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.
Last week I wrote about what Jim and I had seen on another visit to the (exceptional) Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science (MSMS), a public, residential two-year school for juniors and seniors. We’ve been reporting on the school over the past five years. In the latest dispatch, I described the way a committed English teacher at MSMS, Thomas Easterling, was “teaching students to think” through a rigorous analysis of the novel Dirty Work, by the renowned Mississippi writer Larry Brown.
In response, Paul J. Camp, a physics professor at Georgia Gwinnett College, writes to challenge the idea that a school like MSMS—a public high school, but one that chooses its students from around the state—can meaningfully claim to be “teaching them to think.” (And, to be clear, this was my claim—not MSMS’s.)
Here are selections from Paul Camp’s long letter, followed by Thomas Easterling’s shorter response.
Paul Camp writes:
I thought you and your observations of this school were interesting, but it is a bit of a stretch to say that it demonstrates “how to teach students to think.”
I’ve contended for years that a large part of the success of private schools and magnet schools lies in the ability to cherry pick their students. [DF note: As you’ll see below, Thomas Easterling challenges the “cherry pick” characterization.] They arrive already able to think, and the function of the school is less to teach a new skill than it is to refine a preexisting skill.
When I was a research scientist at Georgia Tech, I worked in a cognitive science program that was involved in middle school science education. We were in both affluent suburban schools and poor urban ones. The suburban students were ready to go and had teachers knowledgeable enough in physics to be able to help them focus on the right phenomena.
The urban schools had teachers teaching out of subject area—a biologist and a reading teacher in a physical science class. Their content understanding was little beyond that of their students.
Nevertheless, the project based curriculum we developed was able to engage those children as well, and to at least improve their ability to design and conduct controlled variable experiments. We had kids fresh out of juvenile detention who were engaged in the projects. I’ll never forget one little girl who, in an interview, remarked: “It’s the first thing I ever made that worked.” That tells me a few things about her. She’s tried to make things to solve problems in her life in the past, which means she has the interests of an engineer. And what she finds valuable about the experience we provided is the design process that enables creating a thing that actually solves a problem.
My wife is retiring this month from teaching in Title 1 schools for over a decade. These are schools that have a >70% mobility rate. Their families move from one apartment move-in special to another. They have no stability in their lives, no permanent circle of friends, no community resources for enrichment activities. They have a disturbingly high incidence of developmental and behavioral disorders. One kid on the autism spectrum insists on talking to his friends all through class. Another sits with his head in the closet. A kindergartner didn’t even know her own name ….
And yet, you still find exceptional kids here. I do career day there every year, and I’ve also done some things with their talented and gifted classes. I remember doing an optics activity with them that was supposed to begin with them doing some informal observations using various types of lenses. Everyone except her just spent the time goofing off. She actually had a good observation of an image changing from upside down to right side up as she moved the lens closer to an object. When she tried to explain it to the rest of the class, they ignored her. That child has a nascent “ability to think” but I question if it is going to be able to develop in that environment.
At Georgia Tech, we found that loose and open ended activities only work with high SES students who have teachers that understand the target content… For lower SES schools, we found the need for a highly structured, predictable cycle of activities that reflected the actual professional practices of scientists and engineers.
The first group kind of knows how things are supposed to proceed, similar to the MSMS students. The second needs a more explicit road map to help them understand how what they are currently doing fits into an overall strategy and what should come next….
I once interviewed at the Maine School for Math and Science which I venture to guess is similar to, if not above, the Mississippi school. Those kids were the equivalent of upper division college students. Calculus well beyond the introductory level was in their rear view mirror. They were writing Python programs to simulate problems in quantum theory.
But their classes were essentially self directed. There was little to no overt instruction unless they ran into a problem. They knew what they were doing and where it should go next. They already knew how to think.
I ended up, for family reasons, taking a position at Georgia Gwinnett College. This is a very different population. The mission of the college is to expand the pool of students capable of succeeding in college.
My physics courses are usually majority minority, first generation college students, many first generation Americans, juggling jobs and family responsibilities with academic needs. They are, by and large, disciplined and intent on succeeding, but the open approach of the Maine school just would not work for them. I know. I tried it.
Though they have the requisite discipline, they do not have the requisite cognitive abilities to systematically seek out information relevant to their goals, sort through good from bad information, and use it to achieve a personally meaningful goal.
In other words, they do NOT know how to think, at least not how to think like a physicist. Which brings me back around to the idea of contrastive sets.
Some students will succeed no matter what environment you put them in.These students are the bread and butter of institutions like Georgia Tech and MIT, and they come from places like these magnet schools…. Looking at what you can do with that caliber of student leads to lessons that simply do not transfer to a more general population.
If your goal is to figure out how to teach students to think, it would be quite a bit more instructive to pair this school with a more mainstream school and one that serves an underprivileged population. That enables you to identify practices that are unique to the cherry picked population they are able to work with, and what practices actually do lead to an improved ability to think, however you define that, with more normal students. In fact, what would be really interesting would be to go to the elementary and middle schools that the MSMS students come from and see what went on there that allowed them to become what they are...
OK, I’m long winded. The TLDR version is: you’ve got some very nice observations of what happens at schools like MSMS, but you don’t really know what those observations mean if you only look at schools that serve a cognitively elite population. I guess I should have put that at the top. 8-)
Now, here is Thomas Easterling’s reply:
First, I’d like to thank Paul Camp and his wife for teaching students who get sent to the ranks of the forgotten all too often—bright students whose familial circumstances eat away at them until we see their problems instead of their potential.
Some MSMS students fall into that category as well: “cognitively elite” students who are underserved by their current schools. Between 20% and 25% of our students have qualified for fee waivers since the Mississippi legislature required us to start charging for room and board. About 35% of our accepted applicants classify themselves as belonging to a minority.
Regardless of income or ethnicity, MSMS works hard to empower students to make their dreams come true. Some of the ways we do that can be measured: about 10% of our seniors quality as National Merit Finalists; ACT composite scores have gone up 4.7 points from admission to graduation since 2012; roughly 60% of our graduates earn at least a 30 on the ACT, though only 20% enter with such a score. Data shows that our students grow as thinkers once they arrive on campus.
Of course, we also have anecdotal evidence that our classes teach students how to think. This is particularly true in the arts and humanities.
However cognitively elite a teenager might be, that student won’t necessarily read critically or write well without instruction and practice. (One of our MIT-bound seniors recently told me that my English class was the hardest he had taken here. How do you give a correct answer in a class where being right isn’t enough—you’ve also got to convince others that you’re right? he asked.)
In fact, one could plausibly argue that the greatest benefits to attending MSMS involve exchanging ideas with people from every walk of life in Mississippi. From programming robots to learning about paradigm shifts, our students take what we do in the classroom to their residence halls and then to the wider world.
We proudly describe ourselves as the most diverse city block in the state of Mississippi. Our students come from every walk of life: Asians whose parents came to America with little money and less English; solidly middle-class soccer players; kids who qualify for free and reduced meals; trust-fund babies; African Americans; whites; Hispanics; straight; gay; Democrat; Republican; blissfully undecided. All of them receive the same opportunity for excellence at our school.
Thomas G. Easterling III
The Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science
The only thing traditional about Thomas Easterling’s 11th-grade English class at the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science (MSMS) was his short quiz at the start of the class. It was the last of the year, he told his students, and I guessed that this was his way to keep the kids focused on their final assignment. It may also have been a nudge toward the good habit of reading, for a generation of students with Netflix always at their fingertips. They scrambled beyond their laptops for bits of paper to write their answers on and handed them to Easterling, who assembled a messy little stack.
MSMS is a school I first visited more than five years ago, and whose students, teachers, programs, and possibilities I’ve written aboutmanytimes.
Jim and I have been back again this month, and I wanted to be sure to pay another visit to see Thomas Easterling’s class.
From the looks and names of the 25 students, I guessed they were a composite of East and South Asians, African Americans, whites, and Hispanics. Students at MSMS, a two-year public residential school on the campus of the Mississippi University for Women (fondly called The W), arrived there from all over the state. They came from the Delta or towns on the Gulf, from shacks and double-wides or fancy homes around bigger cities like Oxford and Hattiesburg. Two years later, they left their dorms in Columbus, once a Civil War hospital town with housing stock still rich with gracious, pillared antebellum homes, an architecturally beautiful downtown, and large stretches of run-down, low-income areas. (Median household income in the city is around $35,000, versus around $63,000 for the country as a whole.) MSMS students, from their wide variety of backgrounds, are headed for the Ivies, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Harvey Mudd, name your school. Easterling already referred to his class as seniors, and they seemed to comfortably assume that role.
Sitting with the students, I found it hard to make a connection between the human and intellectual energy in their classroom and the “conversations” about education served up in public life. Life in this Mississippi classroom was happening far, far away from policy statements from the Department of Education, or editorials on charter schools, or debates about the burdens of required testing, or calculations of where American students place in international rankings.
In Easterling’s class, I was witnessing the realization of a mission statement to teach children how to think. How? With deft, nimble teaching.
On this day, the class had been reading Larry Brown’s Dirty Work, a book Easterling chose in part because he favored books not covered by SparkNotes and partly because they had worked together when Easterling was an editor at the Oxford American. (Brown was a renowned firefighter turned novelist who first earned acclaim with Dirty Work, which came out in 1989, and wrote a number of other successful books before his death of a heart attack, in 2004, at age 53.) Plus, I thought, what teacher in Mississippi could resist introducing his students to Mississippi writers?Dirty Work is a novel about Vietnam veterans; it is heavily layered, full of imponderables of the meaning of life, unresolvable questions, and gray areas, with mature themes and unfiltered language.
Easterling moved on from the factual questions on the quiz (What does Braden ask Walter to do? What does Jesus say he wants, in a dream?) and plunged into issues that were complex, to say the least. The students started off a bit slowly, but soon wound up into a crescendo of comments, arguments, small-group debates, and references.
One girl described a main character: “He was a drinker, a smoker, and he uses foul language. He’s not ‘Thou art.’” Others made informed references to the civil-rights movement, the Civil War, the Old Testament. They debated the terms of justice, the boundaries of violence, the value of diplomacy. The South Asian girl started a riff on Gandhi, to which the whole class murmured in a tone reminiscent of the burbling British Parliament. They had clearly heard her message before.
The students were seated at tables arranged in a square, and Easterling roamed within its inner courtyard. He would read some passages like a storyteller, and if you closed your eyes you could hear Garrison Keillor, with a southern accent. He framed his class with permission and trust. An occasional student got up and left the room, presumably to go to the restroom, and returned. They were all working on their laptops. He told me later that he assumed that a number of them were clicking away on sites completely irrelevant to the class—but he called on them and engaged them frequently enough that they couldn’t let their attention drift for long. He asked the kids to return their books when they were finished, to lighten his end-of-year processing load, but assured them it was okay if they needed to keep them until the bitter end. He assumed his students knew his references, but made cultural checks from time to time. “What’s a candy striper?” he inquired. “Just checking—you never know … ” when they virtually rolled their eyes. He talked about certain movies from way before their time—including one even before my time (or his), The Young Lions, with Marlon Brando—and then suggested they might want to use some of their summertime to watch them.
He never said their interpretations were wrong per se, but demurred to let them down gently: “I dunno; maybe or maybe not that.” Or if no one could come up with a comment, he would encourage, “Read closely. You’ll see. You’ll see.” A bit later, I heard a few soon comment, “Oh, I got it!” And it was easy to tell that Easterling knew which students could take a little ribbing and which needed to be drawn out.
The walls of the classroom were surprisingly spare; just four posters with themes of Respect, Truth, Reading, and Trust. And a fifth of Joan Miró.
Many of the people we met at community colleges around the country, from California to Oregon to Mississippi, would talk to us about their students getting a second chance at their lives. In Mississippi, these young students were getting a first chance.
Arriving in Tucson, we felt the inklings of coming full circle with our American Futures project. Only one more leg of our journey, about 400 miles, before we reached our destination of the San Bernardino airport, and on to a writing base at the University of Redlands in Southern California. For the record, here, here, and here are the three previous road reports since we departed from Washington D.C.
I was very excited about finally getting to Tucson. During our several visits to Ajo, Arizona, about 130 miles to the west of Tucson, I first learned about one of the fearless, indomitable and I daresay under-appreciated women who left a mark on America. Isabella Greenway was Arizona’s first Congresswoman, as part of FDR’s New Deal Democratic majority. But before that she helped build and bring the beautiful copper-mining town of Ajo, Arizona to its heyday. We visited Ajo several times over the past three years, and have chronicled some of its creative rebirth.
In 1930, after her time in Ajo and before her time in Congress, Isabella Greenway also founded and opened the Arizona Inn in Tucson, which was, I had heard, still thriving today under the family eye.
Over our three years of landing in the towns of America, we could never be too choosy about hotels. We considered ourselves lucky if we found a place with “suites” in the name, as in “Homewood Suites” or “Best Western Suites” or “Hampton Inn & Suites.” This was mostly because “suites” suggested an on-site place to do laundry and a little extra elbow room, which were both welcome attributes when two people were working in the same space and also generating a lot of dirty clothes.
So, a visit to the Arizona Inn was very special, and it turned out to be exactly what I imagined. Isabella Greenway herself described it as “a simple, home-like, cottage hotel” but it is much more than that, with high-ceilinged-oversized rooms, quiet green spaces, a big pool (almost 20 meters by my stroke count), wonderful food, and a hospitality still imbued with the family’s sensibility.
On a whim, I emailed the current proprietor, Patty Doar, who is the granddaughter of Isabella Greenway. To my surprise, she emailed right back. We met the next morning with her and her son and co-proprietor, the writer Will Conroy, swapping stories and photos about the different pieces of the story that we each knew.
We all had stories: Our updates on Ajo; their recollections of Isabella Greenway; connecting the dots between Ajo and Eastport Maine, where we also spent several American Futures visits; Isabella’s lifelong friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt; and her visit to the Roosevelt’s summer camp at Campobello Island, right across the water from Eastport. Such serendipity was a special feature of American Futures that we had come to relish and appreciate.
We left Tucson reluctantly, but with the auspicious sign of strong tailwinds, the first we’d enjoy on this cross-continent trip. Just north of Gila Bend, Jim and I were chatting about our introduction to the area’s Barry Goldwater Bombing Range back when we were first visiting Ajo (as described here), and the impressive aerial training of the Air Force A-10 attack planes and other military aircraft in the vicinity.
About then, the air traffic controller (ATC) told us they had lost radar contact with our plane. This wasn’t so surprising—it often happened with a relatively low altitude flight, or in remote areas far from controllers, or with natural impediments like mountains. Jim recycled the transponder, which often cleared up the connection between our plane and the controllers. This time, nothing.
Then the dials and gauges on the cockpit monitors—showing ground speed, wind direction and speed, location, just about everything—began to go haywire. They spun around randomly, showing a 150 knot headwind, then a tailwind, then no wind. The moving map showing our location, waypoints, position relative to obstacles and restricted airspace and other airplanes, suddenly blanked out as if it had no idea where our plane actually was. Red warning signs popped up on the dual GPS guidance systems (almost everything in the plane’s critical instrumentation has a backup) saying that they had lost their signal—the sort of thing you see in a car if you’re in a long tunnel.
I could tell that this was getting Jim’s attention. Then we both were alarmed by an urgent automated voice yelling “TERRAIN! TERRAIN!” This was from the system designed to give a last-minute warning if the plane was headed to dangerously high terrain (like a mountain, or anything with a higher elevation than the plane’s). We were getting this warning even though the closest mountains were dozens of miles away, and the desert floor was in clear view many thousands of feet below us. Jim switched to his old-school, pre-GPS “VOR”-based navigation systems to figure out where we were supposed to go, and how we could keep clear of the abundant nearby military-restricted zones. (It was easy enough to keep clear of the mountains, just by using our eyes.) Once Jim determined that we had lost all GPS guidance, he felt safe disabling the incessant TERRAIN! TERRAIN! warning, which was triggered because the plane’s instruments had no idea where the plane was and were being hyper-cautious because of surrounding mountains. I studied the dials, thinking— overdramatically—that this is how the world as we know it would look during some kind of nefarious global technological takeover.
It was dark comfort to hear a call from United 404, reporting to ATC that their GPS had also just conked out. At least it wasn’t just our plane. But, hey, what did it mean that others planes’ GPS were going out? And, an airliner’s?
The ATC said calmly, there must be GPS jamming going on, as part of a military test exercise. As we crossed the border into California, after about half an hour of no GPS, the guidance signal flickered back on. Later, on the ground, Jim learned that the Air Force was running a month-long trial in that area, testing the effects of intentional GPS outages. Thanks for letting us know, I thought.
As we flew over Palm Springs, the aerial roadsigns were becoming familiar: the mountains, the towns below, the windfarms, the Banning Pass that would let us through to the Southern California basin.
We opted for the route straight through the pass, although a controller told us about a pilot report from half an hour earlier of moderate to severe turbulence. In windy conditions, the Banning Pass can be dicey, because it’s the very narrow outlet through which air from the Mojave Desert to the east spills into the Los Angeles basin. Bumps are never fun, but they’re not actually dangerous to the plane, and the pass was by far the most direct way to our destination in San Bernardino. We tightened our seat belts, put away all loose items, and got ready for the dozen or so miles of potentially rough air between Palm Springs and the pass’s outlet near the city of Banning.
As it happened, we needn’t have worried. The turbulence didn’t materialize; the air was smooth. We spotted the San Bernardino Airport (SBD), and Jim set up the route for landing to the east. The pilot in front of us reported a “go around,” or missed landing, because the crosswinds were so gusty as he neared touchdown. He said he would circle around for a second try. Jim guided our Cirrus in, hovering near touchdown in the gusts for a few hundred feet and remarking to the controller that he was happy for the very long and wide runway at SBD, which had once accommodated B-52s when this site was the now-closed Norton Air Force Base.
Arrived. And feeling a world away from Washington D.C., some 3000 miles and four days later.
We took off west from Demopolis, Alabama, prepared for a lot of flying ahead on this last journey for The Atlantic’sAmerican Futures project. (First two installments in the series, taking us from D.C. to Alabama, here and here. ) We passed over Meridian and Jackson, in Mississippi, just a ways south of Columbus, Starkville, and West Point, where we spent several reporting trips to the booming manufacturing center of the so-called Golden Triangle.
I have always looked forward to crossing the Mississippi River. We’ve done that in just about every state through which the mighty river flows, especially in the upper Midwest: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois. There it would be today in the state of Mississippi, below us just around Vicksburg. I was worried about even getting a glimpse because of the low-overcast clouds, which we were flying above (on an “instrument flight plan” because we were expecting to have to land in cloudy conditions). We watched the navigation maps on the cockpit monitors, and just as we were about to cross, the clouds parted. Jim banked the plane so as to dip the wing on my right seat side, and I stole enough of a look to recognize the unmistakably mighty Mississippi.
We stopped for fuel in Minden, just shy of Shreveport, aiming for Dallas to install the software patch that we needed for weather readings. There’s always something, even in this little plane; it amazes me that the big boys fly around with as few mechanical and technological delays as they do.
By the time we were ready to take off from Dallas the next day, a cool drizzle had moved in, reminding us why we avoided winter during most of our flying in the last three years. For the next three hours after departure (again on an instrument plan), we were either in the thick cloud layer or just above it, barely seeing the vast stretches of west Texas below us or the sun above.
I think Jim enjoys the challenge of this kind of flying. He is always on top of the instruments, pushing buttons of one sort or another, checking gauges, and testing the redundant systems. For me, this opaque flying is unpleasant, sometimes even boring. I don’t like the absence of orientation. Most pilots, I’ve learned, have a zealous passion for flying. It’s something they can’t not do, and they don’t seem to mind the conditions. For the rest of us, well, I for one consider flights like these functional. The plane is getting me west.
The air traffic controllers were busy over west Texas. There is a lot of military airspace, and we could hear the calls from “Fighter 25” and “Fighter 26,” working with the air traffic controller (ATC). There were at least five medevac flights calling in that day, which seemed like a lot until you considered the long desolate stretches of road lying between sick or injured people and medical attention. In rural Ajo, Arizona, we knew that rural medical care meant that pregnant women often took precautions to drive the 200 miles to Phoenix or Tucson some weeks in advance of their delivery dates. The medevac flights always took priority, no questions asked.
Pilots requested vectoring to get to Amarillo, San Angelo, Dalhart, Alpine, El Paso. The names were exotic and evocative to me. When the ATC chatter died out, we switched to Sirius/XM radio, toggling among some of our favorites. Road Dog Trucking warned about winter road conditions over Omaha and St. Louis and impending ice storms. Rural Radio would offer local crop prices or advice on pest control, depending on when and where we were flying. There are entire stations dedicated to Willie Nelson, or Bruce Springsteen, or music of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. There is Coffee House music, jazz, and the often-irreverent Catholic guys on the Catholic Channel.
We ascended to 10,000 feet to cross the very southern remnants of the Rockies, the Guadalupe Mountains, on our way to Las Cruces. This reminded me of the tail end of the Great Wall that we climbed in Gansu province in China, where the crumbling remains became little but an obstacle for the farmers to work around in their fields. Finally, the cloud cover was dissipating.
Our little cabin isn’t pressurized; it’s legal to fly without oxygen up to 14,000 feet (after 30 minutes at 12,500 feet, the pilot has to use oxygen, of which we have small emergency-use bottles on board). But I felt myself involuntarily taking longer, deeper breaths. And I also checked the color of my fingernail beds for any tinge of blue, which signals oxygen deprivation. We were fine, of course.
We refueled in Las Cruces, looking for late afternoon lunch and settling on the beef jerky I always packed for such lean times. We decided to press on another hour or so to Tucson. The mountains deflated into undulating brown hills. There were flatlands with some volcanic outcroppings or long stretches of almost-surreal desert landscapes.
Sightings of such geology—volcanic or the colored striations of angular mountainsides—always make us feel very small and our moments on this earth fleeting. Not to wax too dramatic, but flying does that to your perspective.
Finally, Tucson. Approaches for landing follow a U-shaped pattern. The goal is to land flying into the wind, which offers more control. Basically, you fly “downwind” along the side of the airfield, in the opposite of the direction in which you intend to land. (In this case, we were on a “right downwind” because we would be making a series of right-hand turns toward the airfield on our right.) Then you turn 90 degrees, called turning “base”, for a short hop perpendicular to the runway. Then you turn another 90 degrees for “final” and you’re home free.
As we were about to turn base, the winds suddenly shifted. Really suddenly. The Tucson Approach controller told Jim to loop around in exactly the opposite direction from what he was planning, and prepare to land on the same runway in the opposite direction. (For airplane buffs: we had been planning to land on with “right traffic” for Runway 11 Right. Suddenly the winds favored landing in the opposite direction, with left traffic for Runway 29 Left, which is the same strip of asphalt headed the opposite way.) Surprise!
It’s moments like these that I’m grateful for the professionalism of the ATCs, grateful for constant upkeep and training that Jim does as a pilot, and grateful that all the other pilots from those in the big commercial regional jets or the fancy little Citations or the humble single engine propeller planes like ours, are nearly always reliable, too.
We woke up in Demopolis, Alabama, on day two of the final journey of our American Futures series for The Atlantic. We were one day out of Washington D.C. (first installment here) and already decades away in so many ways. The weather was balmy. In the Best Western breakfast room, Ms. Nettie was making grits and biscuits for us and the out-of-town workers who had come in to oversee the “planned outage” at the cement factory.
Jim was troubleshooting one of the weather apps in the plane; the software wasn’t communicating to bring in the current weather updates, including radar depictions of areas we needed to avoid. Before this technology existed, we had flown many years without such real-time information, but given the forecast for the next few days along our route to Southern California, we preferred to have everything working before we headed up again into the skies.
Now, only two small things stood between us and progress west. One was the needed update part for our onboard-weather system. That would take a day to reach the nearest Cirrus-proficient service shop, which was in the Addison airport just north of Dallas. The other was the real-time weather. The forecast crosswinds that afternoon for Dallas were gusting above 30 and even 40 knots, far exceeded the safe landing guidelines for the plane.
We decided to spend another day in Demopolis, and depart when the winds would be less fearsome and the weather-software part would have arrived. I loved this kind of on-the-go pivot in plans, which had led us to unexpected stays in places like Red Oak, Iowa and Cheyenne, Wyoming and Toccoa, Georgia along our American Futures journey.
The night before, at a cozy, delicious Demopolis bistro, called of course Le Bistro, we ended up in conversation about the town with owner Mike Grayson, who it turns out had been the Mayor of Demopolis for the previous eight years. In small towns like this, we often found that the energetic folks wore multiple hats. In Eastport, Maine, the local theater stage manager by night was the morning barista at the coffee shop, as well as the nephrologist at the town’s clinic and new owner of the dog kennel.
At the top of my list of Grayson’s suggestions was the Demopolis Public Library. Over the last three years, I often found that the local public library showed the heart and soul of a community. I wrote about many of them here.
In Demopolis we strolled down Washington Street, past as many boarded up storefronts as there were ones in business, thinking that the bones of those buildings offered great potential for future success stories. The public library was indeed the showpiece of the town. In a move showing great foresight, the city engineered an effort to purchase and renovate the former Ulmer Furniture Company store and warehouse. It is a truly beautiful building, as elegant and graceful as any Carnegie library I’ve seen. The second story mezzanine has a wraparound balcony overlooking the main reading room, with wooden Mission style worktables and lamps. Oversized photos of some of the town’s historic moments lined the walls. There was Woodrow Wilson visiting nearly a century ago for the then-legal cockfighting at a fundraising auction to build a bridge over the Tombigbee River.
Connie Lawson, the circulation manager and a librarian there for over 20 years, recounted detail for detail a more recent visit in 1998 by Bill and Melinda Gates, who came by to see how one of their first computer donations from the Gates Library Foundation was doing. Connie said that she and her colleagues, intent on making a good impression, had spent days cleaning the library “down to the baseboards.” They were all so nervous, she told us, stressing that Bill Gates was the richest man in the world then, and it’s not every day you get to meet the richest man in the world.
Famous visiting dignitaries could take a lesson from the Gateses, who impressed Demopolis with moments that people would remember and retell for decades. Connie said that the Gateses were as nice as could be; she didn’t wear a touch of make-up; he held his tie in place against the wind with a piece of tape. “The world’s richest man had no tie clip,” she marveled. And his hand was “as soft as a baby’s bottom” when you shook it. The Gateses traveled by bookmobile that day, heading off from Demopolis over to Selma and then on to Montgomery to catch a plane.
The top floor of the Demopolis Public Library was the piece de resistance – the children’s floor. The space was as bright and comfy and engaging as any library’s children’s room I’ve seen in any town around America. It served many purposes from the toddlers’ story time to the opportunities for the town’s sizable home-schooled population.
We walked around the town’s Kingfisher Bay Marina, which is a popular stopover for the snowbirds on their southern migration from the north down to the Gulf. Loopers, as we heard the boaters called in Demopolis, follow a 6000 mile system of natural and also manmade paths that include the Great Lakes, the Intracoastal Waterways, and in Demopolis, the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway. (Tombigbee is probably a Choctaw word that means “box maker,” according to a local historian from another of our most favorite nearby towns, Columbus Mississippi.)
One hardy woman we met on the dock, who lived on their houseboat year round, said that last week, it had been so cold that her husband had to chop up the ice that formed on the docks. Other boats gamely decorated in tropical Christmas lights, and others boasted questionable-sounding home ports of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and Occoquan, Virginia, both of which are landlocked, as far as I know.
The loud marina dredging was running about eight hours a day now, making sure the riverbed didn’t silt up and prevent the big boats from docking there along their Loop passage. The dredging process spewed out and sifted the sludge into fine sand, an ingredient for the cement, and gravel, which was sold elsewhere.
Before we left the next morning, Mike Grayson toured us around the location of the recently announced Two Rivers Lumber Company, at the site of a former barge-manufacturing plant. The site was located between the river, where they had floated the new barges away, and the airport. Parades of big rigs were lining up to dump their loads of timber to the paper mill, at the far end of the runway. Between the paper mill, which handled the smaller circumference timber and the new saw mill, which would take the bigger timber, they had Alabama’s forest clearing covered.
Mike Grayson, with the spirit of town visionaries we had seen across the country, pointed to the forests as we were crossing the highway at the end of the airport road. “This may sound crazy, but when I look across the road here at that forest, what I see is more industry.” We recognized that these were the words of the dreamers and visionaries who are building and rebuilding American towns.
Montgomery County traffic, Cirrus Four-Three-Five Sierra Romeo taking Runway One-Four, VFR (visual flight rules) departure to the west, Montgomery.
And with that, we were off in our small Cirrus airplane for the last official journey of our American Futures series for The Atlantic, flying away from frigid Washington D.C. and its political turmoil, on a southerly route to California.
We have flown over 60,000 miles during the past three-and-a-half years, from the upper Midwest to Maine, south through New England and the Mid Atlantic states to Georgia and Florida, sweeping through the deep south, to Texas and the southwest, up the central valley of California to Oregon and Washington, and closing the loop to Montana, all the while snaking in and out of the so-called flyover country, the middle of everywhere through Wyoming, Kansas, Missouri, Ohio, West Virginia, and much of the rest.
“Flyover” to us has meant landing in dozens of towns for jam-packed visits of a week or two, often returning for unfinished business, reporting, or nostalgia. The purpose of this last journey is a little different. Our destination is sunny, warm, mind-clearing and political soul-cleansing inland southern California, to Jim’s hometown of Redlands. We plan to ponder all we’ve seen and try to make some sense of it on a more composed canvas than the pointillist collection of hundreds of blog posts that we have written along the way.
From experience, we anticipated that the journey would be unpredictable and exciting. Flight in a small plane is always that way: you don’t know which surprising event will occur, but you can always be sure that one or more will—sometimes good, sometimes bad. We are never disappointed, and always surprised anew by the dramas airborne, by the perspectives on the unfolding country below, and by the snapshots of life on the ground in places we land, many of which we’d never been to or even sometime heard of before being steered there for one reason or another.
Our leave-taking was not auspicious. Our planned departure for Sunday, and then for Monday came and went: the weather was too bad. We were heeding our only cardinal rule, which is that weather comes first, and there is no place we really have to be, ever. Cold, wind, snow, and icy conditions gave us a few more days to organize at home and winnow the next 6 months’ belongings—clothes, flight gear, portable technology, emergency supplies—into the 140 pounds the plane could carry, besides us and a reasonable amount of gas.
Finally, Tuesday looked like the day. It was still a blustery 29 degrees in Washington D.C., up from the teens two days before. But the clouds were high, so we could fly below them without having to file an “instrument rules” flight plan or worry about icing on the wings. (If you’re in the clouds in wintertime, you’re probably going to be in icing conditions, which are dangerous and have to be avoided.) We bundled into clothing layers so thick that I had to loosen my seat belt, a complex system of straps not unlike in toddlers’ carseats. I stretched my headset to fit over a heavy knit cap. Jim unplugged the plane’s engine from its overnight warming station. After all that, the sound of the motor turning over quickly, and I would add proudly, was our signal.
The air traffic controllers, (ATC), my heroes of the sky, guided us through the busy Dulles airspace, on a shortcut south. We expected headwinds, but not the strong 40 to 50 knots direct headwind blasts that slowed our ground speed from our accustomed 170 knots (about 200 mph) down to measly 109 at times. I was grateful for my natural sea legs, dating back to a childhood of pounding over waves in small sailboats, which translated well to the bumps and blips from gusty winds aloft. This part of the journey wasn’t for the faint of heart or stomach.
Inching over Virginia, we began to wean ourselves off the frenetic breathlessness of political news that saturated our hometown by listening to the slow-paced Senate committee hearings for some administration nominees on our Sirius XM radio.
We stopped for cheap gas in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Just beyond that, the snow had melted and given way to long stretches of brown earth. We tried out a few different altitudes before settling as low as we could, around 2500 feet, where headwinds were a bit lighter. (Usually the lower the altitude, the weaker the wind.) Outside, the temperatures began rising. We flew over the catfish farms and the erratic geometry of forest-clearing.
We were chasing the 5:06 PM sunset in Demopolis, Alabama, our hoped-for destination, to get in before dark and before the 5:00 PM scheduled closing time for the small airport office, called the FBO, or Fixed Base Operator in general aviation terms. We chose Demopolis for nostalgia this time, as Jim had spent a good part of the summer of 1968 around Selma, Montgomery, and Demopolis, as a teenaged very cub-reporter for a civil rights newspaper called the Southern Courier, writing about voter registration and other civil rights efforts. We wanted to give the town a look nearly 50 years later.
About ten minutes out, at just before 5 o’clock, Jim made radio contact with the FBO. Jason, the manager there, told us no rush to beat the 5:00 PM deadline, that he would stick around. That was welcome news to me; as part of my self-designated ground support, I usually arranged a motel and transportation before we arrived, a lesson learned over the years after some unhappy after-hours arrivals at rural airports, with no way into town and no place to stay. This time, our plans had been too unsure to make any bookings.
But we were lucky. At the end of a long departure and a very long day, it all worked out. With generosity exceeding even Southern hospitality, Jason lent us his own car for the night, saying his wife could come collect him later. We got the last room at the Best Western, which was booked with a team of workers who had come into town to service the planned outage of the cement factory. We were well on our way.
American culture is becoming more and more preoccupied with nature. What if all the celebrations of the wild world are actually manifestations of grief?
It started, as so many of life’s journeys do, at IKEA. We went one day a few years ago to get bookshelves. We left with some Hemnes and a leafy impulse buy: a giant Dracaena fragrans. A couple of months later, delighted that we had managed to keep it alive, we brought in a spritely little ponytail palm. And then an ivy. A visiting friend brought us a gorgeous snake plant. I bought a Monstera online because it was cheap and I was curious. It arrived in perfect condition, in a big box with several warning labels: perishable: live plants.
Where is the line between “Oh, they have some plants” and “Whoa, they are plant people”? I’m not quite sure, but I am sure that we long ago crossed it. I would read the periodic news articles about Millennials and their houseplants and feel the soft shame of being seen. But I cherished our little garden. Potted plants have a quiet poetry to them, a whirl of wildness and constraint; they make the planet personal. I loved caring for ours. I loved noticing, over time, the way they stretched and flattened and curled and changed. I still do.
A new message proves too toxic for the Republican Party.
Last week, far-right Republican Representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene and Paul Gosar distanced themselves from a proposal to create an America First Caucus, after a document bearing the group’s name made reference to “Anglo-Saxon political traditions.”
Both Greene and Gosar told the press that they hadn’t seen the document and did not endorse its sentiments, after House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy condemned the effort, saying that America “isn’t built on identity, race, or religion,” and rejecting “nativist dog whistles.”
If seeing the party of Donald Trump distance itself from nativism is strange, it helps to understand that “Anglo-Saxon” is what you say when “whites only” is simply too inclusive.
Inequality has seemingly caused many American parents to jettison friendships and activities in order to invest more resources in their kids.
Over the past few decades, American parents have been pressured into making a costly wager: If they sacrifice their hobbies, interests, and friendships to devote as much time and as many resources as possible to parenting, they might be able to launch their children into a stable adulthood. While this gamble sometimes pays off, parents who give themselves over to this intensive form of child-rearing may find themselves at a loss when their children are grown and don’t need them as much.
Prior generations didn’t need to be as preoccupied with their children’s well-being or future. Growing up in Dayton, Ohio, in the 1960s, my brothers and I were as luxuriously removed from our parents’ minds as they were from ours. It was the gilded age of childhood freedom. My brothers and I consumed hours of television and ate staggering amounts of sugar—for breakfast. We vanished each summer morning, biked back for lunch, and then disappeared again ’til dusk. My parents also had a life. My mother played mah-jongg weekly with “the girls” and went out every weekend with my father without calling it “date night.” My dad played squash on weekends at the downtown YMCA and didn’t seem to worry about whether my brothers and I felt neglected.
Cultural portrayals of hoarding tend to invite pity rather than empathy, revulsion rather than self-reflection. A new entrant in the field masterfully refocuses the lens.
I cannot remember whether I knew what compulsive hoarding was before 2009. Likely not. That year, the TV network A&E put the disorder on the cultural radar in an unparalleled way with its show Hoarders. The series introduced a public audience to a sometimes-private struggle—the obsessive need to acquire objects, coupled with the fear of letting them go—and offered its participants mental-health resources and extensive cleaning services. But it aimed to horrify viewers, too, with its footage of gawking neighbors and close-ups on maggot-filled refrigerators, set to a horror-movie-esque soundtrack. The show attempts the impossible union of a serious psychological analysis with the flair of television; its appeal suggests a fascination with witnessing people’s pain as well as a shared curiosity about our attachments to stuff. The premiere recorded 2.5 million viewers, at the time one of the largest audiences for a premiere in A&E’s history. Now in its 12th season, Hoarders remains one of its most popular shows.
Black and brown people’s defiance is not the problem. Our compliance is not the solution.
Chicago Police Officer Eric E. Stillman chased a boy down an alleyway.
It was the early morning of March 29. In Minnesota, opening statements in the Derek Chauvin trial were coming in a few hours. Stillman had responded to reports of gunshots in Little Village, a predominantly Latino community on Chicago’s West Side.
“Stop right now!” the officer yelled at Adam Toledo, a 13-year-old seventh grader at Gary Elementary School. “Hands. Show me your hands. Drop it. Drop it.”
A video taken by Stillman’s body camera shows Toledo apparently complying.
He appears to drop something.
He turns around.
He shows his hands.
Stillman fires a single shot, killing Toledo.
Afterward, Stillman’s attorney insisted that the fatal shooting was justified. “The police officer was put in this split-second situation where he has to make a decision,” said Timothy Grace, a lawyer retained by the Fraternal Order of Police in Chicago.
If Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin seeks reelection, the race could be a key test of Trumpism’s viability in a swing state.
Ron Johnson has brought Republicans and Democrats together: They all seem to agree that they want the senator from Wisconsin to run for a third term next year.
Former President Donald Trump has weighed in from Mar-a-Lago: “Even though he has not yet announced that he is running, and I certainly hope he does, I am giving my Complete and Total Endorsement to Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin … He has no idea how popular he is. Run, Ron, Run!” Senator Rick Scott of Florida, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, “is optimistic that Senator Ron Johnson will seek a third term,” a committee spokesperson, Lizzie Litzow, told me.
The Democrats are just as eager. “Johnson is villain No. 1 on the Senate map,” Stewart Boss, the national press secretary for the Democrats’ Senate-campaign arm, told me. The Trumpy positions Johnson has taken and his attacks on Joe Biden mean that the senator “should absolutely stand for reelection,” so Democrats can have the satisfaction of beating him, a former Biden-campaign aide told me, requesting anonymity because the comment wasn’t made on behalf of the campaign.
Even a niche subculture built around magical cartoon horses is reckoning with racism.
Updated at 7:42 p.m. ET on June 23, 2020.
My Little Pony fans have had a Nazi problem for a long time.
That sounds just as strange no matter how many times you say it. My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic is a cartoon television show about friendship, compassion, and a group of magical horses with names such as Twilight Sparkle and Fluttershy who live in a fantastical land called Equestria. It’s marketed to children. Nevertheless, it has an extremely dedicated adult fandom, which is mostly made up of men, or “bronies,” as they’ve been referred to for nearly a decade. Most of these men are white. Some of these men are vocal white supremacists.
The domestic slave trade was no sideshow in our history, and slave traders were not bit players on the stage.
Isaac Franklin spent part of Christmas Day 1833 assessing his company’s operations and making plans for the future. Writing from New Orleans to one of his business partners in Virginia, Franklin took a few moments out of his holiday to report that he had rented a new showroom in the city from which he would soon start making sales, and that sales up the Mississippi River at the company’s branch in Natchez, Mississippi, were going swimmingly.
Franklin had just come from Natchez, and he was happy to relay the news that he had seen “first rate prices and profits,” realized nearly $100,000, and likely outdone all of his competitors put together. He was also collecting outstanding debts from customers to whom he had extended credit, and he promised that he would soon send along some money, though he told his partner that he ought to consider rustling up additional funds from his banking connections if he could. Franklin wanted “four hundred more slaves this season,” and keeping the supply chain steady did not come cheap.
Governments need to give Americans an off-ramp to the post-pandemic world. Ending outdoor mask requirements would be a good place to start.
Last week, I covered my nose and mouth with close-fitting fabric like a good citizen and walked to a restaurant in Washington, D.C., where I de-masked at a patio table to greet a friend. I sat with my chair facing the entrance and watched dozens of people perform the same ritual, removing a mask they’d worn outside and alone. It seemed like the most normal thing in the world. Until, suddenly, it seemed very weird.
The coronavirus is most transmissible in poorly ventilated indoor spaces, where the aerosolized virus can linger in the air before latching onto our nasal or bronchial cells. In outdoor areas, the viral spray is more likely to disperse. One systematic overview of COVID-19 case studies concluded that the risk of transmission was 19 times higher indoors than outside. That’s why wearing a mask is so important in, say, a CVS, but less crucial in, say, the park.
Plans to form a breakaway tournament highlight a political moment.
When I was a teenager, my hometown football—soccer—team was bought by a local businessman who began his career as a safecracker, became friends with Donald Trump, and ended his days broke and in jail. George Reynolds, who died last week, lived an Englishman’s version of the American dream: He got rich, bought a local institution, then went bankrupt.
For a moment, his ownership sparked a kind of giddy hope among the club’s supporters, who were sold promises of the big time. Reynolds, who made his money selling chipboard kitchen worktops, had bought the club, Darlington F.C., on a whim and pledged to take it from a lower English-football division all the way to the top, to compete in the Premier League and the holy grail of European football: the Champions League. To do this, he sold the club’s tiny grounds in the town’s center and built a 30,000-seat stadium on its outskirts, which he named the Reynolds Arena. He would attend games in a knee-length fur coat, rising from his seat to wave to the fans chanting his name.