lots of extra space, as some reduce their holdings of physical books.) Even in Texas, where the size and scale of everything from ranches to libraries feels vast, Hedgecock says that space in the library is tight, and they pay close attention to how they use every nook and cranny.

    The “maker space” holds eight 3D printers, and there are plans for laser cutters and more.

    The “maker space” at the Brownsville Public Library (Courtesy of Deborah Fallows)

    Maybe they’ll build a tool bank, suggested Hedgecock, an area that would be stocked with devices and equipment to meet the expanding skill sets of their population. Being nimble and responsive to the population and their changing needs is critical. “Without new services,” Hedgecock said, “we won’t be relevant to the community. We can’t be complacent.”

    The library took over the local-government access television channel, whose studio is housed inside the building. The public was delighted, but became distracted enough by its presence that the station is now out of sight behind unmarked closed doors. There are plans to relocate the station to a newly created municipal department. I found this recording from the station of a live event presented by Texas Monthly in Brownsville this July. This magazine, where my husband, Jim, worked in its founding days in the 1970s, when we were living in Austin while I did my graduate studies at the University of Texas, takes its show on the road around Texas for live 90-minute performances of music, video, reading, and storytelling, curated by the editors. You’ll do yourself a favor to watch this one, where writer Wes Ferguson reads about his return to Brownsville.

  • How a City Talks About Itself: Sioux Falls

    The new 'Arc of Dreams' sculpture over the Big Sioux River in downtown Sioux Falls, South Dakota, in July 2019, shortly before its formal unveiling.
    The new 'Arc of Dreams' sculpture over the Big Sioux River in downtown Sioux Falls, South Dakota, in July 2019, shortly before its formal unveiling. James Fallows / The Atlantic

    In June 2013, my husband, Jim, and I first landed our small, single-engine Cirrus propeller airplane at the main airport, Joe Foss Field, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

    It was the first stop on our American Futures project, and we were excited and a little nervous wondering what we might find—if anything—to explore and write about there.

    We needn’t have worried.

    We learned about the waves of refugees and immigrants, and their children who made up nearly 10 percent of the school system and spoke more than 60 languages. We learned about the John Morrell packing plant, where Muslim women slaughtered pigs all day, keeping the plant in business and establishing an economic beachhead for their families. And the USGS-EROS site, which captured, downloaded, and stored the entire country’s satellite imagery every 90 minutes, day in and day out, over the decades. And Raven Industries, which developed and manufactured precision-agriculture equipment and made balloons for the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade.

    We met nurses who had moved to Sioux Falls from all over the region to study and practice, and with their “Midwest nice” treated us to a beer at the Granite City brewery when they learned it was our anniversary. We rode bikes on the path that circled the city, passing again the airport, the state penitentiary, and downtown area and falls and many fields where the New Americans played soccer.

    Our initial gee whiz reaction to Sioux Falls sprang from the multitude of the town’s endeavors and the loftiness of its citizens’ dreams. How could so much be going on in one town that we had barely heard of before? Little did we know that after visiting 10 or 30 or 50 more towns around the country, we would come to expect similar ventures, or more accurately, local versions of them, as we grew to admire the creative energy that so many Americans poured into their hometowns across the country.


    More than five  years and 100,000 miles later, Sioux Falls became the first city we wrote about in our book, Our Towns. We returned again a few weeks ago with an HBO film crew, for a documentary scheduled to come out next year. With them we wanted to see and document how the town had changed, to revisit some of our favorite places, and to discover new ones.

    Once again in Sioux Falls, we found a more mature, nuanced town. Some early initiatives had come to fruition, like the expanded sculpture walk and the capstone of sculpture, the gallant Arc of Dreams, which soars across the Big Sioux River. Or the additional blocks and blocks of new restaurants, bars, shops, and hip lofts stretching down the main street. Others remained a work in progress. Some problems, opioid addictions above all, were much more front of mind, proof that Sioux Falls was in sync with the rest of America.

    After our first visit in 2013, I made a word cloud of words and phrases that I heard around Sioux Falls that struck me as reflecting the spirit of the city. After our latest visit a few weeks ago, I made another. You can compare and contrast, as college teachers of my generation used to say. Here is the first one:

    Word Cloud of Sioux Falls, from Our Towns (Courtesy of Deborah Fallows)

  • ‘A River, Not a Border’: Report From Brownsville

    From the Brownsville side, the wall. On the other side is the Rio Grande, whose centerline marks the official border between the United States and Mexico in this part of Texas.
    From the Brownsville side, the wall. On the other side is the Rio Grande, whose centerline marks the official border between the United States and Mexico in this part of Texas. James Fallows / The Atlantic

    Brownsville is the southernmost U.S. border town with Mexico, down at the very tip of the map of Texas. Across the Rio Grande is Matamoros. Some 20 miles to the east is the Gulf of Mexico. If you drive 60 miles to the north and west along the Old Military Highway to McAllen, you’ll see stretches of border wall, irregular in their size and design. It was very hot when we were in Brownsville last month. It reminded me of Nanjing, one of the so-called furnaces of China, where the soles of your sneakers sink into the soft tarmac of the roads.

    Elon Musk has built his SpaceX site on the road from Brownsville to the coast. It is an assembly site for now, in a clearing that looks like half moonscape, half desert, with giant, surreal, bright-silvery sections of rocket being welded together. The plan is for rockets to launch from here one day. Just beyond SpaceX, the Boca Chica road fades to sandy coastal beach. It feels like the edge of the Earth.

    Border Patrol agents cruise the highways and roads around Brownsville. One afternoon, as I was driving the highway north from downtown, a silent ambulance cruised by, with a Border Patrol SUV, caked with dust and dried mud, right on its tail. I realized that I didn’t have a clue of all that was really going on in Brownsville.

    At Elon Musk’s SpaceX, near the coast outside Brownsville (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

    Some things about Brownsville are easy to see. The buildings of the downtown—many tattered now, featuring discount goods for the cross-border shopping market in Matamoros—still have great bones, as the architects say, and are waiting for their second chance. Brownsville was too poor to raze those buildings when businesses went dark, an obvious advantage now. (As we have seen elsewhere.)

    Downtown structures with “good bones” on Washington Street in Brownsville (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

    A hip pizza and wine bar called Dodici opened recently in the old Fernandez building downtown. One of the owners is Trey Mendez, a lawyer who was just elected mayor in a runoff contest while we were visiting. The Market Square area is newly renovated, as part of a downtown-revival program under the mayor for the previous eight years, Tony Martinez. Brownsville has an outsize number of museums, including the Historic Brownsville Museum, which is a real gem. The Mitte Cultural District boasts “something for everyone,” with its zoo, pool, pavilions, playhouse, and much more. RJ Mitte (who played Walter White’s son in Breaking Bad) is of that Mitte family, and is carrying on the family philanthropic efforts of his grandfather. Other buildings are works in progress. More are still pipe dreams.

    Sam’s Pool, at the Mitte Cultural District (Courtesy of the Mitte Cultural District board)

    Of course, you cannot miss the border wall. The wall near downtown’s Gateway International Bridge has been there for about 10 years, long enough that the landscaping and vegetation along its river pathway and the Alice Wilson Hope Park on the U.S. side have grown in to looking normal.


    On our first evening in Brownsville, when the heat of the day had subsided a little, Jim and I decided to walk across the International Bridge into Matamoros. How could we not? We had no chance of entering the detention centers that have become so notorious in the Rio Grande Valley and elsewhere along the border. We wanted to have at least a look at the routine daily flow north and south.

    Our crossing was entirely simple and uneventful, of course, just like it is for residents of both Brownsville and Matamoros who cross the bridge daily for school, jobs, shopping, dinners out, or visiting friends and family. (Brownsville’s population is roughly 95 percent Hispanic, and many people have long-standing ties across the border. The interconnectedness of the two cities’ lives is the central theme of an acclaimed recent novel set in Brownsville: Where We Come From, by Oscar Cásares. When we were in town, then-Mayor Martinez gave us a copy of the book.) Along with a small handful of people also making the trip on foot, we deposited four quarters in the turnstile and pushed our way through to Mexico.

    Headed toward the Mexican side of the border on a Sunday late afternoon (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

    I looked up and down the river, assessing it with my swimmer’s eye, thinking how surprisingly narrow and benign it seemed, maybe 50 yards wide. The river was dark and muddy, not in the least inviting, even in the heat. The Rio Grande appeared to have no current. But of course we all know that surface appearances can deceive, as they most certainly did in the horrific episode when Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez of El Salvador and his 2-year-old daughter, Valeria, drowned trying to cross it not far from this spot, a few days after we were there.

    The Rio Grande, between Brownsville and Matamoros (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

    Brownsville residents, who have lived all their life as part of a binational community extended on both sides of the river, have a different sense of the border from those for whom it’s an abstraction. “We don’t think of it as a border,” we heard from so many people that we stopped counting. “We think of it as a river.” I realized that it was just the way those of us who live on the border between Washington, D.C., and Virginia think of the Potomac.

    Beyond these impressions of Brownsville, there are data points that are more quantifiable. This is where the public-health issues come to the forefront, and they are stark. (My thanks to The Atlantic’s Faith Hill for help collecting these data.)

    The foot traffic headed back north across the border, toward Brownsville, on a Sunday evening in June (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

    Some 51 percent of the adult population in the area are obese; an additional 34 percent are overweight.

    Of children 8 to 17 years old, 54 percent are obese, compared with about 33 percent nationally. Joseph McCormick, until just recently the dean of the Brownsville campus of the UTHealth School of Public Health, wrote in an email: “These children have higher BMI, higher waist to hip ratios, higher systolic and diastolic blood pressures, higher triglycerides and LDL (bad cholesterol), lower HDL (good cholesterol); They had higher insulin resistance (a precursor to diabetes), and elevated liver enzymes suggestive of fatty liver disease, a very common problem in our population in adults.”

    Some 27 percent of adults have diabetes, about three times the national level. About one-third of those with diabetes didn’t know they had it before being tested.

    Only 42 percent of Brownsville’s population have some kind of health-care insurance.

    For more positive comparative news, life expectancy in Cameron County, which includes Brownsville, is about 80 years, four years longer than the national average.

    And Texas has one of the country’s lowest rates of death from opioid-involved drug overdoses: 5.1 for every 100,000 people, compared with the national average of 14.6.

    Brownsville is a poor town; nearly 31 percent of the residents live in poverty, 38 percent of children. The median income is $35,000. Some 87 percent of schoolchildren in Cameron County qualify for free or reduced lunch.


    I had lunch one day to talk about these statistics with Rose Zavaletta Gowen, a medical doctor who grew up in Brownsville, trained in Dallas, and returned to practice medicine. She soon turned to public-health advocacy and added a new role as an elected city commissioner. Gowen framed her thinking, advocacy, passion, and action plans for her hometown this way: “We traditionally think we need economic development and education, and we’ll get to health later or afterwards.” She added, “But later may be too late, and putting it off hinders progress in economic development and education as well.”

    Gowen is part of Brownsville’s Community Advisory Board (CAB), a network of more than 200 Brownsville residents and individuals from health-care, education, business, and community groups, and the UTHealth campus, which, with its newly appointed dean of the campus, Belinda Reininger, has been key in the founding and support of CAB. All together, they are pushing toward building a healthier population and lifestyle, in a very Brownsville-specific way.

    A map of Brownsville’s ambitious hike-and-bike-trail network, part of an effort to promote fitness (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

    Every community we have visited for our American Futures project and our subsequent book, Our Towns, has focused on the “local” as its guide and frame for plans and actions. In Brownsville, that eye on local seemed to us as compelling and powerful as in any other community we have seen, and maybe even more so. Sometimes “local” means a focus on physical assets, or geography, or demographics, or industry. In Brownsville, as we listened to citizens talk, “local” seemed to be mainly about culture.

    The culture of Brownsville was the backdrop to their master plan for health and wellness—and many other town issues. “We are fighters. We stand by our family. We are proud. We may be poor, but we do not think of ourselves as just poor. We think of ourselves as blessed to have our families, customs, and region surrounding us.” And Gowen added in talking about outsiders’ impressions of Brownsville, “You don’t hear that on the news.”

    Those traits translated into action. Brownsville is not looking or waiting for top-down solutions and proclamations. Members of its community decided to: make local-government regulations that support their goals. Get smart about seeking funding, from the government, foundations, and nonprofits. Not let rebuffs from big funding stop them; take it step by step; and find corners to improve. Educate the public and brand the message “Health and wellness.” Become a model for success.

    This kind of positive, panoramic, inclusive approach is one we’ve seen in niche initiatives and big plans in many of the towns we’ve visited. Libraries in Bend, Oregon. Arts and entrepreneurship in Fresno. Education in Greenville. Downtowns and Main Streets everywhere. Workforce training and new industry in Mississippi’s Golden Triangle. The entire town of Eastport, Maine.

    The restored Market Square in downtown Brownsville (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

    Through its many initiatives, the Brownsville Wellness Coalition is all about healthy food and healthy bodies.The Community Gardens program teaches gardening classes and distributes free transplants and compost. Five gardens hold nearly 200 beds.

    People can buy produce from the weekly farmers’ market with cash or with vouchers from federally subsidized programs such as SNAP, WIC, and the Farm Fresh Voucher program, especially important in this low-income town. Plans are under way through a coalition of funders to renovate an old town cannery, the Gutierrez Warehouse, into a permanent home for the farmers’ market. When finished, the Quonset hut plans also call for accommodating a food bank and a “kitchen incubator” with a commercial kitchen for small food businesses. And for those who can’t get to the farmers’ market, the Fresco Mobile Market food trucks may come to them.

    The Happy Kitchen/La Cocina Alegre holds classes on nutrition, food preparation, and healthy eating.

    And for the bodies, the Wellness Coalition sponsors a walking-group program, the Walking Club, with motivational support and progress tracking.

    An annual challenge program organized by the city and the UTHealth School of Public Health, and drawing help from local gyms, nutritionists, trainers, and other experts, encourages not only weight loss, but also sustainable lifestyle changes toward better health. Nearly 7,500 people participated in the three-month program this year.

    The monthly CycloBia closes some Brownsville streets to cars and opens them to the 10,000 participating residents to walk, bike, skateboard, skate, and run.

    (Courtesy of CycloBia and the city of Brownsville)

    And for the timid, who may be the most reluctant to begin, the UTHealth School of Public Health has prepared online resources, Tu Salud Si Cuenta, where people can tiptoe into exercise and healthy eating and weight loss privately and solo. I found the stories poignant, and brave, and ended up rooting for them.

    Brownsville is also part of a multiuse-trail program (bikes! paddling! hiking!) throughout the lower Rio Grande Valley that will link several towns, beaches, preserves, waterways, and cultural sites over 400-plus miles, incorporating as well a dream of tourism potential.

    Is any of this working? According to McCormick, the rates of obesity and diabetes have dropped about 3 to 4 percent in Brownsville in about the past five years.

    Abraham Avila outside his 1848 BBQ. He regularly runs along the city hike-and-bike trail that goes right past his restaurant. (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

    Trails through downtown Brownsville already give lots of folks options for daily commutes to school or work or, as in our case, a visit to 1848 BBQ, a slow-cook barbecue named for the year Brownsville was founded. As one who spent about five years living in Austin and got my graduate degree from the University of Texas, I feel that my Texas bona fides and palate entitle me to shout out Abraham Avila, the chef of 1848. Yeah, lots of calories, but sitting right on a hike-and-bike trail, you can worry about working it off later. It’s worth it.

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