Our Towns: On the Road, in the Air
In the summer of 2013, nearly six years ago, my wife—Deb Fallows—and I announced in this space the beginning of a project to visit smaller towns around the country. These were places that usually show up in the news only as backdrops for national-politics coverage, or when some human or natural disaster has struck. Our goal was to report on how schools, businesses, families, and civic life were faring “out there.”
Our means of travel, from one small airport to the next, would be our little four-seat, single-engine, Cirrus SR22 propeller airplane—a model that has become the best-selling small plane of its type around the world, because of its built-in parachute for the entire plane.
Early in 2017, after spending most of four years on the road, Deb and I announced in this space that this first stage of the journey was over. We would be flying from our home in Washington, D.C.; down along the Atlantic coast to Georgia; and then across the south and west of the country to my original home in inland California, the small city of Redlands, to write a book about what we had seen. We did so; that book, Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of America, was published in 2018. It drew on what we had found, learned, and described in hundreds of web posts and several articles for The Atlantic through the preceding years.
Now we’re beginning the next stage of the journey. In this space over the coming months, we’ll be posting a new set of reports, from an additional set of towns, about a new set of developments and a new range of possibilities for locally based renewal efforts around the country.
The guiding principle of this reporting will be the one we developed—city by city, story by story, question by question, surprise by surprise—through our preceding years of travel. The central premise is that the most positive and practical developments in this stage of American life are happening at the local and regional level—but that most Americans have barely heard of those developments except in the communities where they themselves live.
This past February, an extensive nationwide survey from the American Enterprise Institute provided data that matched what we’d heard in interviews. By nearly a 2-to-1 ratio, the survey’s directors (Sam Abrams, Karlyn Bowman, and Ryan Streeter) found, Americans were very pessimistic when asked about the prospects for the country as a whole. But by nearly a 3-to-1 ratio, people in different parts of the country, and of different races and economic groups, said they felt that their own communities were moving in the right direction. It was like the radio host Garrison Keillor’s ancient joke about Lake Wobegon, where “the children were all above average,” but with a real-world edge. People recognized the possibility of progress, despite obstacles and injustices, in their own part of America, but assumed the rest of the country must be doing much worse.
Of course the paralysis and division of national politics matter. Of course every community has its entrenched problems, of which the opioid and addiction crisis is the most acute, economic dislocation is the most widespread, and racial injustice is the most intractable. My view of American history is: From the start, it’s been a struggle, between society’s worse impulses and the better ones. Any clear-eyed view of this nation, at any point, will include the tragic and the inspiring.
But the underappreciated and potentially inspiring news of this moment, as Deb and I have come to believe through travel in every corner of the country, is the extent of locally based renewal and experimentation, and the evolution of formal and informal networks connecting those far-flung efforts, all directed at many of the same challenges that seem hopeless from a national perspective.
Over the past year, we’ve been visiting communities that we’ll soon write about in this space—from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, to Kenosha and Eau Claire, Wisconsin; from Bellingham, Washington, to Pensacola, Florida, and Danville, Virginia; and points in between and beyond.
Starting with the next few installments in this space, the focus will be on the state that has long had the most manufacturing-intensive economy in the entire country: Indiana. (At a public forum last month in Fort Wayne, we talked with the podcaster Ashley C. Ford, who is now based in Brooklyn but grew up in and considers herself a proud citizen-in-exile of Fort Wayne. “When people hear Indiana, they think it’s all a bunch of cornfields,” she said at that session. “They can hardly imagine how many factories we have.”)
The nature of Indiana’s economy has long exposed its citizens and communities to both the good and the bad of rapid shifts in technology, business structure, and world trading trends. We’ll explain how this looks on the ground in places up and down the state. We’ll follow with reports from other parts of the Midwest, the South, and inland California. This summer we’ll begin a new round of travel, to additional cities, by small propeller plane.
Some of the themes we’ll explore in coming months will include:
- Economic dislocation and opportunity. The saga of this era is the disappearance of old lines of work, the appearance of new ones, and the unequal opportunities and rewards that may result. Some of the response we’ve seen involve innovative kinds of schooling, as we’ll describe from San Bernardino, California; different kinds of manufacturing and start-up cultures, which we’ve seen around the country; and different technical, civic, and social tools to match candidates with possibilities and make this era’s growth more inclusive and broadly shared than the past generation’s.
- The prospects of the rural and the regional. We are continuing to report on the smaller towns that are finding a future, on their own or in regional alliances, often through the arts or through technology-based programs—and how they differ from the others that are losing ground.
- The tensions between the local and the national, and what it means for America as a nation, in good ways and bad, if its center of initiative is again shifting (as it has several times in the past) away from the federal government and toward 50 states and hundreds of cities.
- The role of the arts. On this we have become believers. Which leads to …
- The modern civic role of faith, and the power of religious organizations, in building and sometimes straining civic fabric.
- The role of technology, from barriers to internet access in non-coastal America, to new tools that can help remote areas recover and thrive.
- The role of libraries, which are the new public square, and where people don’t just consume but also create knowledge.
- The role of local media—indispensable, imperiled, and the object of widespread experimentation to establish viable business models.
- The role of the local, from food to language to festivals to craft breweries.
- The prospects for sustainability, at a time when the main point of leverage may be local.
- The reconstruction of downtowns, and their fights against big-box stores and urban sprawl.
- The “reverse migration,” of people who are deciding that the best prospects for their families, careers, and souls lie not in New York or L.A. but in some other place they feel they are “from” or are “at home.”
- The lived reality of immigration at the local level, which is in such contrast to national-level rhetoric.
- The lived reality of inclusive growth and opportunity, where it happens and where it does not, including modern dynamics of racial barriers.
- The return of “civics,” and the willed reconstruction of the public sphere. This is something we’ve actually seen in a few places, and will be looking for in more.
- The illuminating roles of music and literature. Are we living in a world that Theodore Dreiser and Willa Cather, plus Woody Guthrie and Billie Holiday and Loretta Lynn, have already mapped out?
And a list of others, which no doubt I’m forgetting now but we’ll get to in the months ahead.
Our plan is deliberately slow-building, incremental, learning as we go. I believe in “showing your homework” as a reporter: laying out what you’ve seen, what you might have missed, what you’ve changed your mind about, where you need to learn more.
Our approach is also deliberately inclusive and “big tent.” Part of our goal is to connect people in disparate groups around the country who are working toward similar ends, but may not be aware of one another’s efforts. Our allies include New America, where Deb is now based; HBO, with whom we are making a documentary for airing next year; and many other groups we’ll link to and publicize as the year goes on.
We’ll lead off this week with reports from our recent trip through Indiana, and then through the months ahead we’ll cover as much of the country as we possibly can.
We’re excited to begin this process, to share stories we’ve heard in recent months, and to learn in the months ahead. Deb and I look forward to hearing from you with tips, stories, and even dissents. Please join us here as the journey unfolds.