Reporter's Notebook

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

In 1981, the writer David Halberstam published a memoir in Esquire magazine, with the headline “Starting Out to be a Famous Reporter.”

At the time Halberstam was well-known enough that the story’s title would have seemed both mildly self-mocking and accurately descriptive. He’d come to national prominence while still in his 20s through skeptical and award-winning New York Times reporting from Vietnam. His book about the making of the Vietnam War catastrophe, The Best and the Brightest, which was published in 1972, was hugely influential and popularized a phrase that has endured nearly 50 years later. (Although I have seen enough recent misuses of the phrase “best and the brightest” to need to point out that Halberstam was using it derisively. It was the impeccably credentialed smart guys around John F. Kennedy, and then Lyndon Johnson, who took the nation to disaster in Vietnam.)

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

Every few years after that, Halberstam turned out a thick, usually best-selling book. For instance, The Powers That Be, about the rise of the journalistic establishment in the  20th century (parts of which ran in The Atlantic), or The Breaks of the Game, about pro basketball. He kept going at full speed, into his early 70s, until his shocking death in a car crash 12 years ago, while being driven by a graduate student after a university event at UC Berkeley.

David Halberstam had been a model to me, and a generous and forgiving mentor over the years, as I noted when hearing the news of his death. I first met him in the late 1960s, when I  was editor in chief of the college newspaper and a group of conservative alums were trying to wrest control of the paper from our “irresponsible” student hands. Halberstam and the late J. Antony Lukas led an alumni counter-movement that held them off. As I noted many decades later, when Halberstam died:

He had his excesses—he was strapping and big, “an honest six-three” I think he wrote in one of his books about sports—and with his deep, dramatic, sometimes self-dramatizing voice he could look and sound like a clean-shaven Old Testament God. He was aware of and liked the effect, I think.

But he had a very, very big heart, and with The Best and the Brightest he changed our business. I still remember the day when, as a graduate student in England, I got my sea-mail copy of Harper’s with Halberstam’s long story “The Programming of Robert McNamara” on the cover. I read it all, standing at the mail box, and I thought: This is what journalism is for. (I also thought: Aren’t magazines great! And: I belong back in America.)


One of the tales I’d heard from David Halberstam over the years was about his very first reporting job out of college. This was the one he described in his 1981 Esquire piece: as 21-year-old cub reporter for the smallest daily in Mississippi, the Daily Times Leader of West Point.

Why this tiny paper? Halberstam says in the piece that as soon as he graduated he planned to go to Jackson, Mississippi, and work with a civil-rights minded editor named Tom Karsell, at a paper there. The two had met in Halberstam’s last year in college, when Karsell was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard and Halberstam was managing editor of the student paper, the Crimson. But by the time Halberstam got to Mississippi, Karsell couldn’t offer him a job. What next?

On the fourth day, as humiliating visions of returning to Cambridge in the old Chevy mounted, Karsell called. There was an opening on the paper in West Point, the Daily Times Leader. West Point was a small town, and the paper’s circulation was around 4,000. I would be the one reporter on the staff. He gave me the name of the Times Leader’s editor, a man named Henry Harris, and his phone number; Harris was expecting my call.

… I was terrified by the idea of going to a small town in a state like this, where I knew no one. I thought for a long time of how alien it would be; then I remembered how I had told all my friends I was going to spend the year working for a small paper in the South, and this, God knew, whatever else, was a small paper in the South.

He also recorded his encounter with his new management, specifically Beulah Harris, co-founder of the paper and mother of the then-editor:

She often came in on Saturday afternoon to look around, to make sure that everything was in order, and, if nothing else, to wash the floors of the newsroom … She was a small, heavily powdered woman; she was fearfully hardworking and equally devoted to her Baptist faith. “You’re David, aren’t you?” she asked.

I said I was.

“I don’t think I’m ever going to learn your last name,” she announced.

I said that was all right.

Then she smiled and said, “The Lord Jesus Christ sent you here.” I, descendant of many centuries of illustrious rabbis, a line only recently broken by two or three generations of American renegades, looked at her in stunned surprise. “Of course He did,” she said. “Why else would you be here?” I could not argue, and with that, we became friends.


I never visited West Point while David Halberstam was alive, but over the past five years I have been there many times. Mainly this has been to write about business changes in the city and the surrounding “Golden Triangle” area of Mississippi, which also includes Columbus and Starkville. The big modern blow to West Point happened a dozen years ago, when the city’s dominant employer, a major meat-packing plant run by Sara Lee, closed for good. This removed 1,200 jobs from a city whose population was roughly 12,000. The big modern hope has been the arrival of Yokohama Tire, whose decision to come to West Point I wrote about here, and whose subsequent news I’ll discuss another time.

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

But recently Deb and I were back again, and while walking through downtown West Point I did a double-take when I saw the office of … The Daily Times Leader! It was in a different, smaller location from the one Halberstam had described in his memoir. But I thought: I have to go inside and ask.

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Seniors at the Mississippi School of Mathematics and Science are shown on "senior reveal day" this month. They wore white lab coats, and then pulled them off to reveal shirts of the colleges they will be attending.
Seniors at the Mississippi School of Mathematics and Science are shown on "senior reveal day" this month. They wore white lab coats, and then pulled them off to reveal shirts of the colleges they will be attending. Courtesy of the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science

Last week I wrote about what Jim and I had seen on another visit to the (exceptional) Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science (MSMS), a public, residential two-year school for juniors and seniors. We’ve been reporting on the school over the past five years. In the latest dispatch, I described the way a committed English teacher at MSMS, Thomas Easterling, was “teaching students to think” through a rigorous analysis of the novel Dirty Work, by the renowned Mississippi writer Larry Brown.

In response, Paul J. Camp, a physics professor at Georgia Gwinnett College, writes to challenge the idea that a school like MSMS—a public high school, but one that chooses its students from around the state—can meaningfully claim to be “teaching them to think.” (And, to be clear, this was my claim—not MSMS’s.)

Here are selections from Paul Camp’s long letter, followed by Thomas Easterling’s shorter response.

Paul Camp writes:

I thought you and your observations of this school were interesting, but it is a bit of a stretch to say that it demonstrates “how to teach students to think.”

I’ve contended for years that a large part of the success of private schools and magnet schools lies in the ability to cherry pick their students. [DF note: As you’ll see below, Thomas Easterling challenges the “cherry pick” characterization.] They arrive already able to think, and the function of the school is less to teach a new skill than it is to refine a preexisting skill.

When I was a research scientist at Georgia Tech, I worked in a cognitive science program that was involved in middle school science education. We were in both affluent suburban schools and poor urban ones. The suburban students were ready to go and had teachers knowledgeable enough in physics to be able to help them focus on the right phenomena.

The urban schools had teachers teaching out of subject area—a biologist and a reading teacher in a physical science class. Their content understanding was little beyond that of their students.

Nevertheless, the project based curriculum we developed was able to engage those children as well, and to at least improve their ability to design and conduct controlled variable experiments. We had kids fresh out of juvenile detention who were engaged in the projects. I’ll never forget one little girl who, in an interview, remarked: “It’s the first thing I ever made that worked.” That tells me a few things about her. She’s tried to make things to solve problems in her life in the past, which means she has the interests of an engineer. And what she finds valuable about the experience we provided is the design process that enables creating a thing that actually solves a problem.


My wife is retiring this month from teaching in Title 1 schools for over a decade. These are schools that have a >70% mobility rate. Their families move from one apartment move-in special to another. They have no stability in their lives, no permanent circle of friends, no community resources for enrichment activities. They have a disturbingly high incidence of developmental and behavioral disorders. One kid on the autism spectrum insists on talking to his friends all through class. Another sits with his head in the closet. A kindergartner didn’t even know her own name ….

And yet, you still find exceptional kids here. I do career day there every year, and I’ve also done some things with their talented and gifted classes. I remember doing an optics activity with them that was supposed to begin with them doing some informal observations using various types of lenses. Everyone except her just spent the time goofing off. She actually had a good observation of an image changing from upside down to right side up as she moved the lens closer to an object. When she tried to explain it to the rest of the class, they ignored her. That child has a nascent “ability to think” but I question if it is going to be able to develop in that environment.

At Georgia Tech, we found that loose and open ended activities only work with high SES students who have teachers that understand the target content… For lower SES schools, we found the need for a highly structured, predictable cycle of activities that reflected the actual professional practices of scientists and engineers.

The first group kind of knows how things are supposed to proceed, similar to the MSMS students. The second needs a more explicit road map to help them understand how what they are currently doing fits into an overall strategy and what should come next….


I once interviewed at the Maine School for Math and Science which I venture to guess is similar to, if not above, the Mississippi school. Those kids were the equivalent of upper division college students. Calculus well beyond the introductory level was in their rear view mirror. They were writing Python programs to simulate problems in quantum theory.

But their classes were essentially self directed. There was little to no overt instruction unless they ran into a problem. They knew what they were doing and where it should go next. They already knew how to think.

I ended up, for family reasons, taking a position at Georgia Gwinnett College. This is a very different population. The mission of the college is to expand the pool of students capable of succeeding in college.

My physics courses are usually majority minority, first generation college students, many first generation Americans, juggling jobs and family responsibilities with academic needs. They are, by and large, disciplined and intent on succeeding, but the open approach of the Maine school just would not work for them. I know. I tried it.

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

The ongoing theme of this site is the possibility and practical-mindedness of much of local-level America, at just the moment when national-level politics have become so bitter and dysfunctional.

But of course cities exist within states and regions, and states and regions are subject to national policy and international trends. Here are two illustrations, from opposite sides of the country, of the way national policies of the moment are affecting local efforts we’ve chronicled over the years. One is from the rich farmland of California; the other, from a challenged city in industrial Pennsylvania.


Almonds and walnuts in California: Five years ago, Deb Fallows and I made the first of what became many visits to the farming town of Winters, California. The first time we went, it was to see whether a plein air arts festival we’d heard about in this small town could really have the effect some local patriots had claimed.

On later visits, we talked with farmers, schoolteachers, founders of a newspaper, restaurateurs, and others about how the town was trying to use its commuting-range proximity to Davis and Sacramento (on the east) and the San Francisco Bay Area (on the west) as an economic benefit, while retaining its identity as a farm town rather than a bedroom or boutique community. Our most recent visit was late last month, when we joined a celebration for the launch of the Yolo County Library Foundation. (Deb had written about the library’s role in the town, in a chapter of Our Towns.)

We also wanted to hear, on this trip, about the farming economy. Practically anything will grow (if irrigated) in California’s incredibly fertile Central Valley. For this part of the valley, the most economically valuable crops in recent years have been walnuts and almonds, for which there is huge demand around the world.

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

When we first visited five years ago, the main question for the area’s nut-tree farmers, and for California’s agricultural economy as a whole, was whether the state’s drought-ravaged water supplies could support such commercially valuable but water-intensive crops.

We talked with scientists, environmentalists, regulators, and farmers about the effect of climate change and water supplies on America’s most agriculturally productive state. In Our Towns, I described one walnut farmer who was trying a radically sustainable approach. A sample:

Russ Lester, a nut-tree farmer, was born in the 1950s in a part of the state then famous for its fruit and nut orchards, and now known as the Silicon Valley.

“The Santa Clara valley, where we had our farms, was known for its incredible prunes and apricots and cherries, and was called ‘The Valley of Hearts Delight,’ ” he told us, when we visited him and his daughter on their walnut farm outside Winters. “Obviously that’s all changed—it kind of looks like L.A. now.”

Lester is a stockily built, balding man with an inviting smile, who wore blue jeans, running shoes, and a California surf-shop T-shirt as he walked us through the orchards.

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

This was a fascinating session—I say, as the person who got to ask the questions, rather than having to give the answers. The hour-long YouTube video is here.

The topic was “Small Towns, Big Ideas: Innovations From Rural America.” It was a discussion in Washington, D.C., on the evening of May 13, sponsored by the renowned social-entrepreneur organization Ashoka, with four of its Ashoka fellows working in rural or small-town locations. They were:

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

  • Brandon Dennison has a program to bring economic diversity to coalfield areas, which have historically been boom-and-bust economic monocultures.
  • Stacey Epperson has a program to make high-quality, affordable manufactured homes a step toward homeownership, for people who have not owned homes.
  • Regi Haslett-Marroquín has a chicken-based program to make agriculture globally sustainable.
  • Denisa Livingston has a program to combat obesity and diabetes among her people, with the country’s most aggressive anti-junk-food efforts.

I promise that if you listen to this session, you’ll learn about innovations you hadn’t been aware of before.

It may also give you a sense of the breadth of the renewal efforts under way in American settlements large and small. There’s also an extended discussion of why, exactly, the majority of Americans who live in bigger cities should care about rural folk—and about the difference between saying that many rural areas have problems, versus saying that rural America is a problem.

Congratulations to Ashoka and its four rural innovators for putting this session together, and for the ambitious projects they discuss.

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A building of the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science
Courtesy of the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science

The only thing traditional about Thomas Easterling’s 11th-grade English class at the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science (MSMS) was his short quiz at the start of the class. It was the last of the year, he told his students, and I guessed that this was his way to keep the kids focused on their final assignment. It may also have been a nudge toward the good habit of reading, for a generation of students with Netflix always at their fingertips. They scrambled beyond their laptops for bits of paper to write their answers on and handed them to Easterling, who assembled a messy little stack.

MSMS is a school I first visited more than five years ago, and whose students, teachers, programs, and possibilities I’ve written about many times.

Jim and I have been back again this month, and I wanted to be sure to pay another visit to see Thomas Easterling’s class.

From the looks and names of the 25 students, I guessed they were a composite of East and South Asians, African Americans, whites, and Hispanics. Students at MSMS, a two-year public residential school on the campus of the Mississippi University for Women (fondly called The W), arrived there from all over the state. They came from the Delta or towns on the Gulf, from shacks and double-wides or fancy homes around bigger cities like Oxford and Hattiesburg. Two years later, they left their dorms in Columbus, once a Civil War hospital town with housing stock still rich with gracious, pillared antebellum homes, an architecturally beautiful downtown, and large stretches of run-down, low-income areas. (Median household income in the city is around $35,000, versus around $63,000 for the country as a whole.) MSMS students, from their wide variety of backgrounds, are headed for the Ivies, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Harvey Mudd, name your school. Easterling already referred to his class as seniors, and they seemed to comfortably assume that role.

Sitting with the students, I found it hard to make a connection between the human and intellectual energy in their classroom and the “conversations” about education served up in public life. Life in this Mississippi classroom was happening far, far away from policy statements from the Department of Education, or editorials on charter schools, or debates about the burdens of required testing, or calculations of where American students place in international rankings.

In Easterling’s class, I was witnessing the realization of a mission statement to teach children how to think. How? With deft, nimble teaching.

On this day, the class had been reading Larry Brown’s Dirty Work, a book Easterling chose in part because he favored books not covered by SparkNotes and partly because they had worked together when Easterling was an editor at the Oxford American. (Brown was a renowned firefighter turned novelist who first earned acclaim with Dirty Work, which came out in 1989, and wrote a number of other successful books before his death of a heart attack, in 2004, at age 53.) Plus, I thought, what teacher in Mississippi could resist introducing his students to Mississippi writers? Dirty Work is a novel about Vietnam veterans; it is heavily layered, full of imponderables of the meaning of life, unresolvable questions, and gray areas, with mature themes and unfiltered language.

Easterling moved on from the factual questions on the quiz (What does Braden ask Walter to do? What does Jesus say he wants, in a dream?) and plunged into issues that were complex, to say the least. The students started off a bit slowly, but soon wound up into a crescendo of comments, arguments, small-group debates, and references.

One girl described a main character: “He was a drinker, a smoker, and he uses foul language. He’s not ‘Thou art.’” Others made informed references to the civil-rights movement, the Civil War, the Old Testament. They debated the terms of justice, the boundaries of violence, the value of diplomacy. The South Asian girl started a riff on Gandhi, to which the whole class murmured in a tone reminiscent of the burbling British Parliament. They had clearly heard her message before.

The students were seated at tables arranged in a square, and Easterling roamed within its inner courtyard. He would read some passages like a storyteller, and if you closed your eyes you could hear Garrison Keillor, with a southern accent. He framed his class with permission and trust. An occasional student got up and left the room, presumably to go to the restroom, and returned. They were all working on their laptops. He told me later that he assumed that a number of them were clicking away on sites completely irrelevant to the class—but he called on them and engaged them frequently enough that they couldn’t let their attention drift for long. He asked the kids to return their books when they were finished, to lighten his end-of-year processing load, but assured them it was okay if they needed to keep them until the bitter end. He assumed his students knew his references, but made cultural checks from time to time. “What’s a candy striper?” he inquired. “Just checking—you never know … ” when they virtually rolled their eyes. He talked about certain movies from way before their time—including one even before my time (or his), The Young Lions, with Marlon Brando—and then suggested they might want to use some of their summertime to watch them.

He never said their interpretations were wrong per se, but demurred to let them down gently: “I dunno; maybe or maybe not that.” Or if no one could come up with a comment, he would encourage, “Read closely. You’ll see. You’ll see.” A bit later, I heard a few soon comment, “Oh, I got it!” And it was easy to tell that Easterling knew which students could take a little ribbing and which needed to be drawn out.

The walls of the classroom were surprisingly spare; just four posters with themes of Respect, Truth, Reading, and Trust. And a fifth of Joan Miró.

Many of the people we met at community colleges around the country, from California to Oregon to Mississippi, would talk to us about their students getting a second chance at their lives. In Mississippi, these young students were getting a first chance.

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

As mentioned in the kickoff post in this new “Our Towns” series, anyone who cares about America’s civic, cultural, and economic future should care about the fate of the local press.

Journalism everywhere is coping with a variety of well-known stresses. The pressure to adapt, while there could still be time to survive, is especially intense on smaller, local outlets that may be the only source of community-wide information and accountability in their locale.

  • For a sobering account of how severe this pressure has been for smaller publications, see this infographic from The Wall Street Journal.
  • For a useful Q&A about a “solutions journalism” approach to making newspapers more compelling and relevant, see this NationSwell discussion with David Bornstein of the Solutions Journalism Network.
  • For a look at future leaders of journalism, see the young women and men who make up this year’s Report for America corps of young reporters, who will work at local and regional papers. The 61 members in the 2019 corps represent a severalfold increase from the previous year.
  • For a discussion of philanthropic guidelines in supporting local journalism, see this from the American Press Institute.
  • For an ongoing account of how newspapers from California to Kansas have tried to use transparency and civic engagement to strengthen their role in the community (and their business base), see reports on the News Co/Lab site, including this from Dan Gillmor.

And for a report on how and why one small daily newspaper in the South has been bucking the national trend, read on about The Commercial Dispatch of Columbus, Mississippi.


Columbus is a town of about 24,000 in eastern Mississippi, which Deb Fallows and I have visited and written about frequently over the past five years. Its small downtown has architecturally beautiful “good bones,” of pre–World War II buildings now becoming popular for second- and third-story rentals and apartments.

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

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

One more installment on the question of whether an unloved and unsightly part of America’s infrastructure—the giant sprawl-malls that drained business from classic downtowns in the 1960s and 1970s, only to become bankrupt dinosaurs in their turn—might actually become the sites of civic and architectural rebirth.

The original post, about Fort Wayne, Indiana, was here; followed by this (partial) defense of malls; and this elaboration on what is happening to malls around the country.

More via the wisdom of the readership:

1) Maybe the deadness of the malls is a feature, not a bug. A reader points out that one mall has been put to good use as a set for horror or zombie movies:

Here’s a timely article about another use for a (largely) vacant mall:

I had remarked to a friend a couple of years ago that this mall could be used to good effect in a Walking Dead episode (which is also shot in the Atlanta area).

Of course, it’s not feasible for every city to promote/develop itself as “the Hollywood of the [REGION],” and even here the community would be better served by the space having some continuous utility, rather than occasional use as background scenery.

Perhaps, taking off from the retro film set starting point, some locale could convert an old mall to a Mall Museum, with different wings featuring now-defunct chains from different eras.


2) What did the mall designers have in mind? From a reader in California:

Not long ago, as I exited the campus environmental design library here at Berkeley I spied the free book truck outside the door. Among the books: Louis G. Redstone’s New Dimensions in Shopping Centers and Stores, published in 1973. I nabbed it, and now it’s mine. It is a treasure, not least because its target audience is the mall designer.

I am one of those kids who didn’t exactly love the mall, but very much appreciated it. New Dimensions is devoid of nostalgic sentiment; it’s a documentary history.

Of course, suburban malls like the ones I visited as a kid were also in their own ways monuments to racism and capitalist rapaciousness. We need not mourn their loss, then, except for the fact that their replacements are arguably much worse in either or both respects.

I don’t believe you noted sites like this in your recent posts. Depictions of the ruins of malls are now a “thing,” as they say.  Also see this, from a Pacific NW design journal.


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

Five years ago today, Deb Fallows and I were in Columbus, Mississippi, to observe the commemoration of Emancipation Day held in the cemetery there. My dispatch about it at the time is here; in the years that followed, Deb and I made repeated visits to Columbus and its neighbors in the “Golden Triangle” of northeastern Mississippi to write about the area’s industries, one of its exceptional schools, its also exceptional community college, and other aspects of its successes and challenges.

You can read some of the two dozen Atlantic dispatches we wrote from the Golden Triangle here or here, or check out this Atlantic video. We also did a long chapter about the area in our subsequent book, Our Towns, which as it happens was published a year ago today.

This week we are back in Columbus again, to report once more on those same aspects: schools, industry, history, inclusion and exclusion, progress and struggle. Later this evening we will be at the cemetery again, for this year’s observation of Emancipation Day.

Over the next few days we’ll have several dispatches from Mississippi, in the model of the preceding series on cities in Indiana. Next in the queue is a report on the only family-owned daily newspaper still operating in Mississippi, The Commercial Dispatch, whose headquarters on Main Street you see below, and what it is doing to buck the trends that have been so dire for local journalism across the country.

James Fallows / The Atlantic

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

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

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

We can all think of things that have gotten worse about journalism, in the era of continual distraction and internet-borne hysteria and info silos.

Here’s something I’ve continued to appreciate as an improvement, ever since The Atlantic became one of the first publications to establish an online presence back in 1995.

How long ago was that, in technological terms? It was forever. Google didn’t exist, to say nothing of Facebook; Amazon was a start-up based in a garage; “mobile” phones were too bulky to fit in a pocket and too primitive to do anything except make phone calls.

But for all the unrecognizable differences in technology (and reading habits) since then, the process I have in mind continues. It is the ongoing cycle of in-public, crowd-sourced, step-by-step education that online forums make possible.

Of course people could have done something faintly similar in the pre-electronic age, by sending physical letters to journalists, and waiting to see an in-print response. But speed and scale make the modern feedback loop entirely different. And of course the cycles of in-public misinformation and fearmongering are so obvious as to suggest that putting people in closer touch with one another has mainly destroyed everyone’s power to think.

But not really! Andrew Sullivan marveled at the power of in-public incremental education in his  “Why I Blog” cover story for The Atlantic, back in 2008. The cycles of publicly asked questions, with a public search for answers, was a crucial element in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s relationship with his vast and devoted audience, “The Horde,” during his years as an Atlantic blogger. For me, when living in China, when writing about politics or the military or technology or aviation, and while traveling across the United States these past few years, I’ve continued to marvel at how many people within The Atlantic’s force field, have such a range of knowledge and experience, which they can share in such (usually) relevant and well-expressed ways.


This is a long buildup to the latest (unexpected) example: what happens to buildings after they die.

In a post last week from Fort Wayne, I talked about the fates of buildings that had outlived their original economic or civic function: factories, warehouses, corner stores, even churches and synagogues.

In a follow-up item, a reader described why some people might miss a kind of structure I had considered a blight: the mid-20th-century shopping malls that displaced many earlier downtown businesses, and that themselves have in many cases been abandoned and bankrupted.

Here’s the rest of what I have learned on this theme, from mail just over the weekend.

1) There is a book (and probably more than one) on this exact topic by my friend, the estimable polymath Stewart Brand. A reader writes:

I was wondering if you’ve read Stewart Brand’s very interesting book, “How Buildings Learn”, that he published many years ago.

If not, it’s directly applicable to your comment today about how older free-standing buildings in downtowns tend to be re-born and re-used again and again.

I have ordered the book, and look forward to a physical copy arriving in two days. Update: a nice, related video featuring Stewart Brand is here.  


2) There is a video series on the same theme too. Another reader writes:

I don’t believe you’ve mentioned this shortlived documentary series “Abandoned” from Vice so you may not be aware of it. [JF: I wasn’t.]

It had, I believe, six episodes, each of which you would enjoy (they replay frequently on the Vice channel), but the episode on Ohio’s abandoned malls was particularly memorable.

The premise of the full series sounds odd - a skateboarder visits abandoned spaces and skates their remaining flat spaces, but in spending time with the locals in each case he does an extraordinary job of exploring the sociological sense of loss, and the episodes are truly deep and haunting.

The California Water System (abandonment of the Great Salton Sea) episode is incredibly powerful and should be shown in that state’s schools.

I can’t encourage you enough to view them - you’ll be glad you did.  

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


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

In a report last week from Fort Wayne, Indiana, I noted what I considered the mid-century tragedy of big, sprawling, “modern” shopping malls displacing historic downtowns, only to become bankrupt eyesores after the malls’ few decades of fashionability had passed.

The difference between those vintage-1970s big malls and earlier eras’ structures is what happened after the businesses inside the buildings died. If a factory from the 1880s, a warehouse from the 1920s, or a corner grocery from the 1940s closed down, in theory the building could be reused and reborn in some new economic role. Deb and I have seen that happening coast to coast: with ex-factories that are now art studios or small-manufacturing zones, ex-bakeries that are now hotels or residences, ex-churches that are now schools or libraries or breweries.

But when a 1970s mall becomes an “ex-” structure, it usually just sits there, sucking life from everywhere around it.

Or so I argued—from my own Boomer-era perspective on American architectural and urban history.

A reader who grew up in New Jersey but went to college in Michigan, Vasav Swaminathan, says I may need to take another leap of generational imagination. He writes:

I’m an older Millennial (born 1986), so I think most of my life is seeing box stores and strip malls give way to “revived” downtowns. I remember hating sitting in traffic as a kid on Saturdays while we went from mall to mall, and much preferring the days we went to Oak Tree Road or Nassau Street to buy things.

Which is to say—I much prefer what we’re moving to, reviving the downtown concept, to the old style.

But how did the previous generation feel about the boarded-up downtowns and the big-box stores when they were new?

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

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

They had a common theme: how surprising it was simply to show up in these towns and hear about what was happening there, since so little (or none) of this news had ever made its way to the national press.

A reader in Indianapolis challenges one part of my argument:

Interesting and informative to hear about Muncie and Ball State. My only quibble is with your first sentence: “This post is about a development that few people outside the state of Indiana have ever heard or read about …. ”

I live in Indianapolis, and consider myself well-informed, and I hadn’t heard or read about what’s going on in Muncie. This is a direct result of the death of local journalism ….

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Muncie Central High School
Mike Rhodes / Muncie Journal

This post is about a development that few people outside the state of Indiana have ever heard or read about, but that has implications for the country as a whole. It’s about a highly unusual approach to a highly familiar problem: the economic challenges of public schools. This news comes from America’s original “Middletown,” the midsize Indiana city of Muncie.

In the preceding installment about Muncie, I mentioned three aspects that surprised Deb and me—and that would have surprised most visitors, given their absence from the national press. One, discussed in the preceding report, was the ambitious geothermal-energy program designed to reduce nearly half the carbon footprint of the city’s dominant institution, the 22,000-student Ball State University.

The other two also involve Ball State’s interaction with Muncie—in a general way, and with a specific and highly unusual new step. This post is about those two moves.


The general step that Ball State has taken is to see itself as centrally involved in the economic and civic development of the city where it is based—rather than viewing Muncie from across the traditional town-gown divide. This is a trend that Deb and I have seen (as discussed here) in other places around the country. Last fall The New York Times had a related story in its business section titled “Universities Look to Strengthen the Places They Call Home.” That story featured East Coast illustrations: the University of Maryland’s role in College Park, outside Washington, D.C.; Drexel University’s role in Philadelphia; and Yale’s in New Haven.

At Ball State, this kind of “civic stewardship” in Muncie has been a central emphasis of the university president who took office two years ago, Geoffrey Mearns, who before arriving had been the president of Northern Kentucky University.

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

“When they interviewed me for this position, I said, ‘If you’re looking for someone to run a university, I am honored, but I already had a great job,’ ” Mearns told me when I first spoke with him last fall. Mearns grew up mainly in Ohio, studied English at Yale (where he was a track and cross-country star, eventually running a 2:16 marathon and qualifying for the 1984 Olympic trials), and practiced law for more than 15 years, including nine years as a federal prosecutor. He then shifted into university administration with a role at Cleveland State University.

“But I said that if they were interested in involving the university much more directly with the community, that would be very interesting to me, as well.” As a sign of sincerity: Soon after their arrival, Mearns and his wife, Jennifer, donated $100,000 for an endowment to sponsor Muncie Community Schools graduates who would become first-generation students at Ball State.

This kind of interaction would be a change for Muncie, where the university and the city had been for decades co-located but not deeply cooperative. As mentioned earlier, the sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd selected Muncie as the site for their famed Middletown study precisely because it was so clearly a midwestern “factory town” rather than a “college town.” But the shift toward involvement with Muncie is a basic part of Ball State’s current strategy.

“Our University’s future is affected by the vitality and vibrancy of Muncie,” Mearns said in a statement to the Indiana legislature early last year, a few months after he started at Ball State. “In short, our fortunes are linked.” The title of the current Ball State initiative is “Better Together.”

The idea of such a town-gown inevitably linkage is becoming more widespread. The specific implementation in Muncie is practically unique.

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