Reporter's Notebook

Downtown Akron, from the city's North Hill neighborhood, over the Little Cuyahoga River Valley. Akron is one of countless cities whose recovery plans have been upended by the pandemic.
Downtown Akron, from the city's North Hill neighborhood, over the Little Cuyahoga River Valley. Akron is one of countless cities whose recovery plans have been upended by the pandemic. Courtesy of Jason Segedy

What else is going on in the country, with less than two weeks in this consequential election season? Here is a sampling of recent articles and developments worth notice.

Prospects for local journalism: The strength and importance of local journalism have always grown from its attention to the local: What is happening in the town or region, what is getting better or worse, how local institutions are responding. Even as national politics have become more polarized and tribal, local news organizations have often been able to focus attention and engagement on important issues (rather than divisive spectacles) that can be solved (rather than just argued about).

This is why several trends of recent years have been so destructive in civic terms. These include the economic pressures on small, independent news outlets; the gobbling up of many surviving outlets by private-equity chains; and the determination of national TV chains like Sinclair to convert local TV-news outlets into extensions of the national-politics crusades. A recent story by Davey Alba and Jack Nicas in The New York Times has drawn a lot of attention for showing how the Sinclair model—franchised, faux-“local” versions of national messaging—is spreading to the print and online realms.

Some recent developments worth noting, on the other side:

  • From Poynter, an essay by Steven Waldman on why these new pressures on local journalism matter, and what could be done about them. Waldman, a longtime friend, is among other things a co-founder of Report for America, which I have written about, and of the Rebuild Local News coalition. In his Poynter essay he points out the goods and bads of this moment in local news:

    As a point of reference, consider this: One of the most positive trends has been the rise of local nonprofit news organizations. Today, there are about 300 of them, according to the Institute for Nonprofit News. Yes, that’s less than one quarter of the number of these faux news sites that have popped up recently.

    The problem is increasingly not that communities will get no information but that they’ll get disinformation, or information whose provenance is unknown.

  • From David Plotz, long of Slate and Atlas Obscura, the announcement of a new locally oriented podcast series, called City Cast. In a post on Medium describing the project, Plotz writes:

I’m starting City Cast because I believe the future is local ….

Thanks to the pandemic, a staggering economic crisis, the protest movement against police violence and systemic racism, and well, just 2020 in general, America has never needed great local journalism more than it does today ….

Where local news is sparse or feeble, communities suffer: Political activity declines; local businesses weaken; mistrust grows. We become more divided, more insular, and more hopeless. If you live in a community with hollowed-out media, you feel that every day.

Good luck to Plotz and his City Cast colleagues.

  • For another illustration of an innovative local model, check out Canopy Atlanta, and its inaugural issue on the city’s West End—and this report by Rick Edmonds, of Poynter, about the way three regional papers are trying to expand rather than budget-cut their way to survival.

  • And, for an economic-development perspective on which accurate local news matters, see a recent installment of The Chung Report, by James Chung, which has had an ongoing focus on development in Chung’s original hometown of Wichita, Kansas. In “Why Transparency Matters,” Chung explores how a medium-sized city like Wichita, with a strong university presence (Wichita State) and a historic role as a center of aerospace technology, can deal with its long-term civic and economic challenges.

Economic recovery after the pandemic: The story of the moment is of accelerating economic and public-health damage from the (disastrously managed) pandemic. The next story will be about the ways families, companies, cities, and regions can begin to recover.

Some of this effort will be national and global in scale. Some will be intensely local. Here are several worthwhile guides:

  • From the Heartland Forward project, a report on an economic recovery strategy for Northwest Arkansas. Why this part of the country? Heartland Forward’s founders include younger members of the Walton family and, along with the Walton Family Foundation, it has concentrated on economic and civic revival in non-coastal America, notably including the Walmart headquarters area of Northwest Arkansas.

This new report (in PDF here) is largely devoted to both the immediate and the longer-term effects of the pandemic. It also addresses the region’s diversity and racial-justice issues. Historically, this part of the state (which was not part of the antebellum plantation economy) has had a large-majority white population; according to the report, only 2.5 percent of the local population is Black. The report flatly says that to progress, the region must intentionally make itself more welcoming and inclusive:

“It is paramount that the region’s major employers continue to attract and retain diverse talent … In addition, building up diverse populations assists new members to the community feel comfortable and secure, as well as helps to make the existing culture more welcoming to outsiders …. NWA [Northwest Arkansas] should consider ways to make diverse populations feel more welcome in the community …”

Even if you’re not interested in this part of the country, the report is worth noticing as an illustration of how regions with distinctive strengths and limitations can think realistically about their possibilities.

  • From Jason Segedy, planning director for the city of Akron, two valuable essays on how cities can approach these new rebuilding challenges. One, in The American Conservative, is about how cities can become more “inclusive” even in the face of likely long-term decline. The other, for the Economic Innovation Group, is about how “legacy cities,” of smaller size and yesteryear’s industry, can find a future. He uses the example of another city we’ve written about, Dayton:

    There is also a certain level of love for a mid-sized city like Dayton that is often not as present in larger places, where many people might be there for less emotional and more utilitarian economic reasons. This can lead to higher levels of civic engagement and community support. Innovators, entrepreneurs, and the civically-engaged and community-minded can potentially have more of a positive impact, being bigger fish in a smaller pond. “When you really love something, you want to make it better,” says Torey Hollingsworth, senior policy advisor to Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley.  

    At the same time, the way that the economy has changed over the past four decades has made it far more difficult for these cities to succeed. Consolidation of major industrial corporations has really hurt cities like Akron and Dayton, as these cities first lost thousands of blue-collar production jobs and then ultimately lost most of the white-collar professional jobs that remained.     

  • From Allentown, Pennsylvania, an update on the ongoing redevelopment of the city’s old heavy-manufacturing sites. Several years ago John Tierney wrote about small, modern startups in what was once the Mack Truck plant. (It is now known as the Bridgeworks Enterprise Center.) The next industrial site for renovation is a former steel fabrication plant, known as the Metal Works. You can read about its situation here.

  • From the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a report on how much money state and local governments have already devoted to sustaining small businesses through the pandemic era—but how much more federal help will inevitably be needed. The report (PDF here), by Kennedy Smith, says:

    “The relief programs provided by local and state governments have kept hundreds of thousands of small businesses afloat so far and helped them adapt to the surreal commercial environment the pandemic has created. But absent additional and ongoing funding these crucial programs will cease, leaving hundreds of thousands of small businesses at risk of going under in the coming months.”

Small businesses across the country have been through very tough times these past six-plus months. But—as in so many other aspects of pandemic effects—without help, even tougher times may lie ahead. For a previous ILSR report on steps cities can take to sustain their independent businesses, see this.  

  • One of our ongoing threads through the years has been the importance of skilled-trades jobs, as sources of opportunity and offsets to an ever-more-polarized economy. Advanced-manufacturing jobs, work designing and maintaining robotic systems, jobs in aerospace and health care and advanced agriculture—almost all of these have had more job openings than applicants in recent years, and many do not require a four-year college diploma. NPR has a new segment on this trend, and the importance of apprenticeships. You can read its report by Adedayo Akala and listen to the broadcast here.

Cityscape: I very much enjoyed this map of fall foliage in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where we have spent a lot of time. Check it out. Sample shot below.

Courtesy of the City of Sioux Falls

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Win McNamee / Getty

This evening we’ll see Donald Trump and Joe Biden on the same stage, in the first of what are scheduled to be three debates.

I will confess that I did not think this event would occur—and I am still not sure about the subsequent ones. So many things are outside usual norms this year; so many points of potential disagreement could arise (would there be an audience? who would be the moderators? what about fact checkers—or mask requirements, or allowing the candidates to direct questions at each other?); so little enforcement power is in the hands of the Commission on Presidential Debates, or the networks, or anyone except the candidates and parties themselves.

Many people assume, “Oh, sure, we’ll have debates,” but it turns out that these are among the many fragile norms of modern politics. After the most famous televised debate, which nearly everyone has heard of, between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy in 1960, there were no debates for half a generation. Not in 1964, nor 1968, nor 1972, and not until 1976—and then only because incumbent Gerald Ford, far behind Jimmy Carter in the polls, agreed to meet him in debates. (For the record, I was a speechwriter on Carter’s campaign then, including in debate prep.)

Even after the debate tradition was revived in 1976, there was only one debate in 1980—because Jimmy Carter, as the incumbent, would not agree to debates that included not just Ronald Reagan but also the third-party candidate, Republican Representative John Anderson of Illinois.

But here we are. I’ve done print-magazine previews of the previous debate cycles in this century. These include: “An Acquired Taste,” 20 years ago, about the showdown between Al Gore and George W. Bush; “When George Meets John,” in 2004, about Bush and John Kerry; “Rhetorical Questions,” about Barack Obama and John McCain in 2008; “Slugfest,” in 2012, predicting that the incumbent Obama would not sufficiently prepare for Mitt Romney; and “When Donald Meets Hillary,” four years ago, in which I quoted Jane Goodall on the resemblances between Donald Trump’s on-stage demeanor and the “dominance rituals” she had seen among male chimps.

That was then. This time, I’ll do live commentary on this site. Kickoff comments, an hour before things begin:

  • Usually debates don’t really “matter.” Tonight’s encounter is a moment of high drama—as I’ll get to, in a moment. And from the annals of debate history a handful of moments stand out and have even become part of popular lore. For instance in 1988, Lloyd Bentsen, then Michael Dukakis’s Democratic running mate, dressing down Dan Quayle, then running with George H. W. Bush, with “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” Or eight years earlier, Ronald Reagan lightly dismissing the earnest Jimmy Carter with, “There you go again.” They have been, at times, gripping TV. But political scientists are unconvinced that they have really been decisive axes in most elections.
  • But we watch anyway, for two reasons. One is: Debates bring the two presidential contenders together in the same place at the same. That almost never happens otherwise. The other: They’re live. Anything can happen. As I write, I don’t know whether one candidate or the other might say or do something significant. No one knows, which is why we watch.
  • The results are already predictable. Trump supporters will think that Trump has won. Biden supporters and Trump opponents will not. Everything about Trump—his showmanship strengths, his accuracy and comportment weaknesses—is well known, and allowed for, by those who support him and those (like me) who don’t. I have learned that my imagination cannot fully encompass current realities, but it’s hard for me to imagine Trump saying or doing anything that would erode his base of report.
    A related point: “Winning” or “losing” in debates, even in more reality-based times than our own, has virtually nothing to do with policies or ideas or factual disputes. It’s about comportment, confidence, the dreaded “likability,” and other factors making voters feel comfortable with the idea of you in their living room.
  • The incumbent curse: As I mentioned in my Bush-Kerry and Obama-Romney pieces, an incumbent president usually struggles in the first debate of a fall campaign. (Also as mentioned, incumbent Jimmy Carter’s first debate against Ronald Reagan was his only debate, which magnified the effects of his relatively weak performance in that one.) For most presidents, this is because of the preceding years of deference from all they meet, who don’t dare say, “You’re just wrong…” How this will affect a man like Donald Trump, I dare not guess.
  • The related “expectations game”: Since there is no objective way to determine winners and losers, for decades political aides had worked on beating expectations. This is the political version of beating the point spread in sports wagering. “Our guy held his own,” “he was ready for all their attacks,” “she did surprisingly well”—judgments like these dominate post-debate spin. As I mentioned in my 2004 piece, George W. Bush and his team very consciously played this game. How could he, a humble Texas lad, hope to match fancy phrases with silver-tongued John Kerry? (He had previously used this strategy against Ann Richards during Texas gubernatorial debates.)
    For reasons I can’t explain, Trump representatives have mainly tried the opposite strategy with Biden—stressing that he is old, senescent, can barely string together words. We’ll see how this pans out. (After Biden gave a very effective speech at the Democratic National Convention, commentary from Trump partisans was, “That’s nothing, anyone can read from a prompter.”)
  • The big unknown: Whether Biden and his team will decide to go
    angry/outraged in response to Trump’s foreseeable attacks—on Hunter Biden, on Biden’s mental state, on his life in “the swamp,” et cetera—or instead to seem genially dismissive and above the fray. A tell for the first approach would be remarks on the lines of “how dare you...”; for the second, a counterpart to “There you go again,” or even “You’re no Jack Kennedy.”
  • The other big unknown: How the moderator, Chris Wallace, will wrestle with the foreseeable farrago of false claims by Trump. In his interview shows, he has directly said, “Sir, that’s not true.” Presumably he will leave most of that work to Biden, but some may fall to him.

We’ll see. In the meantime, here are two other articles that I think do a good job of discussing the knowns-and-unknowns this evening.  One is by Bill Goodykoontz, in AZ Central. The other is by Matt Cooper, in The Washington Monthly.

Will weigh in later this evening.

All notes on "The First Presidential Debate" >
The burnt remains of trees in the hills of Santa Barbara, California, after the Cave Fire in 2019
The burnt remains of trees in the hills of Santa Barbara, California, after the Cave Fire in 2019 David McNew / Reuters

Back in the early days of the pandemic, when some people imagined that changes in American life might be a matter of months rather than of years, I wrote about California Volunteers and its response to the crisis.

This is a publicly sponsored organization, serving the nation’s most populous state, designed to do what organizations from the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps, to the Kennedy-era Peace Corps, to more contemporary organizations (with a variety of funding models)—from the Job Corps to Americorps to City Year to Report for America to Code for America—have aspired to do. Namely: matching people of all ages (but mainly younger people) who have an interest in service with the most pressing needs for service in the America of these times.

This past week, California Volunteers announced an expansion of its program: a new California Climate Action Corps, designed to address both the causes and the effects (drought, wildfire, mudslides, intense heat) of California’s exposure to climate change. The state’s governor, Gavin Newsom, announced the creation of the Climate Action Corps a day after his executive order that all cars sold in the state (the largest single auto market in the U.S.) meet a zero-emissions standard by 2035.

In practice, this new program will mean that some 250 “climate action fellows” will work on sustainability projects across the state. The benefit for the fellows is that they receive a stipend and experience during their period of service, and afterwards receive a grant to help cover college costs. “We’re going to work city-by-city toward meeting their community goals,” Josh Fryday, the head of California Volunteers, told me last week. “In Los Angeles, it could be helping them meet their tree-planting goals.” In other communities, it could be efforts to support sustainable forestry or agriculture (for instance, with the Grizzly Corps), or to help food banks, or other goals determined locally.


I asked our friend Shelli Stockton, head of Alumni and Community Relations at the University of Redlands, what these Climate Corps members might do in her city of Redlands, which has been closely involved with Josh Fryday’s group in planning roles for Climate Corps members.

She said there were several areas of climate-mitigation work in which a community like hers—in an arid edge of the Mojave Desert, very hot, surrounded by recent wildfires—might use efforts like those the state is now preparing for. (And, to be clear, a “community like hers” is also a “community like mine”—this is the place, in the “Inland Empire” of California, where I grew up and which I still consider home.)

“One was tree planting,” she said, as previously described here. The larger argument is that community-by-community tree-planting efforts obviously are not the answer to the world’s climate issues—but they are nonetheless a large source of impact for most people in most parts of the world.

Others included “food diversion” efforts, to direct “waste” and surplus food from grocery chains and large restaurants to food banks and other organizations that could put the food to use. Also: “fire resilience” efforts, to help protect businesses and homes in the many fire-prone areas in the vicinity.

“But the project I’m most excited about,” Stockton told me, “involves the social-justice aspects of tree canopy cover.” As mentioned in this post about Los Angeles, in the hottest parts of the country, tree cover has been an increasingly important environmental-justice issue. Where there are suburbs and big houses, there have been trees; where not, not. “We’d like to identify the areas with the lowest tree-canopy cover, and send out fellows to help people in the community understand how to help these trees thrive,” she said. “Without help on the front end, a lot of these trees are just going to die.”

California’s Climate Action Corps is not the answer to all of the state’s modern problems. But it is a step in the right direction.

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Ted Halstead at a New America conference, nearly 20 years after he helped found the organization. He died in a hiking accident, at age 52, last week in Spain. Courtesy of New America

Everyone who knew him has been shocked by the news that Ted Halstead, a founder of New America and pioneer of many other causes and organizations, has died in the past few days in a hiking accident in Spain. He had recently turned 52.

Accidental deaths are by definition shocking, but intensely so in Ted’s case, because he has seemed to personify youth and promise. At age 25, he founded a group called Redefining Progress, designed to examine the equity, sustainability, and inclusiveness of economic growth. This led to a cover story in The Atlantic two years later, by Ted, Jonathan Rowe, and Clifford Cobb, with the prescient title, “If the GDP is Up, Why is America Down?”

In 1998, just after he turned 30, Ted was a co-founder (with Michael Lind, Walter Russell Mead, and Sherle Schwenninger) and the first CEO of the New America Foundation, now known as New America. It was because of New America that I met Ted in that summer of 1998. I had just been cashiered from a doomed journalism job (news magazine editor, for an owner who routinely ran through editors), and was about to go to work in the software business. Ted called to introduce himself and ask if I would join the New America cause. I served as board chairman over the next dozen years, before moving to China, and spent much of the first few years going with Ted on fundraising missions to get this think tank off the ground.

New America flourished; Ted was an influential speaker and author, with two books and a number of pieces for The Atlantic (and elsewhere). After an intense, nonstop ten years in this role, he left New America (succeeded by Steve Coll, and then Anne-Marie Slaughter) and stepped aside from the world of dawn-to-dusk meetings with legislators, presentations at conferences, sessions with New America’s growing ranks of researchers, and trips to the green rooms of cable-news shows. Instead, he spent nearly five years sailing around the world in a small catamaran with his wife, Veronique.

In 2012 they sold the boat and settled in Majorca, to start a family. My wife, Deb, and I frequently talked about when we would go visit them—and kept putting it off. Then in 2016, while in his 40s, Ted founded the Climate Leadership Council, whose idea (as with New America) was to bring together progressives and conservatives, business people and scientists and civic activists and others, all to promote policies of decarbonization and sustainability measures. That was the center of his speaking, writing, and organizing activity until his sudden death.

Successful entrepreneurs, founders, visionaries, leaders—they have a certain personality that is different from the rest of us. They talk big, they dream big, they promise big, and the best get others to believe along with them. Ted Halstead was one of the best. From an early age, he thought, talked, promised, and achieved on a very big scale. I am very glad to have known and worked with him, and I hope his example will inspire many others.

A shot from the film 'A Most Beautiful Thing' © 2019 Richard Schultz. Courtesy 50 Eggs Films.

The new NBCUniversal streaming service Peacock is now offering the documentary A Most Beautiful Thing as a free feature. (Details here.) Last week I wrote about the movie, and its surprising timeliness and power, in this article. The film, based on a memoir by Arshay Cooper, is the saga of young men from the West Side of Chicago who in the 1990s formed what appears to have been the first all-Black high-school rowing team in the country.

In response, Peter Gadzinski, previously of Vermont but now living in Europe, writes about the themes of the book and movie, and how different this sport can seem from another country’s perspective.

Through my son I have been introduced to rowing, and it is a great sport.

We have been living in Portugal, where my wife is from, and where our son is going to school, and they have a slightly different take on rowing here that I wish was in America.

First, none of the schools have any sports teams. Sports teams are all organized by town clubs. That means that the whole town can cover the expense, and you can be in the club from literally 8 years old to 80. There is none of this sports-stops-cold when you graduate high school or college. Also, the rowing club out here is open to anyone, with a just fee of $40 a month which is waived for those who can’t afford it, which makes the otherwise very expensive sport of rowing available to everyone.

The other thing here is that they race in all of the types of boats: singles, doubles, fours, and the eight, with one and two oar boats in the doubles and fours. I grew up playing soccer, and like most team sports, it is all about only the first string playing, and everyone else sitting on the bench. By racing in all boat classes, in a meet here it is like a track meet, in that everyone races. Everyone knows what the club “A” boat is, but everyone races in a meet.

The saying is that you put your best and your worst people in the single. The best so that they are not slowed up by lesser people in a multiple seat boat, and the worst, so they don’t slow up anyone in a multiple seat boat. But in a big meet everyone races, from the kids in elementary school, to the “veterans”: the gray haired adults, with even special boats with outriggers for the handicapped. This thing in America where in college it is all about getting a “crew” seat in “the 8” doesn’t exist here, which is good.

But as you pointed out, there is something special and unique about rowing. Once you get past both the expense of it and the preppy reputation of it, there is something very special about it. The way I explain it to people is that the only comparable activity would be to play music in a classical or jazz quartet. You become one group, all together and synchronized. Except in rowing you are breathing a lot harder. It is really something to behold, and something to be part of.

Not only are rowers in perfect mental and physical synchronization when rowing, but due to the extreme motion of their bodies back and forth they are like birds in flight and breathe in and out with their body movements. That means that the entire boat is breathing together as well. There is supposed to be something beneficial to singing together. Rowing together is the same, except with a lot more horsepower.

I had grown up thinking rowing was just some bizarre preppy thing for rich kids. It still is in a lot of America, but in Europe it is a lot more common and public. If I were a billionaire philanthropist I would put all of my money into paying for rowing clubs all over the country. It is a really good thing to do. As the saying goes: “Rowing is a sport, everything else is a game.” Get a bunch of young people to give their all and literally all pull together is a wonderful thing.  There should be more of it.

Update: Another reader, with a military-aviation background, writes in with another comparison:

When reading The Boys in the Boat. I was struck by how much rowing reminded me of flying close formation aerobatics with the Blue Angels. I’m giving copies to my former wingmen for Christmas

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Members of the pioneering Manley crew, which in the 1990s was the first Black high school rowing team, gathered again last year. From left: Preston Grandberry, Malcolm Hawkins, Arshay Cooper, Alvin Ross. ©2019 Richard Schultz. Courtesy of 50 Eggs Films

This week, NBCUniversal’s new Peacock streaming service will begin showing the feature-length documentary A Most Beautiful Thing. A trailer of the film is on Vimeo here, and the main site for the project is here. I saw a preview version last week and recommend it. The film’s story would be surprising and engrossing at any time, but it has a current power and relevance its producers could not have foreseen when they began making it.

The film is based on a book of the same name by Arshay Cooper, first self-published as Suga Water five years ago. In it, Cooper—who grew up in a violent and drug- and gang-dominated neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago—described the formation of what appears to be the first all-Black high school rowing team, including members of rival gangs who gathered at Chicago’s Manley high school (officially the Manley Career Academy High School).

The high school and college rowing world has been the subject of celebrated books ranging from David Halberstam’s The Amateurs to Craig Lambert’s Mind Over Water to the perennially best-selling The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown. As these books and other rowing chronicles indicate, participants in the sport have been overwhelmingly white. In class terms, rowing has also had a strong but not complete prep-school/upper-class tone. Strong, because of signature races like the Oxford-Cambridge and Harvard-Yale showdowns. Not complete, because—as Boys in the Boat, especially, points out—some successful rowers have been from modest, rural, working-class, or other non-fancy backgrounds, and have converted their aptitude for this sport into college scholarships the way basketball or football players have done. (Of course without the pro-career prospects to follow.)

But the story Arshay Cooper recounts is far starker and more dramatic. Manley high school had never had a rowing team; the students who finally agreed to join the boat were from rival gangs and in other circumstances would have been fighting with one another; few of them even knew how to swim. Basketball and football were sports for real men. Rowing? They were mocked by many of their Black schoolmates—and by many of the white rowers whose world they tried to join. On one of the Manley crew’s first forays onto the water in Chicago, all of its rowers were wearing life jackets, which was one of many reasons they were the object of sneers from the all-white high school and college crews also on the water.

“I notice that most rowers are white, tall, and lean,” Cooper writes in the book about an early visit to a boathouse. “I am none of these things.” The first time their all-novice, non-swimmer boat goes on the water, after long training in indoor tanks, Arshay Cooper and his teammates are terrified:

I push with everything I have [against the dock] and we glide out into open water. My triumph is immediately followed by fear as the boat starts to drift away. It’s not even close to being balanced.

“Blades flat on the water and oars pressed against the oarlocks,” Coach Jessica shouts.

“No, no, take me back in,” Dashaun yells. His panic is contagious, and everyone starts freaking out …

Coach Jessica tries to quiet us and instructs Alvin and me to row first, but we tell her we can’t. We are too afraid.

Alvin Ross (left) and Arshay Cooper, author of the book ‘A Most Beautiful Thing.” (© 2019 Clayton Hauck, courtesy of 50 Eggs Films)

What happens to the members of that crew—in the 1990s, and now—is the subject of the book and the new movie. I won’t spoil the story they have to tell. But I will say that through the vehicle of a niche-seeming sport, both the book and the film address issues of generations-long racial trauma, and relations between Black residents and the police, that are the center of attention now.

The most obviously 2020-relevant aspect of the movie is its immersion in the racial divide within Chicago and America as a whole. All the young men who made up the Manley crew had childhoods marked by crime, poverty, drug use, and discrimination. “When Alvin and Arshay drove me around their old neighborhood, they showed me the block-by-block topography of the different gangs there,” Mary Mazzio told me. Mazzio, herself a former Olympic rower, is a documentary maker and the writer, director, and producer of this film. “They told me there was no safe way to get to school. The concept of ‘inequality of safety’ began to dawn on me.”

The family stories in Cooper’s book, bolstered by many interviews in the film (especially with the rowers’ mothers), explore countless other realms of inequality. The movie’s final section, which I’ll let you learn about yourself, explores the tensions between Black families and the mainly white police force in a surprising way. The movie was completed last year but is very much of this moment.

The other quietly emerging theme in the movie involves the sport of rowing itself—not its class and racial signifiers, but the physical action of people pulling together on their oars.

As The Boys in the Boat and other books have emphasized, a crew in a racing shell may represent the most profound expression of teamwork in all of sports. It is possible for one rower to make an error that penalizes the whole boat. This is by “catching a crab,” or digging an oar too deep in the water and being unable to pull it out. And it is possible for a coxswain to make a costly mistake in steering the boat or pacing the rowers.

But otherwise, which is the great majority of the time, a team wins or loses utterly together, as a group. Their collective effort either is enough to beat the other teams, or it falls short. There is no I in crew—a variation on the cliché used by coaches in every sport, but especially true here. “We were able to get rival gang members together in a single boat,” Arshay Cooper told me when I spoke with him last week. “We hated each other, and we became like brothers.” As the last part of the film reveals, he has tried to extend that team-building possibility across the chasm of suspicion separating his Black neighborhood from the police.

The Manley alumni team rowing in Chicago (© 2019 Richard Schultz, courtesy of 50 Eggs Films)

Beyond teamwork, the mechanics of the sport proved important to Cooper and his teammates. “I grew up with a lot of trauma,” he told me. “Gunshots in our sleep, being chased home right after school, gangs everywhere.” Like many neighborhood boys, he grew up playing basketball. “But it’s a trash-talking sport. ‘You suck,’ ‘you are garbage’—it triggers a lot of trauma.” He played football, “and the coach is always saying, ‘Knock ‘em dead.’” When he got in a boat, he discovered, “it was non-combative, a non-conflict sport. It took me out of the neighborhood for a while. I could focus on the person sitting in front of me, and the person behind me, on developing that magical rhythm, together.” The swing and timing and unison of a boat, Cooper said, “really calmed the storm—rather than other sports, where the storm came out of me.”


Where will this all lead? Mary Mazzio said that she hoped philanthropy spurred by the film (“so many of today’s captains of industry have at some point picked up an oar”) could help make the sport more accessible. “The limiting factor is infrastructure—getting to the water, and to oars, boats, ergs.” “Ergs,” or ergometers, are the land-based rowing machines, of which the best known is the Concept 2. As Arshay Cooper put it, “You can walk to a basketball court, but you can’t just walk to a rowing site.”

“So many kids play basketball or football as a way out,” Mazzio said. Those rich, top-end opportunities for a handful of star athletes will never be matched by crew. But for admirable reasons and shadier ones, rowing has, especially for women, become an edge in college scholarships and admissions.  

“This beautiful film shines light on the kinds of education experiences that launch kids into lives of purpose,” Ted Dintersmith, a former venture capitalist who has written extensively about education, told me. “The rowing program gets kids excited about school, while the entrepreneurship program equips them with essential career skills.”

“Maybe this year there are 500 Black rowers at the high-school level,” Arshay Cooper told me. “I’m hoping that in five years, it’s 5,000, or more.” He says that he has been making the rounds of high schools and colleges discussing why this collaborative, disciplined, “meditative” form of competition is especially valuable for people surrounded by trauma. “The biggest lesson I learned is, I can’t do the work of eight people,” he said. “But I need eight people to do the work.”

You’ll see the experience that view comes from, if you watch the film.

Members of the Manley high school crew, reunited two decades later for the film A Most Beautiful Thing (© 2019 Clayton Hauck, courtesy of 50 Eggs Films)

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A "Welcome to Lemmon" sign on the road in to Lemmon, South Dakota
On the road to Lemmon, South Dakota Courtesy of John Lopez

In March of this year, as the coronavirus and its effects were unfolding, Dakota Resources, a 24-year-old community development financial institution (CDFI) in Renner, South Dakota, launched a series of Zoom coffee breaks for people from across the state. Every morning, at 10:30, a few dozen people logged in to talk for an hour or so about what was on their minds, and to share their stories. (More on this coming soon.)

I was invited in and have joined as many of them as I’ve been able to. That’s how I met Judy Larson. Larson lives in Lemmon, South Dakota—or more precisely, 14 miles north of Lemmon, just across the border in North Dakota, where she and her husband operate their family farm and ranch with their five homeschooled kids. I knew from the beginning that she must be one of the activists of Lemmon; the tale-teller is her Zoom background, an image of the bold new greeting sign, Welcome to Lemmon, which was designed, crafted, and installed by local citizens, artists, and artisans.

Larson talks frequently about the role of the arts in tiny Lemmon, population about 1,200. During our years of travel for our book, Our Towns, Jim Fallows and I witnessed similar stories about how the arts revived and reinvigorated other towns, from Ajo, Arizona, in the Sonoran Desert to Eastport, Maine, down east on the Bay of Fundy. Lemmon may not be as far along that path as these towns, but as Larson has described, its sights are set high.

During this non-traveling COVID-19 era, I talked by phone and exchanged emails with Larson and a few of Lemmon’s artists. Here are the stories of two of them, Michael van Beek and John Lopez.


Michael van Beek grew up in Bismarck, North Dakota, spending a lot of time on his family’s farms, where he found his ease with rural life, nature, and wild animals. I caught up with Van Beek one evening after his day in his pickup truck, during sunflower-bug spraying season.

Van Beek said he enjoyed this season; it was nice to be out in the fields, looking at sunflowers all day. Besides sunflowers being beautiful, which Van Beek considers a priceless attribute, they are also a decent-paying crop for farmers. You can always count on the sunflower-oil market, and during the pandemic, there’s been a bump in black sunflower seeds, which people buy for their bird feeders.

"Road to the Grand River" (courtesy Michael Van Beek)
“Road to the Grand River” by Michael Van Beek (Courtesy of Michael Van Beek)

Van Beek’s day job is at “the elevator,” which is the vernacular for Lemmon’s Southwest Grain, a 1981 consolidation of eight grain cooperatives. He is an agronomist, advising farmers on choosing seeds and troubleshooting issues with crops. He talks with a genuine Dakotan humility about advising the farmers, some of whom have been at their trade for more years than he is old. Also, with co-workers at a local farmer’s co-op, he tackles what sounds to me like everything to do with farming—from the tough work of loading, hauling, and delivering fertilizer, seed, feed, and grain with trucks, semis, and trains, to managing precision agriculture technology.

Van Beek, 33, was a good artist as a kid, and went on to study architecture, landscape architecture, and environmental design at North Dakota State University (NDSU). Somewhat by chance, he began spending time at a friend’s ranch near Lemmon, which led to his job at the elevator five years ago.

“Grand River” by Michael Van Beek (Courtesy of Michael Van Beek)

Van Beek also kept at his art. He got to know John Lopez, an artist and Lemmon legend, who encouraged Van Beek. He accompanied Lopez to the Black Hills Stock Show, bringing and even selling some of his art. Lopez invited him to paint in his studio. Van Beek developed his skills as a landscape painter, including his two-year production of a very large mural, more than 20 feet long, for the Lemmon Public Library. He also led the community-design team for the Welcome to Lemmon sign, from concept to fabrication.

Van Beek talked at length about what art has meant to Lemmon, careful to signal that he didn’t want to sound artsy-fartsy about it. I don’t think people from South Dakota are capable of sounding artsy-fartsy; I can say that, with my Midwest upbringing and ear. Van Beek spoke about how he thinks art can help people shape the places where they want to live.

As for Lemmon, Van Beek says that the town has “the fodder” for making a good life. It has tangible attributes like affordable houses, jobs, a low cost of living, the outdoors, and smart neighbors. It also has intangible appeals, like a sense of opportunity and community. And he brought up a point that Jim and I became convinced of during our travels, that small towns like Lemmon are closer to democracy. He said that in contrast to bigger towns where he’s lived, where you may study about government, in Lemmon you can actually be part of it. You learn how to be on councils, second a vote, and more quickly gravitate to more responsible roles.  

“The Land Before,” a mural by Michael Van Beek in the Lemmon Public Library. (Photo by Jennifer Suter.)

Van Beek believes that art is now central to Lemmon’s aspirations of being a textured and accomplished town, and that people not only appreciate the role of art on that path, but are willing to support it. How did an evolution like this happen? Van Beek points to John Lopez, and what Lopez has done to catalyze Lemmon.


I talked and emailed with John Lopez, now 49, who grew up on an isolated ranch outside Lemmon, 45 minutes from the closest town. In the late 1800s, his family were homesteaders in Colorado, in what Lopez describes as “poor, really rough country.”  His grandfather Albert moved to South Dakota with the Diamond A Cattle Company in 1920.

Lopez told me he spent a lot of time on horseback, close to nature and animals. He was also a natural artist from a family of artists of all sorts, including quilters and needlepointers. The calendars of Charles Russell, Lopez said, made a big impression on him when he was growing up. After college at Black Hills State University, he got a job at the studio of Dale Lamphere, South Dakota’s current artist laureate, from Sturgis. As it happens, Jim and I met Lamphere in Sioux Falls as he was putting the final touches on the installation of his glorious Arc of Dreams, which spans the Big Sioux River just above the falls and at the edge of downtown. At Lamphere’s studio, Lopez met Dallerie Davis, who guided him from his self-described path of “fumbling about” to a direction he would take from then on.

“Arc of Dreams,” by Dale Lamphere, over the Big Sioux River in Sioux Falls on July, 2019, shortly before its unveiling  (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

A professional breakout moment in Lopez’s long, expansive resume was a commission by Davis for Rapid City’s City of Presidents sculpture walk, where he would spend the next 10 years, from 2000 to 2010, making a dozen life-sized bronze sculptures of presidents, including John Adams, Jimmy Carter, John Kennedy, and Teddy Roosevelt. Jim and I had also been to Rapid, as the city is called colloquially, during our reporting, and had spent a full day following the presidents’ sculpture walk.

Lopez also described a momentous personal experience, when his Aunt Effie, his beloved true believer and champion, was killed in a car accident 10 years ago. Lopez returned to her farm to help bury her and build the cemetery fence, and to sculpt in her honor a statue of an angel for the top of the gate. He made a composition of scrap metal, in the style that would become the hallmark of his art.

“Hugh Glass” by John Lopez (Courtesy of John Lopez)

Lopez returned to Lemmon, for reasons I’ve heard from others from small towns with deep cultures. For Lopez, there was a pull to come home what he knew as a child and where his parents were growing older, and in his personal case, to ranch, have a horse, and own acreage.

The city of Lemmon welcomed Lopez and asked him to sculpt a statue of its founder, G.E. “Ed” Lemmon. Lopez committed himself further, buying an empty lot in the heart of town to install it, now called Boss Cowman Square—named for Ed Lemmon—and a run-down former bar next to it, the Kokomo, which he has renovated into his studio, the Kokomo Gallery. Lopez describes this move as good for both Lemmon and for himself. It has become a go-to place for both residents and out-of-towners.

The Kokomo Gallery (Courtesy of John Lopez)

Lopez was doing well enough with the presidents’ work that, as he puts it with Dakotan humility, he could “go off on the scrap iron thing.” We talked about where he sources his cast-off metal, and his answer again pointed to the sense of people and place that are also important to Larson (whom Lopez has known since high school) and Van Beek.

“Everybody knows everybody. I know a lot of different people scattered over large area. I have all their scrap metal at my disposal. One thing that really stands out about that: People I get metal from are real people and ranchers. Their stuff has history to it.” People seem to like being part of the effort. “Sometimes I’ll get a call,” Lopez says. “There’s an auction. And the person will say, ‘You can come pick through it first.’”

Now for a twist to the story, surprising for sure in the middle of the Dakotas. Dotun Popoola, in Lagos, Nigeria, wanted to learn to weld and to fabricate artwork. He found Lopez’s images on Pinterest, contacted him, and dogged him until he wrangled an invitation. After Dotun made the trip from Nigeria and eventually came to Lemmon by bus. Lopez picked him up at the bus station and gave him shelter, instruction, and guidance. Dotun returned to his homeland but made another trip to Lemmon the next year, with his friend and fellow artist, Jonathan Imafidor, to paint the mural on the side of the Kokomo.

Dotun Popoola and Jonathan Imafidor working on mural painting in Lemmon (Courtesy of John Lopez)

Lopez describes a kind of “weird, dynamic, magical element” to the entire experience. Popoola and Imafidor became part of the excitement of renovating the Kokomo. The people of Lemmon bought lots of their art.  


Judy Larson, with her own Dakotan humility, describes herself not as an artist but as a hobbyist, supporter, connector, and community enthusiast. “My talent lies in seeing things in people they don’t see in themselves. Connecting the right situation and encouraging and making opportunities happen for them.” She and her family are artists more than she lets on. Her husband is the lead guitarist for a band called Eclectic Wreck; she has a folk-arts apprenticeship on the accordion with the North Dakota Council on the Arts, and also plays guitar and accordion with Eclectic Wreck.   

Larson describes more that is in process in Lemmon: a placemakers’ cooperative, an arts council, a newly remodeled theater that includes a live performance stage, a plan for an artist-in-residence program, various music programs in town, and discussions about what to do with the school when it is replaced with a new one. “The ‘underground creatives’ have been watching and have been inspired,” Judy describes.

And she gives a lot of the credit to Lopez. “John really changed how we see ourselves as a community—we are an arts community, not just a cow town.”

All notes on "Lemmon, South Dakota" >
Staff of the Almanac Beer Company, in Alameda, California—which, despite pandemic restrictions, is improbably having its best sales ever.
Staff of the Almanac Beer Company, in Alameda, California—which, despite pandemic restrictions, is improbably having its best sales ever. Courtesy of Almanac Beer Company

Here is one more item about a bellwether business category that until recently had been an indicator of downtown renewal and locally focused entrepreneurship—and which now is figuring out how and whether it can survive.

I am talking about the small, independent, start-up breweries and distilleries whose numbers have increased by the thousands in the past decade—but many of whose members are now just trying to hang on.

In previous installments, I reported on businesspeople from Massachusetts to Minnesota to Southern California who were trying to adapt to pandemic-era realities. Among their themes:

  • The newest companies are the most vulnerable. Those that survive are usually drawing on at least a few years of market awareness, built-up savings, and civic support to get through these bleak times.
  • Adaptability is everything. Start canning and selling beer you previously dispensed via taps. Move operations outdoors. Make hand sanitizer (although even that market has drastically changed.) Do whatever it takes.
  • Embrace the “shift to quality.” As people are spending less time and money in bars and restaurants, some of them are “buying up” to higher-level food and drink to have at home.
  • Recognize long-standing sources of friction. Antiquated distributorship laws, described here and here, had for years been a nuisance for small businesses. With the pandemic, they became a life-or-death threat. Shortages and soaring prices of aluminum cans, labels, and canning machinery suddenly were crucial to whether small businesses could last this collapse.

Now, two more brief reports, from different kinds of small businesses in different parts of the country. One is a small, relatively young taproom-based operation in Pensacola, Florida. The other is a longer-established independent brewery with wide distribution in California. Each underscores some of the previous principles and illustrates new ones.


Perfect Plain in Pensacola, Florida: Almost three years ago, the Perfect Plain brewing company opened in a still-reviving part of downtown Pensacola, the westernmost city on the Florida panhandle. The name came from a locally famous description that Rachel Jackson had given the region in 1821, when her husband, Andrew, was the incoming governor of Florida. “Pensacola is a perfect plain,” she wrote to a friend. “The town is immediately on the bay, the most beautiful water prospect I ever saw … There is something in it so exhilarating, so pure, so wholesome, it enlivens the whole system.”

The city has long had an economic bulwark in the nearby Naval Air Station, and of course its beach and resort areas, as well as a deliberately nurtured and increasingly popular arts-and-events scene. Its downtown has followed the retail, restaurant, and residential pattern of revitalization we have seen in many other cities. Part of that downtown growth was the opening of the Perfect Plain’s taproom, downtown on East Garden Street, in November 2017.

I visited Pensacola, to take part in its CivicCon public-discussion series, a few months after Perfect Plain opened. Naturally I made the taproom part of my inspection tour of the town (along with the stadium for the Blue Wahoos minor league baseball team, which has been put to creative use during the pandemic). I talked then, and have stayed in touch since, with D.C. Reeves, a Pensacola native and former sportswriter in his mid-30s. He co-founded Perfect Plain (with Reed Odeneal) in 2017, and has since written a how-to handbook for aspiring microbrewery entrepreneurs.

Over the next two-plus years, the business grew fast; Reeves hired more staff (17 people, from the original 8), and Perfect Plain leased more space for expansion. Pensacola was on the rise as a resort destination. Although the brewery’s only sales were (by choice) through its own taproom, rather than through retail or restaurant distribution, by early this year Perfect Plain had entered the top quartile of overall beer production in the state.

The team at Perfect Plain, before the pandemic (Courtesy of Perfect Plain)

But what happens now, when the very elements of a downtown brewery’s success—crowds in the taproom, live events, drop-in traffic from tourists or ballgame crowds or shoppers strolling the downtown—are gone or diminished?

When I talked with Reeves last week, he repeated some themes I’ve heard and reported on elsewhere. For instance, he told me that his company was in better shape than some other, newer outlets, because it had nearly three years to build its brand and generate community support. And all-fronts scrambling, he said, was an expected part of the start-up path.

“There is this built-in creativity to the business,” he said. “If you have a brewery, or want to open a brewery, you know you’re going to have to claw and fight and create to keep a business alive.” He and his team ramped up sales of canned beer-to-go; they produced and sold hand sanitizer, the profits from which went directly to the staff. The company’s scrambling had been centered on trying to minimize layoffs. Perfect Plain received about $90,000 in PPP grants and devoted it all to staff salaries. Those funds expired in June. Since July, Reeves and Odeneal have reduced their own salaries to zero.

And, as we had heard elsewhere, Reeves underscored that the craft-brew business had always been volatile. The current crisis, coupled with an already impending plateau of craft-beer saturation, was weeding out any company without a sound business strategy—in addition to penalizing others that simply had not had enough time to establish their brands.

But he also mentioned a distinctive Florida aspect: the “magical hotdog,” or plate of food.

Florida’s handling of the COVID-19 threat has been, at best … well, you can fill in the adjective. One of its regulatory aspects was a bright-line distinction between “restaurants” and “bars.” In the closings-and-openings of businesses across the state, enterprises officially classified as restaurants were at first treated like bars, both of which were closed down. Then restaurants were given much more leeway to reopen while bars remained closed. Since restaurant owners were also desperately doing whatever they could to survive, the result was an additional challenge for businesses like Reeves’s.

“What we’ve seen is, in effect, restaurants becoming bars,” Reeves told me. “You can sit outside and have drinks all afternoon, but if you’ve got that plate of jalapeño poppers, it’s ‘safe’”—because you’re in a “restaurant.” The same drinks with the same spacing on a similar outdoor patio, minus the jalapeño poppers, would mean you were in a “bar,” which was supposed to be shut down. “The rules put a brewery like ours, with expansive square footage to space people out, in the same category as a boom-boom room in Miami,” Reeves said.

Inside the Perfect Plain taproom (Courtesy of Perfect Plain)

Because their business plan was based solely on sales on their own premises, closing the taproom initially cut off their entire revenue stream. “But it was a different market when everyone was closed down”—that is, bars and restaurants alike. “We could capitalize on having an exclusive product and do the things breweries know how to do”—including to-go sales of canned beer. “We’ve been ready to wash cars, deliver on an ice-cream truck, do whatever it takes,” Reeves said. But when the restaurants were opened and the bars were not, revenues plunged once again. “It’s hard to convince someone to pick up a can of beer to go when they can sit on a restaurant patio and drink all day and night as if it’s a bar,” Reeves told me in an email.

What was the answer? The civics-course response was an open letter from Florida’s craft brewers to the governor, asking for comparable treatment to restaurants. Halsey Beshears, the secretary of the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation (which oversees brewery and liquor licenses), responded with a tour of small breweries around the state, including a stop in the Florida panhandle. He heard from Perfect Plain and its counterparts about strategies for reopening, and what to do in the case of another spike. After the trip, Reeves told me, “we felt heard by Halsey,” and new plans may be in store.  

In the meantime, the scramble-for-survival answer was to convert their taproom into a “restaurant” as quickly as possible, a trend rapidly spreading statewide. (Here is a Pensacola News Journal report on the ways bars were rushing to obtain “restaurant” licenses.) “Hot dogs, hummus, chips and salsa—we’ve got it!” Reeves said. Just inviting a food truck wouldn’t qualify for a restaurant license. (Florida has since allowed it if the truck’s permanent address is the brewery/bar) But the Perfect Plain building had a sink and kitchen equipment in a back room. “We worked full bore for about seven days to get it all ready, and get our plan set for review..” Hotdogs, hummus — “We’ll do what it takes.”


Almanac in Alameda, California: Almanac’s story differs from that of Perfect Plain in several obvious ways. Almanac is nine years old, versus nearly three for Perfect Plain. From the start it has been based in the prospering and food-and-drink conscious San Francisco Bay area, rather than in a town of 50,000 close to the Florida-Alabama border. And comparatively little of its business has been made up of direct sales through its own taproom, compared with distribution through other outlets. (For the record: One of my sons, an Almanac customer in California, has invested in the company.)

But the sharpest difference is how Almanac has fared through the pandemic. While most food-and-beverage outlets are scrambling to make it week by week, Almanac just had its best quarter ever.

Why, and how? I asked Damian Fagan, a design specialist and longtime homebrew enthusiast who, with Jesse Friedman, co-founded Almanac in 2011. The name was explicitly based on the venerable Farmer’s Almanac, and was meant to signal the farm-to-table (or in this case, farm-to-tap) spirit of the company’s operations.

“The idea is to have ‘Northern California in a bottle,’” Fagan told me. “Farmers’ markets here are open 52 weeks a year. There is always a cornucopia of delicious agricultural offerings we can use.” Fagan pointed out that the farm-to-table ethos had made restaurants proud of describing where their tomatoes were grown and how chickens or cattle had been raised. “Beer is 100 percent an agricultural product, but people weren’t paying attention to it in that way.”

In Almanac’s first few years of operation, before it had its own brewery, it specialized in “sours” and fruit-based beers, made under contract by local brewers. “Given where we are geographically, we have access to fruit year round.” Sours, which are aged in oaken wine barrels, now constitute about 30 percent of the company’s business. At one point it had a taproom in San Francisco, which has closed. Shortly before the pandemic it opened a sizable brewery and taproom in a former aircraft hangar near the former Alameda Naval Air Station, in the East Bay.  

Almanac’s brewery and taphouse in Alameda, California, across the Bay from San Francisco (Courtesy of Almanac Beer)

“When the first shelter-in-place order [for California] was delivered, in mid-March, we panicked, like most people,” Fagan told me. “We had to shutter our tap room, which had become a big part of our business.” The phone started ringing—with calls from wholesalers and other distributors canceling their orders, or greatly reducing their scale.

“We wondered, is the sky falling?” Fagan said. The key to survival, he told me, was “to be nimble and adaptive.” Every business would use those words, but Fagan laid out what that meant, specifically, for his company.

“The first thing we did, within 72 hours, was to spin up an online beer store—a direct-to-consumer channel that we had not had before.” People anywhere in California can now order their beer online, for delivery to their homes. Almanac pushed online sales hard in its social-media outlets. Business through this new channel grew rapidly, and according to Fagan “went a very long way in filling the giant hole caused by closing the tap room.”

Almanac also quickly ramped up to-go sales of canned beer, from its Alameda brewery. Last year Almanac had invested in its own canning line; this meant it could avoid some of the problems other breweries encountered in trying to shift rapidly to takeaway sales. Recently I described how the Bent Paddle brewery, in Duluth, Minnesota, had made tough COVID-era safety standards part of its brand. Almanac took a similar approach. It had customers stand in line; it set up contactless pick-up; “we really dialed in on ways for people to feel safe,” Fagan said. “The irony is, when we combine to-go sales with the online store, we’re actually generating more revenue through our taproom with it being closed, than when it was open.” Almanac’s overall revenues for the first half of this year are about 10 percent higher than for last year—even with the near-disappearance of its taproom and restaurant sales.


Almanac has one other enormous advantage: Just weeks before the pandemic, its distributor made a deal with Safeway, which means its beers will be carried in some 170 Safeway stores in Northern California, along with some other retail outlets. Last month I quoted Jim Koch, of Sam Adams in Boston, on the make-or-break, life-or-death power that distributors have over many start-ups in this industry. Fagan said that Almanac, which had had difficult distributor relationships in the past, was now on the good side of that divide—“which allowed us to get this massive placement all at once.”

Sales through distributors now account for most of Almanac’s revenue. And in these stores, the company is now benefiting from the same “flight to quality”/“trading up” process mentioned before. “Instead of buying a four-pack of beer in the store, they may buy a case,” Fagan said—and of fancier products, like his. “People are buying in higher volumes, and drinking at home more.” The public-health aspects of this part of the pandemic are still to be understood. As a business trend, it is keeping some small companies alive.

Are these the biggest business and civic stories of America’s current disastrous dislocations? Of course they are not. But the rise of small, locally minded restaurants, coffee shops, bars, breweries, and other gathering places has been an important element in many cities’ growth in the past decade. Whether, and how, small businesses like these survive is important too.

All notes on "Pensacola, Florida" >
A view of the "Temple of Dioscuri" at Fori Imperiali in Rome
A view of the "Temple of Dioscuri" at Fori Imperiali in Rome Tony Gentile / Reuters

A year ago, I published a piece in the print magazine about that long-standing object of American fascination, the Roman Empire. Usually, and usefully, Americans have over the centuries looked to Rome for guidance on how their nation could avoid the predictable slide from republic to empire to conquest and dissolution. My favorite in this genre is the wonderful 2007 book Are We Rome?, by my friend (and Atlantic colleague) Cullen Murphy.

But for last year’s piece I discussed some other books, arguing that what happened to Rome after the fall of the Western empire is what Americans should be studying. Especially in this era when central government—leadership on the imperial scale, you might say—was faltering, and when our counterparts to the Roman provinces (that is, our cities and states and regions) were by comparison so much more practical-minded and functional.

My friend Eric Schnurer, who has worked in and written extensively (including for The Atlantic) about governance at all levels, wrote a response that highlighted some additional areas of useful comparison between the America of our time and the Rome of yesteryear. Now he is back with an extension of his argument. He calls this dispatch “From Sulla to Sullen: What the Fall of the Roman Republic Tells Us About Where Trump Is Taking Us.” I think it is instructive and worth reading, and with his permission I quote it below.

Schnurer began by directing attention away from the end of the empire, and instead to:

… the approaching decline of the Roman Republic, a half-millennium earlier.  As I wrote last year, “the increasing economic inequality, the increasing political polarization, the total eclipse of ‘the greater good’ by what we’d call ‘special interests,’ the turn toward political violence” all  looked “a lot like the present moment to me.” I was thinking of the period dominated by the attempted reforms of the Gracchi brothers—a tag-team somewhat analogous to Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren —roughly a century before the Republic’s ultimate fall into dictatorship.

I hardly expected then that within about half a year, Donald Trump would manage to fast-forward the country through half a century of Roman history, to the doorstep of the Civil Wars that destroyed what little was left of Republican Rome.

Of course, no historical analogy is exact. The collapse of the Republic was brought on by a combination of structural flaws in its politics and governance, and the self-serving ambitions of ruthless individuals that exploited them. While the causes were many, inter-related, and complex, at their root was a system that defied any notion of the common good and was devoid of political means to resolve rather than exacerbate division.

The Republic was the creation of a tight-knit oligarchy that had overthrown the preceding monarchy and, as a result, held a deep-seated determination never again to allow any one individual to accumulate so much power as to overawe all others.  

The solution was not so much a separation of powers, as we conceive of it—officials simultaneously played executive, legislative and even judicial roles—as a vast multiplicity of individuals who could hold their posts only once, and for only a year. But this was no “citizen’s republic”:  A small coterie of privileged families held almost all these offices and voting was severely limited.

Moreover, the term republic—from the Latin for “a thing of the public”—was meant to distinguish it from a monarchy, which was essentially the personal property of the ruler in which other people simply happened to live. But the Roman Republic was more like what we might think of as a “publicly held corporation” and, essentially, treated as private property. Officials used public office to profit personally and directly (and openly).

Of course, it takes money to make money, so only the very wealthy could afford to pursue these rewards because, along the way, they were expected personally to pay for the lavish spectacles, such as the famous gladiatorial games, that sated the public, as well as major public works and public building projects. The Roman state, in short, while ostensibly “public,” had long since been thoroughly privatized.

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Courtesy of City Plants

What is the most effective thing an individual can do about climate change? There are lots of possible answers: what you eat, how you vote, where and how you live, how you travel, and so on. All of them matter. For Americans, at this moment, the one that matters most may be how you vote.

But among the steps most immediately within many people’s control, an important one is planting trees. Yes, there are cautions about doing this in the wrong way, or in the wrong places, or in ignoring the legacies of long-standing biases in zoning and city planning. (That is: It’s easy to plant trees in spacious residential neighborhoods; it’s harder when there’s only a narrow strip of ground between the street and a building front.) But overall, step-by-step reforestation can potentially be a significant help, which is why Deb Fallows and I have been chronicling a number of local efforts toward that end.

I am chagrined to say that until I looked into it, I had no idea that the second-largest city in the nation—Los Angeles, with its population of nearly 4 million people spread out over roughly 500 square miles—has a very ambitious program to use tree planting as an axis to connect job creation, climate sustainability, urban renewal, and economic equity and inclusion. (Perhaps it would have helped if I’d read at least the headline of a very good Mother Jones story by Jackie Flynn Mogensen last year. The headline was, “Los Angeles, a City Known for Its Freeways, Is About to Plant a Shit Ton of Trees.”)

As it happened, I learned about the LA program largely by accident. The smallish Southern California town of Redlands had set an also-ambitious goal, of helping school children there plant more than 12,000 trees, which I wrote about when it was announced last year. The seedlings were purchased; a computerized way to map and track each one’s progress was set; and they were supposed to be passed out to school children on Earth Day this past April. That plan naturally hit a roadblock when California schools were shut down. As an alternative, the backers of the effort,  including the University of Redlands and the tech company Esri, managed to give away thousands of trees in June. But still some 4,000 seedling trees went unclaimed.

Mainly through the efforts of our friend Shelli Stockton, of the University of Redlands, those little trees ended up last month in the hands of an organization called City Plants in Los Angeles (as shown in this video). City Plants, a program of the LA city government, is part of a broader LA effort toward radical expansion of the “urban forest” cover in this famously sunbaked part of the world.

I talked this week with Rachel O’Leary, a native Angeleno who now directs City Plants, and with Rachel Malarich, a longtime expert in urban forestry who last year was named LA’s first-ever City Forest Officer. Here is what they told me about what they are doing, and why it might matter elsewhere.


How City Plants started: Last year, in presenting his “Green New Deal” vision for the city (which you can download in full PDF version here), Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti set out a tree-planting campaign as one element of a larger sustainability-and-jobs strategy. The plan set a target to “plant and maintain” at least 90,000 trees across the city by 2021, and to keep planting trees at a rate of 20,000 per year. This was largely initially based on the “Million Trees” initiative under Garcetti’s predecessor, Antonio Villaraigosa, but has evolved over the past decade to focus on planting the "right tree in the right place." Garcetti's Green New Deal also was explicitly focused on “canopy equity”—that is, of extending more of the benefits of large-tree cover to neighborhoods that are now typified by asphalt and concrete rather than greenery.

Courtesy of Shelli Stockton

What it does: The City Plants program, as part of the larger urban-forestry program, offers trees to residents of Los Angeles at no cost. Angelenos can get up to seven free “yard trees” for their own property, which they are expected to plant and care for themselves (with instructions like those shown in this picture). They can also request free “street trees,” which a City Plants team will plant for them. (Residents must agree to water the trees for five years.)

For the labor involved in planting and handling the trees, City Plants coordinates with a variety of nonprofit and neighborhood groups —of which its major partner is the LA Conservation Corps. This LACorps is designed to give young people workplace skills, while they work on projects of larger community value.

How is it financed? From a variety of public and private sources (info here), but mainly by LA’s main public utility, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, or LADWP. Long-standing policy in California requires utility companies to underwrite energy-efficiency programs, including tree planting. LADWP has supported tree planting and innovations in urban forestry in Los Angeles for over a decade. The rationale for including trees as energy-savers, which you can find in longer and more detailed form here, is not just that tree growth stores carbon directly, as the trees mature. It is also that leafed-out tree cover reduces electricity and water use, especially the demand for air-conditioning. With support from LADWP, City Plants has an online calculator in which residents enter their street address, and get estimates of energy-bill savings from planting trees, in real time.

“Trees are one of the least expensive, and most powerful, tools we have for improving our environment,” Rachel Malarich told me. “More and more research is showing how important a good, healthy tree canopy cover is for our communities as a whole—and how important it will be not just for our health right now but for our resilience in the face of a changing climate.” (Malarich went into more detail on these features in the Mother Jones interview.)  

Courtesy of City Plants

The program’s other ambitions: The 90,000-tree program concentrates on the parts of LA that are now the least forested and most parched. These are of course generally the lowest-income areas, and the most likely to become broiling “heat islands” because of climate change. The official goal, set out in the Green New Deal document, is to “Increase tree canopy in areas of greatest need by at least 50% by 2028 to grow a more equitable urban forest that provides cooling, public health, habitat, energy savings, and other benefits.”

I asked Rachel Malarich how that would be possible, considering that many areas now short on trees are also short on space to plant them. The extensive suburban-style portions of Los Angeles were designed to include leafy glades; others have barely an unpaved square inch to support plant growth.

“Trees need space to grow, and much of our infrastructure was set up not to allow that space,” Malarich said. “Frequently in these high-need areas you’ll only have a four-foot-wide parkway, where you can only plant a small tree. Or there are overhead power lines.” I asked, given these realities, how the city could realistically expect to equalize tree coverage across the city. It would be complex, and hard, and would involve short- and long-term creativity and planning, she said. But that was the deadline the city’s plan set out, “putting our feet to the fire.”

Tree planters making the most of the space available, in Los Angeles (Courtesy of City Plants)

Does it matter outside LA? The scale of Los Angeles makes anything that happens there consequential in its own right. But Rachel O’Leary argued that the partnership model—connecting different parts of the city and state government, and linking job-training and community-justice initiatives to climate sustainability—would be “replicable and scalable in other places.”

“Trees are a powerful tool of climate resilience,” she said. “This is definitely one of the most powerful actions a resident can take, to take climate change into their own hands. That it is how we view it here in this city. And we would encourage other cities to develop partnerships like these.”

“We’re not the only city that is dealing with this,” Rachel Malarich said. “If we can figure out this way of dealing with this issue of tree canopy inequity, we will have figured out something for other people to look at and learn from.”

Is any of this “the” answer, for neighborhood justice, civic engagement, and climate sustainability. Obviously not. But it could well be part of an answer, in this large city and elsewhere.

All notes on "Los Angeles, California" >
Michael Jones, then of Google, speaking at an Atlantic event about the future of mapping several years ago James Fallows / The Atlantic

Over the years, I’ve frequently mentioned my friend Michael Jones, a computer scientist and geography whiz. Nine years ago, he was a leading figure in my Atlantic story “Hacked,” the saga of what my wife Deb and I learned when her email account was taken over by international hackers. For an Atlantic column around the same time, I interviewed him on the way omnipresent, always-available mapping was likely to change people’s habits and lives. And before any of this, he had added to world knowledge with his explanation of “Boiled Frog” science. As he laid out in this guest post, careful experiments in 19th-century Germany established that a frog would indeed sit still in a pot of ever-hotter water—but only if its brain had already been removed.  

Outside our household, Michael Jones is known, among other things, as one of the guiding forces behind Google Earth and Google Maps. When you see your neighborhood, or your planet, from above on a computer, or follow turn-by-turn directions on your phone, he is one of the people you have to thank.

Among the bright sides in the current pandemic nightmare is the news that this spring Michael received the “Patron’s Medal” from the Royal Geographical Society, in London. I am by nature wary of anything involving the concept of “Royal” (for reasons laid out long ago here), but I make an exception in this case. I am delighted to learn of this overdue recognition for Michael Jones.

As the Society’s announcement put it:

The 2020 Patron’s Medal has been awarded to Michael Jones for his contribution to the development of geospatial information.

Baroness Chalker said: “Michael Jones is a role model for future generations of geographers. From his beginnings as a software engineer, inventing and filing his own patents, through to his role as Google’s Chief Technology Advocate, his inspiring career trajectory is charted by his vision to redefine mapping from static lines and symbols to an interactive geographical web of context and information. It’s hard to overstate the importance that Google Earth and Google Maps has had on the public worldwide and how Michael’s pioneering work has democratised and popularised cartography and spatial awareness. Today we recognise his extraordinary contribution and his continued advocacy for the benefits of geography. He whole heartedly deserves the Society’s highest recognition.”

Michael Jones said: “This recognition is a signal honour for an idea that started in my head and which, through the work of many, resulted in the Google Earth used by billions of people around the world. On behalf of colleagues who laboured to make this dream of Earth and Maps a reality, and in full credit to the inspiring attainments of all who have come before us in the quest to better understand the Earth, I can only say that the ‘Earth-in-your-hand’ idea has never had a greater friend than the Royal Geographical Society, to whom we humbly offer our gratitude.”

As a fellow Yank, I will razz Michael for writing “signal honour”—but it couldn’t be more deserved, with the British u or without. Congratulations. And you can read more about his story and outlook in this interview.

Members of the Escape craft-brewing team in Redlands, California. From left: Josh Fisher, Miles Taylor, Melissa Fisher, Scott Wiener, and Miguel Mascarenaz. Escape is one of thousands of craft breweries that have helped revitalize their towns but are now just trying to survive. Courtesy of Escape Brewing

Earlier this week I mentioned the surprisingly important role that craft brewing had played in downtown renewal across the country over the past decade. And I talked with one of the pioneers of that movement, Jim Koch of the Boston Beer Company, about how this part of America’s startup economy was likely to fare.

Here are reports from two companies of a similar spirit but entirely different scale from Koch’s nationally distributed Samuel Adams brand. One is in northern Minnesota; the other, on the edge of the Mojave desert in Southern California. Each illustrates a path small, locally conscious firms are taking to survive the current economic and public health disaster.


Duluth, Minnesota: Over the past four years, I’ve visited and written about the small Bent Paddle Brewing Company of Duluth—and have retained interest because the saga of this startup has involved a lot more than its (very good) craft beer.

The two young couples who founded the company ten years ago—Karen and Bryon Tonnis, and Laura and Colin Mullen—wanted to see if their new little business could be part of a larger revival in the tattered, ex-industrial Lincoln Park district of Duluth. As Deb Fallows and I saw in repeat visits and reported here and here, they had begun succeeding in that neighborhood-revival role—plus others, like being part of a Duluth’s emergence as an outdoors and tourist destination, and helping protect the waters of deep, cold Lake Superior, on whose western tip Duluth sits.

Each time we’ve visited their part of town, we’ve seen a few more visitors, another restaurant or food truck, another little office or store. Meanwhile, Bent Paddle’s main business, as a taproom and brewery, continued to grow. Every time we talked, the four founders stressed that they’d grown mainly thanks to community supports (including advice from local business people and loans from local banks), so they felt an obligation to be part of the community’s long-term development.

The Bent Paddle team, in 2016. From left, Bryon Tonnis, Karen Tonnis, Laura Mullen, and Colin Mullen. (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

But what now? This spring, Bent Paddle’s own taproom was of course closed, as were the restaurants and bars through which it sold most of its output. Could a little business like this survive, and could its surrounding neighborhood? This week I spoke with Laura Mullen in Duluth to ask how Bent Paddle had fared.

“During March and April our business was down about 50 percent,” she said. “No events at our site,” which had been an ever-busier civic gathering center. (We once saw a local-writer’s club holding a meeting in a side room.) “No sales to bars or restaurants,” which were about half of its total volume. “Draft beer was not happening anywhere.” Bent Paddle had to buy back some of the kegs it had shipped to bars and restaurants. Other kegs, already in warehouses, went past their shelf life and could no longer be sold.

Fortunately from the brewers’ point of view, Minnesota classified liquor stores as some of the “essential” businesses that could stay open despite a general lockdown. “That made us ‘essential workers,’” Mullen said, “because we were supplying products to liquor stores.”

Among the customers they could still reach in Duluth and elsewhere, Bent Paddle saw the same pattern that Jim Koch, of Sam Adams, recently described to me: People who would otherwise have gone out to a restaurant or bar were in many cases “trading up” to buy nicer food or drink to have at home, still for a lower overall cost. (A fascinating report in Nielsen.com shows exactly how much at-home drinking would have to increase to offset the near-elimination of bar and restaurant revenues. Medical experts are on the alert for evidence that increased home drinking is creating medical or behavioral risks—beyond those of the pandemic itself.)

Laura Mullen said that she expected this year’s sales, overall, to be about 20 percent lower than last year’s. Of the company’s 44 staff members before the shutdowns, it laid off 10. All but one has now returned. The company received a PPP loan to help cover the salaries. For the moment, Minnesota has allowed bars and restaurants to reopen for distanced outside service, and at 50 percent previous capacity indoor.

What were the lessons of this company’s survival, so far? Laura Mullen suggested these:

  • An immediate pivot: “When the taproom closed, we could still do to-go beer,” she said. “The minute [the state order] hit, after we shut the taproom we created all these signs and online videos,” promoting the idea that Bent Paddle was still open and explaining how to buy very safely canned beer to take home.  
Instructions on buying beer, in the time of COVID (Courtesy of Bent Paddle Brewing Co.)
  • Going all-in on masks and distancing: None of the signs and videos that Bent Paddle put up were about resisting or working around the shutdown or distancing order. All were about how to work with the rules. On March 20, they posted a three-minute Facebook video in which Laura Mullen walked potential customers all through the stages of picking up beer safely from their brewery. “We get a few Yelp comments complaining about our procedures,” she told me. “But we got many more complimenting us and saying that our safety protocols were top-notch, and they could feel comfortable coming here.”
Bent Paddle’s newly distanced outdoor seating (Courtesy of Bent Paddle Brewing Co.)
  • Reliance on the local: When I first met them, the four Bent Paddle founders told me how important local-bank support had been when they started the company. Laura Mullen said the same was true for surviving the current emergency. “A lot of people who had bigger-bank relationships had trouble getting their PPP loans,” she said. “We have a small local bank,” whose officers the company had worked with for years, “and we were able to get things arranged very quickly. We’ve heard that across the board, that people dealing with smaller banks are in better shape.”

  • Concern for the neighborhood: Bend Paddle’s success has been an important part of the Lincoln Park area’s revitalization. Now people are still coming to pick up beer, but not staying to shop in the little boutiques and smaller businesses. Their margins are thinner, and their products are less recession-proof than beer. Mullen said that she was even more concerned about longer-term effects on the neighborhood than on her own company.

Redlands, California: More than a dozen years ago, when I was living in China, I visited my original hometown of Redlands several times (for family-illness reasons) and noted the emergence of a craft-brew industry there. The pioneering local company was sited right at a small airport and was named, with an aviation theme, Hangar 24.

On recent visits to Redlands I’ve noted the emergence of a new company, called Escape Craft Brewery. It’s located in an unglamorous commercial complex not far from Interstate 10, but its vibe and style are of the tropical carefree getaway. “We designed the name Escape for that idea,” Melissa Fisher, who cofounded the brewery with her husband Josh six years ago, told me last week. “You can’t always get away. But you can always escape. You can sit outside, open a beer, and be someplace else for a few minutes.”

Courtesy of Escape Craft Brewery

Before opening the company, Josh Fisher was an avid home brewer, with a day job as a firefighter. Melissa worked as an aesthetician in a salon. They spent two years scouting the area for an appropriate site—with parking, brewing space and facilities, affordable rent, appropriate zoning, outdoor patio space for the usually warm Southern California weather, and so on.

They found it in a modest storefront close to the I-10 freeway, amid discount stores and carpet-cleaning shops. Based mainly on the quality of their products, Escape’s beers and ambience grew in popularity. It expanded into a next-door property and had 10,000 square feet of space, about half of it for a tasting-room and taproom, and half for a game room where, according to Melissa Fisher, they also had live music, private parties, “dog adoptions” and other civic events. This August they had been planning to open a second site in Redlands, with renovation of an an abandoned warehouse building much closer to downtown. They were also preparing for an expansion to the resort-coastal city of Laguna Niguel.

In March, most of their business went away, all at once. No taproom traffic, which had been almost 80 percent of their total revenue. No private events, no live music, no community gatherings—and on top of that, no sales to the bars and restaurants that had been carrying Escape’s beers. “A couple of places even asked if they could send their kegs back,” Melissa Fisher said. “Usually that’s illegal, but the rules were lifted this time”—and they were legally able to re-package some of the product as “beer to go.”

Melissa and Josh Fisher, inside the Escape tap room (Courtesy of Escape Craft Brewery)

How would they survive? “I think that if this had been in our first year or two, it would have been monumentally bad for us,” Melissa Fisher said. “We probably could not have made it.” But in Escape’s six years of operation, it had built a local following, and the Fishers had saved their profits to invest in their planned expansions (and instead are using them to cushion losses now).

Like Bent Paddle, Escape quickly shifted, mainly to take-out sales. Instead of draft beer poured into glasses in the tap rooms, they would sell beer in cans for customers to pick up. (Side note: a decade ago, I was surprised by the shift among craft brewers from glass bottles to aluminum cans. Now the shift is all but complete. I can barely remember the last time I bought beer that came in a bottle.) It quickly put up a website for online orders of to-go beer and saw many of its longtime customers make that change.

This kept the doors open, but with an unpleasant real-world surprise. In the previous post I mentioned the all-important role of something most beer customers are barely aware of: the beer-wholesalers business. In the case of Escape, the challenging practicality was how hard and expensive it could be for a small operation like theirs to try to switch to canned-beer sales.

Start with the cans themselves. “A big brewer might pay 8 or 10 cents per can,” Fisher said. Because they’re buying in small volume, “We’re paying somewhere between 34 and 74 cents per can, and that’s before we put the label on it”—or the beer into it. “Then you run into the shortages because there’s a rush on everything”—of cans, of labels, of glass growler bottles, of aluminum “crowler” cans. Before the pandemic, state regulators had to pre-approve the labels for canned beer. Now they have waived some of the rules, and Fisher and her team have been filling in part of the label information with Sharpies.

At the taproom, a pint of beer might have sold for six or seven dollars, so a round of four pints would bring in more than $25. Those same four pints, as a take-out order, go for $10 or $12, of which three dollars or more would be just for the labels and cans.

So the Fishers are selling beer but at a tiny margin, which barely covers their costs. Before, with full service, they would typically have six or seven employees on a Friday night. Now, to manage take-out, they have one or two. (Several of the employees have voluntarily reduced their hours, so others can have them.) Escape has expanded outdoor seating, in the parking areas and loading dock outside their tap room. “We’re lucky to have that space,” Melissa Fisher said. “But when it’s 98 to 102 degrees—even when we have cooling machines, even with a beer—not everyone can handle being outside.” Like many other brewers and distillers, they’ve also been selling a line of hand sanitizer.

“What we’re making now, is keeping the lights on,” she said. “And we’ve had a huge amount of support from people who’ve become our friends.” Because of their savings, and adaptability, they expect to keep going, and ultimately to expand. But what they’re doing now isn’t sustainable, she said. “Something has to change.”

Something does. Stories like these deserve notice, in my view, because little businesses like Bent Paddle and Escape have played such an outsize role in bringing vitality and local-connectedness to so many American towns.

Coming next, two other stories, with other implications, from northern Florida and the Bay Area of California. And after the jump, reactions from two brewers.

All notes on "Duluth, Minnesota" >