James Fallows is a staff writer for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. He and his wife, Deborah Fallows, are the authors of the 2018 book Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of America, which was a national best seller and is the basis of a forthcoming HBO documentary.
James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for more than 35 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Sydney, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. He has been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and as a Fellow of the American Geographical Society. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot.
Fallows has won the National Magazine Award for his 2002 story “Iraq: The Fifty-First State?” warning about the consequences of invading Iraq; he has been a finalist four other times. He has also won the National Book Award for nonfiction for his book National Defense and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. Before Our Towns, his most recent book was China Airborne (2012). He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the book Dreaming in Chinese. Together between 2013 and 2017 they traveled across the United States for their American Futures project, which led to Our Towns. They have two married sons and five grandchildren.
Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the email button above. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
I’m mentioning it again this weekend, after Deb’s and my own sons have shown themselves to be wonderful fathers, both as a holiday-themed observance and because a document I linked to in the original post has vanished from its online home.
That document was a brief commencement speech I gave in 2008 at Ursinus College in Pennsylvania. Ursinus is the small private college my dad had attended briefly during World War II, before heading off to medical school and service as a Navy doctor. With the passing years, the link I posted from the Ursinus site has gone the way of a great many links and become a 404.
I recently found a copy of the speech, and for cloud-archive purposes I post it again here. I still believe what I said those many years ago.
Happy upcoming Father’s Day to our two sons and to all other relevant honorees!
This was what I told graduates from the Ursinus class of 2008, and pretty much what I would still say now. (I would change that era’s noun “IMs” to the current “texts,” but otherwise could leave most of the language intact.) The “President Strassburger” I mention in the opening line was John Strassburger, a wonderful man and the illustrious president of Ursinus, who sadly died two years later, of cancer, at age 68.
Commencement Address, Ursinus College, May 17, 2008
James M. Fallows
President Strassburger; honored guests; deans and faculty members; family and supporters; and above all members of the Ursinus College class of 2008 – congratulations. You’ve all worked, waited, and -- in your different ways -- sacrificed to make this day a reality. Speaking as the parent of two recent college graduates, I ask members of the Class please to turn and wave your recognition, and love, and thanks to the parents and other supporters who have stood behind you and are feeling boundless pride, and bittersweetness at seeing the adults you’ve become, and relief of several kinds at the step you’re taking now.
I’ve just done the first part of my job, in helping you notice this wonderful sunny day.
I’m about to do the second part, which is to be brief. Two days ago, I was in China, where I’ve lived for two years and was involved in news of the disastrous earthquake. Two days from now, I’ll be on my way back to Beijing. The reason I’m here today is a connection between your college and my family that stretches back 65 years. I’d like to tell that story and then say why I think it matters for you who are graduating today.
In the summer of 1943, 65 years ago, James A. Fallows, my father, had just graduated from Jenkintown High School, not far from here. He was 18 years old – in fact, tomorrow will be his 83rd birthday, and I’ll join him in California to tell him about this event – and his country was at war. His older brother Bob was already in the Army. My dad’s main choices were to become a military pilot or a military doctor. The placement tests said Doctor, and so he came to Collegeville as an Ursinus pre-med student and Navy cadet, under the V-12 program.
His time here was rich, as yours probably has been. He was on the football and wrestling teams. He acted in plays. He sang in the Messiah chorus – impressive, since he can’t sing – and went to crack-of-dawn military drills when the bugle played Reveille on the campus. It was a different time.
The football team was successful, though they cheated, in a low-tech, pre-video way. He was a lineman, both offense and defense. He would wear a blue stocking on his right leg, and red on his left – and the man on either side of him on the line would do the reverse. The result was that linemen on the other team would look down and be puzzled, seeing a pair of blue or red legs that seemed to belong to two different people. When the ball was hiked, torsos and legs seemed to move in confusing directions. It helped Ursinus win, especially against academically less gifted teams. He liked it here.
But my dad’s time here, if rich, was brief. After two years at Ursinus, he had finished enough pre-med courses to qualify, by competitive exam, for Harvard Medical School, where he enrolled at age 20. He went from there to be a Navy doctor, then a small-town doctor, husband for more than 55 years to his childhood sweetheart from Jenkintown, father to four children, pillar of the small community in California where he raised his family. The finest man I know.
But because of the rushed wartime schedule, unlike today’s members of the class of ’08, my father never graduated from Ursinus. Until three years ago when the college, in a gesture that meant a tremendous amount to people now in their 80s, awarded its V-12 students their diplomas. I had hoped my dad could join us today, which he can’t – but I know that as you get your diplomas, he’ll be looking at his, mounted on his living room wall.
I tell you this because I’m a proud son, as sons and daughters should be – but also because his time in Collegeville, compared with yours, helps me introduce three ideas I’d like to mention briefly. They have to do with the times you’ll live in and the traits you’ll show, and I think of them as: challenge; curiosity; and character.
We hear almost too often about the challenges that shaped my father’s generation – the grandparents of today’s graduates. They grew up during the Depression, the then they fought a long world war and cold war. As if that weren’t enough, then they had to raise the Baby Boomers, my own unpopular generation. Their times were tough – for instance, the life expectancy for an American man born in 1925, like my father, was only into his mid 50s—twenty years less than for someone born in 1986, like most of you.
Because of the way this “greatest generation” – your grandparents, my parents – met it challenges, we honor them, but I think we sometimes misunderstand what challenge can mean. We’re tempted to think that it takes extreme challenge to bring out the greatness in people – Pearl Harbor, 9/11 - and, correspondingly, that when times do really get tough people will automatically rise to their best.
I’m not sure about either assumption. Sometimes people and societies don’t in fact rise to meet their biggest tests – I fear our nation’s overall response to the challenges of 9/11 will be seen, in history, as falling into this category– and sometimes the real test of greatness in people and generations is coping with challenges that don’t take the obvious Pearl Harbor form.
This, I think is your generation’s chance for greatness. You already know some of the huge array of problem which, if they’re going to be solved at all, will require your minds and commitment and talent and self-sacrifice. Perhaps number one is preserving the global environment, and its range of species, and its climate system – every day in China I see reasons why that’s crucial and difficult. Every day in China I also see a billion-plus people struggling to condense a century of economic development into a few years. I don’t think they’re struggling to “take American jobs” or "threaten America’s place in the world” – they have too many problems of their own, as we’re reminded by the devastation there just this week. But they are changing your world.
I’m actually optimistic about your America’s prospects in dealing with China– and with India, and with the Middle East, and with questions of global harmony and domestic equality –as long as we newly embrace rather than stifle the traditional American virtues of openness, equality, innovation, and opportunity. And as long as you recognize the challenge to serve – not in the V-12 but in your era’s ways. Perhaps in the military, as a teacher, as a parent, as an entrepreneur, as volunteer. Sixty-five years from now, many of you will be back here, and you’ll want to hear that you were a greatest generation too.
Second, curiosity. My dad always knew that he had been pulled out of Ursinus too soon. And that was a huge advantage. Having missed half of his normal college education, he gave himself ten educations in the ensuing years. He taught himself Greek, and then Hebrew, and polished up his Latin – and there were more. He became a painter, and sculptor, with his work in shows. He taught himself to sail, and play the piano, and to become a cowboy and head of local mounted police. He took up computers in his 50s and became a local webmaster. Now, at 83, he’s wondering whether to switch to the Mac.
He went overboard, because that’s who he is – but his is an extreme example of what a great college education should do for everyone. You’ve had a vastly better education than he had here, because you’ve had it in full and because Ursinus itself has is now so justly celebrated for the excellence of its life-changing undergraduate approach. You’ve shared an intellectual bond from Gilgamesh onward. But these years will have been wasted, Gilgamesh and all, if they’re not the beginning of a process of curiosity-driven self education that lasts the rest of your lives.
You can use your upcoming reunions as a handy benchmark. At each five-year interval – your 5th reunion, your 50th –be prepared to tell your classmates about the new thing you’ve recently learned. Guitar; Arabic; the tango; whatever. Here’s another benchmark: by the time of your 10th reunion, please spend at least one year overseas. There is no better way to learn about your own country than to see it from afar.
Third, character: Your parents know what I have learned from seeing my own children grow: that a lot of what we are as people, we are from the start. But we’re pushed to be the best versions of our inborn possibilities by parents in the beginning, then by teachers and mentors, and in the long run by ourselves.
Probably because he was so busy rushing through Ursinus, my dad – like another practical-minded Philadelphian, Benjamin Franklin – always emphasized that our character is the accumulation of things we actually do each day. In the end, we are our habits, so it’s worth developing good ones.
Some are obvious. Seriously, don’t smoke! Or, type IMs while you drive. Get in the habit of sports and exercise – by your tenth reunion, you’ll know who has and hasn’t. Get in the habit of being happy. We all have problems, which we can’t control; what we can control is how we look at them. Get in the habit of being excited. It’s a big world, with no excuse for being bored. It’s fun to have feuds and enemies – I’ve had my share– but break the habit of nursing grudges. Here’s a tip: always write angry letters to your enemies. Never mail them. Remember that anything hostile you say about people will get back to them. Especially if it’s in email.
Money: you’re going to have enough of it. Use the privilege of this education to know that you’re not going to starve, so you might as well spend your life doing something you love and are proud of. By your 20th reunion, and even more your 50th, you’ll see that satisfaction in work and family is scarcer – and far more rewarding – than the money race can ever be. Some people will always be better off than you, so don’t waste time envying them. Instead think of those you admire – and construct your own personal Mt. Rushmore, seeing what traits you can emulate.
Take every chance to tell your spouse, when you have one, and your children that you love them. When in doubt, phone your mom.
One final habit: Whenever you have the chance to deliver a sincere compliment, be sure to do it. My father is proud to be from Ursinus; I am proud of you; and we all are proud of you new graduates. These are sincere compliments, every one. Make the most of this wonderful day. #
Factory towns face problems when the factories shut down. Everyone has heard versions of that story—involving steel and auto plants in the Midwest, sawmills in the Northwest, coal mines in Appalachia or copper mines in the Southwest, other facilities in other towns.
On a recent visit to Southside Virginia—the part of the state bordering North Carolina, and far from the tech-and-government-driven boom of the D.C. suburbs in northern Virginia and the military-based economy of Norfolk and the Tidewater—we were reminded of the problems cities had even when those factories were up and running. We also learned about the way they are trying to apply the mixed blessings of a lost manufacturing heritage as they figure out their next act.
Our visit was centered in the city of Danville, which Deb Fallows wrote about here. Danville is the major city within Pittsylvania County, which is geographically one of the largest in the state. The city’s population is about 40,000, split roughly 50-50 black and white. In its day, it was one of the richest places in the Piedmont area, and a major center of first the tobacco and then the textile industries. Danville was also, for a one-week period in April 1865, the final capital city of the Confederacy—with implications down to the present, as we’ll explore in upcoming dispatches.
Now textiles have disappeared almost entirely, and tobacco hangs on in much-reduced form. (These days, the main tobacco-business force is JTI, or Japan Tobacco International, which has bought brands like Natural American Spirit and Benson & Hedges, and has expanded its warehouse and processing facilities in Danville.) While Virginia’s population has boomed—roughly 4 million in the 1960 census, 6 million in 1990, 8 million in 2010, and rising—Danville’s is a little smaller now than it was in the 1960s. This part of southwestern Virginia and western North Carolina has endured the simultaneous collapse of the three industries that were the mainstays of its many small towns: tobacco, textiles, and furniture making. Danville’s comparative good fortune is that it didn’t have as many furniture factories to lose as some neighboring places did.
And yet: Danville is now benefiting from another aspect of its battered industrial heritage, which it is beginning to turn into an important city asset. How? Please read on.
Tobacco got going in this region because of a combination of soil and slavery. The soil in central-southern Virginia is part of a belt reaching through North Carolina and Kentucky that is exceptionally favorable for tobacco. (The same territory also favors hemp, which is becoming the basis of another new industry. Stay tuned for more on that, too.) Before the Civil War, it was the home of large tobacco plantations and correspondingly large slave populations.
A fascinating map at Danville’s Museum of Fine Arts and History correlates Virginia’s county-by-county black population in the early 1860s with levels of support by the white population for joining the Confederacy. (It’s different from the map shown above but based on similar data.) The rugged Appalachian west of the state, including what later peeled off to become West Virginia, had very few plantations, low black populations, and also less support for secession. The tobacco heartland around Danville had more plantations, with more slaves, and (among the whites) stronger secessionist views.
After the Civil War, the tobacco industry remained, having shifted from a slave basis to sharecropping and low-wage labor. Auction houses, warehouses, and processing facilities for tobacco transformed the city’s downtown. Many of them were huge brick structures on the streets near the Dan River. An academic history of the area’s economic evolution, Danville, Virginia: And the Coming of the Modern South, by Michael Swanson, details the way that the tobacco industry shaped the physical and economic contours of the region through the 1800s—and how the textile industry, drawn down from New England by the search for lower wages (and hydropower along southern rivers), shaped them after that.
The Danville area, while retaining its tobacco business, also become one of the most important textile centers in the country. An operation eventually known as the Dan River Mills was by the mid-20th century one of the largest textile mills anywhere.
A central theme of Swanson’s book is how rough life within a mill town could be, for people other than owners and managers. Swanson refers to W. J. Cash’s famous coruscation of southern mill culture in his book The Mind of the South, published just before World War II. Part of Cash’s description is so floridly overdone that I won’t quote it in full. (It’s no surprise that as a young man Cash wrote for H. L. Mencken’s usually florid The American Mercury.) Here is a comparatively restrained sample:
The working conditions in the Southern cotton mills were extremely unfavorable. Men and women and children were cooped up for most of their waking lives in the gray light of glazed windows, and in rooms which were never effectively ventilated, since cotton yarns will break in the slightest draft—in rooms which, because of the use of artificial humidification, were hardly less than perpetual steam baths.
The harvest was soon at hand. By 1900 the cotton-mill worker was a pretty distinct physical type in the South; a type in some respects perhaps inferior to even that of the old poor white, which in general had been his to begin with. A dead-white skin, a sunken chest, and stooping shoulders were the earmarks of the breed …
The women were characteristically stringy-haired and limp of breast at twenty, and shrunken hags at thirty or forty. And the incidence of tuberculosis, of insanity and epilepsy, and, above all, of pellagra, the curious vitamin-deficiency disease which is nearly peculiar to the South, was increasing.
The mills’ influence was wide-ranging and profound. Businesses in the area discouraged higher education and brought in workers straight out of public schools. They effectively separated the region’s work force by race—mainly blacks as tobacco workers, whites in the mills—which reduced possibilities for labor cooperation, while reinforcing segregation. Nonetheless, greater Danville was the scene of repeated labor-related and racial strife for half a century after the Civil War, through the Reconstruction era and the beginning of labor organization.
Then, during the civil-rights era of the 1960s, it was again a battleground. Despite the Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954 decreeing an end to “separate but equal” segregated schools, public education and most other aspects of Danville’s life were rigidly segregated into the 1960s. After civil-rights protests and brutal police response in the summer of 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. said that three places where he would focus his efforts would be Montgomery and Birmingham, in Alabama, and Danville.
The main civil-rights confrontation in Danville, on June 10, 1963, was known as “Bloody Monday,” when police used fire hoses and billy clubs against demonstrators. A local grand jury also indicted many of the demonstrators under a pre–Civil War–era law, passed in response to the John Brown abolitionist raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859, that made it a crime to incite “the colored population to acts of violence or war against the white population.”
Just this past week—yes, I mean in June 2019, or 56 years after the original Bloody Monday event—Danville’s police chief, Scott Booth, offered a public “heartfelt apology” to the city’s African American community. He did so at an event honoring Apostle Lawrence G. Campbell Sr., a prominent civil-rights and religious leader, who with his wife had been beaten during the 1963 protests. Campbell has recently published a memoir, 1963: A Turning Point in Civil Rights. In it, he points out how inflexibly segregated the city was in his youth, and the aspects that have changed now: a black mayor, a black superintendent of schools, black members of the city council, and overall a city that “is totally integrated, and blacks are very much a part of its growth.” Like other parts of America, Campbell writes, Danville still exists in “two communities, black and white,” especially in religious organizations. But “it’s come a long way” from 1963, he said at this week’s event with Chief Booth.
Why go through this difficult history? On general principles, because it’s true, and because the background of 19th- and 20th-century strife has shaped the social, economic, and physical realities of the town confronting its 21st-century future. Also, I think it’s worth remembering that an imagined golden age in which households depended on big-factory jobs had its severe drawbacks, too.
But in specific, this background is significant in Danville because it helps explain a highly noticeable aspect of modern Danville’s possibilities: the abundance of historic downtown structures, legacies of the tobacco and textile age, that have outlived their original economic function but give the city new prospects today.
“We actually have more antique architecture than downtown Charlotte or downtown Atlanta”— even though those cities are vastly larger, Rick Barker, of Danville, told me last week. Barker, who is now in his 50s, grew up in the area, worked in sales and packaging design for years, but over the past decade has become one of the leading entrepreneurs behind a revival of former tobacco and textile buildings in what is now called Danville’s River District.
“In the 1970s and 1980s, it was popular in lots of places to tear down antique buildings for surface-level parking,” Barker said. “Well, in the ’70s and ’80s, Danville was still a mill town. We had a mill that was thriving, with thousands of employees.”
Then, through the 1990s and early 2000s, the rest of the state took off in a way that left Danville and Southside behind. “At one point we led the state because we had an agricultural-based economy,” Barker told me. “Now, with the booms in northern Virginia, and the Tidewater, and Richmond, we’ve been left out as a mill town in an ag region. And that mattered because [during the recent economic crisis] there was no reason to tear the buildings down. By that point, we didn’t need parking for anything.”
So during one destructive wave of downtown demolitions, Danville didn’t want to tear down buildings, because they were still profitable. And during the second wave, it couldn’t afford to, because it had so many other problems.
“What we tended to do was just cover them up—just put aluminum on top of an antique facade and say it looks ‘modern,’” Barker told me. “Now it turns out that the aluminum was a pretty good protective cover.”
Starting about 10 years ago, Barker and others in Danville began peeling back the facades. The next installment will describe what they’ve found, how they’re paying for it, where they’re aiming, and what this effort might mean for the future of the town.
Yesterday, Deb Fallows and I sent an email to various loyal readers of The Atlantic. You can see what was in that message in the “Continue Reading” section of this post.
In response, I got this message, from a longtime reader in Oregon:
I would like to see someone “package” or “productize,” both recipes for solutions, and recipes for non-solutions, which you and Deborah Fallows uncover. I would like to see actionable social entrepreneurship kits and trainings made available.
Reporting is necessary, but not sufficient. Not in our present circumstances.
I don’t expect you and Ms. Fallows have the personal capacity to add such an initiative to your own plans and activities. But I suspect there are people and organizations that can do so. I would like to see you task one or more people to identify, contact and encourage such people and organizations to “package” or “productize” such social entrepreneurship solutions.
If what works cannot be reproduced, then reporting is reduced to the wistful.
Personally, I don’t have the stomach to read, listen to, or watch “what might have been,” or what can or even is happening, but only under optimum conditions. We are not living in a time of optimum conditions. We cannot simply plant and grow in any type of soil. The soil must support what we hope to harvest.
I seek no response here. Your work over the next year or two will be your response.
This is a fair, and important, observation. And it is in line with our intentions, and the themes we intend to explore.
Deb and I realize that we don’t personally have the background, capacity, or skill to be the “productizers” ourselves. But one of our ambitions is to connect people who do have those abilities.
Here is the message that went out to a number of Atlantic readers this week.
Starting six years ago, in the summer of 2013, my wife—Deborah Fallows—and I began visiting smaller-town America, traveling in our single-engine four-seat propeller plane, for a series of web posts, videos, magazine articles, and radio reports in what was called the “American Futures” series. Last year we published a nationally best-selling book from the project, called Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of America, and now we’re working with HBO on a documentary of the same name. It will appear about a year from now, around the time of the national political conventions, toward the goal of offering a different conception of America’s political possibilities than those likely to dominate cable news.
Now we are beginning a new round of extended on-scene reporting, following up on the successes and challenges of some of the places we’ve already visited, and expanding our coverage to new regions and towns. In an introductory post for this series, I set out some of the places we’ll be visiting and themes we will be exploring this year. These will range broadly, over: economics and business questions; urban architecture and the arts; the reinvention of schools and libraries; the expansion of broadband and technological opportunities to rural America; ways to help local journalism survive as a business, and to encourage national journalism to take small-town America more seriously; and whether solutions being devised at the local level could percolate up to improve national-level politics.
We have already done some initial reports. For instance: from Indiana, about a radical new approach to public school not previously mentioned in the national press; and also from Indiana, about the second (and third, and 10th) lives of factory buildings and shopping malls that outlive their original economic function; and from Mississippi, about a small-town daily that has retained its economic and civic role (and an even smaller daily that was crucially influential in the outlook of the famed journalist David Halberstam); and from all around the country, about the emerging role of public libraries as America’s “second responders,” filling social and economic gaps in a quietly heroic way.
Soon we will be traveling again, by small airplane, to Appalachian North Carolina and Kentucky; and to the Rio Grande Valley of Texas; and to industrial areas of Wisconsin, from Racine to Eau Claire; and to inland areas from Oklahoma to Nebraska to Nevada; and beyond.
Here’s a difference between the world of national politics and that of public problem-solving at the local and regional levels. Four or five years ago, I would have had no idea of this. Now I notice it practically every day.
In national politics, terms like partnership or collaboration are hard to utter with a straight face, or a non-sinking heart. At best, they can seem boring or (damning with faint praise) “worthy.” At worst, they seem like euphemisms for sweetheart deals or favor-trading.
In Washington I can feel the attention draining from the room whenever someone mentions “public-private partnerships”—or if Deb and I discuss some new cooperative project we’ve seen for advanced-manufacturing training in the South, or the reuse of abandoned buildings in the Midwest. The narcotizing effect is like that of the term infrastructure, back before “Infrastructure Week” became a bitterly joked-about term in Washington.
Yet in so many communities we’ve visited, everything about these collaborative efforts—finding the partners, dividing the labor, sharing the blame and credit, sustaining the relationship—has seemed not simply important but actually interesting.
Consider this analogy: Anyone studying World War II knows that part of the story is the titanic drama of the battlefield. But another important part is the elaborate backstairs strategy of collaboration and coalition building. This involved: how Churchill dealt with FDR, how both of them dealt with Stalin, how the U.S. government worked with private industrialists to turn Depression-racked America into the “arsenal of democracy,” how Eisenhower and Montgomery and Patton and MacArthur worked with and against one another, and so on.
Similarly: The movie Lincoln and the book Team of Rivals were built on the drama of Lincoln holding a political coalition together so that Union forces could advance on the battlefield.
Today’s local-level partnerships obviously lack the world-historical immediacy of these wartime struggles. But the link between process and result is similar: people paying attention to the mechanics of how they work together, to increase the chance of reaching their goal. And the stakes can be very high: reducing the human toll of opioids or homelessness; expanding opportunities for people the modern economy has left behind; improving schools and policing practices; and on down the list.
Let’s take this back to Mississippi. This post is a an update on a project in the Golden Triangle of the state—the ambitiously industrializing northeastern region including Columbus, West Point, and Starkville—which exemplifies a commitment to collaboration that other regions could usefully study.
The physical symbol of the collaborative effort there is a new building that is opening this summer, in the industrial zone adjoining the Golden Triangle Regional Airport. The official name for the structure, which we saw in nearly completed form on a visit to Mississippi earlier this month, is the Center for Manufacturing Technology Excellence, or CMTE, 2.0. It is informally known as the “Communiversity,” and the name suggests the scale of its ambition. (For background on ambitions for the Communiversity back in 2014, see this report. For more on the highly creative community college from which it arose, see this.)
The term communiversity—a university, in a community—is familiar in higher education. But generally it refers to community-enrichment or -engagement efforts, as opposed to formal degree-granting programs. For instance, the communiversity at the University of Missouri at Kansas City was founded on the belief “that a community is strengthened when its members have avenues through which they can share their skills and ideas with others.” It offers some 850 noncredit, volunteer-taught courses. The one at the University of Cincinnati has a similar approach. Princeton University and the City of Princeton are sponsors of a Communiversity ArtsFest there.
The Mississippi Communiversity is something different. It is a new physical home for a program that has been gaining momentum over the past decade, and that offers academically structured, industrially aligned for-credit classes. Its name reflects the simultaneous involvement of all these groups in organizing it, funding it, and now guiding its operations:
Together, these organizations provided funding for the $42.5 million center. (The money came mainly from state bonds approved by the Mississippi legislature, for about $18 million; commitments from the three counties, totaling $13.5 million; and support from the federal Appalachian Regional Commission, for $10.5 million.)
The major manufacturers that have come to the area have played a role in various forms, including contracting with EMCC to train potential employees. The EMCC vice president for workforce and community development, Raj Shaunak, told me this week that over the past 15 years, EMCC has trained about 25,000 people—“and about 12,000 of them are currently employed in advanced manufacturing in the Golden Triangle area.” (For instance: The local advanced-technology steelworks run by Steel Dynamics employs about 750 people, according to Shaunak. A new Yokohama tire factory employs about 650.) These companies “are our partners in every sense,” Shaunak said.
Shaunak also singled out the role of a former Mississippi State president, Malcolm Portera, in catalyzing the successful cooperative effort in the area. Portera had been the head of the University of Alabama when the Tuscaloosa area attracted a new auto factory from BMW and an electronics factory from JVC. “When he came to Mississippi, he worked with everyone—state, local, federal—to showcase our local capabilities,” Shaunak said. “And he was visionary in saying we needed to build the original Center for Manufacturing Technology Excellence at EMCC. When manufacturing was declining, in the U.S. and in Mississippi, he said, ‘We can make it in America again.’” To me, the part of this story worth underlining is the head of a research university going out of his way to boost a community college.
What will happen room by room within the Communiversity will be familiar to those who have seen career-technical training sites around the country, or advanced-manufacturing start-up centers. (For those who haven’t been to such places, here are tworeports from Louisville a few years ago that give some idea, and another from San Bernardino.) In short: Students at different stages of life are trained both in specific technical skills that can lead to immediate employment and in the longer-term “learning how to learn” skills that prepare them to adjust more easily to the jobs in demand 10 or 20 years from now.
A helicopter chassis, like the one above, will prepare students for work at the adjoining Airbus helicopter factory, or for aerospace-related jobs elsewhere. Ranks of advanced-machine tools, like the ones shown below, prepare students for advanced-manufacturing jobs.
My point for now is not the details of what the Communiversity’s first class of students and entrepreneurs will be doing when it starts working there this summer. It is instead about the breadth of the collaborative effort that makes this institution possible—and the implications of programs like this.
“I think many of us are worried that the American economy is doing half of its job,” Jan Rivkin, of the Harvard Business School, said after an HBS team visited the Communiversity site in the fall of 2017. He added:
“[The economy] is benefitting large companies and those who work for and invest in them, but it is not supporting working middle-class Americans. Rural communities are really struggling.
Yet here in the Golden Triangle, we see something very different going on: a community that is coming together to create broadly shared prosperity and great manufacturing jobs. We came here to learn. We came here to see what is going on that is special, and to figure out what we might apply to other settings in other communities.”
Might this all sound merely “worthy”? I give you the closing thoughts of Shaunak. “This is a way we can give people in a distressed area new family-sustaining opportunities,” he told me this week. “This is a way to help them realize their American dream.”
Here are a few stories I found intriguing from the past week’s newspapers, on the unfolding complexities of the much-discussed “rural-urban divide.”
1) The first is by Andrew Van Dam, in The Washington Post, on the fundamental reasons for rural decline. Here’s the way his story was presented in the print version of the Post, in the Sunday business section:
Just about every discussion of the political, economic, opportunity, and other gaps between rural and urban America starts from the premise that life outside the big cities really is doomed. On the basis of the headline, this story would seem to be offering yet more reasons rural prospects are so dark.
But if you read the story, you’re in for a surprise. A “spoiler alert” clue about the contents is suggested by the headline on the same story online. This headline contains two additional words, in parentheses. Here is the twist those words add:
(To be 100 percent clear, I’m using the contrast in headlines to underscore the complexities in the piece, not to give the Post grief of any sort.)
As Van Dam clearly lays out in the story, among the many burdens on rural America is a bureaucratic and definitional one. To oversimplify: Whenever a non–major-metro area starts developing or prospering, for that very reason it stops being classified as rural.
That is: On top of the many real challenges rural communities face, their situation looks even bleaker than it is, because of the steady reclassification of successful smaller towns and rural areas as being no longer rural.
Here is Van Dam’s explanation:
The contest between rural and urban America is rigged. Official definitions are regularly updated in such a way that rural counties are continually losing their most successful places to urbanization [as officially classified]. When a rural county grows, it transmutes into an urban one …
Imagine how unfair a sport would seem if one team automatically drafted the other’s best players the moment they showed any promise. That’s essentially what happens when we measure rural areas as whatever’s left over after anywhere that hits a certain population level is considered metropolitan. It distorts how we see rural America. It skews our view of everything from presidential politics to suicide to deaths caused by alcohol …
It makes rural areas look poorer, whiter, older and more prone to alcohol-related death or suicide than under broader definitions. Statistics such as these affect everything from Medicare reimbursement to the larger perception that the nation’s breadbasket is also a basket case.
The story and the reports it refers to are all worth your attention. Another of the important implications: that most people who think they are living in small-town or rural settings are officially classified as being in “metro” regions. As Van Dam says:
About 6 in 10 U.S. adults who consider themselves “rural” live in an area classified as metropolitan by standards similar to those used above, according to a Washington Post–Kaiser Family Foundation poll conducted in 2017. And 3 in 4 of the adults who say they live in a “small town”? They’re also in a metro area.
Very much worth reading. Congrats to Van Dam and the Post.
2) The second story is by Eduardo Porter and Guilbert Gates, from TheNew York Times, about a shift in migration patterns. In the same “show the evidence” spirit, here is the headline for their story (which was the same in print and online versions, as far as I can tell):
The reinforcement is the idea that for certain very top-level, sought-after, professional-and-technical talents, the economic rewards in white-hot centers from New York to San Francisco exceed what they could find anyplace else.
The complication is that for most other people, the rewards across the country have evened out—so that the “Let’s move to the big city and get a new start” impulse is weaker than at many other times in U.S. history.
This is partly because automation has removed so many accountant-and-clerk-type jobs from the biggest cities. It is partly because real-estate prices have jacked up the price of simply existing in Seattle, New York, the SF Bay ArEA, etc. It’s partly because of a dispersal of activities elsewhere—which is one of the big themes that Deb and I have chronicled.
Whatever the balance of forces, the evidence Porter and Gates present is interesting, nuanced, and different from what you’ve heard in most political speeches and segments on the news.
3) The third is an American Enterprise Institute report, which finds that the “amenities” of local life—parks, restaurants, walkable shopping, libraries—make a major difference in how happy, trusting, and engaged people are. As the report, by Ryan Streeter and Daniel Cox, found (and as they elaborated in a post for The Atlantic last week), people who live near parks, libraries, etc.:
are more content with their neighborhood, more trusting of others, and less lonely regardless of whether they live in large cities, suburbs, or small cities or towns.
This may seem ordinary and obvious, but it caught my eye for several reasons:
It’s an extension of the AEI survey work I wrote about earlier this year, showing that most Americans felt better about their local communities than they did about the trends in national life.
It underscores the absolutely crucial point that civic character is not something that merely exists, like eye color or the day’s temperature, but instead is one of many traits that can be intentionally improved and cultivated.
In that, it’s related to a wonderful new book by my friend Eric Liu, the head of Citizen University in Seattle. The book is called Become America, and it’s a collection of 19 short “civic sermons” about ways to foster a more rather than less engaged public life. More on this, and its relationship to the most important essay in America’s public life, later on.
(What was that essay? Stay tuned. The hint is that it was published 109 years ago, and while its author was an Atlantic contributor, it did not first appear in these pages.)
Next up in this space: another report from Mississippi.
Last month we wrote about the surprising partnership in Angola, Indiana between a city-redevelopment movement, which has brought new life and activity to a historic small-city downtown, and the adjoining Trine University, which has had an extremely high success rate in placing its graduates in jobs or advanced-degree programs.
Over the past two decades, smaller private universities across the country, especially those far from major cities, have struggled to attract students and keep their doors open. But as detailed here, in those two decades Trine has quadrupled its enrollment, and it claims that graduates leave with an average student-debt burden of less than $30,000.
“There are good things and bad things about a reputation as an engineering school,” the president of Trine, Earl Brooks told me, when I spoke with him in Angola last month. “The good thing is the job-placement rate. The bad thing is people thinking you’re only about engineering.”
Want proof that Trine is not just about engineering? And that a cannily analytical approach to possibilities can pay off in many realms? Please read on:
Justin Cohn of The Journal Gazette of Fort Wayne, Indiana, the nearest large city to Trine, has a story with the headline “Trine softball’s epic trick play,” and Trine’s news service has more detailed reports here. As you’ll see, the play took careful planning, elaborate choreography, dramatic aplomb, and—for the last out in a playoff game—daring and guts.
We’ll follow the Thunder as they move on to the next round, against Illinois Wesleyan. (For how the game looked from the Geneseo perspective, including a reflection on what was still the best-ever season in the school’s history, see this post-game interview. )
To spell out what is happening here: In the final inning, SUNY Geneseo was down by two, with two outs, but with runners on first and second. After a pitch, the Trine pitcher got the ball back from the catcher—and then whirled and appeared to be trying to pick off the runner at second.
The pitcher put everything into that fast throw toward second base—and then the rest of the Trine team acted for all the world as if she’d badly mis-thrown the ball. Two infielders valiantly dived into the dirt, as if trying to stop the ball before the runners could advance. Outfielders frantically ran up, as if trying to get the ball back into the infield before SUNY could tighten the score.
But of course the pitcher had merely mimed the throw, and was hiding the ball in her glove the whole time. The contortions of the infielders and outfielders were all an act. The act convinced the SUNY runner, who saw an opening to score—and as she moved on from second, the pitcher ambled over to tag her out and end the game.
Sympathies to the Knights, and good luck to the Thunder!
In 1981, the writer David Halberstam published a memoir in Esquire magazine, with the headline “Starting Out to be a Famous Reporter.”
At the time Halberstam was well-known enough that the story’s title would have seemed both mildly self-mocking and accurately descriptive. He’d come to national prominence while still in his 20s through skeptical and award-winning New York Times reporting from Vietnam. His book about the making of the Vietnam War catastrophe, The Best and the Brightest, which was published in 1972, was hugely influential and popularized a phrase that has endured nearly 50 years later. (Although I have seen enough recent misuses of the phrase “best and the brightest” to need to point out that Halberstam was using it derisively. It was the impeccably credentialed smart guys around John F. Kennedy, and then Lyndon Johnson, who took the nation to disaster in Vietnam.)
Every few years after that, Halberstam turned out a thick, usually best-selling book. For instance, The Powers That Be, about the rise of the journalistic establishment in the 20th century (parts of which ran in The Atlantic), or The Breaks of the Game, about pro basketball. He kept going at full speed, into his early 70s, until his shocking death in a car crash 12 years ago, while being driven by a graduate student after a university event at UC Berkeley.
David Halberstam had been a model to me, and a generous and forgiving mentor over the years, as I noted when hearing the news of his death. I first met him in the late 1960s, when I was editor in chief of the college newspaper and a group of conservative alums were trying to wrest control of the paper from our “irresponsible” student hands. Halberstam and the late J. Antony Lukas led an alumni counter-movement that held them off. As I noted many decades later, when Halberstam died:
He had his excesses—he was strapping and big, “an honest six-three” I think he wrote in one of his books about sports—and with his deep, dramatic, sometimes self-dramatizing voice he could look and sound like a clean-shaven Old Testament God. He was aware of and liked the effect, I think.
But he had a very, very big heart, and with The Best and the Brightest he changed our business. I still remember the day when, as a graduate student in England, I got my sea-mail copy of Harper’s with Halberstam’s long story “The Programming of Robert McNamara” on the cover. I read it all, standing at the mail box, and I thought: This is what journalism is for. (I also thought: Aren’t magazines great! And: I belong back in America.)
One of the tales I’d heard from David Halberstam over the years was about his very first reporting job out of college. This was the one he described in his 1981 Esquire piece: as 21-year-old cub reporter for the smallest daily in Mississippi, the DailyTimes Leader of West Point.
Why this tiny paper? Halberstam says in the piece that as soon as he graduated he planned to go to Jackson, Mississippi, and work with a civil-rights minded editor named Tom Karsell, at a paper there. The two had met in Halberstam’s last year in college, when Karsell was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard and Halberstam was managing editor of the student paper, the Crimson. But by the time Halberstam got to Mississippi, Karsell couldn’t offer him a job. What next?
On the fourth day, as humiliating visions of returning to Cambridge in the old Chevy mounted, Karsell called. There was an opening on the paper in West Point, the Daily Times Leader. West Point was a small town, and the paper’s circulation was around 4,000. I would be the one reporter on the staff. He gave me the name of the Times Leader’s editor, a man named Henry Harris, and his phone number; Harris was expecting my call.
… I was terrified by the idea of going to a small town in a state like this, where I knew no one. I thought for a long time of how alien it would be; then I remembered how I had told all my friends I was going to spend the year working for a small paper in the South, and this, God knew, whatever else, was a small paper in the South.
He also recorded his encounter with his new management, specifically Beulah Harris, co-founder of the paper and mother of the then-editor:
She often came in on Saturday afternoon to look around, to make sure that everything was in order, and, if nothing else, to wash the floors of the newsroom … She was a small, heavily powdered woman; she was fearfully hardworking and equally devoted to her Baptist faith. “You’re David, aren’t you?” she asked.
I said I was.
“I don’t think I’m ever going to learn your last name,” she announced.
I said that was all right.
Then she smiled and said, “The Lord Jesus Christ sent you here.” I, descendant of many centuries of illustrious rabbis, a line only recently broken by two or three generations of American renegades, looked at her in stunned surprise. “Of course He did,” she said. “Why else would you be here?” I could not argue, and with that, we became friends.
I never visited West Point while David Halberstam was alive, but over the past five years I have been there many times. Mainly this has been to write about business changes in the city and the surrounding “Golden Triangle” area of Mississippi, which also includes Columbus and Starkville. The big modern blow to West Point happened a dozen years ago, when the city’s dominant employer, a major meat-packing plant run by Sara Lee, closed for good. This removed 1,200 jobs from a city whose population was roughly 12,000. The big modern hope has been the arrival of Yokohama Tire, whose decision to come to West Point I wrote about here, and whose subsequent news I’ll discuss another time.
But recently Deb and I were back again, and while walking through downtown West Point I did a double-take when I saw the office of … TheDaily Times Leader! It was in a different, smaller location from the one Halberstam had described in his memoir. But I thought: I have to go inside and ask.
What I planned to ask was whether this particular journalist had left any mark on the city or the newspaper, comparable to the mark he said the place had left on him. Very few reporters leave much of a mark anyplace. But maybe it would be different for an alum who had become so prominent? After all, in San Bernardino, California, I’d seen a wall-of-fame honoring the local boy who had grown up to become composer of the Flintstones song. (He was Hoyt Curtin.) Maybe the author of The Best and the Brightest and The Fifties would qualify, for the little paper where he got his start?
The young woman in charge of the Daily Times Leader office didn’t recognize Halberstam’s name. (In fairness, her grandparents had probably not yet been born when he was working there.) But she immediately invited me back into the bound-volumes room, and said I could look through newspapers of that era. She opened a closet door, I stepped in, and I entered a surreal transport-through-time.
I started out looking for David Halberstam’s byline, in papers from 1955 and 1956. I quickly realized I wasn’t likely to find it, since none of the stories had bylines. I didn’t even find a masthead listing the paper’s staff.
Later on I learned why: According to this piece in the Columbia Journalism Review, by William Browning, the DailyTimes Leader’s editor of that era believed in giving a byline for a reporter’s first story in the paper, but not after that. You didn’t want to foster a cult-of-personality among the writers. According to Browning, Halberstam’s first and only byline was about a sudden cricket infestation in town, and I didn’t happen to see that one.
I also had an instant immersion in how different small-town papers were in those days. Cable news didn’t exist; evening news programs on network TV were only 15 minutes long; and “national” papers like like The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal had practically no presence beyond the East Coast.
So the front pages of this tiny regional paper were full of world and national news—for instance, speculation on whether then-President Dwight Eisenhower would recover well enough from a heart attack to seek a second term.
Through these same front pages, there were also signs of the strains that apparently cut short Halberstam’s time at the paper. The Daily Times Leader, in Halberstam’s telling, was a paper that didn’t want to be distracted or disrupted by a concentration on the civil rights struggles then nascent in the South. The Emmett Till murder trial was then underway in Tallahatchie County, 100 miles to the northwest. Halberstam wrote in Esquire:
I was aware in some primal way that something important was happening over in Tallahatchie County, that Mississippi, which did not seem joined politically to the rest of the nation, was now being joined to it journalistically.
So I subscribed to all the papers that sent staff reporters to cover the case, hoping to do a piece on their coverage for The Reporter. Twice on weekends I drove over to look at the scene and watch the reporters at work, mighty gods of the East descended upon this miserable little stretch of swampland.
Note the “miserable little stretch,” for later reference. Here is how the Daily Times Leader covered the Till trial while it was underway:
And how it handled one sheriff’s claim during the trial:
It’s a very different time now, for Mississippi (as we have reported) and for the Daily Times Leader. Here is the front page during our visit last week. Among the differences: All the stories are local. Not only do they have bylines, but they’re all from the same person, Steve Rogers. And the main display photo at the bottom is of the Little Miss Clay County pageant, whose contestants are black.
Steve Rogers was out covering a story during our visit, and I called him later to ask about the current situation—and David Halberstam’s time there. “I asked some people in their 80s, and they said, Yeah, maybe they remembered someone who had gone on to the Tennessean,” he told me. “It’s been a long time.”
Rogers grew up in Alabama; went off to college at Yale; worked in politics and media across the country for decades; and has now returned to write most of what is in the Daily Times Leader.
I asked him how the Daily Times Leader itself should be considered. Could it be thought of as a (relative) success, as I argued that the family-owned Commercial Dispatch in nearby Columbus, Mississippi, is—for now?
“We’ve got 4,000 subscribers,” he said—the same number as during David Halberstam’s time. “That’s a lot in a county of 20,000 people. It’s still the smallest daily in the state. But a community this size, continuing to support a paper of this size—that’s something.” For the record, the Daily Times Leader, which has had its share of dramas, has a sister publication in nearby (and larger, and growing) Starkville, Mississippi, and is part of the Horizon group of publications, based in Illinois, which has had dramas of its own. Rogers said, “With the competing options out there, I think the paper has done very well.”
Decades ago, David Halberstam talked about the “miserable little stretch” of Mississippi in which he observed the Emmett Till trial in 1955.
Fifty years after that trial, when giving a commencement address at the University of Mississippi (as reported by Jon Friedman in the Columbia Journalism Review), here is how he described his time in the state:
What is important is that I did not learn the things I expected to learn, the things I thought I was going to be paid to learn—I learned instead other, more enduring things that have lasted me the rest of my life ….
I learned that people from other parts of the country are not any more stereotypical than I was, that human complexity always confounded you, and that the most dangerous thing in the world is to underestimate the intelligence and decency of other people. And finally, perhaps most important of all, I learned about the nobility of ordinary people.
David Halberstam spoke those words at age 71, not 21 as he had been in his Daily Times Leader days. He had continued to learn, and question, and reconsider through those 50 years—another useful example, in these times.
The ongoing theme of this site is the possibility and practical-mindedness of much of local-level America, at just the moment when national-level politics have become so bitter and dysfunctional.
But of course cities exist within states and regions, and states and regions are subject to national policy and international trends. Here are two illustrations, from opposite sides of the country, of the way national policies of the moment are affecting local efforts we’ve chronicled over the years. One is from the rich farmland of California; the other, from a challenged city in industrial Pennsylvania.
Almonds and walnuts in California: Five years ago, Deb Fallows and I made the first of what became many visits to the farming town of Winters, California. The first time we went, it was to see whether a plein air arts festival we’d heard about in this small town could really have the effect some local patriots had claimed.
On later visits, we talked with farmers, schoolteachers, founders of a newspaper, restaurateurs, and others about how the town was trying to use its commuting-range proximity to Davis and Sacramento (on the east) and the San Francisco Bay Area (on the west) as an economic benefit, while retaining its identity as a farm town rather than a bedroom or boutique community. Our most recent visit was late last month, when we joined a celebration for the launch of the Yolo County Library Foundation. (Deb had written about the library’s role in the town, in a chapter of Our Towns.)
We also wanted to hear, on this trip, about the farming economy. Practically anything will grow (if irrigated) in California’s incredibly fertile Central Valley. For this part of the valley, the most economically valuable crops in recent years have been walnuts and almonds, for which there is huge demand around the world.
When we first visited five years ago, the main question for the area’s nut-tree farmers, and for California’s agricultural economy as a whole, was whether the state’s drought-ravaged water supplies could support such commercially valuable but water-intensive crops.
We talked with scientists, environmentalists, regulators, and farmers about the effect of climate change and water supplies on America’s most agriculturally productive state. In Our Towns, I described one walnut farmer who was trying a radically sustainable approach. A sample:
Russ Lester, a nut-tree farmer, was born in the 1950s in a part of the state then famous for its fruit and nut orchards, and now known as the Silicon Valley.
“The Santa Clara valley, where we had our farms, was known for its incredible prunes and apricots and cherries, and was called ‘The Valley of Hearts Delight,’ ” he told us, when we visited him and his daughter on their walnut farm outside Winters. “Obviously that’s all changed—it kind of looks like L.A. now.”
Lester is a stockily built, balding man with an inviting smile, who wore blue jeans, running shoes, and a California surf-shop T-shirt as he walked us through the orchards.
With the money from [a sale of family orchards in Silicon Valley], the Lesters moved north, to the Winters area. In 1979 Russ Lester and his wife, Kathy, in their midtwenties, bought sixty-eight acres of neglected orchard that they began replanting with walnut trees.
The resulting operation, known as Dixon Ridge Farms and now covering more than 1,400 acres, attracts visitors from around the world and has been honored by the California state government for its commitment to sustainability in use of energy, water, chemicals, and other components.
“My definition of sustainable farming means that we should be able to keep on doing what we’re doing today, producing good healthy food, pretty much forever. We try to limit the inputs from off-farm, and limit our impact on the environment.”
For water use, the Lester approach involves not tilling the ground between the trees but instead planting legumes and clover. The resulting two-foot-high cover crop, plus walnut shell mulch (and twigs and pruned branches), reduces evaporation.
Water is applied through an unusual irrigation system that utilizes low pressure, rotary sprinklers suspended from hoses snaked through the trees, a process that minimizes waste and allows the cover crop to grow over the entire surface.
While many walnut and almond growers pull out and replant their trees roughly every 25 years, “We have trees that are over 110 years old,” Lester said. “With the shorter cycles, it’s like walnuts on steroids—they produce a lot, and then they peter out, as you would if you were on steroids. You have to rip them out. But if you manage them correctly, they can grow for a long, long time and still produce an excellent crop. And you’re sequestering a lot of carbon in the trees themselves, creating a stable, healthy environment for various critters.”
We saw Lester and some other growers on this recent visit. At least for now, the water situation in California is radically different than it was a few years ago. Starting in 2011, the state had several straight years of record-low rainfall and snowpack. By 2013, nearly all of California was officially in drought conditions. The past two years have been the reverse: nonstop rains, heavy snowpack, replenished reservoirs, and farmland threatened more widely by floodwaters than by drought.
Obviously this is not the end of water or climate questions for California, or American farming in general. But it meant that our conversations with farmers were about a different existential threat. That threat is trade war.
Over the past decade, U.S. growers of almonds, walnuts, and pistachios (nearly all of whom are in California) invested heavily in developing their Asian markets. They promoted the health benefits of eating nuts; they advertised nuts as luxury items and high-status gifts; they produced videos of Chinese and other Asian celebrities touring California orchards; and as a result, their business soared. China’s per capita consumption of walnuts, for instance, has gone up tenfold since the 1990s.
Now demand—and prices—is plummeting, mainly because of retaliatory tariffs imposed in China and elsewhere (including India and the European Union), substitute products grown in Chile and other countries, and domestic growers in China.
High-end organic producers, like Lester’s Dixon Ridge Farms, have held up better than larger-volume conventional growers, mainly because the organic market is more concentrated in the U.S. But prevailing prices for normal growers are way down. One farmer told me that the in the past two years, the price of “in-shell” standard walnuts had gone from about $1.50 a pound to about 60 cents—and that was before the latest round of U.S. tariffs and retaliatory Chinese response. Almonds have undergone almost as significant a collapse of both demand and prices. You can read more on the farm-world consequences of the trade war here, here, and here.
Some family growers who survived the drought might not survive the trade war, a grower told me. But the problem he worried about was longer term. “We’ve worked so hard to build these markets. Now they see us as an unreliable supplier. And other suppliers will move in.” Chile was a particular threat, because “their nuts are good” and, with Southern Hemisphere seasons, they can send crops when U.S. producers cannot.
Working hard to adapt to changes in market tastes and in climate, possibly succumbing to political battles—readers have heard all this about soybean farmers in the Midwest. It’s happening elsewhere, too.
New Americans in the Rust Belt: The front page of TheNew York Times on May 13 had a story about a refugee-related economic “problem” that immediately rang true to us.
The problem was not that too many refugees were flooding into an American labor market, depressing wages and displacing native-born workers. It was the reverse: that struggling cities were attracting too few refugees, and therefore depleting their corps of entrepreneurs, mainly because fewer refugees were being allowed in the country under current rules.
The story, by Christina Goldbaum, began:
Over the past few decades, as a manufacturing decline left homes vacant and storefronts dark, New York’s upstate cities opened their doors to refugees. The influx, while modest, gave new life to neighborhoods, helped alleviate labor shortages and shored up city budgets.
We have seen this pattern across the country, and notably in Erie, Pennsylvania, where the native-born population has been falling but where immigrants—and especially refugees—have been crucial in buoying population and entrepreneurship.
In the past two years, the U.S. has drastically cut the number of refugees it has accepted. This has an obvious effect on the countries refugees are trying to escape—but also on cities that have absorbed them, like Erie. As a recent column by John Micek, the editor in chief of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, put it:
Without a “stream of immigrants and refugees,” and their children “arriving to work in the city’s plastics and biofuels plants on Lake Erie … the city’s population might have dropped as low as 80,000,” Stateline.org reported recently, citing information provided by a senior aide to Erie’s Democratic mayor, Joe Schember.
“That would mean a lot less federal funding, a lot less tax dollars, a lot more difficulty filling job openings and a lot more deteriorating housing stock,” the aide, Renee Lamis, told Stateline. “… We are a perfect example of a place in need of immigrants and refugees.”
“We have literally hundreds of job openings, and our landlords have vacancies,” Lamis said, The city “had to raise income taxes and raid reserve funds to make ends meet,” Stateline reported.
And as Matthew Rink, a reporter for the Erie Times-News, said:
Erie has experienced “drastic” declines is in its refugee population, said Dylanna Grasinger, director of the International Institute of Erie, a division of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.
In the current fiscal year, Trump has capped federal refugee resettlements at 30,000, the lowest since the refugee resettlement program began and only a third of the 90,000 historical average.
Erie can’t control the number of refugees the U.S. admits. The farmers of Yolo County can’t control trade wars. They do their best with what is within their control, and are whipsawed by changes from the top.
What do these two changes—in trade policies, and for refugees—have in common? Making the United States more closed, rather than more open. Through the centuries, a closing-down America has been one moving backward, rather than ahead.
This was a fascinating session—I say, as the person who got to ask the questions, rather than having to give the answers. The hour-long YouTube video is here.
The topic was “Small Towns, Big Ideas: Innovations From Rural America.” It was a discussion in Washington, D.C., on the evening of May 13, sponsored by the renowned social-entrepreneur organization Ashoka, with four of its Ashoka fellows working in rural or small-town locations. They were:
Brandon Dennison has a program to bring economic diversity to coalfield areas, which have historically been boom-and-bust economic monocultures.
Stacey Epperson has a program to make high-quality, affordable manufactured homes a step toward homeownership, for people who have not owned homes.
Regi Haslett-Marroquín has a chicken-based program to make agriculture globally sustainable.
Denisa Livingston has a program to combat obesity and diabetes among her people, with the country’s most aggressive anti-junk-food efforts.
I promise that if you listen to this session, you’ll learn about innovations you hadn’t been aware of before.
It may also give you a sense of the breadth of the renewal efforts under way in American settlements large and small. There’s also an extended discussion of why, exactly, the majority of Americans who live in bigger cities should care about rural folk—and about the difference between saying that many rural areas have problems, versus saying that rural America is a problem.
Congratulations to Ashoka and its four rural innovators for putting this session together, and for the ambitious projects they discuss.
As mentioned in the kickoff post in this new “Our Towns” series, anyone who cares about America’s civic, cultural, and economic future should care about the fate of the local press.
Journalism everywhere is coping with a variety of well-known stresses. The pressure to adapt, while there could still be time to survive, is especially intense on smaller, local outlets that may be the only source of community-wide information and accountability in their locale.
For a sobering account of how severe this pressure has been for smaller publications, see this infographic from TheWall Street Journal.
For an ongoing account of how newspapers from California to Kansas have tried to use transparency and civic engagement to strengthen their role in the community (and their business base), see reports on the News Co/Lab site, including this from Dan Gillmor.
And for a report on how and why one small daily newspaper in the South has been bucking the national trend, read on about The Commercial Dispatch of Columbus, Mississippi.
Columbus is a town of about 24,000 in eastern Mississippi, which Deb Fallows and I have visited and written about frequently over the past five years. Its small downtown has architecturally beautiful “good bones,” of pre–World War II buildings now becoming popular for second- and third-story rentals and apartments.
One of the most stately of these downtown structures is the longtime home of the local daily newspaper, The Commercial Dispatch. The newspaper is nearly a century old; it has been based at its current home, on Main Street, since the 1920s; and through that period it has been owned and published by members of the Imes family.
The paper is printed each day in that same downtown site. Like other small-town, local papers, it is in worse shape than it was a decade ago. Then, its daily paid circulation was around 16,000. Now it’s between 13,000 and 14,000 (including a new edition for the nearby, prospering university town of Starkville, home of Mississippi State).
But it has held up much better than most. According to its publisher, Peter Imes—the fourth generation of the Imes family to have this role—the paper’s editorial staff is about the same as it was a decade ago: a total of 12. That is down from its historic peak of around 20, but has held steady in a time when newsroom staffs have been drastically hollowed out elsewhere. I’ve bought and read each day’s paper this week, and I’ve noticed that the front pages have featured local news, from on-staff reporters, rather than Associated Press or other syndicated stories.
How has the Dispatch held on, to the extent that it has? I spoke this week with Peter Imes, who last year succeeded his father, Birney Imes III, as publisher of the paper. The senior Imes, a renowned photographer, had taken over from his father in 1996.
Peter Imes, who is now 40, had not intended to continue in the family newspaper business. He grew up in Columbus but went off to work in software in Austin and then in historic-building renovation in Memphis. But when he and his wife had children, they considered returning to Columbus. He did some projects for the paper and found himself intrigued. “One day I sat in on a news-budget meeting, and it kind of drew me in,” Imes told me in Columbus this week. “Just seeing the process, seeing how ideas for stories kind of came into being, was absorbing.” He ended up working in various business, design, and editorial departments of the paper through his 30s.
“And then, frankly, the challenge of making this a successful business is attractive to me. It is a challenge. This once was a business that just printed money. Now you’ve got to work at it. And to me, that’s a lot more interesting.”
Imes stressed that nothing is secure or guaranteed about his paper’s survival. “All of us in the business have this fear that the bottom is just going to drop out at any minute.” But when we talked, three themes came through in his explanation of how the paper has survived so far.
News, over social media. “I always hesitate to say this, because it goes against convention—and I’m lucky enough to have a managing editor who agrees with me on this. But we really downplay social media. We don’t value it a lot. I think it’s a distraction.
“Of course it can be used to help promote the journalism we do. And it can sometimes be used to find good sources. But we’ve found that to be fairly rare. I think a lot of journalists right now spend too much time kind of establishing their personal brand on social media and not enough time actually talking to people in the community.”
Cost-consciousness. “We’re militant about expenses. Sometimes I flip through other newspapers and I go multiple pages without seeing any ads at all. I just don’t see how those papers are making any money.
“We are strict: If we don’t have the ads to support extra pages in the paper, we’re reducing the size of that day’s paper. It doesn’t matter how much content we have—if we don’t have the ads to support it, we don’t print those pages right now. We’ll refer people to the web for online versions of those stories.”
Having the right owners. The Dispatch is the last family-owned daily in Mississippi. From Citizen Kane and Chinatown onward, family ownership has historically meant that publications can play favorites, push pet causes, and generally confuse personal causes with civic ones. But in this moment of newspaper crisis, family ownership has had two related advantages for the Dispatch.
One of them—“definitely non-sexy,” as Imes put it—is that decades ago, his grandfather Birney Imes Jr. invested some of the paper’s profits in local self-storage sites and other buildings in the area. The paper still owns those properties, and their profits support its news operations. “Over the past 10 years, I’ve seen a lot of newspapers divest themselves of real estate and other assets,” Peter Imes said. “Instead, we have expanded, and that has provided a cushion for us in rough months.” He said that by the end of this year, non-newspaper assets might contribute 15 percent of the paper’s total budget.
The other advantage was the rest of the family’s agreement that these side revenues should, in fact, be used to keep the paper viable. “We all sat down last year to make sure we are on the same page,” he said. “We all see this as an important job we are doing for the community, and we’re comfortable having these extra funds funnel into the Dispatch.” Imes said that the family never seriously considered selling out to a newspaper chain or a venture-capital fund like the notorious Digital First Media, which has taken over small papers and dismantled their news staffs to maximize profit levels.
“I love the service a newspaper can be in its community,” Imes said in a Dispatch story announcing his appointment as publisher. “A local newspaper is the written legacy of a community, and the fact that my family’s history is so intertwined in that legacy is humbling. But the idea of where this paper—and this community— can go is invigorating.”
Is this a solution most other papers can follow—especially the last part, “Choose the right owners”? Probably not. But the search for solutions to the era’s local-journalism crisis will mean considering every success story for possible implications. And Imes’s emphasis on the make-or-break importance of an independent-ownership structure is resonant beyond the world of journalism, in this new era of monopoly and conglomeration. I’ll buy another copy of the Dispatch today.
One more installment on the question of whether an unloved and unsightly part of America’s infrastructure—the giant sprawl-malls that drained business from classic downtowns in the 1960s and 1970s, only to become bankrupt dinosaurs in their turn—might actually become the sites of civic and architectural rebirth.
The original post, about Fort Wayne, Indiana, was here; followed by this (partial) defense of malls; and this elaboration on what is happening to malls around the country.
More via the wisdom of the readership:
1) Maybe the deadness of the malls is a feature, not a bug. A reader points out that one mall has been put to good use as a set for horror or zombie movies:
Here’s a timely article about another use for a (largely) vacant mall:
I had remarked to a friend a couple of years ago that this mall could be used to good effect in a Walking Dead episode (which is also shot in the Atlanta area).
Of course, it’s not feasible for every city to promote/develop itself as “the Hollywood of the [REGION],” and even here the community would be better served by the space having some continuous utility, rather than occasional use as background scenery.
Perhaps, taking off from the retro film set starting point, some locale could convert an old mall to a Mall Museum, with different wings featuring now-defunct chains from different eras.
2) What did the mall designers have in mind? From a reader in California:
Not long ago, as I exited the campus environmental design library here at Berkeley I spied the free book truck outside the door. Among the books: Louis G. Redstone’s New Dimensions in Shopping Centers and Stores, published in 1973. I nabbed it, and now it’s mine. It is a treasure, not least because its target audience is the mall designer.
I am one of those kids who didn’t exactly love the mall, but very much appreciated it. New Dimensions is devoid of nostalgic sentiment; it’s a documentary history.
Of course, suburban malls like the ones I visited as a kid were also in their own ways monuments to racism and capitalist rapaciousness. We need not mourn their loss, then, except for the fact that their replacements are arguably much worse in either or both respects.
I don’t believe you noted sites like this in your recent posts. Depictions of the ruins of malls are now a “thing,” as they say. Also see this, from a Pacific NW design journal.
When I saw your item, this had just come out in a local paper, about a mall where I was once a retail store employee:
This mall was built after I left and my parents could never understand it, because Jacksonville even at its ritziest is not this type of town.
4) Plus Austin:
Here’s another one. Highland Mall is now an Austin Community College campus.
This is the link to the architects’ page about it—it gives a good summary of how and why it was redone. Click on the link at the lower left—and scroll down too, to read about the sustainability modifications, which are cool.
Here’s the ACC page, so you can see what the transformed real estate looks like to students and visitors to the page.
5) And Seattle:
Seattle’s Northgate Mall opened in 1950 as an outdoor shopping mall. It was a cultural icon when I was growing up here. It was later enclosed to remain competitive with the newer malls—Bellevue Square and Southcenter. Even as light rail is finally being built with a stop at the mall, stores close.
There are plans for its future, which may already be known to you, but if not, here are some: this, this, this, this, this.
6) The big picture: Dead malls are a potential “land bank” for future cities. A reader who works in the urban-development business writes:
I want to highlight work being done internationally on the dying mall saga.
My firm has a segment of our practice called “Urban Places.” We are about making our built environments more inclusive, resilient, vibrant, healthy, and ecologically sound …
I know this sounds like a sales pitch. But it’s a core value I and my fellow colleagues believe in. The future is urban. Suburban spaces like malls are great land banks to create something new.
Five years ago today, Deb Fallows and I were in Columbus, Mississippi, to observe the commemoration of Emancipation Day held in the cemetery there. My dispatch about it at the time is here; in the years that followed, Deb and I made repeated visits to Columbus and its neighbors in the “Golden Triangle” of northeastern Mississippi to write about the area’s industries, one of its exceptional schools, its also exceptional community college, and other aspects of its successes and challenges.
You can read some of the two dozen Atlantic dispatches we wrote from the Golden Triangle here or here, or check out this Atlantic video. We also did a long chapter about the area in our subsequent book, Our Towns, which as it happens was published a year ago today.
This week we are back in Columbus again, to report once more on those same aspects: schools, industry, history, inclusion and exclusion, progress and struggle. Later this evening we will be at the cemetery again, for this year’s observation of Emancipation Day.
Over the next few days we’ll have several dispatches from Mississippi, in the model of the preceding series on cities in Indiana. Next in the queue is a report on the only family-owned daily newspaper still operating in Mississippi, The Commercial Dispatch, whose headquarters on Main Street you see below, and what it is doing to buck the trends that have been so dire for local journalism across the country.
Update Here was a scene from this evening’s presentation:
We can all think of things that have gotten worse about journalism, in the era of continual distraction and internet-borne hysteria and info silos.
Here’s something I’ve continued to appreciate as an improvement, ever since The Atlantic became one of the first publications to establish an online presence back in 1995.
How long ago was that, in technological terms? It was forever. Google didn’t exist, to say nothing of Facebook; Amazon was a start-up based in a garage; “mobile” phones were too bulky to fit in a pocket and too primitive to do anything except make phone calls.
But for all the unrecognizable differences in technology (and reading habits) since then, the process I have in mind continues. It is the ongoing cycle of in-public, crowd-sourced, step-by-step education that online forums make possible.
Of course people could have done something faintly similar in the pre-electronic age, by sending physical letters to journalists, and waiting to see an in-print response. But speed and scale make the modern feedback loop entirely different. And of course the cycles of in-public misinformation and fearmongering are so obvious as to suggest that putting people in closer touch with one another has mainly destroyed everyone’s power to think.
But not really! Andrew Sullivan marveled at the power of in-public incremental education in his “Why I Blog” cover story for The Atlantic, back in 2008. The cycles of publicly asked questions, with a public search for answers, was a crucial element in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s relationship with his vast and devoted audience, “The Horde,” during his years as an Atlantic blogger. For me, when living in China, when writing about politics or the military or technology or aviation, and while traveling across the United States these past few years, I’ve continued to marvel at how many people within TheAtlantic’s force field, have such a range of knowledge and experience, which they can share in such (usually) relevant and well-expressed ways.
This is a long buildup to the latest (unexpected) example: what happens to buildings after they die.
In a post last week from Fort Wayne, I talked about the fates of buildings that had outlived their original economic or civic function: factories, warehouses, corner stores, even churches and synagogues.
In a follow-up item, a reader described why some people might miss a kind of structure I had considered a blight: the mid-20th-century shopping malls that displaced many earlier downtown businesses, and that themselves have in many cases been abandoned and bankrupted.
Here’s the rest of what I have learned on this theme, from mail just over the weekend.
1) There is a book (and probably more than one) on this exact topic by my friend, the estimable polymath Stewart Brand. A reader writes:
I was wondering if you’ve read Stewart Brand’s very interesting book, “How Buildings Learn”, that he published many years ago.
If not, it’s directly applicable to your comment today about how older free-standing buildings in downtowns tend to be re-born and re-used again and again.
I have ordered the book, and look forward to a physical copy arriving in two days. Update: a nice, related video featuring Stewart Brand is here.
2) There is a video series on the same theme too. Another reader writes:
I don’t believe you’ve mentioned this shortlived documentary series “Abandoned” from Vice so you may not be aware of it. [JF: I wasn’t.]
It had, I believe, six episodes, each of which you would enjoy (they replay frequently on the Vice channel), but the episode on Ohio’s abandoned malls was particularly memorable.
The premise of the full series sounds odd - a skateboarder visits abandoned spaces and skates their remaining flat spaces, but in spending time with the locals in each case he does an extraordinary job of exploring the sociological sense of loss, and the episodes are truly deep and haunting.
The California Water System (abandonment of the Great Salton Sea) episode is incredibly powerful and should be shown in that state’s schools.
I can’t encourage you enough to view them - you’ll be glad you did.
3) Here is a story about a failing mall in Los Angeles being converted into a Google office space, and here is another feature about seven doomed malls from around the country that found new life.
4) A reader from Dubuque sends this Iowa-based report, about a man who fought the mid-century mall trend while it was under way:
Bob Zehentner was a small business owner back in the 1960s when my hometown of Dubuque started its “urban renewal” plans, by which they meant restructuring the Main Street of downtown into a pedestrian space.
At the same time, Kennedy Mall was being built out on the West side of the city, which was in the same direction as all of the new home building at the time.
Bob was a World War II veteran and saw service in North Africa and China Burma India. He started his business when he came back from the war because he wanted to encourage families and young people to engage in outdoor activities and sports. Really about as American a dream as the American Dream could be then.
He fought hard against the renewal plans, attending city council meetings, lobbying other local business owners, warning about the impending loss of historical buildings and the peril of killing the heart of the city’s center.
Naturally Bob was concerned for his business but also those of his friends and neighbors. Then he watched as, one by one, the small businesses died off, until his was one of the few left. Older buildings fell into disrepair and many were torn down.
It was a stroke of luck that the next generation, remembering the old downtown, saw the opportunity of restoring the older buildings to a new glory. It took this young blood years but they began to restore the downtown, starting with renovating older homes into B&Bs and residences, then the commercial buildings, and finally Main Street itself.
The nearby Warehouse District is now a thriving nighttime spot, a more positive expression of gentrification than many urban places can claim.
There’s no doubt that Main Street businesses would still have to face the onslaught of online retail like Amazon, eBay, and so on, but Bob was prescient about the vital importance of the city center.
Dubuque has enjoyed a resurgence as both a destination and a great place to raise a family, but one has to wonder how much was lost in the process of coming to our collective senses.
5) From another reader in the Midwest, with an idea of how to use today’s dead malls as the anchors for tomorrow’s revived urban areas:
By a quirk of chance last month, I happened to find myself in a JCPenney’s inside the Golf Mill Shopping Center in Niles, Illinois. I’m 35 years old, and shopping malls were very much part of the fabric of everyday life while growing up, but this visit was probably the first time in two decades I had set foot inside a JCPenney’s.
And as I wandered around the inside, it was impossible to miss the many closed storefronts. Most striking was the space in the mall’s map labelled “Former Sears”, which was in dead center of the map, where an anchor store should be; once upon a time, it seems that one could walk through the Sears to reach one side of the mall from the other. Now, all I see is a blocked off space, with what seemed to be hastily printed signs urging me to exit the mall and walk around the outside to access the rest of the stores on the other side of the Sears.
Similarly, it was hard to not see the demographics at the mall, which certainly skewed towards older guests, either in retirement or close to it.
I remember thinking back to Victor Gruen, the architect who pioneered what the contemporary shopping mall as we know it with the Southdale Center in Edina, Minnesota in 1956. I had just saw a documentary snippet about him a bit earlier, and I was surprised how Gruen meant the suburban shopping mall as just one part of a holistic community center, with commercial, residential, and community components. This was not my experience with shopping malls in general, and it certainly wasn’t my experience at Golf Mill.
But what if shopping malls don’t have to be this way? What if what we see nowadays as dying, decaying shopping centers can be re-framed to something closer to Gruen’s vision?
In the case of Golf Mill, what if the “Former Sears” anchor store could be converted into something like apartments and condos for retirees thinking of downsizing and moving to a more convenient and walkable area?
What if some of the closed-up store fronts could re-open with social amenities like senior centers, health services like physical therapists’ offices, and lifestyle amenities like full-service restaurants, theaters, and places of worship?
What if shopping centers today can be repurposed, from something that’s merely just a brick-and-mortar location for conducting commerce in an increasingly-losing battle against e-commerce, into a common physical and social space for generating community, intergenerational relationships, and cultural richness and stimulation?
I don’t know if Gruen’s more holistic vision of “the mall” is actually be viable in the real world. But as more and more malls fail and die out across the country, surely Gruen’s vision of the mall is no less viable than the crumbling reality of what we understand shopping malls to be today.
As it happens, we’ve covered Victor Gruen’s urban-design work in previous installments in this space. For instance, this from Fresno. Thanks to these readers, and others, for telling me things I didn’t know, and suggesting new leads to pursue.
In a report last week from Fort Wayne, Indiana, I noted what I considered the mid-century tragedy of big, sprawling, “modern” shopping malls displacing historic downtowns, only to become bankrupt eyesores after the malls’ few decades of fashionability had passed.
The difference between those vintage-1970s big malls and earlier eras’ structures is what happened after the businesses inside the buildings died. If a factory from the 1880s, a warehouse from the 1920s, or a corner grocery from the 1940s closed down, in theory the building could be reused and reborn in some new economic role. Deb and I have seen that happening coast to coast: with ex-factories that are now art studios or small-manufacturing zones, ex-bakeries that are now hotels or residences, ex-churches that are now schools or libraries or breweries.
But when a 1970s mall becomes an “ex-” structure, it usually just sits there, sucking life from everywhere around it.
Or so I argued—from my own Boomer-era perspective on American architectural and urban history.
A reader who grew up in New Jersey but went to college in Michigan, Vasav Swaminathan, says I may need to take another leap of generational imagination. He writes:
I’m an older Millennial (born 1986), so I think most of my life is seeing box stores and strip malls give way to “revived” downtowns. I remember hating sitting in traffic as a kid on Saturdays while we went from mall to mall, and much preferring the days we went to Oak Tree Road or Nassau Street to buy things.
Which is to say—I much prefer what we’re moving to, reviving the downtown concept, to the old style.
But how did the previous generation feel about the boarded-up downtowns and the big-box stores when they were new?
I do know plenty of kids who loved the mall … When these were new in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, and downtowns were blighted, how did everyone feel about it?
By the ’90s, everyone was saddened by urban blight and tried to reverse it, and now we look at the box stores as something from a maligned recent past. But in 30 years, might the tide turn again, as folks re-prefer the convenience of easy parking?
I don’t honestly know—I don’t need to tell you the annoyances of overcrowded traffic and the charm and cultural presence of the downtown scenes, nor the conveniences of ample parking, or the ways that effective mass transit can copy the conveniences of cars and parking lots.
But I think of Detroit, with beautiful tree-lined streets filled with abandoned houses. It may have been unfortunate that they tore down the Hudson’s department store, and it is wonderful they’ve saved the train station and tragic they tore down Tiger Stadium. But those active, unlucky places, when they made their decisions—did it feel like progress?
Is the tragedy that I see in the loss of Tiger Stadium an evanescent feeling? Will future generations bemoan the fate of the Silverdome?
I can’t say about Detroit or the Silverdome, but from a D.C.-area perspective: I think most sports fans and area residents have celebrated the arrival of the modern new baseball park for the Nationals, not far from the Capitol, plus the downtown arena for the Capitals and Wizards.
Update: A reader sent in a link to a report on the abandoned New World department store mall in Bangkok, which was subsequently flooded and used to raise fish. The reader writes:
You’re probably already aware of it [JF: I was not], but the photos of
Bangkok’s abandoned and flooded New World Mall, which until a few years ago was home to tens of thousands of koi, are strangely beautiful …
Courtesy of Reuters, here is a sample of the images the reader is talking about:
They had a common theme: how surprising it was simply to show up in these towns and hear about what was happening there, since so little (or none) of this news had ever made its way to the national press.
A reader in Indianapolis challenges one part of my argument:
Interesting and informative to hear about Muncie and Ball State. My only quibble is with your first sentence: “This post is about a development that few people outside the state of Indiana have ever heard or read about …. ”
I live in Indianapolis, and consider myself well-informed, and I hadn’t heard or read about what’s going on in Muncie. This is a direct result of the death of local journalism ….
Our “local” paper, the Indianapolis Star … has very little coverage of what is going on even in Indianapolis, other than the occasional sensational crime, much less elsewhere in the state (as you know from your recent visit, Muncie is not that far away).
To be fair, the Star is doing a reasonably good job on some environmental issues, but it is telling that the environmental coverage is essentially funded by a grant from a charitable trust—without that grant, that coverage would not exist either. But coverage of local and state “meat and potatoes” issues is cursory at best.
I’m putting down a marker for ongoing coverage in this space: the crucial importance of local journalism, the economic pressures pushing it down, and the rapidly increasing experimentation in a search to buoy it back up.
Also: If you’re looking for an extremely skeptical local view of recent developments, which presents the Ball State University/Muncie Community Schools interaction as a “coup” and as the latest manifestation of “Muncie’s Oligarchy,” you can check out the Muncie Voice.
In my first Muncie post, I mentioned both Robert and Helen Lynd’s famed sociological study of the city, Middletown, from 1929, and a 2004 book about Muncie’s African American citizens who were largely left out of the Lynds’ work. That later book is The Other Side of Middletown, edited by Luke Eric Lassiter, Hurley Goodall, Elizabeth Campbell, and Michelle Natasya Johnson.
A reader whom I’ve known for years, and who has family ties in Muncie’s African American community, writes to recommend the Other Side book, and to add:
The problem with those famous Middletown studies is that they did what Whi’ Peepo so often do: they erased/ignored us. They wished us away.
Po’ White Folk have found themselves in the same box of late. But instead of forming common cause with Black Folk, or asking us: “Hey, how’d y’all survive a couple of centuries of this treatment?” they lost their shit. (Sorry, it’s coarse language, but it’s the most precise way to convey the point, really.) They’ve become meaner. They’ve retreated further into those old, tired myths about “The True America.” Blech.
Anyway, Black Folk lived and worked in Muncie. Maybe y’all can wander over to “the other side of (middle)town” and see for yourselves.
I last went there decades ago … My father left for many good reasons. I’m glad he acted on them.
More to come on this front. Thanks to these and other readers.
This post is about a development that few people outside the state of Indiana have ever heard or read about, but that has implications for the country as a whole. It’s about a highly unusual approach to a highly familiar problem: the economic challenges of public schools. This news comes from America’s original “Middletown,” the midsize Indiana city of Muncie.
In the preceding installment about Muncie, I mentioned three aspects that surprised Deb and me—and that would have surprised most visitors, given their absence from the national press. One, discussed in the preceding report, was the ambitious geothermal-energy program designed to reduce nearly half the carbon footprint of the city’s dominant institution, the 22,000-student Ball State University.
The other two also involve Ball State’s interaction with Muncie—in a general way, and with a specific and highly unusual new step. This post is about those two moves.
The general step that Ball State has taken is to see itself as centrally involved in the economic and civic development of the city where it is based—rather than viewing Muncie from across the traditional town-gown divide. This is a trend that Deb and I have seen (as discussed here) in other places around the country. Last fall The New York Times had a related story in its business section titled “Universities Look to Strengthen the Places They Call Home.” That story featured East Coast illustrations: the University of Maryland’s role in College Park, outside Washington, D.C.; Drexel University’s role in Philadelphia; and Yale’s in New Haven.
At Ball State, this kind of “civic stewardship” in Muncie has been a central emphasis of the university president who took office two years ago, Geoffrey Mearns, who before arriving had been the president of Northern Kentucky University.
“When they interviewed me for this position, I said, ‘If you’re looking for someone to run a university, I am honored, but I already had a great job,’ ” Mearns told me when I first spoke with him last fall. Mearns grew up mainly in Ohio, studied English at Yale (where he was a track and cross-country star, eventually running a 2:16 marathon and qualifying for the 1984 Olympic trials), and practiced law for more than 15 years, including nine years as a federal prosecutor. He then shifted into university administration with a role at Cleveland State University.
“But I said that if they were interested in involving the university much more directly with the community, that would be very interesting to me, as well.” As a sign of sincerity: Soon after their arrival, Mearns and his wife, Jennifer, donated $100,000 for an endowment to sponsor Muncie Community Schools graduates who would become first-generation students at Ball State.
This kind of interaction would be a change for Muncie, where the university and the city had been for decades co-located but not deeply cooperative. As mentioned earlier, the sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd selected Muncie as the site for their famed Middletown study precisely because it was so clearly a midwestern “factory town” rather than a “college town.” But the shift toward involvement with Muncie is a basic part of Ball State’s current strategy.
“Our University’s future is affected by the vitality and vibrancy of Muncie,” Mearns said in a statement to the Indiana legislature early last year, a few months after he started at Ball State. “In short, our fortunes are linked.” The title of the current Ball State initiative is “Better Together.”
The idea of such a town-gown inevitably linkage is becoming more widespread. The specific implementation in Muncie is practically unique.
The axis of the linkage is the local public-school system, known as MCS, for Muncie Community Schools.
For decades, the schools had been a classic example of a distressed industrial area’s vicious cycle of decline. Over 35 years, the MCS enrollment fell by more than half. This chart, from a Ball State presentation on the future of the schools, shows the pattern.
Part of the change was from deindustrialization and a shrinking number of households with children in the area. But as the chart shows, about a third of students eligible to attend the community schools have chosen to go elsewhere: to private schools, religious schools, charter schools, or other options.
Since state funding for schools in Indiana depends heavily on enrolled-student head counts, the cycle of decline became self-accelerating. (Years ago, I wrote about the effects of the same pattern in Michigan, with the Holland schools.) Fewer students means less money; less money means cutbacks, school closures, and fewer programs; cutbacks (etc.) drive students away from the schools; even fewer students means even less money.
My story about Holland involved a public-school system whose leaders were then navigating the way out of the cycle. The MCS leaders seemed to be navigating their way right over the cliff. Starting with the financial-crash year of 2008, the schools operated with heavy deficits, totaling more than $35 million in 11 years.
In early 2017, the system’s CFO resigned after news broke that some proceeds from a big school-bond issue had been used to cover operating deficits, rather than for repairs and investments (as reported by StateImpact Indiana here).
Schools were closed; teachers were laid off; academic-quality ratings fell. Finally, in December 2017, the state of Indiana declared the Muncie schools (like those in Gary) to be a “distressed political subdivision,” and put them under direct state-government control, through an emergency manager.
The following month, in January 2018, Geoffrey Mearns, then less than a year into his Ball State tenure, made a surprising proposal on Ball State’s behalf. He said that the university would assume responsibility for the city’s schools, transferring them from the state’s emergency manager, if the structure of the school board could be reconstituted. The announcement was enough of a surprise that, in initial news accounts, many officials said they couldn’t comment, because they hadn’t yet seen the plan. (For instance, from the first-day news in the Ball State Daily: “‘I was caught off guard because I had no idea the amendment [authorizing the switch] was in the works,’ said Rep. Sue Errington, D-Muncie. ‘I think [Ball State is] making a very nice offer. But it has been sprung on us.’”)
A plan like this—for a university to run the whole local school system—had never been tried in Indiana, or nearly anywhere else in the country. The closest and best-known parallel would be Boston University’s management of the Chelsea Public Schools in Boston, from the late 1980s to 2008. (An Indiana Public Radio show examined the lessons, plus similarities and differences). According to the chairman of the Board of Trustees at Ball State, the Muncie project was the first time a public university had assumed responsibility for local schools. (Boston University is private.)
The plan’s acceptance in Indiana was the result of extensive deliberations through the first half of 2018. These were deliberations by the state legislature, which agreed to turn over responsibility to Ball State; by the Ball State trustees, who agreed to accept responsibility; and by a wide variety of groups within the community that would be affected. The legislative and budgetary details are more complex than I can begin to present here. (If you’re interested, I commend to you: Indiana Public Radio in January 2018; Inside Higher Ed in March; and then the Muncie Star Press; Indiana Public Media; and the Muncie Journal in May. Links in these stories will lead you to more.)
“I was talking with a state senator about the plan,” Mearns told me in Muncie. “After listening for 15 minutes, he said, ‘Don’t do this; run away; stay as far away from that school system as you can.’ After another 15 minutes, he said, ‘You’re still crazy. But you have to do this.’”
How is it all working? In the spirit of “showing our homework,” I’ll say that Deb and I haven’t yet been inside the schools, and we will return to learn more. I am sure there are complaints and contradictions, as well as progress.
But from the outside, here are two aspects of the project so far that seem worth broader notice.
One is the systematic process of civic engagement that led to the selection of the new school board, whose seven members you see below:
The legislation authorizing the switch-over said that two of the appointments would be made by the Ball State president—but one from a list of three candidates proposed by the mayor, and the other from a three-candidate list proposed by the city council. The other five would be appointed by the Ball State trustees, from nominees proposed by the university president.
The university put out a public call for these nominations. It said it would be looking for diversity in race, gender, age, and working experience, and that priority would go to people actually living in town. It received 88 applications, the great majority from people living in Muncie. The university winnowed them down to a panel of 20 finalists, who answered questions at a two-hour public forum last June.
The seven members eventually chosen are: a special-ed teacher with school-age children, the YWCA’s executive director, a lawyer and former head of the Ball State University Foundation, a local banker, a Ball State official (who directed the geothermal-energy project mentioned before), a pastor, and a former state-court judge. Five men, two women; five white, two black; six of the seven attended Muncie Community Schools.
I met with board members for an hour last month in Muncie, and asked each of them why they’d decided to apply for this post. “I couldn’t not throw my hat into the ring, because the challenge is so important,” the lawyer, Mark Ervin, said. “If you have a chance to make a difference, you take it. You don’t have that many chances.” Brittany Bales, the special-ed teacher, had taken her young children out of the Muncie schools but brought them back. “It’s a mirage that it’s better somewhere else,” she said. “It’s more diverse and interesting within MCS.”
The other striking initial aspect of the project is the tangible local support it has generated. The new university-led school structure has raised more than $3 million in local donations to the schools, starting with $1 million each from two different Ball-family foundations and around $250,000 each from three local banks.
To emphasize the obvious for now: I don’t know how this project will pan out, and neither do the people pouring their effort and money into it. The former judge on the school board, James Williams, told me, “We have a long way to go, but we’re all pulling in the same direction. We’re still in crisis, but we’re making progress.”
But even while the outcome cannot be known, the inventiveness and effort seem worth notice outside Indiana. (As a local-media point: Every stage of this transition has been covered by the Indiana press, but as far as I can tell, the Ball State/MCS project has never appeared in national papers like The New York Times or TheWashington Post.)
I thought of what I heard from Susana Rivera-Mills, who came to Ball State last year as its new provost. She and her husband, a concert musician, had been in Oregon when recruited to Muncie. She is originally from El Savaldaor; her husband, from the northern California coast—in both cases, very far from central Indiana. But “we felt the sense of life, the energy, the anticipation for something new,” she told me. “We couldn’t imagine not being part of what was going on.” With all normal allowances for boosterism I can still say: discussions like this gave me a different view of life in Middletown than I had before going there.
This is the fourth installment from the “vein of gold” road trip that Deb and I took along Indiana’s I-69 corridor last month, in the company of friends from New America–Indianapolis and Indiana Humanities. The previous installments are here: about Angola, about Fort Wayne, Part One about Muncie, and about the new Our Towns journey as a whole.
(“Road trip,” for a journey by small airplane? We’ll be back to airborne travel soon.)
Here is why I think this report from central Indiana matters, for people who don’t happen to live there themselves.
What Deb Fallows and I saw in Muncie, Indiana, is as stark an illustration as we’ve recently come across of a gap with huge implications for America’s civic and political prospects.
On one side of this gap (whose existence has been a running theme in this space) is the growing reality of experimentation, freshness, practicality, and often progress in many American communities and regions.
On the other side of the gap is the extremely faint national-level awareness of such developments, or what they might collectively amount to in the years ahead.
For now, in two installments, I’ll mention some developments that we learned about on a recent trip to Muncie, Indiana, and that we had no idea of before we visited the town. I will bet that the 98 percent of Americans who don’t live in Indiana have not heard of these efforts either, since as far as I can tell, they’ve rarely if ever been mentioned in the national press.
Ninety-eight percent? Yes: The state’s population is about 6.5 million, and the country’s population is more than 325 million, or about 50 times as great. By the way, this makes Indiana that rare state with a mathematically “fair” representation in the U.S. Senate. One out of every 50 Americans is a Hoosier, and the two senators from Indiana cast one-fiftieth of the Senate’s total votes.
(To illustrate the range among other states: About one American in every 600 lives in Wyoming, and about one in eight lives in California. Each state of course has the same two Senate votes. About one American in 450 lives in the District of Columbia, and they have no Senate votes at all. I offer these numbers not as a veiled complaint: the Washington, D.C., license plate on my car, which bears the District’s official slogan, “Taxation without representation”—now that is a complaint. Rather, these are reminders of the way centuries of migration and changed settlement patterns among the states have affected the fundamentals of constitutional architecture. )
My goal in this first piece is to introduce the idea of activities worth national notice, which usually escape notice because they are happening “out there.” The developments I have in mind from Muncie, in this report and the next, are:
a specific local response to a global challenge;
a conceptual shift that parallels trends we’ve seen elsewhere;
a major institutional and civic rearrangement that is unique in Indiana and has very few precedents anywhere else in the country.
Deb and I will return to Muncie for further reporting trips. But here is Part One of what we’ve learned for now.
Muncie is another longtime manufacturing center in this most manufacturing-centric of all states. It has about 70,000 residents and is the subject of one of the most famous works in American sociology: Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture, by Robert and Helen Lynd, which began in the 1920s. Middletown was Muncie; Ball State University, in Muncie, now has a Center for Middletown Studies, which among other projects runs a civic blogging site called Everyday Life in Middletown. (A book called The Other Side of Middletown, about the Muncie story from the perspective of its African American residents, came out in 2004.)
In the world of commerce, Muncie is associated with the Ball family, of glass-jar fame. If you’ve ever seen a classic American glass jar of jam or preserves, you’ve seen the swirly script Ball logo. What became the Ball Glass Manufacturing Company started in Buffalo, New York, in the 1880s. It looked for new premises after a fire destroyed its Buffalo factory in 1886.
In those days, natural gas was being discovered in Indiana, so the Ball brothers moved to Muncie for its cheap gas supplies (for their energy-intensive glassmaking business), and over most of the next century were the dominant business force.
The Ball Corporation moved its headquarters to Colorado more than 20 years ago, but the mark of the family remains all over town, from the name of Ball State University (which started out as a teachers’ college in the late 1800s and was recapitalized by the Balls around 1920) to a number of charitable foundations to historic structures, museums, statuary, and public arts. This brings us to the world of pop culture, where Ball State enjoys the glow of one of its prominent alumni and benefactors: David Letterman.
Here is the summary of what we learned in Muncie and at Ball State.
Specific local action toward a global goal: Ball State University is the biggest single enterprise in town, and also the biggest energy consumer. Starting 10 years ago, a Ball State official named Jim Lowe began exploring possibilities of geothermal energy as a power source for the campus. In the years since, the university has drilled thousands of “boreholes” on campus, and installed more than 1,000 miles of piping, for geothermal-energy transfers. (Earth’s baseline temperature heats water pumped through the system in the winter, and cools it in the summer.) The system is said to be the largest of its kind in the United States; Lowe told us that it would reduce Ball State’s carbon footprint by half.
“We find history repeating itself,” a Ball State publication wrote recently. “The Ball brothers came to Muncie to reduce costs for their glass business by using ‘free’ energy in the form of natural gas pulled from the ground. Now, the university they founded will save $2 million annually in operating costs by using a different form of ‘free’ energy pulled from the same ground in thermal energy.”
Universities as civic actors: Everyone knows about “town-gown” separations, where a college or university has a prickly arm’s-length relationship with the community where it happens to be placed.
Everyone also knows about the classic “college town,” a settlement that hangs on mainly thanks to the business a university brings in.
Deb and I have become more and more interested in the “university hall as city hall” model—that is, a relationship in which a university’s leadership decides that it shares responsibility for the surrounding community’s economic and civic development (as opposed to simply wanting to exercise control over local affairs).
We’ve seen examples of this, as we’ll describe, in places like Eau Claire, Wisconsin, where the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire has become a major civic-convening force; in nearby Kenosha, Wisconsin, through the emerging convening work of Carthage College; in Wichita, Kansas, where Wichita State University is playing a central economic and technological role; in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, with the involvement of the University of Southern Mississippi; in the much larger city of Phoenix, where the efforts of Arizona State University have had an effect statewide and around the country; and in a number of other locales.
In Muncie, the town-gown relationship was historically separate enough that when the Lynds set out their criteria for a typical American Middletown, they said it should not be a university town—and they thought that Muncie qualified.
Now that is changing, in a dramatic way. The change involves the seven people you see below. In Muncie Part Two, coming tomorrow, more about the next big point: how a university has decided to involve itself centrally in civic affairs, and the surprising project it has undertaken within the town.
Today’s theme: what happens to buildings, after they die.
Today’s locale: a major manufacturing center along Indiana’s I-69 corridor, the industrial stronghold of Fort Wayne.
The second lives of buildings—or third, or fourth or tenth—after they’ve outlived their original economic or civic purpose, is a topic that has commanded Deb’s and my attention more and more, with each new American venue we spend time in.
If a city is unlucky—or shortsighted, which often turns out to be the same thing—it bulldozes its architectural heritage of the past decades or centuries, for whatever is the fad of the moment.
This happened, disastrously, to my small home town of Redlands, in inland Southern California. In the late 1960s, when freeway-based sprawl-malls were just beginning to hollow out downtown retailers, a short-sighted city leadership made a choice that the city has yet fully to recover from. It approved razing about half of the downtown’s historic business structures—shops, civic clubs, a famed 1930s-vintage hotel—to make room for one of that era’s Brutalist/penitentiary-style in-town malls, surrounded by parking lots. Nearly 50 years later, that mall stands abandoned and bankrupt, its only activity a national-chain drugstore that clings to its long-term lease. (For locals: I’m talking about the former State Street west of Orange Street; the structures on State Street east of Orange were spared.)
Meanwhile, the other half of the Redlands downtown, the part that was spared the wrecking ball, went through its 1970s and 1980s of hard commercial times. But the buildings survived; starting 10 or 15 years ago they began attracting new activity; and now they constitute one more of the nation’s vibrant smaller-city downtowns, working around the decayed molar of the mall.
Time and again we’ve seen evidence of cities that made the same mistake. Here’s an easy way to spot them: When you see a break in the downtown architecture of a mid-sized city—when a classic early-20th-century office building, or an Art Deco facade from the 1930s, suddenly gives way to a multi-level downtown parking garage—odds are you’re seeing the physical legacy of civic short-sightedness half a century ago.
If a city is luckier, or if it was less energetic in the mid-century build-a-mall era, it will have left its original architecture in place. The shops may have been boarded up or concealed beneath aluminum siding. They may be doing duty as pawn shops or worse. They may seem beyond hope. But as long as they exist, they lie waiting and full of potential, like wildflower seeds in the desert waiting for the eventual rain.
The Main Street America project, which is based in Chicago and originated with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, keeps a master list and coordinates downtown renewal efforts. We’ve seen examples from South Dakota to Kentucky to Oregon to Florida, and places in between. (For instance: our previous report, on Angola, Indiana.)
If a city is willing to make its own luck, and is foresighted, it will begin purposefully refitting its old structures for new roles. This has become a nationwide trend. In the fastest-growing big tech centers, practically any structure that was once a warehouse or a machine shop has returned as a new office space, startup zone, hotel or condo, or brewery or restaurant.
It is happening in smaller places too. Five years ago, our colleague John Tierney wrote about the reincarnation of the old Mack Truck works in Allentown, Pennsylvania, as a research and startup center. Not far from Allentown, in Bethlehem, the spookily beautiful abandoned Bethlehem Steel works have become a concert center and arts venue. Something similar has already happened in Birmingham, Alabama, with the former steel mill known as the Sloss Furnaces; and is underway in Danville, Virginia, with former tobacco warehouses (on the model of Durham, North Carolina, with the old American Tobacco works); and is envisioned in tiny Eastport, Maine, with what had been the East Coast’s biggest sardine cannery; and on through what could be an endless list.
Former places of worship whose congregations have dwindled are also undergoing this process. Yesterday I mentioned how a former church in Angola, Indiana, has been converted into a new performing arts center. The ambitious Jefferson Educational Society, a civic think-tank in Erie, Pennsylvania, has its headquarters and public events in a former synagogue. The St. Joseph brewery, in Indianapolis, operates (and seats patrons) in what was once the St. Joseph church.
Fort Wayne is now attempting to make its own luck, with the remains of what had been its grandest industrial site.
Fort Wayne is the second-largest city in Indiana, after Indianapolis. On the I-69 route along which Deb and I traveled (with our colleagues from New America-Indianapolis and Indiana Humanities), it’s about 40 miles south of Angola, and 120 miles north of Indianapolis. Demographically it is more diverse than its state: African-Americans make up about 15 percent of Fort Wayne’s population, versus under 10 percent for Indiana statewide (and well over 70 percent for Gary, bordering Chicago). Even within a state whose overall economy is manufacturing-based, Fort Wayne has exemplified the major-factory town.
And through Fort Wayne’s modern history, no major factory was more major than GE’s enormous Broadway works.
The first manufacturing facility on this site opened in 1883, as part of the then-revolutionary technology of electric lights and motors. By the beginning of World War I, GE had established its Fort Wayne Works there, and over the next fifty years it dominated the city’s economy and culture. At the peak of World War II production, some 20,000 people worked for General Electric. A post-War GE promotional booklet said that nearly 40 percent of the city’s workforce was on the GE payroll at the time. The booklet said of GE’s robust payroll, “These millions of dollars represent not only the earnings of General Electric employees in this locality—they are a vital force that helps make vigorous the life of this community.”
The campus covered 39 acres, with well over a million square feet of floor space in more than a dozen buildings. One of these buildings, #26, was the largest structure in all of Fort Wayne when it went up.
You already know what’s coming: fifty years of expansion were followed by fifty years of decline. The manufacturing payroll at the Fort Wayne plant went from nearly 12,000 at the end of World War II, to 7,000 in the early 1970s, to 2,000 in the late 1990s, to no one now.
For years, what had been the heart of the city sat, rusted, and fell apart. It wasn’t bulldozed or torn down. But the floors buckled, and the skylights fell in. The interior walls grew mottled with mold, and the exterior ones attracted graffiti. The surrounding neighborhood, that had grown up with the factory, went down with it. Cities are more than physical structures, but we heard several times how the fate of the Fort Wayne Works unavoidably seemed to symbolize travails for the whole town.
That is where a $400+ million project called Electric Works comes in.
On a raw, blustery day in March, I put on the requisite hard hat, safety glasses, yellow vest, and similar gear for a tour of the abandoned GE plant, now re-christened Electric Works. Crystal Vann Wallstrom, who came from San Francisco and has become Managing Director of Innovation for the Electric Works project, toured me (carefully) across the uneven floors and up the crumbly stairs and around the project’s construction crews. With me on the tour was Adam Thies, a city-planning specialist who has worked, among other places, in Angola, Indiana (but who has no official connection with Electric Works).
What she they pointed out to me was, in one sense, very much like structural-renewal projects I’d seen or heard about elsewhere: Vast old work spaces, their original economic purpose gone, being prepared for a new life meeting new needs. You can read the details about the Electric Works ambitions here. In brief, the new campus is intended to have residential lofts; creative office space; medical research labs; a primary-care health facility (in a medically underserved neighborhood); restaurants and a huge new farmer’s market area (in a “food desert” part of town); and more. It aims to have hotel and residential facilities, the restored 1926 gymnasium and 12-lane bowling alley, a climbing gym plus “adventure park,” and … other features you can read about on their site.
Jeff Kingsbury, of the RTM Ventures firm that is the lead private financier of the site, emphasized that it was explicitly drawn from models that have proven successful in other mid-sized industrial towns. “We’ve seen this strategy happening all around the country,” he told me, in a phone call. “You’ve got these mixed-use walkable places that are designed to connect and attract people, and foster innovation. People are aware that the old suburban research-park model no longer makes sense. You want to make your talent want to stay in town, because there are cool and enjoyable things to do.”
I realize that talk of “fostering innovation” and “connecting people” inevitably sounds like platitudes; but Kingsbury gave illustrations, which I’ve seen around the country too, of such an approach paying off. “In terms of having a big, old legacy industrial campus, and trying to repurpose it, what’s happened in Durham is probably most similar.”
If these and other factors make the Electric Works ambition recognizable from other (successful) projects in other mid-sized towns, what makes it distinctive? Again with the “show your homework” caution that these are first impressions, subject to later revision, here are four that struck me.
The Hoosierness of it all. When I walked in the front door of the main Electric Works office building, I felt as if I were on a set for the old movie Hoosiers. It was a classic old indoor basketball court built in the 1920s, with ranks of folding seats on both sides. It is preserved from the days when GE company teams would play there. A swirly GE logo is painted on the center of the hardwood floor.
“You might have heard that Indiana is basketball-crazy,” said Adam Thies—just before he took off his suit jacket, stepped to around the three-point line, and took a jump shot, which swished in. “Nice one!” I said. “My jump shot is just average,” he replied, aw-shucks style (and also implying: just average—for someone from Indiana.) Later that day I heard a related “fact” that, as it is backed up by Wikipedia, I’ve decided is too good to scrutinize further: of the 10 biggest high school gyms in the United States, for watching basketball, nine are in Indiana. The Fort Wayne Works definitely had a sense of place.
In the same headquarters building is a 1950s-look classic bowling alley, that appears to have been the scene of an alien abduction. Unlaced bowling shoes and score pads sit on locker-room benches, pins and bowling gloves are on the counter. It is as if the GE bowling team vanished all at once, or if someone took the Bowling Alone hypothesis super-literally.
The scale of it all, both physically and conceptually. A million square feet of office space looks even bigger than it sounds. When industrial buildings are full of giant metal-working machines and forklift trucks, you can lose sight of their scale. When I was reporting in China, I often wished I had a way to allow readers to see the extent of the factories, the staff dormitories, the shipping docks. Fort Wayne is working on a larger canvas than I had imagined before looking at this site.
The complexity and care of civic engagement. The funding of this project is an epitome of “public-private partnership”—a phrase that, as I’ve noted before, is seen in Washington as a euphemism for “payoffs” or ‘log-rolling,” but at the local level appears to be a key ingredient in getting things done. Some of the money is private investment; some is municipal bonds; some is federal and state tax incentives; some comes from a community foundation; some comes from elsewhere. I’m deliberately not giving the numbers because they’re complex, and if you want a precise breakdown, you can go here or here (click on “How is this project being financed?”)
The surprise to me was evidence provided by Electric Works on the breadth of community support—across race, and income level—for the idea of spending public money to revive this site. Last year the polling firm Campos did a study of local attitudes toward this expensive new project. The resulting Journal-Gazette story is here, and the full report is downloadable as a PDF here.
Among the findings were 84 percent of respondents agreeing with the statement, “Electric Works is a good example of the old saying that sometimes you have to take a small risk to secure a big return.” Some 81 percent said they agreed with, “Electric Works will be successful in making Fort Wayne and Allen County a better place to live, just like other public-private partnership investments in our community have.” By the same 81 percent, respondents agreed that “Fort Wayne and Allen County are moving in the right direction. The Electric Works development just moves us farther along the right path.”
“The emotional weight that the industrial complex has on this community can’t be overstated,” Josh Parker, of RTM Ventures, told Claire Ballentine of Bloomberg just this month. “It’s not just what we’re doing on our site, but what that brings to the larger area.”
The project has its critics and controversies (as described in the Journal-Gazettehere), and it has not yet nailed down all its funding. But leaf through the poll and compare its results with anything you have heard about national-level politics recently.
“I was a dweller.” Crystal Vann Wallstrom had been working and living in San Francisco for 15 years before she moved to Fort Wayne, where her husband had gotten a job offer.
“Frankly, I was a petrified to move here—I mean, to Fort Wayne, from California,” she told me. “But we have loved it, and being here has made us rethink our perceptions of ‘the Midwest.’” Vann Walstrom said that in San Francisco, she and her husband had been raising their two toddlers in a 325-square-foot rented studio apartment in the Mission district.
“When house prices are in the seven figures, you reconsider your priorities,” she told me. She said that for the same cost as her studio in the Mission, she and her husband are raising their children in “a 2,600 square-foot house, in a historic neighborhood, on an acre of land, eight minutes from downtown. We are homeowners for the first time, in our 40s.”
She made another point, too. “I realized that in San Francisco I was a ‘dweller.’ I was just living there. Now I feel as if I’m helping build a community.”
Will this all work, in the way the project’s backers promise and many local residents clearly hope? I don’t know. The point for now is the breadth, density, and boldness of experimentation, largely outside the national view.
New America–Indy’s work is largely related to the economic and civic effects of rapid technological change—and how the state’s communities and economy can best prepare themselves for the next, inevitable disruptions. (Why do that in Indiana? As pointed out in the previous installment, it’s because the state is consistently at or near the top of rankings of manufacturing as a share of employment. Thus it’s very heavily exposed to trends good and bad in automation, offshoring, and other industrial shifts.)
Indiana Humanities’ programs include efforts to rebuild the structures of discussion, civility, and citizenship within the state. (And why do that in Indiana? Few states illustrate more clearly the coexistence of city-by-city progressive trends, notably in Indianapolis, Gary, Fort Wayne, South Bend, and elsewhere, and a statewide politics more and more closely aligned with conservative national movements. In contemporary shorthand: This is the state of Mayors Pete Buttigieg and Karen Freeman-Wilson, and of former Governor Mike Pence.)
Together these two groups suggested a series of stops along Indiana’s I-69 corridor—the “vein of gold,” as one local enthusiast put it, because of the manufacturing centers along this route. These first few installments of our new Our Towns series will involve brief overview sketches of three of these cities, highlighting three of the trends we’ve seen more generally in smaller communities that are discovering new paths forward.
Those three places along I-69 are Angola, Fort Wayne, and Muncie. Let’s start with the picturesque small town of Angola.
Angola is in the far northeastern corner of Indiana. If you keep going a few miles farther north along I-69, you’ll be in southern Michigan. If you head a few miles east, on U.S. Highway 20, you’ll be in northern Ohio. It’s the county seat of Steuben County; it was founded a generation before the Civil War, in 1838; and although it’s not close to any of the Great Lakes, it has long had a Midwest resort-town identity, because of a nearby state park and numerous local small lakes.
It has a population of about 8,500 people and a classic-look American downtown, whose central feature is a tall, slender column, topped by a large statue of Columbia and honoring those from Steuben County who fought in the Civil War. Some 1,300 local people served in the Union forces; nearly 300 of them died.
Why the name, Angola? The city’s histories say it was named after the city of Angola, New York, in the Buffalo area—which in turn was reportedly named to honor missionaries working in the Angola on the west coast of Africa, then a Portuguese colony. (The most frequently mentioned Angola, site of the state prison in Louisiana, has no direct connection to this Angola in Indiana. Prison histories say it was named for a nearby pre–Civil War plantation, which in turn was known as Angola because that is where some of the enslaved people in the area had been taken from.)
For us, the familiar parts of Angola were ingredients in the civic-renewal mix we’d seen in other towns of this size that were trying to maintain a viable economic and civic life. These included:
The downtown itself, as the object of deliberate revitalization and beautification efforts. The downtown square features the Brokaw Movie House, built in the 1930s and now modernized with two screens and the contemporary luxury moviegoing experience. For instance, in addition to food, beers from two local craft breweries are on tap, along with spirits from the only local distillery in this part of the state.
“Ten years ago, when we started this downtown-renewal push, there were eight or 10 vacant buildings downtown,” Angola’s mayor, Richard Hickman, told us. “Now there are only three.” Hickman, who came to town for a job with an insurance firm in the 1970s and has been mayor since 2001, said that in the past few years, the number of people choosing to live downtown had gone from just a handful to “about 30 apartments on the second or third floor of downtown buildings, with more going in.” As we’ve seen in many other places, the tipping point in downtown revitalization often occurs when people choose to rent or buy living spaces downtown. Who’s making this move in Angola, we asked Hickman? “A lot are younger people, some are older people”; others, he said, are people originally from the area who have relatives nearby and want to keep a local base.
An arts-related strategy, to make the city attractive both to first-time visitors (who might decide to return) and to people who grew up in the region, moved away, but still consider coming back someday.
Both elements of this equation—finding some way to place a small town on the mental map of people who had never previously known of it, and increasing its allure to those already familiar but wondering whether they could actually return—are parts of the small-town tool kit we’ve seen applied from Maine to Oregon to Mississippi. Festivals, sporting and recreational facilities, arts projects, and anything else that makes a place distinctive are important parts of this mix. Angola tries to keep up a busy calendar of events. One example: Last year Indiana Humanities sponsored Frankfenfest, a statewide one-state, one-story to have people in Indiana all read and discuss Frankenstein on the 200th anniversary of the book. Angola went all out for the project, as a professor at a local university described.
A diversified advanced-manufacturing economy, of smaller and medium-scale firms (rather than the giant factories of yore). In keeping with the manufacturing-centrism of the state as a whole, the region is dotted with factories that employ tens or dozens of workers. They’re mainly in the broader supply chain of the auto industry, machine tools, specialty metals, and health and medical supplies. Vestil Manufacturing employs several hundred people in its factory not far from downtown. (Elkhart, Indiana, the longtime center of RV manufacturing, is 50 miles to the west. Warsaw, Indiana, the historic center of prosthetic and orthopedic-gear production, is just a little farther away, to the southwest.)
A realistic awareness of local problems, exemplified by the nonprofit downtown coffee shop Cahoots, designed both as an attraction for ordinary diners and visitors and as an activity site and haven for young people who are homeless or otherwise troubled. “Our mission is to provide a safe place, and mentoring, and just food for the young of our community, and beyond,” Richard “Rock” Campbell, of Cahoots, told me. “We have lots of kids who are passing through, out on their own. We make sure at least they get something to eat.”
This past bitter winter meant an unusually high number of snow-closure days for the public schools. “We decided to offer lunch for kids on those days, when they weren’t getting fed at school,” Campbell told me. Several dozen students would show up. (Cahoots was originally sponsored by local churches and now operates as a 501(c)(3) charity.)
Those are traits we might have anticipated in Angola. The surprise was the scale and importance of the local university, Trine, a school known for engineering that is its own institutional-renewal story and plays a significant role in the future of the town.
For more than 120 years, Trine was known as Tri-State. At its founding in the 1880s it was Tri-State Normal College, the name reflecting its placement on Indiana’s border with Michigan and Ohio. By the 1970s it had become Tri-State University, and then in 2008 it took on its current name, Trine University. The new name is not some linguistic play on Tri-State but refers to an alumnus and local industrialist named Ralph Trine and his wife, Sherri (the Trine family runs Vestil Manufacturing), and it was part of an ambitious recasting of the school.
Under Earl Brooks, originally from Tennessee, who has been president since he came to what was then Tri-State in 2000, the school has quadrupled its enrollment from about 1,300 to more than 5,000, has expanded its course offerings, and has invested more than $150 million in its facilities and programs. Trine is the single largest employer in Angola, with higher-than-average wages. It attracts students from around the United States and about 20 other countries (mainly India, China, Japan, and Saudi Arabia)—and in so doing gives these outsiders a reason to consider this corner of Indiana in their long-term plans. “This has an effect on the town,” Mayor Hickman told me. “It’s a little place in Indiana, but people are used to seeing new faces. They don’t give you funny looks or stop and ask why you’re here.” Steuben County’s role as a summer resort site has a similar opening-up effect, as visitors arrive mainly from other parts of the Midwest.
Trine has opened satellite campuses around the region. It refurbished a historic Angola church and turned it into a performing arts center. (The reincarnation of houses of worship that have lost their congregations, into new roles as civic or even commercial spaces is a trend we’ve seen in many other cities, and to which we’ll return.) Trine has opened an ice-hockey arena, which has also become a home for community teams. It’s working in partnership with the city on a new innovation zone and has already fostered a number of start-up tech and manufacturing companies in the region.
And meanwhile the school contends that, over the past five years, 99 percent of its graduates have been either employed or in a graduate program of their choosing, within six months of getting their degree from Trine. (I can’t verify any of this myself, but year by year the school’s alumni office makes such an announcement—for instance here in 2018. The school also claims that the average student debt at graduation is under $30,000.)
How can this be?? I asked Earl Brooks several times, in more and less polite forms, when talking with him in Angola and later by phone. It’s an era when most small, private, remotely located colleges and universities are struggling. Why Trine? Why now? Is this really true? How?
The answers from him and others involved 20 years’ worth of systematic and successful engagement of alumni, local business leaders, foundations, and other donors—plus Trine’s heightened identity as mainly an engineering school that can equip graduates with marketplace skills. “There are good things and bad things about a reputation as an engineering school,” Brooks told me, when we talked at Cahoots. “The good thing is the job-placement rate. The bad thing is people thinking you’re only about engineering.” Obviously Trine and Angola consider that for now the goods outweigh the bads.
As mentioned earlier, Deb and I believe in showing our homework. We don’t pretend to know either Trine or Angola in any depth. We’ll learn more; we’ll come across contradictions and complications; and we’ll do our best to render them honestly in connection with trends elsewhere.
But as a start to this new journey, the point for the moment is: More was going on in a small part of Steuben County, and a small but fast-growing university there, than the national discourse about small towns, the Midwest, and interior America would normally recognize.
In the summer of 2013, nearly six years ago, my wife—Deb Fallows—and I announced in this space the beginning of a project to visit smaller towns around the country. These were places that usually show up in the news only as backdrops for national-politics coverage, or when some human or natural disaster has struck. Our goal was to report on how schools, businesses, families, and civic life were faring “out there.”
Our means of travel, from one small airport to the next, would be our little four-seat, single-engine, Cirrus SR22 propeller airplane—a model that has become the best-selling small plane of its type around the world, because of its built-in parachute for the entire plane.
Early in 2017, after spending most of four years on the road, Deb and I announced in this space that this first stage of the journey was over. We would be flying from our home in Washington, D.C.; down along the Atlantic coast to Georgia; and then across the south and west of the country to my original home in inland California, the small city of Redlands, to write a book about what we had seen. We did so; that book, Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of America, was published in 2018. It drew on what we had found, learned, and described in hundreds of web posts and severalarticles for The Atlantic through the preceding years.
Now we’re beginning the next stage of the journey. In this space over the coming months, we’ll be posting a new set of reports, from an additional set of towns, about a new set of developments and a new range of possibilities for locally based renewal efforts around the country.
The guiding principle of this reporting will be the one we developed—city by city, story by story, question by question, surprise by surprise—through our preceding years of travel. The central premise is that the most positive and practical developments in this stage of American life are happening at the local and regional level—but that most Americans have barely heard of those developments except in the communities where they themselves live.
This past February, an extensive nationwide survey from the American Enterprise Institute provided data that matched what we’d heard in interviews. By nearly a 2-to-1 ratio, the survey’s directors (Sam Abrams, Karlyn Bowman, and Ryan Streeter) found, Americans were very pessimistic when asked about the prospects for the country as a whole. But by nearly a 3-to-1 ratio, people in different parts of the country, and of different races and economic groups, said they felt that their own communities were moving in the right direction. It was like the radio host Garrison Keillor’s ancient joke about Lake Wobegon, where “the children were all above average,” but with a real-world edge. People recognized the possibility of progress, despite obstacles and injustices, in their own part of America, but assumed the rest of the country must be doing much worse.
Of course the paralysis and division of national politics matter. Of course every community has its entrenched problems, of which the opioid and addiction crisis is the most acute, economic dislocation is the most widespread, and racial injustice is the most intractable. My view of American history is: From the start, it’s been a struggle, between society’s worse impulses and the better ones. Any clear-eyed view of this nation, at any point, will include the tragic and the inspiring.
But the underappreciated and potentially inspiring news of this moment, as Deb and I have come to believe through travel in every corner of the country, is the extent of locally based renewal and experimentation, and the evolution of formal and informal networks connecting those far-flung efforts, all directed at many of the same challenges that seem hopeless from a national perspective.
Over the past year, we’ve been visiting communities that we’ll soon write about in this space—from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, to Kenosha and Eau Claire, Wisconsin; from Bellingham, Washington, to Pensacola, Florida, and Danville, Virginia; and points in between and beyond.
Starting with the next few installments in this space, the focus will be on the state that has long had the most manufacturing-intensive economy in the entire country: Indiana. (At a public forum last month in Fort Wayne, we talked with the podcaster Ashley C. Ford, who is now based in Brooklyn but grew up in and considers herself a proud citizen-in-exile of Fort Wayne. “When people hear Indiana, they think it’s all a bunch of cornfields,” she said at that session. “They can hardly imagine how many factories we have.”)
The nature of Indiana’s economy has long exposed its citizens and communities to both the good and the bad of rapid shifts in technology, business structure, and world trading trends. We’ll explain how this looks on the ground in places up and down the state. We’ll follow with reports from other parts of the Midwest, the South, and inland California. This summer we’ll begin a new round of travel, to additional cities, by small propeller plane.
Some of the themes we’ll explore in coming months will include:
Economic dislocation and opportunity. The saga of this era is the disappearance of old lines of work, the appearance of new ones, and the unequal opportunities and rewards that may result. Some of the response we’ve seen involve innovative kinds of schooling, as we’ll describe from San Bernardino, California; different kinds of manufacturing and start-up cultures, which we’ve seen around the country; and different technical, civic, and social tools to match candidates with possibilities and make this era’s growth more inclusive and broadly shared than the past generation’s.
The prospects of the rural and the regional. We are continuing to report on the smaller towns that are finding a future, on their own or in regional alliances, often through the arts or through technology-based programs—and how they differ from the others that are losing ground.
The tensions between the local and the national, and what it means for America as a nation, in good ways and bad, if its center of initiative is again shifting (as it has several times in the past) away from the federal government and toward 50 states and hundreds of cities.
The role of the arts. On this we have become believers. Which leads to …
The modern civic role of faith, and the power of religious organizations, in building and sometimes straining civic fabric.
The role of technology, from barriers to internet access in non-coastal America, to new tools that can help remote areas recover and thrive.
The role of libraries, which are the new public square, and where people don’t just consume but also create knowledge.
The role of local media—indispensable, imperiled, and the object of widespread experimentation to establish viable business models.
The role of the local, from food to language to festivals to craft breweries.
The prospects for sustainability, at a time when the main point of leverage may be local.
The reconstruction of downtowns, and their fights against big-box stores and urban sprawl.
The “reverse migration,” of people who are deciding that the best prospects for their families, careers, and souls lie not in New York or L.A. but in some other place they feel they are “from” or are “at home.”
The lived reality of immigration at the local level, which is in such contrast to national-level rhetoric.
The lived reality of inclusive growth and opportunity, where it happens and where it does not, including modern dynamics of racial barriers.
The return of “civics,” and the willed reconstruction of the public sphere. This is something we’ve actually seen in a few places, and will be looking for in more.
The illuminating roles of music and literature. Are we living in a world that Theodore Dreiser and Willa Cather, plus Woody Guthrie and Billie Holiday and Loretta Lynn, have already mapped out?
And a list of others, which no doubt I’m forgetting now but we’ll get to in the months ahead.
Our plan is deliberately slow-building, incremental, learning as we go. I believe in “showing your homework” as a reporter: laying out what you’ve seen, what you might have missed, what you’ve changed your mind about, where you need to learn more.
Our approach is also deliberately inclusive and “big tent.” Part of our goal is to connect people in disparate groups around the country who are working toward similar ends, but may not be aware of one another’s efforts. Our allies include New America, where Deb is now based; HBO, with whom we are making a documentary for airing next year; and many other groups we’ll link to and publicize as the year goes on.
We’ll lead off this week with reports from our recent trip through Indiana, and then through the months ahead we’ll cover as much of the country as we possibly can.
We’re excited to begin this process, to share stories we’ve heard in recent months, and to learn in the months ahead. Deb and I look forward to hearing from you with tips, stories, and even dissents. Please join us here as the journey unfolds.
A faction of the religious right has concluded that if liberal democracy does not guarantee victory, then it must be abandoned.
By the tail end of the Obama administration, the culture war seemed lost. The religious right sued for détente, having been swept up in one of the most rapid cultural shifts in generations. Gone were the decades of being able to count on attacking its traditional targets for political advantage. In 2013, Chuck Cooper, the attorney defending California’s ban on same-sex marriage, begged the justices to allow same-sex-marriage opponents to lose at the ballot box rather than in court. Conservatives such as George Will and Rod Dreher griped that LGBTQ activists were “sore winners,” intent on imposing their beliefs on prostrate Christians, who, after all, had already been defeated.
The rapidity of that cultural shift, though, should not obscure the contours of the society that the religious right still aspires to preserve: a world where women have no control over whether to carry a pregnancy to term, same-sex marriage is illegal, and gays and lesbians can be arrested and incarcerated for having sex in their own homes and be barred from raising children. The religious right showed no mercy and no charity toward these groups when it had the power to impose its will, but when it lost that power, it turned to invoking the importance of religious tolerance and pluralism in a democratic society.
Homes have gotten bigger, but Americans aren’t any more pleased with the extra space.
American homes are a lot bigger than they used to be. In 1973, when the Census Bureau started tracking home sizes, the median size of a newly built house was just over 1,500 square feet; that figure reached nearly 2,500 square feet in 2015.
This rise, combined with a drop in the average number of people per household, has translated to a whole lot more room for homeowners and their families: By one estimate, each newly built house had an average of 507 square feet per resident in 1973, and nearly twice that—971 square feet—four decades later.
But according to a recent paper, Americans aren’t getting any happier with their ever bigger homes. “Despite a major upscaling of single-family houses since 1980,” writes Clément Bellet, a postdoctoral fellow at the European business school INSEAD, “house satisfaction has remained steady in American suburbs.”
Americans are hypochondriacs, yet we skip our checkups. We demand drugs we don’t need, and fail to take the ones we do. No wonder the U.S. leads the world in health spending.
I was standing two feet away when my 74-year-old father slugged an emergency-room doctor who was trying to get a blood-pressure cuff around his arm. I wasn’t totally surprised: An accomplished scientist who was sharp as a tack right to the end, my father had nothing but disdain for the entire U.S. health-care system, which he believed piled on tests and treatments intended to benefit its bottom line rather than his health. He typically limited himself to berating or rolling his eyes at the unlucky clinicians tasked with ministering to him, but more than once I could tell he was itching to escalate.
My father was what the medical literature traditionally labeled a “hateful patient,” a term since softened to “difficult patient.” Such patients are a small minority, but they consume a grossly disproportionate share of clinician attention. Nevertheless, most doctors and nurses learn to put up with them. The doctor my dad struck later apologized to me for not having shown more sensitivity in his cuff placement.
As several states move to limit exemptions to required vaccines, the actor hit a nerve in a larger debate about personal belief in science.
One morning in 1934, panicked passengers jumped from the deck of the SS Morro Castle as it sank just off the coast of New Jersey. The ocean liner had caught fire, and the passengers had rushed to grab personal flotation devices. But some improperly wrapped the life preservers around their necks. As they fell and hit the water, the torque snapped their spines.
Personal flotation devices save exponentially more lives than they cost. Of the catastrophic boating accidents that occur daily, 84 percent of people who drown were not wearing one. But etch the details of this horrific wreck scene into one’s mind, and a person might become a life-preserver skeptic. Our basic tendency toward short-term thinking means we judge risk based on whatever is in front of us. We draw anxiety disproportionately from wherever we happen to be focusing our attention.
Gibson’s Bakery, a family-owned business near Oberlin College accused of racism, just won a big payout.
The writer Jon Ronson once observed that every day in the social-media era, “a new person emerges as a magnificent hero or a sickening villain. It’s all very sweeping.” In Ronson’s 2015 book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, his subjects found themselves beset by angry detractors for, say, an insensitive Twitter joke or Facebook photo. They lost jobs, received threats, even pondered suicide. And they mostly retreated from view until the shame storm passed.
Today they might sue instead.
Last year, I reported on a lawsuit that a man accused of rape on the “Shitty Media Men” spreadsheet filed against the woman who had created and circulated the document.
In January, a viral video of the high-school student Nick Sandmann at a protest march in Washington, D.C., appeared to some to show him smirking at a Native American elder. That triggered a wave of inordinate social-media hate and flawed journalism. Now the young man who was at the bottom of the pile-on is suing The Washington Post for $250 million, NBC for $275 million, and CNN for $275 million.
“I was struck by how much shame there was in Eat Pray Love, and how apologetic I was as a narrator.”
Like Spinal Tap, Elizabeth Gilbert goes to 11. Whether it’s the depths of her despair in Eat, Pray, Love, the intensity of her research in her fiction, or the openness with which she shares her life—romantic and otherwise—with her rabid fans, she lives in bold.
Gilbert has something of a two-track career toggling between carefully crafted fiction and confessional creative essays. The latter, of course, made her a guru for thousands of women who longed for similar arcs of self-discovery and thrilling lives. Now, after the death of her partner Rayya Elias, Gilbert has written a new novel, City of Girls, set in 1940s New York. The work follows a privileged woman’s adventures, headstrong mistakes, and growing self-knowledge. It’s sprawling and colorful, with characters firing off dialogue that would fit in a Howard Hawks movie. I spoke with her about her book, her craft, and what it means to be Elizabeth Gilbert. This interview has been edited and condensed.
A growing pattern of attacks across Europe is as much about electoral opportunity as a conflict of ideas.
When Federico Batini, an Italian academic, wanted to research classroom bullying, he distributed a questionnaire to 54 schools in central Italy. The survey was carried out in partnership with local education authorities and sought to explore the extent to which young people faced racial, homophobic, or gender-based discrimination from their peers.
But instead of learning more about students’ experiences, Batini found his name smeared in the national media and his research abruptly discontinued. A senator from the far-right League party condemned Batini’s questionnaire as “gender indoctrination.” A national conservative daily, La Verità, berated the survey as “crazy gender ideology.” Then the Italian education minister, Marco Bussetti, a member of the League, blocked the questionnaire altogether.
American analysts keep trying to fit the country into familiar patterns—ignoring the many ways in which it’s an exception.
Thirty years ago this week, I watched the news from Beijing and started shredding my bedding. It was the night before my college graduation, I had been studying Chinese politics, and news had broken that college students just like us had been gunned down in Tiananmen Square after weeks of peaceful and exhilarating democracy protests—carried on international TV. In the iconic square where Mao Zedong had proclaimed the People’s Republic decades before, bespectacled students from China’s best universities had camped out, putting up posters with slogans of freedom in Chinese and English. A “goddess of democracy” figure modeled after the Statue of Liberty embodied their hopes—and ours—for political liberation in China.
After a lopsided World Cup game, the focus was once again on how female athletes behave, not on what they’ve achieved.
It was Megan Rapinoe’s goal in the 79th minute that really seemed to tick people off. Rapinoe, the vivacious U.S. women’s national soccer team forward with pink hair, ran with outstretched arms, spun around a couple times, then slid to the ground and kicked her right heel high in the air several times.
A whole lot of people were big mad at Rapinoe, whose goal made it 9–0 over Thailand, a team the U.S. thoroughly dominated in its opening World Cup match on Tuesday. The Americans eventually won 13–0. But, rather than being praised for setting a World Cup record for scoring the most goals in the tournament’s history and securing the largest margin of victory ever, the win turned into a debate about sportsmanship.
Interviews with the House speaker’s old friends and colleagues offer a window into her reluctance to pull the pin on a political grenade.
When Republicans voted on impeachment more than 20 years ago, Nancy Pelosi was right there on the House floor, watching as the GOP plunged headfirst into the process without broad public support or the clear prospect of conviction in the Senate. For many establishment Democrats of a certain age—say, those who are now eligible for Medicare—the lesson from that time is clear: Impeaching Bill Clinton was a bad idea that hurt the presidency, the country, and most of all, the House Republican majority.
How Pelosi handles the growing calls from her caucus to begin removal proceedings against Donald Trump will illuminate the degree to which she herself believes that lesson. But as she struggles to manage pressure from roughly a quarter of House Democrats, interviews with some of her old friends and colleagues, and others who were in the trenches of the Clinton impeachment battle, offer a window into Pelosi’s reluctance to pull the pin on that particular grenade just yet. For now, she seems to be keeping her options open, waiting to see whether Congress can unearth new allegations that might shift public opinion.