James Fallows

James Fallows
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. More +
  • Father’s Day, 2019

    On this date 11 years ago, which was Father’s Day in 2008, I posted a tribute to my own father, who was then in the final months of his extraordinary life.

    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!

  • The Reinvention of Danville’s Downtown: Part 1

    A sign that once read "Home of Dan River Mills," now in downtown Danville, Virginia
    A sign that once read "Home of Dan River Mills," now in downtown Danville, Virginia Courtesy of the Danville Regional Foundation

    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.

    Old warehouses, awaiting renovation, in downtown Danville, Virginia (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

  • What Does All This Local Reporting Add Up To?

    The main street in downtown Columbus, Mississippi
    Jim and Deb took this picture during their most recent visit to Columbus, Mississippi. James Fallows / The Atlantic

    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.

    Please stay tuned, follow along, and send us your suggestions and ideas to ourtowns@theatlantic.com.

  • How a ‘Communiversity’ Works

    The new headquarters of the Communiversity, in the Golden Triangle of Mississippi, shortly before its opening
    The new headquarters of the Communiversity, in the Golden Triangle of Mississippi, shortly before its opening Courtesy of East Mississippi Community College

    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.

    Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill in Tehran in 1943. What they did in the conference rooms had a big effect on what happened on the battlefields. (U.S. Signal Corps via the Library of Congress)

    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 Rural-Urban Divide Is More Complicated Than You Think

    An empty road in Utah
    Bob Strong / Reuters

    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:

    The article in the Sunday business section with the title "The real reason rural America is doomed to decline."
    Print headline in The Washington Post business section on May 26, 2019 (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

    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:

    The online headline reads "The real (surprisingly comforting) reason rural America is doomed to decline.”

    (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.

  • An Engineering School Pulls Off an ‘Epic Trick Play’

    The former Angola Christian Church, which has become the Furth Center for Performing Arts at Trine University
    The former Angola Christian Church, which has become the Furth Center for Performing Arts at Trine University Courtesy of Trine University

    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:

    This past weekend, the Trine Thunder women’s softball team made it to the Division III national championship series, which will be held this coming week in Tyler, Texas. The Thunder advanced over the Knights of SUNY Geneseo with what Yahoo Sports News described as “the greatest hidden ball trick you’ve ever seen,” and which ESPN also featured in its nightly “Plays of the Day” recap. The MLB.com report on the game was headlined, “You’ll need at least eight viewings to figure out how this wild hidden ball trick worked.”

    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. )


  • What David Halberstam Learned in Mississippi

    David Halberstam works at his office in New York City on May 14, 1993
    David Halberstam works at his office in New York City on May 14, 1993 Mark Lennihan / AP

    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.)

    Reporters David Halberstam (left), Malcolm Browne (center) and Neil Sheehan in Vietnam in 1964 (Horst Faas / AP)

    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 Daily Times 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.

    Old advertisements in downtown West Point, Mississippi, not far from the office of the Daily Times Leader newspaper (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

    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 … The Daily 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.

  • National Policies Have Local Effects

    Outside the Putah Creek Cafe in downtown Winters, California
    Outside the Putah Creek Cafe in downtown Winters, California James Fallows / The Atlantic

    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.

    An orchard of young walnut trees, just across Putah Creek from downtown Winters, California, last month (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

    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.

  • ‘Small Towns, Big Ideas’

    From left: Brandon Dennison, Stacey Epperson, Regi Haslett-Marroquín, and Denisa Livingston, all rural innovators who discussed their programs on Monday
    From left: Brandon Dennison, Stacey Epperson, Regi Haslett-Marroquín, and Denisa Livingston, all rural innovators who discussed their programs on Monday Courtesy of Ashoka

    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, of Coalfield Development in West Virginia; Stacey Epperson, of Next Step in Kentucky; Regi Haslett-Marroquín, of the Main Street regenerative agriculture project in Minnesota; and Denisa Livingston, of the Diné Community Advocacy Alliance of the Navajo Nation.

    • 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.

    More from this series

  • The Last Family-Owned Daily in Mississippi

    Birney Imes III, who stepped down last year as publisher of The Commercial Dispatch in Columbus, Mississippi, with his son, Peter, the current publisher
    Birney Imes III, who stepped down last year as publisher of The Commercial Dispatch in Columbus, Mississippi, with his son, Peter, the current publisher Luisa Porter / The Commercial Dispatch

    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 The Wall Street Journal.
    • For a useful Q&A about a “solutions journalism” approach to making newspapers more compelling and relevant, see this NationSwell discussion with David Bornstein of the Solutions Journalism Network.
    • For a look at future leaders of journalism, see the young women and men who make up this year’s Report for America corps of young reporters, who will work at local and regional papers. The 61 members in the 2019 corps represent a severalfold increase from the previous year.
    • For a discussion of philanthropic guidelines in supporting local journalism, see this from the American Press Institute.
    • 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.

    Downtown Columbus, Mississippi, on a visit not long ago (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

  • Dead Malls, Everywhere

    Damaged escalators in an abandoned shopping mall sunken by rain flood waters
    Shutterstock

    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.


  • On Emancipation Day, Back to Mississippi

    In 2014, the Voices in Harmony chorus from the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science performed at Sandfield Cemetery to commemorate Emancipation Day.
    In 2014, the Voices in Harmony chorus from the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science performed at Sandfield Cemetery to commemorate Emancipation Day. James Fallows / The Atlantic

    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.

    James Fallows / The Atlantic

    Update Here was a scene from this evening’s presentation:

    Students from the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science during the Emancipation Day celebration in Columbus on May 8, 2019. MSMS senior Dairian Bowles is in the foreground, in the role of Reconstruction-era Mississippi state Senator Robert Gleed.

    More from this series

  • Dead Malls, Reborn Cities

    A closed Sears retail store sits vacant at Crossroads Center mall in St, Cloud, Minnesota
    A closed Sears retail store sits vacant at Crossroads Center mall in St. Cloud, Minnesota Nic Neufeld / Shutterstock

    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 The Atlantic’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.  

    https://www.vice.com/en_us/topic/abandoned?page=2


  • What Happens to Abandoned Malls?

    Interior of the abandoned Wayne Hills Mall in Wayne, New Jersey
    Interior of the abandoned Wayne Hills Mall in Wayne, New Jersey John Arehart / Shutterstock

    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?

  • ‘Unknown Outside Indiana’

    The Ball State University campus in Muncie, Indiana
    The Ball State University campus in Muncie, Indiana Courtesy of Ball State University

    The previous four “Our Towns” posts have been about Indiana: One about Angola and the importance of its relationship with Trine University; one about Fort Wayne and its ambitious reconstruction of a cavernous abandoned GE works; and two about Muncie, first about sustainability programs and then about a virtually unique approach to the long-troubled public schools.

    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 ….

  • An Unusual Way to Bridge the Town-Gown Divide

    Muncie Central High School
    Mike Rhodes / Muncie Journal

    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.

    Geoffrey Mearns, the president of Ball State University (Courtesy of Ball State 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.

  • What We Saw in Muncie

    Ball State University
    On the campus of Ball State University, in Muncie, Indiana. Ball State teams are known as the Cardinals, and the school's motto is "We fly." Courtesy of Ball State University

    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.


    We spent time in Muncie in March as part of the I-69 tour through Indiana discussed in these previous posts: one about the tiny town of Angola, one about the big industrial city of Fort Wayne, and one about the journey as a whole. The trip was a combined project of New America–Indianapolis, of Indiana Humanities, and, for the Muncie stop, also of Ball State University.

  • Fort Wayne Makes Its Own Luck

    The abandoned GE factory where Electric Works is hoping to bring new life
    The abandoned GE factory where Electric Works is hoping to bring new life Courtesy of Electric Works

    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.

    1. 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.
        
    2. 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.)
        
    3. 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.

  • A Community Finding a Path Forward

    scenes around angola indiana
    Courtesy of the City of Angola and the Steuben County Tourism Board / Brad Sauter / sevenMaps7 / Shutterstock

    Last month we traveled by car through several cities in Indiana, in a project organized jointly by New America Indianapolis, where our main partner was Molly Martin, and Indiana Humanities, as part of their new two-year-long INseparable program intended to foster conversations across the usual partisan divides. There we worked mainly with the IH director Keira Amstutz and the community-engagement director Leah Nahmias.

    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.

    Downtown Angola, Indiana, during a summertime festival (Courtesy of Steuben County Tourism Bureau)

  • Our Towns: On the Road, in the Air

    The authors, on a sub-freezing January 2017 morning at the Montgomery County Airpark, in Gaithersburg, Maryland, about to fly toward the west on the final leg of their previous trip. A new journey begins soon. (The yellow cord is to heat the engine sufficiently so it will start.) Around them is all the luggage their Cirrus SR22 would carry, for the next few months on the road.
    The authors, on a sub-freezing January 2017 morning at the Montgomery County Airpark, in Gaithersburg, Maryland, about to fly toward the west on the final leg of their previous trip. A new journey begins soon. (The yellow cord is to heat the engine sufficiently so it will start.) Around them is all the luggage their Cirrus SR22 would carry, for the next few months on the road. Courtesy of James Fallows

    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.

    Our Towns (Penguin Random House)

    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 several articles 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.