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.
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.
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.
Learning the ropes in the maker space at the Washington, D.C., Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library. The library is currently under renovation.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The archives in the Birmingham, Alabama, public library basement will send a chill up your spine. If you are fortunate, you can see the historic collection of references to MLK Jr., whose Letter from the Birmingham Jail was written just blocks away and first appeared in The Atlantic. The librarian showed me among other holdings, the registry of the jail that recorded when MLK was booked into the jail.
The Winston-Salem public library is renowned for its art collection and its South Carolina room. Here is a glimpse of it.
Signs for early voting at the Brownsville, Texas, public library:
Everyone loves to eat, even at the library. More and more libraries are including coffee shops and dining areas inside the library. Here’s one in the main Brownsville, Texas, library.
Libraries for the public come in many shapes and forms, from traditional bookmobiles, to pop-up park libraries, where librarians in Wichita told me many people stop by during their lunch hours. During the summer months in Minnesota, floating libraries lend books in watertight bags to boaters who boat by.
There are now over 90,000 Little Free Libraries around the world. We have spotted hundreds around the U.S. This one is in Volta Park in Georgetown, Washington D.C.
Here’s a Little Free Library outside Janney Elementary School in the Tenleytown area of Washington D.C., and just next door to the Tenleytown branch of the Washington, D.C., public library system.
A Little Free Library in Garden City, Kansas:
Libraries of a sort—take a book, leave a book—are convenient for travelers looking for a last-minute plane read. This one is at the entrance to the old concourse leading to United Airlines flights in Washington, D.C.’s Reagan National Airport.
In Redmond, Oregon, the Deschutes Public Library sponsors this airport library:
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.
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.
A former Walmart has been transformed into the new and spacious McAllen Texas 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 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.
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.
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.
The State Library of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia:
The reading room in the New South Wales public library in Sydney, Australia:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Seliena Coyle undertook a “selfie” project where community members took and developed self-portraits using pinhole cameras and a makeshift darkroom.
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, 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.
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.
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 washipaper-making technique.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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]
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:
The Dual School is a program that supplements a school curriculum, to help students identify an issue important to them, and to act on it in a way having a positive impact in the community or world around them.
Four Youth Productions is an organization that develops programs to encourage, inspire, and train young folks in hands-on ways. In this case, the program is about photography.
The Delaware Community Foundation (DCF), whose mission is to help build strong communities around the state, was a catalyst and supporter for the entire program. For the record: Jim Fallows and I learned about the Our Lens Challenge when we spoke recently in Wilmington at the invitation of the DCF.
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 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
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:
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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: email@example.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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
During my visit last month to the Eastport center, I noticed a language, spirit, and way of operating that reminded me, surprisingly, of what I had heard so frequently in public libraries around the country. As for libraries, when Andrew Carnegie donated funds to help build nearly 1,700 public libraries, he required that the towns he supported demonstrate a need for a library; that the towns invest some of their own funds in the present or future operations of the library; and that the library serve all the people. Today’s public libraries, Carnegie-built or not, reflect the mission of serving the public in this democratic way.
The community health centers, like Eastport’s, strike similar chords: The centers are built in underserved communities; they require majority local representation in their governing and decisions; and they are committed to serving everyone, regardless of ability to pay. Not precisely the same as Carnegie’s libraries, but eerily similar in terms of being locally driven and serving the needs of all residents in a democratic way. As Holly Gartmayer-DeYoung, the CEO of Eastport Health Care Inc., which includes the Rowland B. French Medical Center, put it to me, we are here to “understand and heartfully serve the community.”
Eastport Health Care (EHC) serves Washington County, Maine, in its three center locations in Eastport and the neighboring towns of Machias and Calais. What does the health profile of the region look like, and how does EHC answer to the region’s needs?
By most statistical measures, it looks bad. The health profile of Washington County, which includes Eastport, Machias, and Calais, is low even by Maine’s standards. Washington County ranks 15th of 16 counties in Maine in a composite measure of “Health Factors,” which is made up of health-related behaviors (such as tobacco, alcohol, and physical activity), access to care, socioeconomic factors (some 20 percent of Washington County residents live in poverty), and the physical environment (a subcategory in which beautiful, quiet, remote Washington County ranks No. 2).
Washington County ranks 16th of 16 in Maine for “Health Outcomes,” which includes measures of length of life and quality of life. (I would point out that quality-of-life measures don’t include personal safety: On our first night in Eastport, Jim and I locked ourselves out of our apartment. We hung out with the neighbors next door until someone could be found to hunt for a key. We learned our lesson: Never lock your door.)
With such a profile, where is EHC and its citizen board to start? Perhaps with the bad news. Here is a list in descending order that EHC decided were its major health needs to tackle: the opioid epidemic, diabetes, hypertension, obesity, food or heat insecurity (it’s cold in Maine), and mental health.
Now on to the good news. Here are some of EHC’s creative ideas for plans and solutions to their most pressing problems:
What can we do to mitigate travel issues?
Washington County, with a population just shy of 32,000 residents, is twice the size of Rhode Island in square miles. That can translate into an hour’s drive to a clinic, or two or three hours to visit a specialist or for routine care for kids’ health, such as eye exams, glasses, the dentist, and orthodontia. Women in Eastport drive about 44 miles to Machias for prenatal services. For situations that require frequent, regular access to ongoing treatments, such as chemotherapy, the distances to travel can become simply untenable. When I expressed my chagrin at the idea of such distances, Gartmayer-DeYoung said with a this-is-Maine tone, “People get used to the drive.”
Without a miracle cure of close proximity to all care, one way the EHC eases the complex logistics of health care is with a “patient-navigator,” someone to manage the pieces: finding specialist help, arranging appointments, organizing transportation, managing overnight stays and last-mile transit, tracking and coordinating multiple issues, and helping identify and coordinate access to food, housing, utilities, etc. EHC has a full-time patient-navigator and has trained all staff to either help directly or be aware of all their patients’ needs.
How can we help an aging population?
Eastport’s population has declined from 5,000 in its early-20th-century sardine-canning heyday to 1,331 in 2010, to 1,259 in 2018. There are a lot of retirees, and they are not necessarily wealthy. The median resident age is 54, compared with 45 in Maine overall (chronically among the oldest in the United States). At Shead High School in Eastport, the total student population when I visited in 2013 was 110; this year it is 94.
Some solutions are simple and inexpensive, and carry a punch. Focused on safety, Eastport has begun programs to install grab bars and smoke detectors in homes with elderly residents. It also brings caregivers into the equation with an ID bracelet to register them with police and EMS as go-to contacts to facilitate quick, effective, connected responses for the vulnerable individuals they serve.
In a double win to help the elderly get around and improve their overall well-being, Eastport has created plans to improve sidewalks, install street lighting and crosswalks, put safety rails along steep inclines, and place benches for people to stop and rest.
How do we attract staff to the rural health centers?
Retention at Eastport Health Care is not a big issue. Of the currently fully staffed 52 employees at EHC, some 58 percent have been there for at least five years, 25 percent for 10 years.
But there are gaps. One of the two dentists moved west. The center would like a specialist in diabetes. Gartmayer-DeYoung worries about how to replace primary-care providers when they retire. Furthermore, she is concerned about finding her own replacement when she will soon retire for health reasons.
In remote areas, and with harsh climates, attracting new staff to replace or add to the roster can be challenging. Gartmayer-DeYoung believes that a successful solution must start with awareness of the strong local culture. Mainers are, well, famously Mainers. Straightforward, proud of their heritage, understated, no-nonsense, leaning on one another. Gartmayer-DeYoung says it would help to embed that cultural knowledge into the medical training for all those who are part of the region’s health ecology: students, doctors, pharmacists, dentists, et al.
EHC has placed a cultural-immersion component into local training programs, and two professionals have chosen to settle in Washington County so far because of it. A dozen more of the 50 participating graduate students stay connected with Eastport as they continue their training. The outlook for maintaining the culture of the clinic as well is long-term: “We have built a lot of trust. We see it as a stewardship,” says Gartmayer-DeYoung.
How can we keep the young people around and offer them hope for careers?
Many people in Eastport and other towns around the country are worried about this issue. In a long-term bet, the EHC board has initiated scholarship programs. “This translates into hope,” says Gartmayer-DeYoung. Along with initiatives for boosting training in health-related fields, this could lead to strong future staffing in the health center, related fields, and a broader base for regional employment in general. Since 2008, EHC has supported 58 high-school students with more than $100,000 in scholarships and supported community-college students on health-care professional tracks, as well as staff seeking to advance their skill sets.
We have visited Eastport several times over the past six years. As part of our habit to try to keep fit while traveling, I have gone in search of exercise options in Eastport each time. Success has been elusive: The closest swimming (my go-to exercise at YMCAs and public pools) is at least 30 minutes away in Calais. Water, water everywhere, but the water was 58 degrees in the Bay of Fundy this August. No gym. No track. No rental bikes to be found. This was a short-term challenge for me, but a long-term challenge for the residents of Eastport.
As for solutions, EHC has knocked on the door of the school to access its gym for walking, and hopes this option could become a catalyst for the community. Besides extending sidewalks for all walkers, EHC hopes to extend the trails from the old railroad lines for more ambitious walkers and bikers.
It has developed collaborations—for example, with the Cancer Support Center of Maine.
It has created Community Circles, groups to build citizens’-support networks, tackling topics such as hospice care, senior needs, integrated behavior health, LGBTQ needs, recovery support for addiction, teens helping teens, understanding Alzheimer’s disease, health and wellness, food insecurity, strategic planning, governance and leadership training, and more.
Summing up the state of play in Eastport’s health-care world today, Holly Gartmayer-DeYoung says, “We are hardy people. But sometimes overwhelmed.”
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.
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.
Carnegie wasn’t the only one with visions for public libraries. I visited at least two libraries in other towns with lesser-known patrons from the same era who built libraries in the same spirit.
In Redlands, California, Albert and Alfred Smiley, twin transplants from back East like many other early Redlanders, helped develop this paradise of an orange-growing town. So strongly did Albert believe in the institution of the public library that he personally borrowed money to build the town’s public library. He then enticed his good friend Andrew Carnegie to travel to Redlands to see the library himself. During his visit in 1910, Carnegie offered these touching remarks about Smiley and the library:
Before giving libraries, I waited until I had this useless dross that men call money, because it is useless until it is put to some good use, and he could not wait. His love for the cause impelled him to give, and he actually borrowed money—borrowed the money, I say, to build this magnificent structure.
The Peavey Memorial Library in Eastport, Maine, has a story, too: not a Carnegie story, but one that is romantic and similar in its origin. In the late 1800s, Frank Peavey, a native Eastporter, built a library in honor of his father, Albert Peavey, who was born in Eastport and died there at just 35 years old, when Frank was only 9. Frank moved from Maine to the Midwest as a very young man, where he built a fortune in the grain industry. He invested in railroads and lake steamers, and also invented the first circular concrete grain elevator in the U.S. Peavey followed a kind of Carnegie model, with a twist. He built the library in Eastport on the condition that the residents of the town would stock it with 5,000 of their own books.
The library is a deep-red brick one-story building, designed in the Romanesque Revival style. Its main reading room, with a rounded bay on one end, looked to me like its best season would be winter, when people could sit, warm and cozy, reading newspapers or books. There is a collection of dictionaries along one wall of the room, including the massive 1,200-page Passamaquoddy-Maliseet-English Dictionary. It was published in 2008 and still stood proudly on a pedestal the first time I visited, in 2013. Today it remains on display in the reading room, looking a little more thumbed through.
Apart from the original entry and small room of the stacks of books, and an adjacent room with archives of Maine and maritime memorabilia, there is an addition for the children’s room, which doubles as the activities and programs room for the library.
When we visited Eastport this summer, I went to a program featuring one of the Tides Institute’s artists in residence, Ada Cruz, demonstrating gyotaku printmaking. Gyotaku? Imagine the equivalent of brass-rubbing of a fish. The room strained to hold the crowd, full of people eager to try a hand. Some of the overflow like me spilled outdoors to the book sale, where books were stacked in watertight rubber bins on tables in the backyard.
As for the rest of the programming, Dana Chevalier, the library’s director, says that it’s important for it to organize activities to get a lot of bang for its buck. It tries to be democratic (as libraries are!), integrating programs for young and old alike. The summer list of activities was chockablock and creative. In the high season of summer, when Eastport serves many tourists and summer residents as well as the year-round population, it had organized programs of paper cutting, gardening for health, rock painting, jewelry making, author talks, poetry, tote-bag stenciling, seaweed printmaking, chess, marbleized painting, paper beads, talk about vaping, astronomy, faux stained-glass windows, and home coffee roasting, to name a few.
Eastport is not a wealthy town. And it is small, only about 1,300 year-round residents. That makes for challenges for the library, which operates on a lean budget. Chevalier is the only full-time employee. There is another part-time employee and a corps of loyal volunteers.
As in most public libraries, the computers and internet are crucial to this community. Many people in Eastport can’t afford computers and can’t afford high-speed internet connection. The Pew Research Center reports that for residents of rural areas (like Eastport), access to home broadband is much lower than for non-rural Americans. Some 58 percent of rural Americans subscribe to home broadband, compared with about 70 percent of urban and suburban residents. This is not just a data point for Eastport, explains Chevalier. “It is a reality for them.”
The most serious problem for the library now is its infrastructure: a damaged roof, some crumbling bricks, and problems around the main front entry.
The library is responding on many fronts to raise the money for the fixes. On the weekend we were there, a free music festival in the library’s backyard attracted lots of residents and tourists, who donated their dollars, which will be matched equally by a generous donor. The plywood thermometer sign in front of the library was at $10,000 when we arrived, and at $20,000 a week later. That was still a long way to go to the fundraising goal, which currently stands at about $640,000. The library also recently hired a grant writer from Bangor to see what it might win from outside the town.
I frequently stumble upon a surprise or two at the libraries I visit. In Eastport, the surprise was a young man named Andrew Wach, who was at the front desk on one of the days I stopped in. Andrew, who grew up in Miami, is stationed in this way-down-east town on a four-year tour of duty with the Coast Guard. He told me that he and the others are encouraged to participate in the town, so they sometimes come over to help move heavy things around in the library. Andrew, a boatswain’s mate, is taking this several steps further. He’s thinking of going to library school when he finishes with the Coast Guard, he said, and he is volunteering at the library regularly now as a way to see and test out the realities of library work for himself.
My husband, Jim, keeps writing that the United States is in the middle of a second Gilded Age, parallel to the half century that followed the American Civil War. Now, as then, technology is creating huge new fortunes, while disrupting or destroying long-established businesses. Now, as then, migration within the country and around the world is rapidly changing communities. Now, as then, national-level politics is struggling (and usually failing) to keep up with events.
One of the outcomes of that era, he also keeps pointing out, is that it eventually triggered many broad waves of reform—in women’s suffrage, through the labor movement, in good-government efforts, in the struggle for civil rights for African Americans and other minorities. And even before that, it spawned the generation of philanthropists, led by Andrew Carnegie, who resolved to use some of their wealth to address the most acute problems of that age.
I wish the Eastport library, Andrew Wach, and the librarians of the future well. And I hope they and their counterparts around the country attract the attention of this era’s potential Carnegies.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Getting to Eastport from just about anywhere requires some planning and purpose. For us, it was easier than for most others. In a Cirrus, it takes about three and a half hours from D.C., which seems miraculous compared with some 14 hours of driving. We are immensely grateful for this plane.
It was a very warm and beautiful Friday afternoon to fly. From a view of 2,500 feet above the ground, everyone along the East Coast seemed to be out enjoying life in America. Through Maryland and Pennsylvania, swimming pools were swarming with clusters of tiny dots of swimmers. On inland lakes, small boats buzzed about. The mighty Susquehanna and Hudson were fairly quiet; maybe weekend boaters were not yet on the water. Beaches along the Maine coast, where the water is very, very cold, were bright with colorful umbrellas.
The skies were busy; some fliers enjoying the day like we were, and others trying to get somewhere for the weekend as fast as possible. For four hours along the mid-Atlantic, the air traffic controllers (ATC), my heroes of the skies, warned pilots half a dozen times of parachuters out for adventure. “Let me know when you have jumpers away,” the ATC would request the pilot of the adventure trip, and then pass along the crucial information to us. The ATC would occasionally speak to us: “Vector 20 degrees to the right to avoid jumpers.” I find it a little unnerving when jumpers are in the air near us. We always scour the skies, but never once have seen jumpers.
Even Air Force One was on the move that day. There was a Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) in place that afternoon around both Bedminster, New Jersey (for golf), and Long Island (for a private fundraiser). We skirted a bit to the west to avoid the TFR, grateful that we hadn’t been caught on the ground for the long delay, which has happened to us a few times before.
I was surprised by the affluence of the American look. Not only the recreational part of it, but also the infrastructure. We spotted so many schools; sprawling complexes with new buildings in star-shaped designs, with baseball diamonds, football and soccer fields, even some outdoor swimming pools, and spacious parking lots suggesting many kids drove their own cars rather than riding in school buses. There were many rather mysterious industrial buildings, revealing few clues of what actually went on inside. Big buildings, oddly shaped; few cars; probably public buildings of some sort, but never rusty and colorless like those we grew accustomed to seeing when we lived in China. These were often freshly painted, in shades of gentle blues and greens. Happy-looking, if impersonal, buildings were surrounded by mowed and tended lawns.
Not all was affluent, and not all was lovely. Herringbone patterns of mobile homes looked fragile and makeshift. Prisons were plentiful. And in Portland, Maine, where we stopped to refuel, we knew many frustrated passengers sat inside the commercial planes on the taxiways, in line for take-off right behind us. We listened to the ATC talk with the pilot of one flight, saying something like: “Wow, you’re still here? I thought you’d be gone by the time I got back from lunch.” Then followed by, “Don’t shoot the messenger, but La Guardia just put on another hold. They say they’ll have an update in about an hour.” Even though we were only looking at the plane, I could almost hear the collective groan from the cabin full of passengers as they would receive this news from the captain.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I visited the library on an early voting day for the city election, and the place was buzzing. People were wandering in and out, having lunch at the library’s cafeteria, checking books in and out, sitting at tables reading newspapers or at computers working.
What surprised me most in the Brownsville library was the teen space. It’s called Space 14s. You get it. We’ve all heard about the children’s areas—the reading readiness, the story hours and preschool activities. From what I’ve seen, most public libraries are sophisticated with the preschoolers by now, and for many libraries, making themselves relevant to teenagers is the next step.
Brownsville is ahead of the curve on this one. Several librarians around the country told me that teens are the hardest group to attract to the library. Brownsville took this challenge head-on and worked with the Library Interiors of Texas to design its two-story teen space in the library. The themes of outer space, diversity, and technology dominate wall murals everywhere you look. Colorful, comfortable seating around workstations, at tables, and in big chairs invites hanging around. The spotlighting and the upper-level overlook struck me as opening space to easily scope out everyone and everything happening, which is how I think of preferred teenage behavior.
Hedgecock described the public opening of the new teen space, Space 14s. The crowd gathered. A curtain was drawn in front of the space and lights were down. The curtain opened; lights were brought up. As Hedgecock relives the moment when people first laid eyes on the new teen space, “It was the first time I’ve heard an audible gasp from the public at a library.”
I asked about the Brownsville library as a “second responder,” as I had heard about other libraries that had stepped up to serve their people after the riots in Ferguson, or Hurricane Sandy in New Jersey, or the shootings in Orlando. Brownsville had its own story: During the recession, one family where both parents lost jobs and couldn’t afford to run their air conditioning (which is a big deal during the summers in Brownsville), came to the library and asked if they could spend their days inside. “Of course,” was the answer. After the father got another job, and the family was able to run their air conditioners again, they sent a thank you note to the library for helping them when it mattered.
I heard another second-responder story when I visited the second, smaller, neighborhood library in Brownsville, the Southmost Library. Librarians there told me about the kids who are bused in from the nearby migrant-detention center to watch movies, eat popcorn, and drink lemonade. Jim and I were not able to go inside a detention center, but it takes no leap of imagination to guess how the kids value this field trip to the public library.
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:
And here is the one I’ve made just now, after our latest visit:
What are my takeaways of Sioux Falls now? These are the main themes I heard so often that they made their way into my word cloud.
Heart of the country: When the residents of Sioux Falls describe this sentiment about their city, they are describing its spirit even more than its geography. Many people offered some version of this comment in an uncynical, unabashed way. Sioux Falls is the perfect place to live. Others took it even a step further: “There is nowhere else in the world I would live,” a transplant from Winnipeg told us. (We understand all the reasons why people might differ. I’m just reporting what we heard while on-scene.)
What are the attributes of this sentiment? Just the right size is one description we heard frequently. Curiously, many other people across the country describe their hometowns the same way, whether they lived in towns of 1,250 or 25,000 or like Sioux Falls, just shy of 200,000. Behind the idea of justthe right size is “big enough that there is a lot going on, and small enough that I can have some impact here.”
Sioux Falls, adults frequently say, is a great place to raise a family, and those who moved there or returned say that the quality of life for families played a big role in their settling in Sioux Falls.
Low unemployment: The current unemployment rate, almost always lower than the national average and now around 2 percent, is a big attraction of Sioux Falls, although that is complicated by the very low average wage. (How can both these things be true—demand for labor going up, but wages staying down? We asked everyone we met, and the answers were variations on “it’s complicated.” I will let Jim discuss this further in another post.) The John Morrell plant, as it is still called, was purchased by Smithfield in the 1990s, and subsequently by the large Chinese firm Shuanghui in 2013. It has remained a steady fixture for reliable jobs, particularly for the immigrant population. We saw again Muslim women who had been working in the plant, shaving fat from the slabs of pork, for over a dozen years by now. They have moved with their families to suburban-feel streets, with bigger houses and spacious lawns.
Don’t lock my door: Several people bragged on this measure for houses and cars, in what was a proxy for a safe place, and that wetake care of each other.
Going around town on a hot summer day shows off the sports, recreation, and the good lifestyle of Sioux Falls: gaggles of kids in team-colored T-shirts at golf camp or riding their bikes to the neighborhood pools. I swam in the 50-meter pool at the new Midco Aquatic Center. I visited libraries where summer tutoring programs were keeping kids on track or bringing them up to speed in reading skills. The 20-mile circuit around the river was busy with bikers, joggers, and walkers.
Weather: South Dakotans are a tough breed, but this past winter, with many dozens of days that didn’t break zero degrees Fahrenheit, challenged even these hardy folks. Most brought up the long, endless winter, followed by the rains that flooded farmers’ fields, halting planting or at least slowing crops. We saw fields that never got a chance, and fields of corn that were yet to show tassels. A violent hailstorm finally broke the wilting upper-90s heat during mid-July, insulting further by flattening some waist-high cornfields entirely. This year at least, it seemed that the farmers just couldn’t win. One farmer told us that normally the July rains would be considered a miracle, but this year, they only brought more heartache.
Floods roared down the Big Sioux River, ripping concrete caps off the riverwalk walls and buckling roads, which demanded weeks of road repairs.
Community: I found the references to community most complicated. Sioux Falls reflected its German and Scandinavian heritage with the tall, light haired population that settled this territory after displacement of the Native American tribes, who now fight hard to preserve their cultures and languages on the reservations. Tall, blond people are everywhere. But so are immigrants, refugees, and Native Americans. Refugees have been welcomed to Sioux Falls through Lutheran Services resettlement programs since the 1970s. (The numbers have been dropping. In 2015, about 500 refugees were settled in South Dakota; in 2017, with cuts in refugee resettlement by the Trump administration, those numbers dropped to about 300; in 2018 to about 200.) In addition to primary resettlement, many of the self-described New Americans now arrive in a wave of secondary migration; word has gotten around to friends and relatives around the country that Sioux Falls is a pretty nice place to be, with opportunity to build a good life—despite its weather.
One of the worst realities of Sioux Falls, and for nearly all of the U.S. that we have seen, is opioids. That word was new to the voice of Sioux Falls. We stepped around the muddy construction lot of the new residential addiction-care center at Avera Health, which is about to open with 32 private rooms. (We also saw flashing billboards of the Farm and Rural Stress Hotline, also manned by Avera Health, which is another of Sioux Falls’s answers trying for traction against spillover of the farmers’ woes.)
Up and coming + the arts: When we first visited Sioux Falls in 2013, we heard buzz about “the arts” in many conversations. On this visit, some 6 years later, we have seen and appreciated the results. Each year now, residents of Sioux Falls vote for their favorite sculpture among the many lining downtown Phillips Street for the city’s Sculpture Walk. The city purchases the winning entry, and the rest move along, making way for next year’s rotation of new installations.
Sioux Falls has a distinct democratic bent, heard in the term People’s Choice. That’s how the city’s annual sculpture for purchase was selected, and the name for the new Thomas Jefferson High School, and the name for the Oak View public library, and the design for the new city flag, which Mayor Paul TenHaken showed us with great enthusiasm. “Democracy runs deep in the Midwest,” one resident explained to me.
The town was chattering about the free outdoor summer concerts at the Levitt shell downtown. The Siouxland public library sponsored a Reading Invasion, and people showed up an hour before the concert to stake out their spots on the grass, and—wait for it—to read to themselves or their children. Jazz Fest was in full swing. The numerous brewpubs were full. We joined the Pork Crawl put on by the South Dakota Pork Producers Council. The Washington Pavilion was showing off its combination of the arts and science museum, housed in the renovated, stately former Sioux Falls (then renamed Washington) High School. New art exhibits were being assembled, and I would say that the science museum for kids is the best that I’ve seen.
The Falls, of course, are nature’s contribution. Its surrounding park hosts one of the most diverse collections of Sioux Falls citizens as anywhere in town. Latino families picnic nearby. Young Somali men move elegantly from boulder to boulder. Just upstream, South Dakota artist and sculptor, Dale Lamphere, whom we met at the base of his new installation, the Arc of Dreams, explained that its soaring arch represents the dreams of the people of Sioux Falls, and its 18-inch gap at the center where the two sides of the arch would meet—but don’t—represent the leap of faith that must finally be made by the dreamers who settle and live there.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The longer and farther that Jim and I have traveled with our earlier American Futures reporting in The Atlantic, and then with Our Towns the book, and now for this new Our Towns project, the more frequently people have asked some version of these questions:
We admire how Greenville has rebuilt its downtown and Main Street from seedy to spectacular, but how do we do that? Or, Fresno had some creative ideas that had a big impact on its schools, but how can that scale? Or, Ajo, Arizona, came up with a master plan of reinvention that worked for a tiny desert town, but how do we come up with a version that would work for us in the Plains, or on the water, or in Appalachia?
We’ve been thinking about comments and questions like these for quite a while now. And we’ve added some of our own. How can one town learn from another, very different town? Are there best practices for reimagining libraries or downtowns or health clinics? Is there a way to broadcast the successful messages with a bigger megaphone? How can we connect the people we have met, and how can we amplify their messages? In essence, how can we “biggify” this entire endeavor?
In early July, we had the chance to try out one answer. We went small for starters, to “just get the puck onto the ice,” as one of our new friends said. We were at Chautauqua for one of the institution’s week-long summer sessions, this one on the theme of community. Right up our alley.
Thanks to the department of religion at the Chautauqua Institution, we had the chance to bring together people, in the august setting of the Hall of Philosophy, from two of our favorite places—Ajo, Arizona, and Columbus, Mississippi—along with our friends from Erie, Pennsylvania, just down the road from Chautauqua. We wanted them to meet one another, to share their stories with the appreciative Chautauqua audience, and to see what might happen as a result.
Emily and Stuart Siegel first set their eyes on the tiny, former copper-mining town of Ajo, 40 miles north of the Mexican border, in the Sonoran Desert, on the same day that we first happened into Ajo. Emily and Stuart were on a classic road trip that had begun in Boston, and we were on our aerial version of a similar trip.
Nearly five years later, Emily and Stuart—now married, with 2-year-old Jonah, a little sibling arriving soon, and a house of their own—have stayed in Ajo and now run the Sonoran Desert Inn and Conference Center. They are helping move the town out of its post-mining-era decline into a new era built on tourism, the arts, skilled and artisan training of its population, and the multiculturalism of the three nations (the Mexicans, the Tohono O’odham Nation, and the Anglos) that have lived there together for a long, long time. The Ajo story brings together the architectural assets of the mine owners’ vision, the genius of procuring grants and funds to start many balls rolling, the open-mindedness to listen to the citizenry and to engage its skills and spirit, and plenty of patience and diplomacy. This is the story they told.
Chuck Yarborough, a high-school history teacher from the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science (MSMS), in Columbus, brought two of his newly graduated students to present their dramatic reenactments of everyday life and issues during the Civil War era, based on original research and writing that his students did by following the lives of people buried in the cemeteries of Columbus. They present their performances in the cemetery to the town residents each year, in their effort to bring some understanding of the lives and racial issues that are the history of Columbus.
To give you a sense of the quality of this effort, Yarborough is the recipient of this year’s Organization of American Historians award for national Teacher of the Year. Erin Williams came from Hattiesburg to attend MSMS, which is a competitive public residential school, and is moving on to college in Louisiana to study computer science. And Dairian Bowles, who came to MSMS from Byhalia, Mississippi, will be going to college in California to study screenwriting. You would be wise to remember that name, Dairian Bowles, because the entire audience would guarantee that you’ll be hearing and seeing more from him.
Ferki Ferati and Ben Speggen drove in from Erie, a town with a 20 percent New Americans (the preferred name for immigrants and refugees) population. Erie’s story is an ongoing turnaround effort in a mainly post–General Electric era, with several starring initiatives: the downtown renovation and city business plans, the purposeful grooming of new young leaders, the participation and clout of its several universities, the philanthropic generosity of the homegrown Fortune 500 company Erie Insurance, the intellectual heft and plucky ambition of its Brookings-like Jefferson Educational Society, and its many new craft breweries.
Ferati is a New American from Kosovo, who arrived in Erie about 20 years ago as a young teenager with most of his family, and who now directs the Jefferson Society. He and Speggen have a fearless approach to proffering the Jefferson’s invitations to first-tier national figures: Doris Kearns Goodwin, Laura Bush, Michael Steele, Donna Brazile, et al. People accept the invitations and brave the often daunting Erie winter weather to go there to meet the residents of Erie, who have come to expect them.
* * *
After giving the stage to our friends, our secondary mission was to introduce them to one another. What would happen, we wondered, when Ajo met Erie met Mississippi?
Well, when people from a desert mining town, an immigrant-heavy Rust Belt town, and a southern Civil War hospital town—all of whom primarily believe in and practice community—come together, it turns out that they think they have a lot in common and can learn from one another.
They compared successes: when a young leadership group in training asks for another year together; when their inn is full, at least sometimes; when people stop you in the grocery store and ask if the students are working on this year’s performance.
They compared struggles: how you grow an audience in a biracial town for the most sensitive topic of all, race; how you build tourism in a place that is hundreds of miles away from everywhere; how you find common ground among those who say “Why change?” and those who say “We must change.”
They swapped stories: about elusive javelinas that dart through the dark nights; about how conversations start or stop when you say, simply, “We’re from Mississippi”; what it’s like to live in a town about which people from elsewhere have strong preconceptions.
Best of all, plans are already laid. Erie will visit Arizona, preferably next winter. And so will plenty of folks from the audience. Mississippi will try to accept invitations from teachers and towns with similar educational ambitions. Jim and I feel that this first try at connecting people and amplifying their messages worked, and we will look for other opportunities.
The Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library, a branch of the New York Public Library system, is in the Flatiron district of Manhattan. It looks like another storefront, opening onto a sidewalk with overhead construction scaffolding, like so many buildings in New York City these days.
I have visited many, many public libraries around the U.S., but I had never visited a braille library. So when Jim, my husband, and I happened to be in New York City in early June, I grabbed the chance and took Jim with me. We saw sighted and blind people entering—moms pushing strollers, younger people who looked like students, older people coming to bide their time. And we learned about yet another way in which modern libraries are serving their communities.
When you take the elevator to the second floor, you quickly see that this library has something very special. For starters, the library holds what is among the largest physical, browsable collections of braille books in the country, about 14,000 titles. Front and center, as is the case at most every other library I’ve visited, there is a children’s section. Braille books for children look just like the counterparts for sighted children, except the text is reproduced in braille, and sometimes the books include tactile features, like the furry fluff we all know from Pat the Bunny.
There are other ways to access books besides browsing and borrowing from the shelves at Heiskell. Through its membership in the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), this library and its eligible users have access to additional physical braille books, downloadable digital braille books, books to listen to, plus subscriptions to many, many magazines from The Atlantic to Playboy. The NLS was established by an act of Congress in 1931, and operates under the Library of Congress.
As for physical braille books, the Heiskell currently mails them, with free returns via a mailing card that reads “free matter for the blind,” to over 10,000 patrons who live in the five boroughs of New York City plus Long Island. For its most voracious readers who would like a constant supply of books at the ready, there’s an easy answer. Readers can identify personal preferences—like thrillers, or books set in Italy, or historical fiction, and the library will send out huge stacks, as many as 40 books, whenever they are available.
And then there are books for listening. Talking Books is a program of the NLS, which records and distributes their collection of about 200,000 recorded books—also for free—to people with certified visual impairment. This includes not only blind people, but those visually impaired who find it hard to read; people with other disabilities, like Parkinson’s or MS, who have difficulty holding and manipulating books; or those with reading disorders like dyslexia.
Listeners can download the talking books through an app onto mobile devices or computers, or use a memory card that plugs into a special talking book player, which the Heiskell library also lends. The listening technology has come a long way in the last 90 years—starting with the 33 1/3 RPM records of the 1930s, followed by cassette tapes, then flash memory devices, and then apps to download content.
Altogether, the Heiskell circulates about 500,000 titles as braille books, Talking Books, and digital downloads annually.
The Heiskell, along with the NYPL system, is pushing beyond today’s opportunities—and limits—to develop new assistive technology and programming for the blind. Chancey Fleet, who is blind, coordinates the assistive technology program at the library. She talked to us with a combination of passion and reflection about her self-described role as catalyst, and as connector and amplifier. “I could go through life accepting the limits that inaccessible technologies create, but I’d rather go through life trying to help create solutions,” she told us when we visited with her; Jill Rothstein, the chief librarian of the Heiskell; and Bobby Sherwood, who works for the NYPL.
Chancey said she is using the privileges of her past (meaning mentors, training, and support in college and work) and the advantages of her current position (meaning accessibility to those with skills, expertise, creativity, and authority to make things happen) to help create and put new and useful technology into the hands of as many people as possible. And the goal of it all? What she said struck me as both the soaring and grounded purpose of the human experience: to offer people opportunity to express themselves and to explore the world.
Chancey demonstrated some of the technology for us. To convert text from a computer monitor to braille, she uses a small digital display unit, which has tiny pins that pop up and down to create the braille characters on the one-line, refreshable display. The unit can either read from a memory card, downloading books for example, or it can connect directly to a computer, smart phone, or tablet to enable real-time actions, like using email. She creates braille on the unit’s keyboard. The library has just announced a pilot program to loan similar “Braille Me” units to its patrons. Chancey also listens to talking books, often speeding up the delivery to 500 or 600 words per minute, compared with the normal talking speed on podcasts of about 150 or 160 words per minute.
As for programming, the ambitions of Chancey and her collaborators started small with their community of visually-impaired people, offering workshops to familiarize them with screen-reading tools and various apps. Then they went bigger by helping them to more easily access the visually-oriented world of coding. Then even bigger toward using tools to make spatial and tactile learning more accessible. The Dimensions project at the Heiskell offers training to use the hardware and software to design and create tactile maps, images, graphs, diagrams, actual objects, and other spatial information. Everything is free, and it is available to both visually-impaired and sighted people.
These technologies bring a perspective and experience to the blind that may be difficult for sighted people to appreciate. An embosser can print out a map of the five boroughs of the New York area, for example, where many Heiskell patrons live, showing in raised form the shapes of the boroughs and their relation to each other and the waterways around them. A 3D printer can replicate an object, maybe a dinosaur, that is scaled down to a size that makes sense when you can newly feel the entire object at once.
On the lower-tech end, there are many additional programs and experiences provided by the library: origami, a knitting club, tech coaching for Spanish speakers, video games, art classes, movie discussion groups with narrated descriptions, and workshops for high schoolers for prep for college tests and college class work. When their annual fair on community, culture, and technology outgrew the space at the Heiskell, they moved uptown to the bigger, grander main flagship library. At the fair they also publicize activities like beep ball (baseball with a beeping ball), ice climbing, and boulder climbing.
While much of what I learned about the Heiskell library is extraordinary, other aspects are exactly the same as at every other library. Everywhere, library users approach librarians with their important or sensitive questions. They trust librarians and the information they will impart. Those questions can tell a lot about a community. In Bend, Oregon, a few years ago, librarians told me that the most frequent questions from users were about how to meet house payments or their rent. In Charleston, West Virginia, people would frequently consider librarians as proxies for doctors, asking, for example, about suspicious moles. At the Heiskell library, different and sometimes poignant questions are posed: “Where can I buy a white cane?” and “How can I learn to type again?”
We began the first morning of our recent visit to Danville, Virginia, at an early-bird breakfast with the Rotary Club, where my husband, Jim, and I heard several personal hopes, celebrations, and notes of gratitude from its members, as they pitched bills into the Happy Dollars bucket. One Happy Dollar for good wishes to a son about to deploy with the military; another for a granddaughter, a rainbow baby (Google that), who had made it to her first birthday; two for the boys whom the mom had hauled out of bed to come to the breakfast on their first day of summer vacation.
After breakfast, we gratefully followed one of the Rotarians to Gatewood Auto and Truck Repair to see Gary, whom we heard was very good and always fair, hoping he could fix the passenger window of our 19-year-old Audi, which was suddenly stuck open. Gary fixed the window, a repair that soon seemed minor compared with the day’s second auto surprise, when the bottom shell fell off the underside of the car, right onto the street. (I learned that the official term for this part was the “belly pan.”) Thank God for the networks of small towns, I thought, and for Gary Gatewood, and the friendly folks at Mr. Tire, who repaired that belly-pan issue.
I continued a quarter-mile down the road to see Karen Harris, the executive director of God’s Storehouse, a food pantry serving low-income people along this southernmost border where Virginia meets North Carolina. On top of their other problems, rural areas that have lost industries and suffered long-term economic decline, like this part of Piedmont Virginia and North Carolina, often have high rates of obesity, diabetes, and other nutrition-related disorders. God’s Storehouse illustrates one response. During our travels around the country, we have seen groups in many regions coming together to use strength in numbers to imagine ideas and create effective action around health, economic development, education, the arts, and many other areas.
God’s Storehouse is part of the expansive Health Collaborative of the Dan River Region. It includes some 50 member organizations and 90 individuals, who approach the health and well-being of its residents to include not only healthy eating, but also access to health care, an active lifestyle, and inviting places to live, work, and play.
God’s Storehouse opened in 1987, a collaborative effort of many faith communities around Danville and surrounding Pittsylvania County. Pooling resources, they figured, would be a win for all.
It was barely 9:00 a.m. by the time of my visit, and the doors were not yet officially open. But the staff and volunteers were already busy putting out fires (figuratively) and preparing boxes of food for the day’s distribution.
Harris’s phones rang, and people popped in and out. One call was particularly time sensitive. A regular volunteer who ran the pickup routes from some of the several local grocery stores that donated to God’s Storehouse was ill and couldn’t make that day’s run. Harris was in search of a replacement—in a hurry—to transport especially the perishables to their warehouse. She scored an easy win. Her first caller would do the job, not only today but until the regular driver could return to duty.
The pantry bustles, serving well over 5,000 households, with 23,000 boxes of food a month. That translates into more than 750,000 pounds of food moved.
Recipients meet one of various criteria. Some are easy to identify, those who already receive benefits through federal or state assistance programs like SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), Medicaid, or SSI (Supplemental Security Income). Others qualify by various other standards, including proof of income.
I waited a few minutes in the reception area, which was set up like most hospital or DMV spaces I had visited, with a general check-in desk, open seating, and small, semi-protected cubbies, where people can talk privately with staff.
The clients, Harris said, included each and every kind of person you might imagine: the elderly, poor, single-parent families, recently laid off, those looking for work. Danville’s statistics (from the 2017 Regional Report Card compiled with 2016 data by the Danville Regional Fund) on all of the above bear witness to the need. Some 24 percent live at poverty level, (11 percent in Virginia overall); 20 percent are older than 65, (14 percent in Virginia); 60 percent of children live in single-parent households (30 percent in Virginia); and the unemployment rate is almost 9 percent (5 percent in Virginia overall). Also from the report, the 2016 median income in Danville was $33,600, compared with $65,015 in Virginia.
Harris told me a few stories that brought some of these statistics to life: those who would drop by to say that they had found a job, and wouldn’t need to come by anymore; the numbers of working poor who worried in anticipation of possibly losing their jobs during the government shutdown of early 2017. On shifting demographics, Harris told me that during her seven years at God’s Storehouse, she had noticed an uptick in the elderly.
“One day I would like to be out of business,” Harris said, “But I don’t think that is going to happen.”
The back warehouse was buzzing as volunteers organized, sorted, and boxed the donations. Some of the contents were predictable, like the USDA allotments destined for red boxes, for those on official government assistance. I saw pallets of canned goods. According to the Emergency Food Assistance Program website, the kinds of food distributed also include boxed cereals, beans, dried and long-life milk, rice, grits, oats, canned meat and fish, and on and on.
Some of the food was in blue boxes. These, I learned, were for recipients without the official government designations.
The food at God’s Storehouse included local donations, which came from stores, farmers, markets, individuals with gardens, restaurants, and food purchased by God’s Storehouse, all of which could be more fresh, seasonal, and varied. I peered into boxes with popcorn, bread, cookies, Little Debbie snacks, chips, fruit, tomatoes, greens, peanut butter, mac and cheese, rice, beans, and so much more. Bigger households got more goods in their boxes.
I had seen a similar pantry operation, also with a faith-based origin, several years ago in western Kansas. Then I accompanied Sister Janice of the Dominican Order of Peace, on her food delivery rounds in the meat-packing community of Garden City. The scale of operation I saw in Danville was much bigger than what I had seen in Kansas. In Garden City, we went first to the small food pantry, loaded a half dozen boxes into Sister Janice’s car, and made the rounds to homes in the trailer parks and modest neighborhoods with mainly Latino residents. The deliveries were a convenience to the recipients but they came with concerns. Sister Janice worried about leaving the boxes on the steps of trailers in the blistering Kansas heat, hoping someone would arrive home to take the perishable goods inside before they spoiled.
God’s Storehouse couldn’t support a delivery system, and getting the boxes into the hands that needed them could be challenging. Lucky recipients lived in nearby affordable housing. Others lived far away—as much as a 2-hour bus ride. Some arrived with friends with cars. Others drove themselves if they had enough gas money. Some could afford gas for the trip only once a month, Harris told me. Taxies and Uber were out of the question.
God’s Storehouse collaborated with many organizations around town. The Malcolm Huckabee Backpacks Program stuffed backpacks with a weekend’s worth of food for 400 Danville elementary school children to take home on Fridays. (Nearly 75 percent of students in Danville public elementary schools qualify for free or reduced lunch. The Regional Report Card says 37 percent of children in Danville lived in poverty in 2016, compared with 16 percent in Virginia overall.) The Virginia Cooperative Extension was holding a cooking class on site the day I visited. Their classes covered not only cooking, but also nutrition, budgeting, and healthy eating.
God’s Storehouse also connects its clientele to information and resources related to their needs, like affordable transportation and cancer prevention and treatments.
Abutting God’s Storehouse is the new Urban Farm, staffed when I visited by a young AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer named Morgan Zulinke. Morgan was newly arrived in Danville, straight out of Appalachian State University. She had just finished a week shadowing her VISTA predecessor, who had managed to turn this hardscrabble lot into one with promise of an agricultural future. He secured the large lot with a chain link fence, built a dozen or so raised garden beds, erected a domed, plastic-covered hothouse, built a small shed, and planted a few crops.
Morgan had her hands full figuring out how to sustain what had been accomplished and how to push forward. The natural soil was poor quality, so tough that she quickly dismissed the idea of even tilling it. Her shortlist was critical: She needed more dirt, mulch, and more helping hands for more raised beds. What had us both worried, looking at the forlorn sunflowers slumping heavily in the sun and parched earth, was simply water. The big barrel built to capture runoff from the roof of the small equipment shed hadn’t been very effective. There was only this much water, she gestured, suggesting about six inches worth of water in a three- or four-foot-tall barrel. Morgan had hooked up a hose to God’s Storehouse next door before, but she felt it wasn’t fair to tax their resources with big water bills.
We peered at the skies, willing the clouds to head this direction for even a shower. I kept looking upward the rest of the day. Later, as we headed out for the evening, the skies opened up for a downpour. I didn’t mind a bit. Gary Gatewood had gotten our car window closed, and the rain would at least buy some time for Morgan and her urban garden.
During our years of reporting for Our Towns, I’ve visited YMCAs all across the country. My quest began as a way to keep fit while traveling. I bought day passes to swim in Burlington, Vermont; Columbus, Mississippi; Redlands, California; Allentown, Pennsylvania; Duluth, Minnesota; and Wichita, Kansas.
If I couldn’t find a Y, I would swim at a local public pool, like in Holland, Michigan; Greenville, South Carolina; Dodge City, Kansas; Winters, California; and Bend, Oregon. As a last resort, I turned to nature, jumping into the Snake River in Clarkston, Washington; Lake Champlain in Vermont; Lake Erie in Erie, Pennsylvania; Lake Michigan in Holland, Michigan; the freezing Atlantic in Portland, Maine; and the also-freezing Pacific along the West Coast.
Recently I added another venue to my list: the YMCA of Danville, in the so-called Southside of Virginia, bordering North Carolina. Danville, once a thriving tobacco and textile town, has placed a big bet on its Y as more than a fun and healthy place to work out, or swim, or play basketball. It is an anchor institution for restoring the spirit and pride of Danville.
The YMCA is a natural for this role, with its 135-year history in Danville and now a brand-spanking-new, $15 million, 50,000-square-foot facility on the Dan River. Spurred on by an initial gift from the private Danville Regional Foundation, which was followed by millions more from other foundations, institutions, and individuals in town, the new Y opened in 2014. The building is a beautiful, award-winning design of brick, glass, and exposed beams, with natural light and social space. It became the first development facing the river in more than 100 years, and in homage to that history, the Y also shows off reclaimed wood from the old textile mill that once stood on its spot.
The hotel where my husband, Jim, and I were staying was just a mile upriver from the Y. The woman at reception told me that the best way to get there was to “walk down Riverside Drive to Biscuitville, cross at the light, and go straight to the Riverwalk Trail. That leads to the Y.” So I did just that. Biscuitville was hopping; cars were lined up at the drive-through to pick up morning biscuits. The bike shares were lined up next to the Riverwalk. I meandered along the path, under the lush, overgrown foliage, past a few bridges, the wildlife markers, the local sculpture, and on to the Y.
Sarah Folmar, the CEO of the Y, showed me around. We toured the rooms for yoga, Zumba, Pilates, and aerobics; the gym, which can accommodate basketball or volleyball or the trending pickleball; a walking track; and an expansive fitness center, where exercisers on treadmills may be distracted by views of the rushing Dan River. There’s a massage room, a fancy machine to measure and record blood pressure, and another to measure weight and body fat. Some 2,500 square feet of physical therapy and rehab space is leased by the Danville Regional Medical Center (which is now part of Sovah Health).
In the social space at the entry, featuring an 18-by-18-foot glass donor wall that you can’t miss, several older men sat with coffee and newspapers, shooting the breeze. The child-care center, which was funded by the Hughes Memorial Foundation, offers after-school care and summer programs. A separate “child watch” room gives up to two hours of free child care for exercising parents, included in the $65 family fee. Those rooms were buzzing, as school had just ended for the year. The Y also offers after-school child care at four different elementary schools around the county, where Y staff uses the facilities of the school, and children can stay put. Of course, I noticed the six-lane pool, quietly hoping for my chance to swim later in the morning.
To Danville, the Y is more than its stunning physical plant. In a town where you see the occasional remnant of self-advertising as “the last capital of the Confederacy” (somewhat of a stretch, as Jefferson Davis hunkered down in Danville for just the single final week before the end of the Civil War), the Y serves a membership today that reflects Danville’s nearly half-white and half-African-American population. The 100 or so people I saw on my morning at the Y were mixed in about the same proportion.
We’re a “community within a community,” Sarah Folmar said. “When so much going on in the world is negative, even in the city of Danville, inside these four walls, everything changes. It is a positive place.”
We made our tour slowly, as Folmar greeted what seemed to me about half the members by name, inquiring about family and how they’re feeling. And they greeted back. A 93-year-old man was resting on the exercise equipment; two young women, who call themselves the River City Belles, were recording a live Facebook feed about healthy eating.
I also met, by name, every one of the staff who was present that morning. Several were discussing ideas from the professional training sessions they had recently attended. Staff interviews are thorough, and the retention rate is high. A telling question in the interview process is a self-rating on a scale of 1 to 10 of smile-ability. “Anything less than a 10,” reports Folmar, “and it’s not the place for them.” She added, as an afterthought, “A hundred is even better!”
Each of the 2,700 Ys in the U.S. has its own personal stamp. They all belong to the 175-year-old national organization, which offers various resources like help with strategic planning, big-picture marketing, and training in exchange for membership dues. The Y in Danville also belongs to the Virginia Alliance of YMCAs, which advises on state-relevant initiatives, like diabetes prevention and water safety. Beyond that, each local Y is independent and autonomous, with its own fiscal and governing responsibilities, but free to be the “heartbeat of the community,” as Folmar describes the Y in Danville.
The stamp of the YMCA (for Young Men’s Christian Association, of course) in Danville showed a stronger Christian element than I saw in most other Ys that I visited. It makes sense; Danville is a churchgoing town. The question that Danvillians are likely to ask of newcomers, several residents told me, is not “Where are you from?” or “What do you do?” but “Do you have a church yet?” Folmar reported that one of the most popular merchandise items at the Y is a T-shirt with a Bible verse printed on it. And a fishbowl in the workout space, which would likely be filled with mints or candies at other Ys, was filled here with strips of paper containing Bible verses. I had seen one other so filled, in northeastern Mississippi.
I found in Danville, as I had in most other towns, that the Ys and public sports complexes were my second-favorite spots—runner-up to the public libraries—to reveal the culture and mood of a town and to rub shoulders (literally) with folks I otherwise would be unlikely to meet. The Ys also shared the democratic nature of public libraries, where OPEN TO ALL, as is carved in granite above the Columbus, Ohio, main library door, refers to every single person, including the homeless, at no cost. The last two words of the Danville YMCA mission statement, “for all,” echo “open to all.” Folmar points out in full disclosure, “We are a membership organization.” But she explained that the Y offers reduced-fee memberships; last year, the Y gave away more than $135,000 in scholarships, and its goal is for no one to be turned away because of financial hardship.
By one measure, the new Y is a roaring success. Before it opened, Y membership in Danville was 2,300. Today, just five years later, it is 9,000. By another measure, there is still serious work to do. The latest Regional Report Card, including 2016 health data from Danville, commissioned by the Danville Regional Foundation, shows a lot of work still left to do. Compared with Virginia as a whole, the adult obesity rate, adult smoking, diabetes, and physical inactivity in Danville are all higher.
About an hour and a half later, our tour concluded, and Folmar asked if I would like to swim. Yes. The water-aerobics class had ended, and I shared the six-lane pool with just a few other swimmers. Folmar’s final gesture: As I traveled light and had forgotten a towel, she lent me her own.
Everyone knows about first responders. I’ve come to think of libraries as playing a crucial role as “second responders.”
In Ferguson, Missouri, the public library stayed open when the schools were closed after the riots, to offer the kids a safe place and even classes taught by volunteers. After the hurricanes in Houston, some library websites were immediately up and running, announcing that they were open for business. After Hurricane Sandy, some libraries in New Jersey became places of refuge. And in the Queens Library’s Far Rockaway branch, which didn’t have heat or light, the librarians set up shop in the parking lot to continue children’s story hours “to give them a sense of normalcy,” says Christian Zabriskie, who was a Queens librarian then. “Story time at the end of the world” he called it. In Orlando, after the nightclub shootings, the library hosted an art gallery for those who made art as a way to express and share their reactions. After the Thomas Fire, the Santa Barbara Public Library invited the public to share their stories and lessons, to help heal and prepare for the future.
Libraries step in to fill gaps and offer help when normal channels are inaccessible. Pima County, Arizona, pays for a team of nurses to come to the library to help with medical questions for those who can’t or won’t go to a hospital, clinic, or doctor. In Charleston, West Virginia, librarians told me that they have launched searches for people to research health issues or concerns. In some libraries, librarians have Narcan training. In Bend, Oregon, a social worker has helped prepare the librarians to work with people who came in with sensitive, personal questions, such as how to meet their rent and mortgage payments.
Others report that they have helped people figure out how to have a dignified funeral when they have no money for one. In Las Vegas and surrounding Clark County, among the hardest-hit areas of the entire country during the 2008–2009 financial collapse, the leaders of the public-library system found ways to stretch and reprogram their budget to ensure that their system would stay open seven days a week during the crisis, because they knew their citizens would need its resources to cope with job loss, house foreclosures, and more.
Carved in the granite above the doorway of the imposing flagship Carnegie Library in Columbus, Ohio, are the words Open to All. I have seen homeless people line up waiting for the doors to open so they can spend the day inside comfortably and safely.
In my hometown of Washington, D.C., I trudged to our local library during an extreme cold-weather episode a year or two ago and read a handwritten sign saying that the library was closed because of the cold, and pointing to the emergency shelters that were open instead. Librarians have told me that they’ve heard from homeless people about one of the important reasons they go to libraries: These are the only places where they are treated with respect. Librarians also told me about the various rules and regulations they impose about noise, sleeping, eating, “bathing” in restrooms, disruptive behavior, and storage of belongings. They say that occasionally people are placed on “sabbatical” from the libraries for infringements and are sometimes referred to public places where they can take showers. None have reported serious incidents to me, which suggests that respect is mutual.
The most serious of these examples are testament to the trust that citizens place in their libraries and librarians. The Pew Research Center reports that 78 percent of people say libraries help them to find information they can trust. Librarians are nothing if not discreet. I have asked librarians about their users looking at pornography on the public computers. They demur, kind of, and say that they don’t look at what people are doing on the computers, and others say that they only step in when someone complains.
Zabriskie, who now works in Yonkers, points to the complexity of being a librarian these days. “Amidst glory days of librarianship,” he says, “there can be trauma. If every day’s work were just reading to toddlers, great. But sometimes those kids are homeless.”
“Sometimes librarians are Batman,” Zabriskie says. “Sometimes they are ghosts in the machine. We have to resist hardening the space.”
If these are the libraries acting as second responders, there are also plenty of cases where they respond as providers of second chances.
The Los Angeles Public Library offers a chance to earn a high-school degree for those who missed out the first time around. Mayor Eric Garcetti and City Librarian John Szabo hand out diplomas. The most popular volunteer opportunity at the Smiley Library in Redlands, California, is for adults to teach other adults how to read and write. Public libraries across the country offer a variety of paths to help people find new economic opportunity, with job and interview support and digital skills training.
And listen for how often you hear adults credit the public library as the place that spirited them away in their youth from anger or sadness or boredom at home. Many libraries make themselves appealing to schoolchildren of any age as a safe, warm place to do homework or just hang out when they can’t or won’t go home. I have seen and heard variations on this theme that range from the library being the only place the kids could go, to the library being the cool place where teenagers would hang out. I heard these comments from the desert communities of Arizona to the small towns of California to the urban centers of the Midwest and East Coast.
There are libraries in prisons, for those who can’t go out, and books delivered to prisons when inmates request them. Library books are delivered to remote schools in Kanawha County, West Virginia, for teachers who don’t have access to materials. Extending that metaphor of the library coming to the people, I have seen pop-up libraries in parks in Wichita, Kansas. There is a summer program around Minneapolis lakes to lend books in watertight containers from a library raft to boaters. And there is a library in the big shopping mall in Ontario, California, opportunistically placed for presumably reluctant shoppers who accompany enthusiastic shoppers.
Welcome to the new realities of public libraries and librarians.
Approximately half of the luxury-condo units that have come onto the market in the past five years are still unsold.
In Manhattan, the homeless shelters are full, and the luxury skyscrapers are vacant.
Such is the tale of two cities within America’s largest metro. Even as 80,000 people sleep in New York City’s shelters or on its streets, Manhattan residents have watched skinny condominium skyscrapers rise across the island. These colossal stalagmites initially transformed not only the city’s skyline but also the real-estate market for new homes. From 2011 to 2019, the average price of a newly listed condo in New York soared from $1.15 million to $3.77 million.
But the bust is upon us. Today, nearly half of the Manhattan luxury-condo units that have come onto the market in the past five years are still unsold, according to The New York Times.
Somewhere near the heart of the Ukraine scandal is the oligarch Dmytro Firtash. Evidence has long suggested this fact. But over the past week, in a televised interview and in documents he supplied to Congress, Rudy Giuliani’s former business partner Lev Parnas pointed his finger at the Ukrainian oligarch. According to Parnas, Giuliani’s team had a deal with Firtash. Giuliani would get the Justice Department to drop its attempt to extradite the oligarch on bribery charges. In return, according to Parnas, the oligarch promised to pass along evidence that would supposedly discredit both Joe Biden and Robert Mueller.
Parnas’s account, of course, is hardly definitive. Throughout his career, he has attempted to inflate his importance to make money. (Firtash apparently paid him $1 million for his services, though it’s still not totally clear what those services were.) And his description of Firtash’s involvement raises as many questions as it settles. Still, the apparent centrality of Firtash should inform any assessment of Giuliani’s escapades and the entire Ukraine story.
As a black American woman married to a member of Britain’s upper class, I have caught just a glimpse of Meghan Markle’s world.
The world Meghan Markle entered when she married Prince Harry is unlike any other. But, as a black American woman married to a member of Britain’s upper class, I have caught just a glimpse of it, from a roughly similar perspective.
For a while I lived in London and, through the man who would become my husband, I was introduced to some of the ancient class dynamics that permeate British society. He went to Eton, the elite boys’ boarding school attended by Prince William, Prince Harry, and many prime ministers.
Once, I went with him to the christening of an old classmate’s child. At the event, I sat across from David Cameron, an Old Etonian—or OE, as Eton’s former students are called—who was then the Tory party leader. His wife and my partner were both godparents to the new baby. If I were British, the christening and subsequent lunch with a gaggle of OEs and their equally posh wives would likely have made me nervous, angry, and uncomfortable. But I was somewhat insulated by the fact that, as an outsider, I didn’t have negative associations—or really any associations—with their traditions and ways of expressing themselves.
The streaming service has turned the star’s controversial e-commerce brand into a series. Soft-lit chaos ensues.
In an episode of the new Netflix series The Goop Lab, a young woman, Ana, gets a reading from the psychic medium Laura Lynne Jackson. Things do not go well. Jackson tells Ana, a Goop employee who is skeptical about clairvoyance, that she senses a twin in her family. Ana can’t think of any twins. “I have a female figure coming in, and I feel like it’s your grandmother’s sister,” Jackson says. “My grandmother didn’t have a sister,” Ana replies. Jackson asks whether Ana might be planning a trip to Mexico. (No.) “Is there, like, a funny story or a picture about a donkey? Or is there something with Shrek?” (Also no.) The reading, staged for the show’s cameras, quickly spirals from gauzy mysticism to blunt awkwardness. Even Ana seems surprised at how correct she was to distrust the premise of the exercise—which is also, as it happens, the premise of Goop as a lifestyle brand: that the physical world is, to some extent, a faith-based initiative.
Every year, plenty of excellent films are excluded from the awards-season conversation for reasons that have nothing to do with talent or artistry. This year is no different.
“Who will be interested in a story of domestic struggles and joys? It doesn’t have any real importance,” says Jo March (played by Saoirse Ronan) in a scene near the end of 2019’s Little Women, fearing that no one will want to read the book she’s writing about her family. “Maybe we don’t see those things as important because people don’t write about them,” her sister Amy (Florence Pugh) replies. The question of what art gets to be lionized and revered is one that Little Women’s writer and director, Greta Gerwig, fixated on when adapting the work for the big screen.
Analyzing her own screenplay in Vanity Fair, Gerwig said that while she worried this exchange between Jo and Amy would be too on the nose—it’s one of the only elements she didn’t borrow from the book or from author Louisa May Alcott’s other writing—she decided to include it. “I still think we very much have a hierarchy of stories,” Gerwig said. “I think that the top of the hierarchy is male violence—man on man, man on woman, etc. I think if you look at the books and films and stories that we consider to be ‘important,’ that is a common theme, either explicitly or implicitly.”
The Iranian people are, for the first time in decades, worried about whether the leaders who have been their captors are not also their protectors.
Yesterday Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, delivered his first Friday sermon in eight years, a fulminating but boring rant against America after the death of Qassem Soleimani. The rant brought back memories for me, like hearing a familiar Beatles song.
Sixteen years ago, as an unwashed backpacker, I went to Friday prayers at the University of Tehran. I can pass as Afghan or Turkmen, and no one questioned me as I approached, walking in a large crowd. Delivering the sermon was Khamenei, then 64 years old and 15 years into his reign. Minutes before prayers, I turned off into an alley and watched the streets full of people drain into the university, until I was the only one left outside; I listened to Khamenei’s sermon through the loudspeakers within. I remember little of it, other than the hammy and perfunctory sign-off, which was “Death to America, death to Israel”—but delivered without the venom I expected, and instead with the casual tone of a Catskills comedian at his thousandth performance (“You’ve been a lovely audience”).
Eliminating an unfair tradition made our university more accessible to all talented students.
When I served as the dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of Toronto—Canada’s most selective law school—I would be asked every so often by one of our alumni what preference their children would enjoy when applying. The answer I gave was always the same: none whatsoever. When I became president of Johns Hopkins University 10 years ago, I found that one in eight newly admitted students benefited from preferences given to relatives of alumni. Today, it’s important that I’m able to give the same answer to Hopkins alumni that I once gave in Toronto.
Legacy preferences—the admissions advantage given to family of alumni—are generally alien to Canadian (and, indeed, European) universities. And I never became reconciled to the prevalence of this form of hereditary privilege in American higher education, particularly given this country’s deeply ingrained commitment to the ideals of merit and equal opportunity.
Under U.S. law, it’s nearly impossible to get permission to decapitate and de-flesh a relative’s remains.
You might (or might not) be surprised at how often in my work as a mortician I am asked whether a mourning family member can keep a dearly departed’s skull. Assuming your intentions are good, you’re looking at three major hurdles to clear before Dad’s brainpan can hold jelly beans on your coffee table: paperwork, legal control, and skeletonization.
In theory, people get to decide what happens to their body after death. In reality, it is near impossible to get legal permission to display a relative’s skeleton.
I’ll tell you what’s not going to work: marching over to your local funeral home and saying, “Greetings! That’s my mom’s corpse over there. Could you just pop off her head and de-flesh her skull? That would be great. Thanks!” Your average funeral home (really, any funeral home) is not set up to handle such a request, legally or practically.
Amid talk of a primary challenge, the Senate Democratic leader cast a surprising vote against the USMCA trade deal, bucking most of his party.
The revised U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, the trade deal which the Senate passed Thursday, drew the support of more than 80 percent of Democrats in Congress, handing President Donald Trump a signal bipartisan accomplishment.
Yet perhaps the most surprising vote came in opposition: Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who spurned a deal negotiated by his governing partner, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Schumer had kept his position a secret until the roll call was taken, stunning people who had been closely following the trade debate and who immediately began wondering about the political motivations that might have prompted the senator from New York to vote no. The fast-emergingconsensus: Schumer is trying to ward off a 2022 primary challenge from Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the freshman Bronx Democrat who could find herself without a district if New York loses congressional seats in the next round of reapportionment.
The left is more energized than ever. So what happens if Joe Biden is the nominee?
“Please don’t make me vote for Joe Biden!” a flock of teenagers pleaded in a series of videos posted to the social-media app TikTok earlier this month.
But as the Iowa caucuses draw closer, a Biden nomination is looking more likely by the day. Lefty groups are worried—and warning that a Biden win could crush the activist enthusiasm they’re counting on to win in November.
The thousands of Americans who wait for hours in line to snap a photo with Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts or who fill arenas for Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont simply will not be as enthusiastic about the former vice president, leaders at nine progressive organizations, all of which are involved with organizing and get-out-the-vote efforts, told me in interviews this month. “I can’t imagine having Biden on the ticket is going to be the thing that energizes these folks to get out and do the door-knocking and have the conversations we need them to have,” said Natalia Salgado, who runs civic engagement at the Center for Popular Democracy, a left-wing advocacy group. “It’s incredibly concerning to me.”