Reporter's Notebook

The American Futures Notebook
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On this page you’ll find notes arising from American Futures project that Deborah and James Fallows have had underway, with some appearances on Marketplace radio, since 2013. Their full archive is here.

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Wondering Why We Like Fresno?

For previous installments in the Fresno saga, please check here. Early last year, in our American Futures saga, we reported on Bitwise, a tech incubator, training school, entrepreneur center, and overall social force in one of California’s least-fashionable cities.

The video below shows the way Bitwise has announced its opening of a big, new center in Fresno’s long-bedraggled, now-recovering downtown. People in San Francisco or New York can be smugly confident in their coolness. We like, better, the Fresno kick-ass spirit.

I've asked Jake Soberal, of Bitwise, for the back story about the script and dramatic presentation of this video. Will report when I know. For now, congratulations to Soberal, his co-founder of Bitwise Irma Olguin, and all others involved.

MMA logo

Two days ago I mentioned the welcome news that the Maine Maritime Academy, which John Tierney had written about extensively as part of our ongoing American Futures coverage, had been recognized yet again for providing very high career-earnings value to its students, at a low cost.

The context for this was our also-ongoing discussion of the importance of “career technical education,” once sneered-at under the title of “trade schools” or “vocational ed,” as one of the promising steps we’ve seen around the country with potential to offset at least some of the relentless pressure toward a polarized rich-and-poor society.

Now, a reader who once taught at another maritime academy writes in to say, “Hey, wait a minute.”  His point, as you’ll see, is not that there is anything wrong with Maine Maritime itself but rather that the “value added” in higher salaries comes from legislatively protected earnings for merchant seamen.

There are some obvious comebacks to this case, most of which I’ll save for later installments. One I’ll mention now is: this is a demanding and potentially perilous field, as demonstrated long ago by John McPhee in “Looking for a Ship” and very recently by the El Faro tragedy, in which 5 MMA alumni were among the 33 mariners who were lost. And again, the reader’s complaint is not with the school but regulatory regimes more broadly. It is sort of like saying that medical training doesn’t “add value” to graduates’ earnings, since under different payment systems doctors would make less money.

More on these fronts later. For now, the reader’s response on Maine Maritime. He begins by noting that the 15 schools that got perfect 100 scores in a recent “value added” study included several maritime academies:

Looking over the list, all the maritime academies are represented. Since they all seem to get the top score of 100, there is nothing special about the Maine academy. [JF note: actually, at least two state-run maritime academies did not get a top score. Still, the reader’s point is that this type of school seems over-represented.]

I used to teach at the US Merchant Marine Academy in King’s Point, NY. It is true that students who graduated did get good jobs. But I think this is really an exceptional industry, one in which the Federal Government has acted in several ways to improve the earnings of it’s graduates.

Over the weekend I mentioned the new video by our friends at the Bitwise tech incubator in Fresno, California, which exemplified the gritty spirit — “You think we’re losers? Well just watch” — that we’ve admired and described about the city.

I asked Jake Soberal, co-founder with Irma Olguin of Bitwise, how the video came to be. Here’s his answer, and after that two other notes about its tone and approach.

Jake Soberal writes:

As to the back story, it's a neat one. For some time we have been planning for a very grand opening. Our belief is that Bitwise South Stadium is a technology hub of global significance. Its opening demonstrates the credibility of our burgeoning technology industry--to locals and the world at large. With that, the grand opening had two aims: (1) celebrate how far tech has come in Fresno, and (2) inspire it to go even further.

Two days ago I mentioned that a “Fresno reborn” video had a similar tone and toughness to the famous “Imported From Detroit” Eminem/Chrysler ad from the 2011 Superbowl that was an early sign of rebound of the auto industry and its iconic home city.

A reader who knows both places writes to emphasize other connections. This reader is Rick Jones, who grew up in Detroit but now lives in one of the most fashionable parts of prospering California.

The first connection involves one of Fresno’s best-known contemporary figures. This was the late poet Philip Levine — son of assembly-line Detroit, former Poet Laureate of the United States, long-time teacher at Fresno State.

Philip Levine, at the time of his selection at U.S. Poet Laureate in 2011 (AP photo)

Jones says of Levine:

While most of his poems are staged in Detroit (this is an example), they evoke the Fresno of today equally well.

He goes on to spell out the link, playing off my earlier comment that “I realize I am becoming a sucker for places and cultures, like Fresno and Detroit, whose theme is: ‘OK, you want to look down on us? That’s just fine, go ahead and feel smug, because then you’ll be all the more surprised and unprepared when you see what we can do.’” Jones says:

I am a winemaker that lives in Napa but works with wineries in “the valley,” a label all of us in our profession use to name the big area between Sacramento and Bakersfield with Fresno at its center. [JF note: aka The Central Valley or the San Joaquin Valley.]

I also grew up and spent the first 18 years of my life in Detroit.  While I live in the middle of  glamorous Napa, every time I go to the valley I feel like I'm going home.

I think you're a bit hard on yourself, when you suggest your admiration for these formerly forlorn and neglected places is merely sentimental.

If the American idea or dream or project, or whatever we are calling it these days now is to have any meaning, that meaning resides in Fresno and in Detroit as much, if not more than in Cupertino or Boston.

Obviously I agree, and am trying to learn about, and tell the story of, how and whether that dispersed and less glamorous dream may take shape.

Here's the back story: In our American Futures reports from Down East Maine, my wife Deb and I wrote about the (obvious) importance of the seacoast in the region’s past and future, and John Tierney wrote specifically about the achievements of the Maine Maritime Academy in Castine.

Maine Maritime Academy seal (MMA)

Last week Maine Maritime was honored (again) as a leading “value added” institution, raising its graduates’ earnings. A reader wrote in to dissent, on two points. First, he said the high earnings were an artifact of unusual legal protections for the merchant-marine industry (summed up as “the Jones Act”), which sheltered it from world competition. Second, he said that when he was teaching at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, he thought the students were mediocre and under-motivated.

I answered on the first, main point by saying: that’s not really a rap against Maine Maritime. Merchant shipping is a perilous activity — as it happens, five MMA alumni were among the 33 people lost recently on the El Faro — and if the earnings are “unnaturally” high, that’s not MMA’s fault. It would be like saying that medical schools didn’t really raise their graduates’ earnings, since under a different medical system doctors wouldn’t be paid as much.

Today I got a note from the president of the Maine Maritime Academy, William J. Brennan, in fuller response to the reader’s letter. Here it is, with a few explanatory notes inserted:


The reader’s view is unfortunate and contrary to my view of Kings Point [the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy] and its cadets, which in my experience, is a great college with wonderful students.  But this federal academy, as you point out, is much different from Maine Maritime Academy, which is a state institution, attendance at which requires students to pay tuition, unlike their Kings Point counterparts.

Stuart and Emily Siegel, of Ajo, Arizona, at their wedding this month at the Sonoran Desert Conference Center in Ajo. Photo by Margaret Collins, from her flickr collection.

Early this year my wife Deb and I filed several reports from the genuinely startling and inspiring small town of Ajo, Arizona. Ajo is far away from pretty much everything except the spectacular Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Also nearby, for warplane fans, is the Barry Goldwater bombing range just to the north, as described here.  Just to the east is the large tribal land of the Tohono O’odham Nation, and there is a big Border Patrol station to the south of town.

A century ago, Ajo was the site of an enormous open-pit copper mine. Thirty years ago, the mine closed suddenly, leaving a gigantic (but interesting!) lunar-surface-scale crater as a landmark but removing most of the town’s economic reason for being.

Over the past ten years, indefatigable teams of activists, artists, entrepreneurs, dreamers, and volunteers and others have set about rebuilding and reviving the town. Deb told part of their story here and here, and I compared it with some other small-town, arts-based revival efforts in the United States and China here. Seriously, if you didn’t read this earlier report by Deb, please check it out.

The centerpiece of current efforts in Ajo is the new Sonoran Desert Conference Center, a combination resort / retreat / meeting place / educational center being built in a beautiful, architecturally striking former school, shown below.

Sonoran Desert Conference Center, photo by Emily Siegel
Craig Scharton (right) in 2014 at his Peeve’s Public House in downtown Fresno. With him is Oscar Fuentes, who was the beer buyer for Peeve’s then and now has started his own brewery.

During our visits to Fresno, in California’s Central Valley, over the past two years, my wife Deb and I have made regular stops at Peeve’s Public House, on the downtown Fulton Mall.

Initially this was because the proprietor, Fresno patriot and publican Craig Scharton, was the first person to argue to us (at a chance meeting elsewhere in California) that tattered-looking Fresno was worth serious attention as a city turning itself around. After heavy initial skepticism, we became convinced. You can read the summary version of why we changed our minds here, or the full chronicles here. On return trips to Fresno we kept going back to Peeve’s because we liked the beer, food, and atmosphere there. And increasingly we came to respect its role as a civic center, in a part of town very much in need of such a thing. Here was the event board on our first visit:

The Fulton Mall area where Peeve’s has been an anchor and outpost (it’s one of the few businesses now open at night) is in the middle of a mammoth construction project, whose details you can read about here. In the long run, the overhaul is meant to spur downtown Fresno’s revival. In the short run, it’s yet another challenge for the businesses already there.

… please come to the first American Futures conference at the University of Redlands, on Friday evening, January 29, and Saturday during the day. You can find agenda and sign-up information here.

Glamour shot of the University of Redlands, where the conference will be held

At the conference, my wife Deb and I will be discussing what we have found in our past two-plus years of traveling around the country for our American Futures project — which will also be the subject of a cover-story package, with articles by both of us, in the forthcoming March issue of the magazine. (Subscribe!) One of the themes of that presentation is how much more functional American governance and civil-society seem at the city-by-city level than they do, at the moment, on the national scale.

At the conference, mayors whose strategies and records we’ve chronicled in this project will speak about what they’ve done, how they did it, and what lessons can be gleaned from, and applied more broadly, from the stories of their towns. They will include Rusty Bailey, mayor of Riverside, California; Don Ness, who recently completed two terms as mayor of Duluth, Minnesota; Ashley Swearengin, in her second term as mayor of Fresno, California; Nan Whaley, beginning her third year as mayor of Dayton, Ohio; and Knox White, who as mayor of Greenville, South Carolina, since 1995 is the longest-serving mayor in that city’s history.

Plus at least one and maybe more Bonus Mayors! And a session on GeoDesign at the Redlands-based software company Esri, one of our partners in this project.

I can tell you first-hand that these mayors all have very interesting personal and civic stories to tell. You’re likely to keep hearing about them (and not just from me) over the years. If you’ll be in the vicinity, please check out the site for more info and come by.

Last two iterations of the cover for our upcoming issue.

Next week a cover story whose writing and editing has tied me up for quite a while, and whose reporting has engaged my wife Deb and me over the past few years, will come out in print and on line. (Subscribe!)

Just now Darhil Crooks, creative director of the newly crowned Magazine of the Year,  described the process by which he came up with a very nice cover image — plus the interior layout of the story. You can read it here. One of the great satisfactions of magazine journalism is the coming-together of many different kinds of imaginative talents and sensibilities. Part of Darhil Crooks’s genius is being able to move from an editor-level grasp of the argument and tone and ambition of a written story, to the right photographic, layout, illustration, cover-design, and other graphical means through which the message can be conveyed and enhanced. It’s like a good words-and-music combo, in that the pairing seems “natural” or even “inevitable” once you’ve heard or seen it, but (in my case) I could never have imagined it before knowing what the design team has figured out.

As a preview to the piece, here is the “dek,” the summary on the opening page:

Most Americans believe the country is going to hell. They’re wrong. What a three-years journey by single-engine plane reveals about reinvention and renewal—and about how the Second Gilded Age might end.

And here is an intermediate passage on the rationale behind this venture:

There is a high-toned tradition of road trips as a means of “discovering” America, from Lewis and Clark and Tocqueville through John Dos Passos, John Steinbeck, and William Least Heat Moon (whose Blue Highways made its debut in these pages). Apart from other obvious points of contrast, our project was different in that rather than going by car (or wagon, or pirogue), we’ve gone from city to city in our family’s small single-engine propeller airplane, a Cirrus SR22. This was a decision made for convenience, for beauty, and for edification….

The beauty comes from the privilege and unending fascination of watching the American landscape unfurl below as you travel at low altitude. At the dawn of powered flight, a century ago, it was assumed that writers and painters would want to become aviators, and vice versa…  

A coast-to-coast drive across America has its tedious stretches, and the teeming interstate corridors, from I-95 in the east to I-5 in the west, can lead to the despairing conclusion that the country is made of gas stations, burger stands, and big-box malls. From only 2,500 feet higher up, the interstates look like ribbons that trace narrow paths across landscape that is mostly far beyond the reach of any road. From ground level, America is mainly road—after all, that’s where cars can take you. From the sky, America is mainly forest in the eastern third, farmland in the middle, then mountain and desert in the west, before the strip of intense development along the California coast.

It’s also full of features obvious from the sky that are much harder to notice from the ground (and difficult to pick out from six miles up in an airliner): quarries at the edge of most towns, to provide gravel for roads and construction sites; prisons, instantly identifiable by their fencing (though some mega high schools can look similar), usually miles from the nearest town or tucked in locations where normal traffic won’t pass by. I never tire of the view from this height, as different from the normal, grim airliner perspective as scuba diving is from traveling on a container ship.

More to come about the magazine piece, and some new online accompaniments, next week. That is what will keep me busy over the weekend.

Update: Please read on for a new photo contest concept.

Over the Snake River, approaching Lewiston, Idaho, last June. (Deborah Fallows).

Last week I mentioned that one theme of our ongoing American Futures travel had been the distinctive view of America available via low-altitude flight.

Andrew Sprung, of the Xpostfactoid blog, writes in response:

Serendipity:  Yesterday evening I read your little ode to seeing the country from small-plane altitude, which for sure stirred some longing. Then a few hours later I read this fictional account in Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge of a 72 year-old woman, "who'd never been alone on a plan before," on a flight from Maine to NYC in a plane "half the size of a greyhound bus":

“The pilots, as well— both looking twelve years old with their unworried brows— had been kind, in the easy way they’d asked Olive if she’d mind sitting toward the back for weight distribution, before they climbed into the cockpit, closing the steel door. A thought unfolded before her— their mothers should be proud.

“And then as the little plane climbed higher and Olive saw spread out below them fields of bright and tender green in this morning sun, farther out the coastline, the ocean shiny and almost flat, tiny white wakes behind a few lobster boats— then Olive felt something she had not expected to feel again: a sudden surging greediness for life. She leaned forward, peering out the window: sweet pale clouds, the sky as blue as your hat, the new green of the fields, the broad expanse of water— seen from up here it all appeared wondrous, amazing. She remembered what hope was, and this was it. That inner churning that moves you forward, plows you through life the way the boats below plowed the shiny water, the way the plane was plowing forward to a place new, and where she was needed. She had been asked to be part of her son’s life.”

Seems like you could relate.

Indeed. Had not read this book but have now ordered it.

Even more than usual, the non-football aspects of The Big Game, from Lady Gaga’s great national anthem through the choice of ads, were more interesting than the defense-and-turnover-dominated struggle on the field. Still, great defense, Broncos!

I have to mention in this space an ad that caught my eye. It was one of the Doritos series, and I’ll bet anything that it was shot in a grocery store I mentioned last fall. That store would be Gerrard’s Market, at the corner of Center Street and Cypress Avenue in Redlands, a small town in inland Southern California and one of our American Futures stops.

Gerrard’s is notable for having the most overwhelming (ie, “best”) selection of craft beer I have seen in any grocery store anywhere. Take that, Whole Foods! Take that, any upscale place! The beers are housed in a large new section of the store called The Cave, which you can read about here. I got a glimpse of The Cave in the background a few seconds into this ad.

I feel pretty sure about this guess, on 30 seconds’ evidence, because Gerrard’s was the neighborhood grocery when I was growing up (alas, before The Cave). Thus I recognize the placement of the palm trees you briefly glimpse, from having walked past them a million times. In local life in D.C. you frequently run into politicians. In local life in SoCal, you have a higher-than-average chance of seeing neighborhood buildings in B-roll for TV shows or ads. An episode of Perry Mason was shot at the University of Redlands when I was a kid. Talk about glamor!

Congrats, Broncos. Congrats Gerrard’s.

Old-style civic engagement!

The end of my current story in the magazine, on “How America Is Putting Itself Back Together,” explores the contrast between what I’m describing as healthy civic society at the city-by-city level, and the bitter dysfunction of modern national politics. We’ve been reminded of the latter once more by the reaction to Antonin Scalia’s death, and the tone of the GOP debate last night.

How can that gap possibly be bridged? Well, I tried in the article. One theme: because people know that national politics is hamstrung, they have found ways to ignore or work around it. And soon I’ll be writing more about some of the presentations at a very useful “Mayor’s Conference” in Redlands, California, that I mentioned here.

For now, I offer another explanation — a long note from a reader that I’m quoting in near-entirety, because I think it touches on some interesting themes.

This reader grew up in what was then an Eastern Bloc country, came with his parents to Brooklyn as a child, and now lives and works in California. He ties the civic “we’re in this together” themes we’re talking with to the ups and downs of some of the presidential campaigns. Over to him:

I wanted to let you know how much I believe [that what we have been describing] is a truth about the country. Because as I was reading the article, I was thinking about my friends and family and I couldn't stop thinking of people who were doing the kind of work you're highlighting.

From my friend who left a major city to go to the southwest and has become heavily involved in all manner of theatre arts, community building, tutoring children and adults with speech disorders. To my mother-in law who grew up in a town in Illinois and worked to organize its sister city events, food festivals, girl scout troops and more while being a public administrator despite her national politics being different to my own. Thank you for writing about a country doing its civic work together.

I know one focus of your article so far is how people operate outside of national politics, what life looks like for ordinary people who have to live in places instead of speculate about them. However, in the context of national politics, I've actually been thinking about the framing of campaigns and speeches.


I think one thing that is lost now in discussions of the 2008 campaign is how much of the then Senator from Illinois' focus, in speeches, was on the audience. That is, 'this is the moment we've been waiting for', 'yes, we can' and 'I can't do it alone.' The prominent theme of sustained civic responsibility appeared also again in 2012 in 'you didn't build that' which was a fractured point but meant to address community bonds, that we do not all fail or succeed all on our own. That we have the capacity to foster each other's success, that we can be culprits in each other's failure and especially in the material conditions of the vulnerable, that our individual success does not automatically translate to a success in our moral obligation to others in a society.