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.

Show 68 Newer Notes

If You're Going to be in Redlands or San Bernardino This Weekend...

… 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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Maine Maritime Academy, in Castine (MMA)

In our American Futures dispatches from Down East Maine, John Tierney did several reports (collected here) about the Maine Maritime Academy, based in Castine.

These were early entries in what has become one of our central themes. That is the importance of what used to be dismissively known as “vocational education” or even “trade schools,” and now might be called “career technical education” or go by other names—but which, by any name, has a newly crucial economic and social-mobility role.

The caricature view of today’s economy, which is uncomfortably close to the truth, is that it is separating into financiers and rentiers at the top end, and on the other end the people who feed, care for, drive, clean, teach them yoga, and otherwise attend them. The large-scale factory-based jobs that broadened the middle class of the 20th century are obviously not coming back.

The main “good middle-class jobs” that are increasing are in the skilled trades. Welders, high-end repair technicians, engineering-type jobs in health care and logistics and agriculture and aerospace, and on down a long list. That’s where “career technical education” — in K-12 schools, at community colleges, at local tech centers, wherever — comes in.

As does Maine Maritime.