And Now for Something Saner and More Positive: Fresno, Erie

Part of the old manufacturing corridor in Erie, Pennsylvania. Manufacturing is still underway in many of these buildings, and the city is in the middle of considering a sweeping plan for economic and civic revitalization. (James Fallows)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Not to over-personalize, but I feel as if my life in the past few weeks recapitulates the argument my wife Deb and I have been making in our American Futures travels.

When I’ve been embroiled in national politics—which matter!— through magazine articles, or the Trump Time Capsules or Trump Nation series, I completely feel the embroiled-ness, and the embattlement, that this campaign has brought to the nation as a whole.

But then Deb and I get to go back to reporting on the aspects of current American life other than the national political struggle, and find that even now they remain surprisingly positive. (“Positive” in the same sense I argued in my cover story back in March: The country has big problems, but in much of the country, most of the time, people feel as if they are moving forward rather than backward in dealing with them.)

Two examples: Last week at this time, I was in Fresno, California, talking with representatives of the California Partnership for the San Joaquin Valley about the ways their collaborative efforts matched patterns we’d seen elsewhere in the country, from Maine to Mississippi. I also had a chance to see how far and fast work has progressed on re-doing Fresno’s historic Fulton Street Mall, whose saga over the years you can read about starting here and here. The one sad note in Fresno is that Peeve’s Pub, whose founder Craig Scharton has been a central figure in Fresno’s re-imagining of itself, and whose ups and downs I’ve tried to chronicle, is in a down phase and has closed its doors. It is missed.

This afternoon I will be in Erie, Pennsylvania—which I mean to compliment by thinking of it as a Fresno of the east—for the “Metro 100” conference on the city’s future, co-hosted by Erie’s Jefferson Educational Society and the Erie County Gaming Revenue Authority (which I’ve covered in a previous post). That conference is followed by an evening public session from the Jefferson on actually implementing Erie’s new civic-revival plan. If you’re in the area, come on by!

***

As a “Do not despair!” note to myself during the extremity of this presidential campaign; as a thought-organizer before this afternoon’s conference in Erie; and as a little glimpse for readers of the richness of what Deb and I have been finding around the country, here is a sample of the things we would already have written if the campaign weren’t destroying my brain, and that we will get to once it’s over.

From Erie and its environs:

  • the history of this Jefferson Society, which plays a very unusual role that could set an example for other cities with similar challenges;
  • the structural cruelty of the funding system for the Erie public schools, which should be a shame to the state of Pennsylvania and is a cautionary example for other parts of the country;
  • the role of a tech collaborative called Radius CoWork, and what it has done to make open new entrepreneurial possibilities in a city shifting out of its heavy-manufacturing, GE-dominated era;
  • how the local Behrend campus of Penn State has worked with advanced-manufacturing plants in the region to connect local workers with higher-wage skilled jobs;
  • how a particular high-value local manufacturer has grown and thrived;
  • why the company that is now the city’s largest private employer, Erie Insurance, has stayed in the area and redeveloped a significant chunk of downtown;
  • how a publication that started as a local alt-weekly has developed;
  • and some other things.

There’s a similar list of upcoming stories from western Kansas, including the surprising effects of the “Why not Dodge?” campaign in Dodge City, and the growth of local distilleries and breweries there. And more from Alabama, Texas, and beyond.

I tell myself, with 27 days to go until the election, Don’t despair! Better things are happening than what dominates the news—and has dominated my own recent output. I tell readers too: Don’t despair! Will provide more evidence for that assertion soon.

Meanwhile, see you tonight in Erie.