James Fallows is a staff writer at 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 Jimmy 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, D.C., as a staff writer at The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for more than 40 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Sydney, Shanghai, Beijing, and London. 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 President Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of U.S. News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot.
Fallows 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 an N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America foundation. His 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, the author of the book Dreaming in Chinese. Together from 2013 to 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.
A year ago, America’s Favorite Actor™, Tom Hanks, triggered a series of reports on TV and in the Argus Leader newspaper in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He did so with one little tweet saying that he’d read about the town in a new book—as it happens, the book wasOur Towns, by Deb Fallows and me—and that he was eager to see the city himself, and might even move there.
The most optimistic stories, about America! Non-fiction, personal May move to Sioux Falls, at least visit. Rapid City, too. Others! Hanx pic.twitter.com/TgHS18UwK2
Now Deb and I are back in Sioux Falls, working with our colleagues from HBO on our upcoming film.
The town still has the exceptionally low unemployment rate we talked about early on.
It still has its agricultural economy that we discussed, though buffeted by trade tensions and extreme weather, plus the region’s rapidly growing health-care and high-tech sectors.
It now has a dramatically spiffed-up and revitalized downtown, compared with our last visit several years ago—offsetting the malls and sprawl-growth around its periphery that we discussed here. The downtown has new hotels and restaurants and stores and pubs; many more residential condos and lofts; a much richer array of outdoor public art in its ambitious SculptureWalk; and generally a sense of more active street life.
In its “Washington Pavilion,” a mammoth former public high school whose rescue and conversion into an arts-and-museum space starting 20 years ago was the turning point toward the city’s downtown recovery, we saw two signs that the city is seriously ready for Tom Hanks’s visit.
One was backstage at the elegant 1,800-seat main performance hall, with a wall of signatures from guest artists. These ranged from Yo-Yo Ma to B. B. King, Joan Baez to Blue Man Group, Garth Brooks to the Paul Taylor Dance Company, with countless others in between. I saw a space that looked as if it were waiting for Tom Hanks’s name.
The other sign—could this be a coincidence?!—was in the wonderful, interactive children’s-science museum within the same Washington Pavilion. On the upper floor there is an oversize piano keyboard, playable with your feet and labeled “Big,” that could have been taken straight from a memorable scene from Tom Hanks’s early filmography.
Yes, I am talking about his famous piano-dancing duet with Robert Loggia more than 30 years ago, in Big. This was a Hanks from long before Forrest Gump or ALeague of Their Own, before Cast Away or Saving Private Ryan, before Philadelphia or Sleepless in Seattle or Apollo 13—and it is worth watching now, with awareness of all those other films to come.
And it’s another reason for him to make his visit. The town’s all ready for you, Mr. Hanks!
As a reminder: The main point of the previous piece was that trying to analyze why Donald Trump does the things he does is like trying to analyze the motives of a cat. Each of them acts. Now, more comments.
1) What you’re overlooking. A reader at a tech company writes:
I completely agree with this piece, except for one thing.
You and the reader you quote describe the part we see and the part that gets reported. Absolutely a reality show.
All of the journalistic analysis is far beyond ridiculous.
The other half (below the surface) that is so grossly under-reported is the very Republican direction of decisions made in every agency in the government and by every cabinet member. These are not made for TV because they are boring to read about. But they are consistent in how they continue the transfer of wealth to the one percent and the one percent of the one percent.
Several other readers return to this theme: that too much of the press is too wrapped up in the impossible mission of “understanding” Trump, and too few are spending too little time unveiling the what of this era’s policies.
2) What if this theory is correct? Also on the predicament of the press, from another reader:
Just read the piece about the reader who says, "the people most accustomed to “analyzing” political actions and decisions...are the ones least able to recognize what the world is experiencing with Donald Trump."
I believe he’s right and wrong—right in the sense that we have “a structural failure of analysis in the Trump years,” but wrong, or not quite right, in his explanation of this.
Specifically, in my view, the problem isn't a lack of understanding about Trump. Rather it’s what they [analysts and the press] actually do understand, or at least strongly suspect on some deeper or sub-conscious level, but struggle to accept, because of the problematic implications of accepting this.
For example, suppose the reader is right that Trump is actually governing as if he were doing a reality TV show. How would journalists convey this, without creating the impression that they're irrational and biased against Trump?
I believe the reader's theory is credible, but the idea also makes me very uncomfortable. Were I to tell someone else that I took this notion seriously I would be hyper-aware of how irrational this sounds. Indeed, I hold my tongue with friends and family at times for this reason. I would guess most journalists would experience a similar level of discomfort.
And suppose some of them could overcome this—how do they convey this without discrediting themselves in the process? I think there might be ways to do this, but there's no certainty it would work. Because of that I have some sympathy for journalists and political analysts. At the same time, I'm also extremely frustrated. In my view, alarm bells should be ringing, or at least ringing much louder and clearer. I think we need an equivalent to shouting “the Emperor has no clothes!,” but in a way that doesn't make the messenger seem like he lost his marbles.
3) Actually, there is a strategy. From another reader:
He does want to get reelected. His strategy with Kim Jong Un is to serve that purpose and that one alone.
He's gonna say "Vote for me or Kim is gonna nuke us if the Democrats win the White House" and he alone has cultivated a relationship with the deranged dictator and he and he alone can prevent war. That's why he walked into N. Korea without asking for anything from Kim. He plans on scaring the voters by nuclear holocaust if he isn't reelected.
I'm as obsessed with this surreal nightmare of a presidency as anyone else and am surprised to not have seen this take anywhere.
4) Looking deeper. This last note of the day begins with a point that members of the press have discussed at great length, ever since Donald Trump got in the race. That is whether there is any point in “medicalizing” a discussion of his traits. The reader’s message:
Your reader in “There is No Understanding Donald Trump” is right. It’s a show for shows sake. But there’s more. And it runs deeper.
When our president was elected, I contacted the smartest person I know (novelist) to explain the man. Easy, he said: go to the DSM (the volume that describes mental illnesses) and look up narcissist.
I did. And everything since has made absolute sense - a sense that runs deeper than the reality show metaphor, which could be construed as simply self-aggrandizing. We're in a lot worse shape than that.
The thing that puzzles and infuriates me is how the press continues to cover things in their commonsensical way (as your reader suggests). It drives me crazy to see dozens and dozens of reporters covering this administration. Why? What on earth for? As your reader has suggested, that just plays to The Show.
Given that the record is, in fact, important, I've suggested to friends in the media that one pool camera should follow this man around, and everyone just share the feed. Those who are thus liberated from covering The Show can now investigate his taxes, finances, relationships with Russia, etc. much better use of resources.
But please, stop asking intelligent questions. They have no relevance to someone who is so deeply mentally ill.
On the opening theme of this note, about mental status, let me give the two-point summary of the very long discussion nearly every member of the press has gone through in the Trump era.
Point one: It’s perilous, and in any case pointless, to attempt “diagnosis at a distance,” and attempt to give medical names and conditions to traits the public can observe. It’s perilous for obvious reasons, and it’s pointless because it wouldn’t change anyone’s mind. Supporter or critic, everyone knows what Donald Trump is like.
And point two: As a description of widely observed behaviors, it’s fair to note how closely what Trump does matches the standard checklists of narcissist traits. (One such list, from the Mayo Clinic, is here. Its first marker is that narcissists “Have an exaggerated sense of self-importance; Have a sense of entitlement and require constant, excessive admiration.”) But, again, observing this pattern gets us only so far, since nothing Trump does should surprise anyone any more.
The action-point, in the end of this reader’s note, is worth serious consideration by the press—and is related to note Number One. That is, the press should spend less time on the daily spectacle of Trump himself, and more on the actions and effects of the administration as a whole.
5) Update: In Trump’s Defense. Yesterday’s item has apparently circulated among Trump-supporting groups, as I have received a large number of messages like the one I am quoting below.
I explicitly don’t intend to host an online equivalent of a cable-TV panel show, with one person saying “Trump is terrible!” and then someone else snapping back, “No, he’s great! You’re the one who’s terrible.”
But as a one-time-for-now sample of the opposing line of reasoning, I quote parts of the message below. The sender identifies herself as a PhD. I assume she is sending this from a phone, and I’m quoting it as-is (rather than going through to spell out what she obviously meant as abbreviations) not to undermine its credibility but just for labor-saving on my end, and because the sender’s intentions are clear.
Here are selections from what she sent in, representing views I am hearing from many others:
It is so true tht persons do not ‘get’ T
Even psychologists, the greatly left leaning bastion these days, has its collective hair standg straight up as it gasps w exasperatn
Then there is the pathetic psychiatrist who pursues the idea tht T’s mentl hlth is an issue
Poor souls to hav nevr known a person to b so bold, pragmatic, & steadfast in wht he wants to do
T is a very modern character, a person for the times: totally atuned to digital media, totally comfortable & brazen, CANDID, in the limelight, speakg extemporaneously to any of the persons who besiege him to talk – AND – greatly abl to tolerate the humongous slop & ill treatmt he receivs as is proven in his non-stop pursuit of gettg thgs done in his job – a job tht he sees as the ultimate test for a ‘stabl genius’
He uses his mktg & TV experience, speakg hx, etc to totally great effect & he has truly remarkabl energy
Wait: T is breakg all the rules of how thing shud b done! Stop it, stop it
T is clear, concise, & keeps his eye on the ball.
How lame r ‘reportrs’ when they cry tht T has not made Kim giv up nukes, eg, –
Oh yeah, - magic – he meets Kim, K givs up nukes & the NK prob is ‘solvd’
But T is playg the long(er) game & his events w Kim happn to b huge steps in somethg requirg ever so many many steps, tests, time & ea step helps
As T himself has statd, he has common sense.
T is flexibl to the extent tht he will not hold a doctrinaire point of view & will change course as events, info, perceptn, dictate
T knows his mind & wht he wants to achiev & he keeps his eye on the ball, many balls, which we wud all c if the press wud report all the thgs he is doing every day
He wants ppl to lov, respect & admire him precisely thru showg them wht he can do for them & the country
The press is so-o-o mean in its grievous underreportg, misreportg, & UNreportg of the many things he is doing everyday & it is reponsibl for fomentg & magnifyg citizen animosity…
Hey, tht’s wht T is: remarkabl
Contrary to the writr whose words u relay, T IS a thinkg person - & a deep person (he prefers to no ‘go there’ in all likelihd as he does not wear his private sentimt (abt thgs like livg, dyig, meang, etc) on his sleeve
It’s been barely two weeks since Donald Trump became the first American president to step onto North Korean soil, with all attendant theorizing about what the move meant, or didn’t. Was it the “biggest moment of the Trump presidency so far” and “already a political win,” as some media figures claimed? Was it, on the contrary, another sign of Trump’s “dictator envy” and “authoritarian buffoonery”? Was it a move toward peace—or war, or both, or neither, or simply more uncertainty? Who was outwitting whom?
Although it was just two weeks in the past, that moment feels like two centuries ago, given the nonstop series of crises and “Breaking news!” emergencies since then. For instance: the census showdown; the Jeffrey Epstein/Alexander Acosta disasters; the leaked British ambassador cables; more rumblings about Iran and China; the horrors of migrant-detention-camp conditions; and the long-threatened kickoff this weekend of ICE roundup raids.
Today I got a reminder note from a reader who had written in just after that “historic” encounter at the Korean DMZ. He argues that the uninterrupted torrent of (usually Trump-generated) emergencies since then reinforces the point he originally made.
His point involved a structural failure of analysis in the Trump years. That is: The people most accustomed to “analyzing” political actions and decisions—journalists, historians, political veterans, people who pride themselves on figuring out what is “really” going on—are the ones least able to recognize what the world is experiencing with Donald Trump.
This is obviously not a brand-new insight. But the reader states the case trenchantly enough that I think it’s worth sharing. Two weeks ago, after the Korean episode, the reader wrote:
I had an epiphany sometime around the midterms, after about 2 years of watching and reading heavy duty analysis by so many serious folks who, because it’s their job I suppose, tend to *project* seriousness, intent, thought, strategy, forethought, planning, and other such things, each time Trump does something. No matter how loose the cannon gets, most serious journalists default to a polite interpretation that suggests, say, Trump had something in mind when he just did that ridiculous thing.
Put another way, they’re suggesting he’s crazy like a Fox, not just an idiot.
At some point I found myself trying to explain to a friend why Trump did something kooky. As I considered everything I concluded what he was doing was strictly for the attention. It was for one news cycle. No strategy, no planning, no idea about implications. And no intention of following up even a day later.
That’s when it hit me: he’s running a reality tv show out of the Whitehouse. Every day is a new episode, and every single move is designed to get better Nielsen ratings, improve the brand, or whatever it is that drives that peculiar form of celebrity. Mostly he’s feeding the monster that is 24/7 cable news.
Think about it this way: you’ve spent your life as a journalist, traveling, flying, writing, running, thinking about how sausages and laws are made. You view the world, your daily routine, even your own self … through that lens. If by some glitch in the matrix you found yourself Commander in Chief then that is the lens by which you’d view your new job. Everything you’ve done before would impact your schedule, your routine, and how you view the world.
More importantly, your serious effort over many years to think long and hard, to write out your thoughts, to bring wisdom and facts to the observations you share, even the reasons you share, how you pick what is a priority for the next issue … all those things would have an impact on the way in which you’d present your public face, your presidential face. In turn, people covering your administration would figure out the above almost immediately and do what they do accordingly.
Trump is a guy who has known only a very narrow slice of the world (NY real estate), has never been curious, or thoughtful, and certainly never cared about the ideals of good government, nor the welfare of others. For decades he has mixed his person with his public persona to the point of reaching some warped public media brand that eventually landed him on a fake tv show about how he runs the fake parts of his mostly fake company. And then one day, through a glitch in the matrix, he woke up the President of these United States.
So he put on a show. Some people liked it. He’s worked every day to get those ratings up. He blows his top when they have a bad day—not because a little kid dies in a camp, not because something doesn’t get out of a committee, not because of anything substantive being analyzed by reporters—no, he’s mad because of the bad optics, because someone upstaged him in an interview, because someone coughed while he was talking.
America has elected a carnival barker with absolutely no clue about history, government, the machinations of global finance, nor even GOP politics. There is no plan, there is no strategy, there is no underlying wisdom or thought with each step. There’s today’s show, a manic struggle to find new content, cliff hangers, figuring out who gets killed off next. Our economy, foreign policy, place on the world stage, is based on tv production values, or some formula.
Once you see it you can’t unsee it and suddenly everything makes sense.
PS have you ever seen the riff by John Mulaney making the case that Trump is like a horse loose in a hospital? This is so good (jump to 7:20).
Today the reader followed up:
Since I sent my email it feels as though this theme has really taken off. Maybe it’s like shopping for a car and *suddenly* you see the same make and model everywhere you look!
This may be political journalism’s version of quantum uncertainty: The greatest challenge in understanding “What’s going on?” may be recognizing that no understanding is possible. And that’s a cue for me to end with a mention of George W. S. Trow’s memorable and prescient “Within the Context of No-Context,” published when Ronald Reagan was elected president. Thanks to the reader for weighing in.
This dispatch is in the form of a newsletter update, on reactions from readers and significant developments around the country on the local-renewal fronts. It follows this Fourth of July post, about Eric Liu’s argument for a revival of “civic religion,” and this post by Deb Fallows, on our increasing effort to connect, compare, combine, and in other ways “biggify” the multiple, dispersed examples of local renewal around the country.
Four entries in that direction:
1) “Does America need a ‘civic religion’?”: Eric Liu has long argued yes. Mike Lofgren, a longtime veteran of congressional operations, writes in to say that he begs to differ:
Does America need a civic religion?
This subject, like the thesis that “Democrats need to talk about their faith” (I thought the Constitution banned religious tests for office), is a favorite chew-toy of centrist and left-of-center public intellectuals who fear the Republicans have stolen their clothes with all the flag-worship and similar ritualized razzmatazz. Apart from the tactical issue that the subject plays on the Right’s turf, there are fundamental objections.
Religion and modern democratic civil government do vastly different things. It is true that governing entities arose amid all manner of ritual, but they were hierarchical, and religion and state were the same thing.
Enforced ritual is essential to maintaining monarchies, class-based societies, and militaries. The Founders tried to dispense with a lot of the typical ritual of European monarchies for the new republic, such as addressing the president as Your Excellency; and Washington conspicuously wore no medals on his uniform coat.
There are more reasons, but I wanted to keep this brief.
Although this has nothing to do with the central merits of Foster’s stance, it is worth mentioning that Campbell is openly gay and is married to a woman named Courtenay. Together they are raising two young children in Jackson.
Their home in Jackson is the reason I mention this development. Last year, for Architectural Digest, Larrison Campbell wrote a very nice essay on her decision to move from Los Angeles, where she had spent nearly two decades developing a successful media career, to Mississippi, where she grew up.
Her story is, of course, unique in its particulars, but familiar in its general themes to what Deb and I have heard in many places. Campbell’s whole article is here. Some samples:
Sometimes you can be blinded by love or infatuation; friends probably thought we were [to go back to Mississippi]. But in L.A., no one’s direct enough to tell you you’re acting like a fool. Instead, half a dozen friends showed up at our going-away party with large bottles of vodka and bourbon “to help with the move.” Subtext: Adventures aren’t often easy …
Of course, Jackson has its faults. As I write this, we’re entering week two of a boil-water alert. But that doesn’t keep Jackson from being an intoxicatingly charming town. While other southern cities race to Brooklynize their downtowns with artisanal cheese shops and bespoke kitchenware stores, Jackson has remained resolutely Jackson. Yes, new places pop up, but Jackson’s best restaurants have been its best restaurants for decades …
There are signs that Jackson is recognizing its complex history. In December, the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum opened downtown. As the first state-sponsored civil rights museum in the country, the museum is unflinching in its presentation of history. It’s an immersive, often unsettling, experience, and one that alone is worth the trip to Jackson.
Mississippi is … the seat of Christian conservatism but also the birthplace of rock ’n’ roll. It’s a state with a low graduation rate that continues to produce a record-breaking number of writers …
It’s also a place that in 2016 passed “one of the most restrictive antigay laws in the country”—the same month it welcomed my family with more warmth and generosity than any city has ever offered …
And … in 2017 the city elected—with 92 percent of the vote—a 34-year-old mayor, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, on a platform of making Jackson “the most radical city on the planet.”
To spell out what I found so resonant here (apart from the essay’s connection to the news of the day): One of the themes Deb and I continually rediscover is the powerful, enduring sense of from-ness in today’s America—the clear imprint of place, even in a country as mobile and homogeneous-seeming as modern America. People retain an awareness of where they grew up, as Larrison Campbell clearly did during her decades in L.A.— and as I have long done, as a person “from” small-town Inland Empire-California, despite decades based elsewhere. Some people actually return to those remembered places; many others at least think about it. This sensibility affects the way the country works, and how talent deploys itself city by city and state by state.
Another of those central themes, which this article clearly brings out: how much more varied and locally vivid “interior America” is than you would ever guess from the latest predictable political dispatch from “red-state America.”
3) Local journalism watch: Nothing matters more for the civic future of America than discovering a viable economic model for local journalism. Recently I mentioned one step in that direction, the new, fast-growing Report for America program.
Here is another small step: the announcement, reported by Sara Fischer in Axios, of support for a local news operation in Virginia, called The Dogwood. The $1 million investment is coming from Acronym, a nonpartisan but politically progressive nonprofit group. In a statement about the investment, the CEO of Acronym, Tara McGowan, said:
The steady decline of local news around the country, paired with the rise of misinformation being spread online has been alarming. It is our hope that digital newspapers like The Dogwood that deliver factual information and stories to people where they get their news can help fill that void and counter misinformation reaching them online.
A $1 million investment obviously won’t fill the multibillion-dollar hole left by the collapse of local print- and broadcast-advertising budgets. Similarly: One more tree that is planted, or habitat area that is preserved, won’t address the full range of global sustainability crises. But you have to start somewhere, and it’s worth paying attention to those who are starting.
4) Local arts watch: Another $1 million investment, another start. A group called Souls Grown Deep, which is based in Atlanta and whose mission is “promoting the work of African American artists from the South,” is committing the bulk of its $1 million endowment to local arts-related development and opportunity efforts in communities where those artists lived and worked. The project is in partnership with Upstart Co-Lab, a network of artists and social entrepreneurs. You can read the details of the project in this report by David Bank in Impact Alpha.
Next up, another report from the road. For now, congrats to all involved in these place-by-place efforts across the country.
Our two great American holidays are, of course, Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July.
They’re particularly American: Independence Day, for obvious reasons. Thanksgiving, because no one else observes it (other than Canadians, who have their own version on their own timetable), or can keep track of when it is. For Americans overseas it’s a particularly wonderful gathering day, on what the Brits or Koreans or French people around you assume is just another Thursday.
They have their rituals: In November, when it’s cold, we have the family gatherings, the pie and turkey, the stuporous sessions watching football or parades on TV. In July, when it’s hot, we have the picnics, the parades, the hot dogs, and the fireworks.
And they’re hard to screw up: For Thanksgiving, the perils are the slog of jammed travel, and the likelihood of cranky relatives, or a turkey or pie that doesn’t turn out right. For the Fourth of July, it’s mainly the chance of rain, or mishaps with firecrackers (which, yes, genuinely scare dogs and cats), or children who become cranky by the time it’s dark enough for fireworks.
It’s hard to screw up the Fourth of July—but it’s not impossible, as residents of Washington, D.C., are witnessing today. Over the decades, this holiday has been one of the least politicized, most intentionally inclusive points on the city’s calendar. I lived in Washington for a year as a toddler, when my dad, then a Navy doctor, was stationed at the Bethesda Naval Hospital during the Korean War. Long ago I saw the old, now-lost home-movie clip from the 1950s, of me and my little sister running around on the National Mall on the Fourth of July, waiting for the fireworks. When we raised our own children in D.C., we loved every summer going to the Palisades neighborhood parade along MacArthur Boulevard, which grew longer every year with groups that reflect ever-broadening aspects of D.C. life.
Local politicians would march in the parade—candidates for mayor or City Council or Advisory Neighborhood Commission. Every Scout troop and local band or hobbyist group would send in a contingent. But national politicians kept far away, the president furthest of all. The Fourth of July was for celebrating America in its flawed-but-aspirational idealism, and in its campy, jokey, small-d democratic inclusiveness. The silly neighborhood parades are parts of the rituals that let us celebrate why we love the country, for all its failures, and what it can become.
This year that ritual, at least in Washington, is disrupted, in what we hope is an aberrational display. Apart from going to neighborhood events today, and the evening celebrations, what is another way for Americans to reclaim, and renew, the rituals that reflect what Independence Day has long stood for?
I have a reading suggestion for today, or the long weekend. It’s a short book, Become America, by my longtime friend Eric Liu, who is a co-founder of Citizen University in Seattle.
Liu, who was born to immigrant Chinese parents in Poughkeepsie, New York, was trained as a lawyer and worked as a White House policy analyst and speechwriter. Through programs, events, and writings at Citizen University, he has over the past decade-plus advanced a theory and practice of modern citizenship, which is directly addressed against the despair and cynicism that are such natural reactions to today’s cruelties and crises.
The conceptually most important part of Liu’s new book is its forthright argument that active citizenship should be a civic religion. The book consists of 19 “sermons” that Liu has delivered at the institutions he calls “Civic Saturdays.” The big idea behind the sermons, and the religious-format gathering, is Liu’s call to a level of belief and commitment similar to that of a great religion—but where the underlying faith is in the process of democracy itself.
A section from his preface lays out the concept clearly:
Throughout 2016, Jená Cane and I kicked around ideas for a new civic ritual that would have the moral pull and communal feel of a faith gathering. We’re the cofounders of a nonprofit called Citizen University, whose mission is to foster a culture of powerful citizenship in the United States. (We’re also spouses!)
[After the 2016 election] we put together the first ever Civic Saturday … Civic Saturday has the arc of a faith gathering: we sing together, we turn to the strangers next to us and talk about a common question, we hear poetry and readings, there is a sermon that ties those texts to the issues and ethical choices of the times, and then we sing together again and reflect on what actions we commit to taking.
But this gathering is not about church or temple or mosque religion. It is about American civic religion: the creed of ideals stated at our nation’s founding and restated at junctures of crisis (like today), and the deeds by which we and those before us live up to the creed.
Why the analogy to faith gatherings? In part because over the millennia the major faiths have figured out something about how to help people find meaning and belonging, how to interpret texts and to reckon with the gap between our ideals and our reality, how to sustain hope and heart in a sea of cynicism and hate. And in part because we truly believe that democracy in America is an act of faith. Not faith in the divine but in the people with whom we hold the fate of this fragile experiment …
The idea that a religion is only as good as its effects can apply to American civic religion as well … [William] James at one point observes that war can summon in a people common purpose and self-sacrifice and ingenuity and he says a society needs the “moral equivalent of war.”
I say we need the moral equivalent of religion, and that is what civic religion is.
The other significant theme connecting Liu’s essays is their emphasis on practicalities, rituals, doing rather than wishing. As he says in one of his sermons:
Democracy, when it’s working, is a game of infinite repeat play. It never ends! We believe that it’s necessary in the face of such unending uncertainty to provide a ritual structure for belief in the possibility of democracy.
Why do we deliberately echo the elements of a faith gathering? Because that language, those forms, these rituals and habits all resonate on a deep level …
In these darkest of days, in a time when politics is so fiercely polarized, when traditional religion fuels so much fundamentalist fanaticism, we want to appreciate anew the simple miracle of democratic citizenship …
This stuff matters not simply because it answers a universal and timeless yearning for shared purpose. It matters here because it locates us atomized, amnesiac Americans in the broad scheme of history and in a larger weave of morality. It matters because the norms and institutions of democracy are being corroded from within and without.
Many of the sermons address specifics of how to convert a hazy concern about civic engagement to feasible to-do goals for the next day or week or year.
Go to your local parades. Have some hot dogs, or your food of choice. If of age, enjoy a beer. Be careful with the fireworks.
And as you reflect on whether a country observing its 243rd birthday can become a better, freer, fairer, finer version of itself, consider Eric Liu’s arguments in Become America.
Because I’m not a politician, I don’t have to wear an American-flag lapel pin. (I’ve never seen a photo of, say, Dwight Eisenhower, or FDR, or JFK, wearing a flag pin. Richard Nixon did it occasionally, in the Vietnam War era. It became de rigueur for public figures some time after the 9/11 attacks of 2001.)
But this is the story of a pin I’ve started wearing recently. The pin says Report for America, as you can see below. You could read those three words as an imperative-mood reminder of what people in the journalism business are supposed to do (at least the Americans). They also represent a promising movement, in discouraging times.
The fate of local news looms very large in the fate of smaller-town America:
Cities and regions need to hold their business and public leaders accountable. National news is not going to do that for them.
They need to understand what Deb Fallows and I have called “the civic story”: what makes this town different from others, what challenges it’s gone through and what opportunities it might seize, and where it stands on an arc that might lead to a more promising future. Only their local publications will help them refine and share those stories.
They need simply to have a forum for connection: What businesses are opening (or closing) in the town, what people are moving in and out, what opportunities there are for children, older people, those interested in music or sports or history or gardening.
Independent local publications are of such tangible importance that (according to a much-noted academic study last year), bond ratings go down, and the cost of issuing bonds goes up, for cities or counties that don’t have viable local newspapers.
Yet nearly every place we’ve gone, we’ve heard about the economic pressures on local newspapers, websites, and other publications as being even worse than those weighing down the press as a whole.
Which brings us to: Report for America. Earlier this month, in Houston, Deb and I met the 60-plus young men and women whose photos you see at the top of this item. They’re part of the second “corps” of Report for America members headed to newspapers, broadcast stations, or other news sites mainly in rural or small-town America, where they will add coverage on issues that will shape those communities’ futures.
Last year, for its first corps, Report for America sent out a total of 13 reporters. This year, more than 60. Next year it’s aiming for 250, toward a goal of 1,000.
The Report for America project is part Peace Corps, part Teach for America, part something entirely new. No one innovation or source will in itself be the answer to local journalism’s crisis. But a lot of experimental approaches might add up to an overall answer—and Report for America has the potential to be an important part of that solution. (For the record: Deb and I have no connection with RFA except being given the lapel pin and some RFA-branded reporter notebooks when we spoke at the training session in Houston, plus having known its co-founder, Steven Waldman, for many years.)
What’s the Report for America concept? It is—from my perspective—a shrewd combination of short- and long-term incentives and ideas.
The Report for America story began roughly three years ago. Before then, a former Boston Globe reporter and editor named Charles Sennott had set up The GroundTruth Project, which was designed to foster a new generation of innovative reporters in the United States and around the world. Sennott had also worked for the New York Daily News and PBS, and had founded an international reporting site called GlobalPost.
Not long after the 2016 election, Sennott approached a writer and entrepreneur named Steven Waldman about a possible collaboration. Waldman had been a Newsweek correspondent, and was national editor of U.S. News & World Report while I was the editor there. He also had written a wonderful short book called The Bill, about the tangled legislative history of creating AmeriCorps in the 1990s; had founded an influential faith-based site called Beliefnet; and during the Obama administration had written a report for the FCC about the impending crisis in local-news coverage.
After the FCC work, Waldman had begun thinking about new ways of supporting local journalists and journalism. In the summer of 2015, he published a paper in Medum called “Report for America.” The subhead was, “A new model for saving local journalism, borrowing from national and community service programs.” He also discussed this idea in an article for the Columbia Journalism Review.
Sennott had heard about these ideas and knew of Waldman through mutual friends. After the 20216 elections, he called Waldman to discuss the possibility of developing Report for America as part of the GroundTruth organization. They began raising money, initially from (among other sources) the Galloway Family Foundation and from Google’s News Lab, and last year they selected and trained a corps of 13 reporters, destined for local news rooms.
What’s distinctive about the Report for America approach? First, its funding model. The total investment for each RFA corps member—being sent to West Virginia, to Wyoming, to the Central Valley of California, wherever—averages about $40,000 a year. Philanthropists: If you’re thinking about how your money can really have impact, reflect upon that number.
RFA provides about half that money itself. Of the remaining share, half is supposed to come from the news organization that the reporter will be working for, and half from local philanthropic sources in that community.
Waldman told me this week that the multi-source funding model drew from the experience he had when working for a year at the fledgling AmeriCorps, under its then-director Harris Wofford.
“AmeriCorps had a matching system, where local nonprofit programs were supposed to put in money, in addition to the money the national program was sending them,” he told me. “For RFA, this struck me as an important way to hit our ultimate goal of a thousand reporters, and also to make the program sustainable.”
A bad result for RFA, he said, would be if “we created a great program for someone [the young reporter] for two years—and then they go away, and everything goes back to the way it was before. I thought that if we wanted to transform local media ecologies, we had to lure out local philanthropic money. And of course we also had to ask for the local-newsroom share, to ensure quality. The surefire way of making the quality of the experience horrible would be to give newsrooms ‘free’ reporters.”
Also worth noting: the Report for America mission. Despite the naming-similarity to Teach for America, RFA struck me as being a fundamentally different operation. TFA took people mainly right out of college, and hoped to interest them in the world of teaching. Most of the RFA corps members have already spent a few years as reporters—so they are older, and better prepared for the newsrooms they’re headed toward. And, according to Waldman, Report for America has a more explicit goal of shaping the environments of the cities where its corps members work.
“We view this as a ‘helping communities’ program, more than a ‘helping journalists’ program,” he told me. “Sure, we want to do everything to make it the best possible experience for the journalists. But helping them is a means to an end. The end is that local communities can hold authorities accountable, improve their schools, have clean drinking water. And if there are secondary benefits to the reporter—as with the Peace Corps, the excitement of being part of something bigger—then that is great as well.”
There was, though, a significant point of similarity with Teach for America, Waldman said. “One thing they did well was creating this sense that being a teacher was a noble and worthwhile goal,” he said. “We hope to do the same thing with the nobility and worth of being a local reporter, with the emphasis on local. And we’d like to revive this spirit that being a journalist is a public-service job.”
You can read the stories of the 2019 RFA corps members we met in Houston here. They are headed all over the country: Several to tribal areas. Several to Puerto Rico. Several each to Appalachia and Mississippi and the Central Valley of California. Others to smaller cities on the East Coast. Most are women. Well over one-third are nonwhite.
We spoke with them and, while hearing their questions, were impressed by their combination of passion and realism. How would they arrange time off from their newsroom jobs for the several hours a week of local public-service activities that were part of their contracted obligation? How should they take part in local civic and religious organizations? When would they feel they knew “enough” about a new setting to begin expressing any judgments about it? What would it be like, living in this new little town?
Their RFA mentors gave them advice. The corps members understood that things would look different when they were actually on the job. Some concerns they were worried about ahead-of-time would melt away. Others they hadn’t thought of yet would emerge.
“Community journalism won’t survive if the community doesn’t support it,” Steven Waldman told me this week. “We hope to build a broader definition of what that means. And the best way to restore ‘trust in journalism’ would be for people to see lots of reporters on the ground—at the local school-board meeting, writing about dirty water, being part of the community.”
To the 61 members of the latest Report for America corps, and to all supporting the effort, I say: Godspeed. I’m wearing my pin.
Over the past three years, Deb Fallows and I have written frequently about the lakeside city of Erie, Pennsylvania, and its reaction to the loss of traditional manufacturers over the past generation.
One continuing theme has been the importance of the city’s overall openness to outsiders—refugees, other immigrants—in trying to make an economic, cultural, and civic future for itself. (Yes, including recognizing decades-old obstacles for many of its African American residents.)
One example of Erie’s embrace of diversity, whom we’ve often mentioned, is a man in his mid-30s named Ferki Ferati. He was born in Albanian Kosovo; spent part of his youth in refugee camps; and has become a central figure in Erie’s civic scene, as president of the innovative Jefferson Educational Society. He and his wife, Katya, originally from Russia, recently had a son, named Adrian.
This month, Ferati’s father, Selman, suddenly died, at age 68. An appreciation of what he stood for, and the values he thought America might advance, is available online here. A sample:
Standing up for justice and opposing oppressive governments is what many dream of doing. Selman Ferati, the 68-year old, father of six, spent most of his life doing just that. He was among the first to show his opposition to the Milosevic regime (Yugoslavia), a regime that believed that non-Serbians living in Yugoslavia were second-class citizens …
Selman stood by his beliefs even as Milosevic carried out genocidal acts against Albanians and Bosnians living in Yugoslavia. His family became his priority, and he led them out of the Kosovo to Macedonia—and eventually (most of the family) to Erie, Pennsylvania in 1999. Despite these extraordinary circumstances, Selman never showed fear—he led, and in leading, he leaves behind a legacy of integrity and action! He provided and encouraged his children to take advantage of their new found freedoms, to “dream more, learn more, do more and become more.”
Sympathies to all of those related to and inspired by Selman Ferati.
To those who didn’t know him, his life is a reminder that idealistic people from outside America’s borders have continually prompted the country to live up to its own ideals. He had asked to be buried in his native Kosovo, but his spirit lives on in his adopted home.
Two previous reports, first here and then here, described the bittersweet heritage of old tobacco and textile buildings in the former mill town of Danville, Virginia.
The bitter was obviously the loss of what had been the city’s economic mainstays. The potentially sweet was that Danville never got around to demolishing the old structures—and now is beginning to turn them to new use.
A reader who used to live in Omaha rues the different decision that city made:
I am a historian generally by inclination, and an architectural historian by profession, and so I heartily agree with any and nearly all efforts to adapt old, historic buildings to new purposes …. This make sense both in the place-making and the economic sense.
I thought I’d share with you, although you probably already know [JF note: I didn’t], the unfortunate case of Omaha—the opposite, in some ways, as the experience of Danville.
Omaha had a large group of buildings downtown in what they call “Jobbers Canyon.” The area was full of warehouses for the many wholesale and provision companies that were headquartered in Omaha, which (along with Council Bluffs) was a rail hub for Union Pacific Railroad.
What is perhaps most infuriating about Omaha’s case is that the Jobbers Canyon area survived the worst excesses of Omaha’s version of urban renewal, and was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1986. I wasn’t there at the time to know whether the National Register nomination was written as an independent act, or was in response to noises that the area was under threat. Possibly both.
So the district was listed in 1986, and in the meantime, the packaged foods company based in Omaha, started looking for a new location for its headquarters. They settled on the area near the Missouri River, the site of Jobbers Canyon Historic District.
The CEO of Conagra was quoted at the time as decrying the area’s “ugly, red brick buildings.” He even went so far, basically, as to blackmail the city, saying that if they weren’t allowed a free hand to build as they wished, Conagra might go elsewhere, perhaps Chicago.
So the city caved—and after the usual legal maneuvers, the district was essentially demolished (parts or it were retained), Conagra built its new headquarters (low, horizontal, suburban-style buildings on a campus with an artificial lake) and the Jobbers Canyon Historic District was de-listed from the National Register in 2002.
The upshot of all of that is that a few years ago, as I was leaving Omaha for a new job in suburban Washington, D.C., Conagra ended up leaving Omaha for—you guessed it—Chicago, and the Merchandise Mart to be specific.
A 2015 report by Christopher Burbach in the Omaha World-Herald, confirming the reader’s rueful account, is here. A sample:
Omaha made a painful sacrifice to entice ConAgra Foods to build its headquarters downtown in the late 1980s.
City and business leaders agreed to tear down more than 20 historical buildings in Jobbers Canyon—the largest demolition ever of a historic district on the National Register of Historic Places.
In doing so, Omaha erased six city blocks of its history as a center for distributing goods being shipped by rail to the West.
And it wiped out the potential for redeveloping a unique urban canyon of warehouse buildings into businesses and loft apartments in the manner of Omaha’s Old Market.
Omaha is obviously much bigger and more bustling than Danville. But on this particular point, the lesson for other cities would be: Learn in a positive way from Danville, and in a cautionary way from Omaha.
Short version: For anyone who cares about unequal opportunities in the new economy, what’s happening in Fresno deserves serious attention.
The strong continuity through Bitwise’s short, intense history has been its founders’ awareness that they were teaching technical skills, and promoting new businesses, for more than purely business-related purposes. Almost everyone in the tech business talks-the-talk about the info-age bringing benefits to all. In my view Bitwise has come much closer than most to walking-the-walk.
Since 2013 it has trained more than a thousand developers in Fresno. Deb and I have seen these classes and talked with students, many of them from agricultural or non-college backgrounds, and have written about their stories of new opportunities. It has fostered or attracted some 200 tech companies to its startup spaces. It runs three business operations: the coding school called Geekwise Academy; its real estate operations, which now include some 200,000 square feet of workspace; and a custom software business called Shift3 Technologies, which hires Geekwise graduates and others for commercial projects.
Today Bitwise is announcing a serious next step. It has received $27 million in “Series A” (startup) funding to expand its operations to other “cities like Fresno” across the country. The funding is led by Kapor Capital, founded by Mitch Kapor and Freada Kapor Klein and based in Oakland, and the New Voices Fund, based in New York. The company says that the funding represents “one of the largest Series A ever raised by a Latinx female-led company.” Irma Olguin comes from a family of Central Valley field laborers and has often stressed that she would like her own against-the-odds rise to tech-company leadership to become a less exceptional tale.
“There is a lot of my life story tied up in what Bitwise is, and does,” she told me this week, when I spoke with her and Soberal about the new funding. “It’s tied up with the idea that the son or daughter of a migrant farm worker could have this opportunity in the industry that is so transformative in our times.”
“Some people have had opportunities by accident, and others do not,” she said. “We need to make those opportunities less a matter of chance and serendipity, and more a matter of deliberately creating opportunities and exposing young people to different possibilities for their lives.”
What will Bitwise do with the money? Soberal said that the company, which will still be headquartered in Fresno, had identified a loose category of other “underdog cities”—places like Fresno where people had talent and potential but lacked opportunity. “We have a number of criteria, but the most important one is where we think we can make an impact,” he told me. Bitwise has already expanded programs to Bakersfield, 100 miles south in the Central Valley. Similar places, he said, might include Stockton (also in the Central Valley), El Paso on the U.S.-Mexican border, Knoxville in Appalachia.
Olguin said that the relevant traits were places “that have the population density to support a technology industry, where there might have been a dying industry that has left people needing to up-skill or re-skill themselves, and where there are obviously marginalized groups of people who may not have been invited into the tech industry.”
I asked Olguin and Soberal what they had learned, through Bitwise’s successes and setbacks, in the four years since Deb and I first met them.
“One of the things we’ve learned is about the need to focus on non-technical barriers to entry in the tech world, beyond simple technical skills,” Olguin said. “We probably underestimated that at the beginning. There is a whole system of opportunity you need to build in places like Fresno or Bakersfield, and if you’re not conscious about every one of the steps, you can’t assume that someone else will take care of it.”
Why does this expansion matter, I asked Soberal and Olguin? She said, “I don’t think there is any better way to spend our time than to contribute to the success of people who haven’t been invited to the most exciting part of the economy.”
When I asked the same question of Mitch Kapor, he responded this way, by email:
Bitwise is the most successful model we’ve seen for creating tech-related jobs in what Jake and Irma call underdog cities. They’ve proven this in Fresno and are we are going to help them spread it to other cities. These are jobs for local residents in local businesses and institutions. The follow-on effects of further job creation are also significant.
It’s the best way we’ve seen to create an inclusive economy in which gains from tech don’t simply go to enrich the 1% or those who are already far ahead.
Good luck to them all. And here is a video, from four years ago, that conveys what I think of as the spirit of Bitwise, Fresno, and “underdog cities” as a whole.
Previously in this series: why the ups and downs of economic history have left the southern Virginia town of Danville with a genuine problem (what to do after its big mills closed), but also a significant advantage (the physical infrastructure that those old tobacco and textile sites left behind, much of it quite beautiful.)
Years ago, on the first reporting visit that my wife, Deb, and I made to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, I mentioned that the city seemed strangely “over-retailed” for a place of its size. That is, it had a super-abundance of malls, professional offices, restaurants, and other facilities. Why? As we learned, these reflected Sioux Falls’s emergence as the service-and-retail center not just for its own population but for the broad surrounding area.
In a similar way, Danville can now seem strangely “over-warehoused,” with more century-old large, stately brick structures than you would expect for a town of some 40,000 people. The buildings sprang up in Danville because it was so prosperous a trading and manufacturing center from the late 1800s onward. And they survived largely because the city became so economically troubled that no one could afford to tear them down.
Now many of them are being revived, reoccupied, and put to new use, as previewed here. The center of the activity is the “River District,” on the southern bank of the Dan River near the Main Street bridge. Decades ago, this was a center of tobacco trading and the textile business. One of the enormous factory buildings for Dan River Mills, known as the “White Mill” and abandoned for years, sits not far away.
“If you were here ten years ago, it would have been obvious that we were a mill town without a mill,” Rick Barker, a Danville native and entrepreneur who is now a downtown developer of historic properties, told me this month. “Now we’re becoming something else.”
What is that something? The purpose of this dispatch is to give a few illustrations of a city in the middle of becoming, and some brief background on work that’s been done and work that remains.
1) How it started. “I think where things really got going was when we finally tore down the Downtowner,” Karl Stauber told me early this month.
For the past dozen years, Stauber has been head of the Danville Regional Foundation, or DRF, which was founded in 2005 with the $200 million proceeds from the sale of a regional hospital to a private health-care firm and has been a major force in educational, cultural, and architectural development in the area ever since. (A year ago, Stauber announced that he would step down as the foundation’s CEO this summer; a DRF official named Clark Casteel will succeed him. For the record, we first learned about Danville, and talked with Stauber and Lori Merricks of the DRF, last year during a book-tour event and regional-development conference that their foundation sponsored. These new accounts are based on our recent return to Danville for a reporting trip. )
The Downtowner, a standard “mid-century modern” motel, had long been an eyesore and blight-generator right in the center of Danville. Ever since it went out of business in the 1980s, city renovation plans had started with proposals to knock it down. Yes, this might seem at odds with efforts to preserve the 19th-century shops and warehouses in the vicinity. But to oversimplify: most people believed that the old buildings had timeless-classic potential, and the Downtowner did not. Take a look, below, and judge for yourself.
In 2012, the city government, the regional foundation, and other organizations were finally able to act. “That really was a turning point,” Stauber told me. “The blighted structure symbolized what was holding us back. It represented the idea that nothing we tried would ever work. And we finally did away with it.” He went on to list other buildings, including a very popular downtown Y built with a view of the Dan River (described by Deb Fallows here), that, by contrast, “symbolized what was possible.”
Around the time demolition crews began taking apart the Downtowner, only about 400 people worked or lived in downtown buildings in the vicinity. This area had been informally known as the tobacco warehouse district; about the time of the demolition, the city started referring to it as the River District. “Within five years [of the renovation effort], that number went to 4,000,” Stauber told me. “It’s right around 6,000 people in the River District now.”
Rick Barker, the entrepreneur and property developer, offered a complementary measurement. “There’s about five million square feet of building inventory in the River District,” he told me. “Back when the River District project began, probably four million square feet was entirely vacant, or under-utilized. There’s less than two million feet left now. So half the work has been done.”
Hard economic and demographic indications — occupancy rates, office openings, retail and entertainment sites—obviously are crucial to judging any downtown area’s prospects. “But I keep thinking of the less-scientific measures,” Stauber told me. His foundation’s office is in a restored brick building that once housed tobacco operations, a block from a downtown plaza and fountain. “Ten years ago, you’d hear people say that they would only come downtown to pay parking tickets or get someone out of jail,” he said. But high school proms had happened on the weekend before our visit, and students by the hundreds came to the fountain to have their prom pictures taken. “That tells you something about what people perceive as the cool place to be.”
It would be obvious to any visitor that downtown Danville still has a long way to go. But it’s obvious to us how much further it has gone already than many other places we’ve seen.
2) How it is financed. This will be old news to anyone involved in commercial real estate. But for us, visits to recovering (or decaying) downtowns have been an ongoing education in the role of tax policy as a prime mover in starting or changing urban trends. (For instance, see this previous report by our colleague John Tierney on Allentown, Pennsylvania.)
Specifically in Danville, the tax policies that matter have been from two states, and the federal government. The states are Virginia, which offers builders a 25% tax credit for construction costs on historic-preservation projects like those in Danville — and neighboring North Carolina, which also had such a program but cut it back substantially five years ago. Both state credits come on top of a 20% federal tax credit for preservation projects, and in effect they dramatically reduced the capital costs for developers interested in restoring warehouses, abandoned factories, old shops, etc. (Do such tax preferences amount to “picking winners”? Sure. But in a tax regime that includes provisions like the carried-interest deduction for hedge-fund managers, I’ll defend the public benefits of this preference any time.)
The Virginia program fostered renewal efforts like those in Danville (and Roanoke and Lynchburg and Charlottesville and elsewhere). The cuts in the North Carolina program (though later partly reversed) enticed developers like those who had transformed tobacco and textile works in Durham and Winston-Salem to look out of state. Virginia was right next door.
Lower construction costs obviously mean that developers can charge tenants lower rent, which in turn lets buildings be occupied more quickly, which in turn adds customers and vitality to the downtown.
3) A test case: Craghead Street. “Coming to Danville now, it’s probably hard for you to imagine what this street used to look like,” the designer and developer Rick Barker, told me at his office in the 500 block of Craghead Street, in the River District.
“I can tell you that just five years ago, there were not two people in this city who wanted this building that we’re sitting in right now, or anything in the block.” The building we were sitting in, which Barker has turned into his office headquarters and is shown in a night shot below, now has a stylish exterior and especially interior hipness that would seem at home in any major city in North America or Europe. That office is on one end of the 500 block of Craghead Street; the shops and buildings along the entire block are part of a renovation effort, driven significantly by historic-preservation tax credits, that Barker’s company has underway.
“This street was named for Doctor Craghead, who was one of Danville’s first city council members,” Barker told me. “Five years ago we said that we wanted to make sure that people stopped calling it Crackhead Street. Our goal was to take the least desirable commercial block in the Dan River District, and make it the most desirable business address in the city. And we are on the way.”
At the other end of that block of Craghead, a restaurant called Mucho has opened up. A promotional video from the opening, which you can see below (or here), shows some of the reaction from both black and white patrons, in a city whose population is about 50-50 black and white.
How much further will the downtown renewal go? As always, it depends. But the distance traveled already is much greater than we would have guessed before we visited.
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.
As WeWork crashes and Uber bleeds cash, the consumer-tech gold rush may be coming to an end.
Several weeks ago, I met up with a friend in New York who suggested we grab a bite at a Scottish bar in the West Village. He had booked the table through something called Seated, a restaurant app that pays users who make reservations on the platform. We ordered two cocktails each, along with some food. And in exchange for the hard labor of drinking whiskey, the app awarded us $30 in credits redeemable at a variety of retailers.
I am never offended by freebies. But this arrangement seemed almost obscenely generous. To throw cash at people every time they walk into a restaurant does not sound like a business. It sounds like a plot to lose money as fast as possible—or to provide New Yorkers, who are constantly dining out, with a kind of minimum basic income.
Our unpredictable and overburdened schedules are taking a dire toll on American society.
Just under a century ago, the Soviet Union embarked on one of the strangest attempts to reshape the common calendar that has ever been undertaken. As Joseph Stalin raced to turn an agricultural backwater into an industrialized nation, his government downsized the week from seven to five days. Saturday and Sunday were abolished.
In place of the weekend, a new system of respite was introduced in 1929. The government divided workers into five groups, and assigned each to a different day off. On any given day, four-fifths of the proletariat would show up to their factories and work while the other fifth rested. Each laborer received a colored slip of paper—yellow, orange, red, purple, or green—that signified his or her group. The staggered schedule was known as nepreryvka, or the “continuous workweek,” since production never stopped.
History’s best marathoner has broken a mythical time barrier. But it doesn’t count as a world record.
Updated at 2:15 p.m. ET on October 13, 2019.
Early yesterday morning, in a misty park in Vienna, Eliud Kipchoge ran a marathon in less than two hours. His time, 1:59:40, is the fastest any runner has ever covered 26.2 miles. Kipchoge carved two minutes off his own world record and became the first marathoner to break the two-hour barrier.
At the event, branded the INEOS 1:59 Challenge, the performance was heralded as a radical, historic leap, his “Neil Armstrong moment,” as one announcer said. Indeed, Kipchoge himself—a soft-spoken 34-year-old Kenyan who dulls the pain of distance running by smiling mid-competition—has repeatedly equated his feat to reaching the moon. That comparison is audacious on the scale of human achievement, but in the galaxy of running, it might actually be an understatement. Running’s original moon landing, the sub-four-minute mile, took place back in 1954. Yesterday, Kipchoge launched running to Mars.
Humiliating his own Cabinet secretaries was bad. Putting faithful American allies in harm’s way is far worse.
President Donald Trump’s betrayal of the Kurds stung deeply. “They trusted us and we broke that trust. It’s a stain on the American conscience.” These, according to The New York Times, are the searing words of an Army officer who has worked alongside the Kurds in northern Syria.
People want to cook and eat together. Modern life has other plans.
Right now, a box of food from a meal-kit company is probably moldering in my apartment building’s mail room. I haven’t been down there in a few days, so maybe there isn’t one at this very moment. But more than two years of living in this building has taught me there’s basically always at least one box, forgotten and slightly stinky. When I visit friends, I often walk past a similar scene next to their elevators: cartons from Blue Apron or HelloFresh, waiting to find out if they’ll ever become the dinners they were meant to be.
Forgetting you mail-ordered a bespoke set of ingredients for a selection of restaurant-style recipes is a luxurious predicament to be in, but the frequency with which those meal kits seem to be abandoned points to the very same problem they were invented to fix: Consumer surveys have found that most people who buy meal kits do so in hopes of saving time. As it turns out, it takes time to unpack, cook, and clean up after a meal-kit dinner, too.
What the Amazon founder and CEO wants for his empire and himself, and what that means for the rest of us.
Where in the pantheon of American commercial titans does Jeffrey Bezos belong? Andrew Carnegie’s hearths forged the steel that became the skeleton of the railroad and the city. John D. Rockefeller refined 90 percent of American oil, which supplied the pre-electric nation with light. Bill Gates created a program that was considered a prerequisite for turning on a computer.
At 55, Bezos has never dominated a major market as thoroughly as any of these forebears, and while he is presently the richest man on the planet, he has less wealth than Gates did at his zenith. Yet Rockefeller largely contented himself with oil wells, pump stations, and railcars; Gates’s fortune depended on an operating system. The scope of the empire the founder and CEO of Amazon has built is wider. Indeed, it is without precedent in the long history of American capitalism.
Twelve candidates crowded onto the stage, but impeachment remains the biggest story in politics.
Give the fourth Democratic presidential debate its due: Yes, it was interminably long, but it was also terminally boring.
There are several reasons the debate never really took off, but the central problem was that each of the candidates is seeking to excite the Democratic base, and right now the thing that is most exciting to Democrats is impeaching Donald Trump.
This led to a disorienting evening. There’s a strong likelihood that at some point between now and November 2020, the House of Representatives will impeach the president of the United States, and yet the debate was barely different from the three that preceded the start of a serious impeachment inquiry in late September.
Although the first question of the night focused on impeachment, the moderators and candidates quickly moved on, barely mentioning it over the rest of the three hours of debate. In those opening moments, Senator Amy Klobuchar defended the inquiry against charges that it’s a distraction.
China is supposed to be savvy. So why is it throwing a fit about a tweet, an app, and a gamer in a mask in the absence of any real threat?
The Hong Kong protests have entered a fifth month, a longevity that might have been hard to predict at the outset. The protests were sparked in reaction to an extradition bill that protesters feared would mean turning over dissidents to mainland China, but have turned into a broad movement over fears that liberties under the “one country, two systems” promised when the United Kingdom turned over its colony to China would be trampled.
Inevitably, this brought the Chinese government at into conflict with Western companies that do business with China. Recently, the Chinese government has started flexing its muscles, going so far as to pressure Western companies to censor their own employees. Many companies, even big ones, are already caving, including Apple, the NBA, and the gaming company Blizzard Entertainment.
Before it became the New World, the Western Hemisphere was vastly more populous and sophisticated than has been thought—an altogether more salubrious place to live at the time than, say, Europe. New evidence of both the extent of the population and its agricultural advancement leads to a remarkable conjecture: the Amazon rain forest may be largely a human artifact
The plane took off in weather that was surprisingly cool for north-central Bolivia and flew east, toward the Brazilian border. In a few minutes the roads and houses disappeared, and the only evidence of human settlement was the cattle scattered over the savannah like jimmies on ice cream. Then they, too, disappeared. By that time the archaeologists had their cameras out and were clicking away in delight.
Below us was the Beni, a Bolivian province about the size of Illinois and Indiana put together, and nearly as flat. For almost half the year rain and snowmelt from the mountains to the south and west cover the land with an irregular, slowly moving skin of water that eventually ends up in the province's northern rivers, which are sub-subtributaries of the Amazon. The rest of the year the water dries up and the bright-green vastness turns into something that resembles a desert. This peculiar, remote, watery plain was what had drawn the researchers' attention, and not just because it was one of the few places on earth inhabited by people who might never have seen Westerners with cameras.
Images of the damage and immediate recovery work taking place in Japan after its worst storm in decades
More than 100,000 rescue workers are still combing through flooded and damaged areas of central Japan after it was struck by Typhoon Hagibis, the most powerful storm to hit the area in more than 60 years. Local authorities are blaming this weekend’s typhoon for more than 70 deaths so far, with a dozen residents still listed as missing. Hagibis brought high winds and heavy rainfall, which damaged structures, collapsed dikes, flooded rivers and low-lying areas, and triggered more than 100 landslides. Gathered here are some of the images of the damage and immediate recovery work taking place.