Reporter's Notebook

The American Futures Notebook
Show Description +

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 46 Newer Notes
Postcard of the old Clyde Iron Works in its prime, via Perfect Duluth Day.

As part of the unfolding saga of start-up businesses as the crucial creators of new jobs, and of particular start-ups like craft breweries (along with tech incubators, arts companies, manufacturing “maker spaces,” and others) in bringing life to fringe areas of recovering cities, I talked about the civic and economic role of the Bent Paddle Brewery in Duluth, Minnesota.

Reader Peter Hatinen of Minneapolis says that Duluth is actually a test case of the Jane Jacobs-like process of distributed, organic revival that is happening a number of the cities we have visited and written about. The step-by-step evolution he’s describing is worth presenting in detail, because it has such resonance elsewhere.

And for anyone who hasn’t (yet) spent time in Duluth, a city I love and have visited at least a dozen times since the late 1990s, it’s important to understand its economic background. Through the past generation Duluth has fit anyone’s definition of a struggling Rust Belt city. Its grand homes and faded-glory downtown buildings were from a lost era of wealth from timber, ore and grain shipments, and heavy manufacturing. Through much of the late-20th century Duluth’s factories closed, its downtown decayed, its population aged and shrank.

Recently a lot of has been changing, fast, as I sketched out in my recent cover story. Peter Hatinen describes more of what is going on:

After time in New York City and Boston, my wife and I settled in Minneapolis.  Much of my family grew up and settled around Duluth.  Since settling in Minneapolis ourselves, my wife and I have spent nearly every other weekend in Duluth during the summers, delighting in its restaurants, breweries, and distillery.  We then pay penance for our indulgences by sailing, rowing, and running or biking the city's countless trails.

Duluth’s renaissance has been remarkable.

Citizen University (Alan Alabastro Photography)

Here are some recent developments that are related to the “America Is Putting Itself Back Together” argument in our March issue. They’re also connected to the subject of my post earlier today: that an under-appreciated axis in American politics and culture is between those who think, like the woman at the Trump rally, that “everything in America is terrible” and getting worse, and those who agree with Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom of California that “the nation is alive from the bottom up.”

You can guess which one rings truer to me.

But let’s hear from others:

Wichita: Robert Litan, who for ten years was a senior official at the Kauffman Foundation of Kansas City, writes that his new home town is finding ways to apply a cooperative approach to its development. Sample:

Shortly after moving back to Wichita about two years ago, I became aware of an ongoing communitywide effort, the Blueprint for Regional Economic Growth, which has brought together business, university and community leaders across eight industry “clusters” in 10 counties in south-central Kansas. BREG’s mission: to find and implement ways of cooperating to enhance innovation, develop workforces, and expand growth opportunities for businesses in this region.

Litan says he assumed this talk of “collaboration” was just so much sloganeering. But ...

From Donald Trump’s rally in Bethpage, Long Island, this week. The saying on that sign is not one of the quotes I have in mind. (Carlo Allegri / Reuters)

Quote one, from Michael Cohen’s report for the Boston Globe on the big Trump rally in Long Island. Emphasis added:

A smiling old man proudly displayed to me a T-shirt that read “Trump: Get On Board or Get Run Over.” Another read: “Up Yours Hillary.” When I asked the man to pose for a picture, his wife pulled me over and told me “everything in America is terrible” — the economy, health care, the military. “Don’t you worry about your kids future?”

Quote two, in Thomas Fuller’s report in the NYT of a unanimous vote by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to mandate six weeks of paid parental leave for public and private employees within the city. (Private employees must have worked at their firm for 180 days; the rules will apply, starting next year, to firms with more than 50 employees, and eventually to firms with 20 or more.) Again emphasis added:

Scott Wiener, the supervisor who introduced the measure, said that San Francisco lawmakers had chosen to take up the issue partly because there was little hope of change at the national level.

“Whether it’s paid parental leave, infrastructure investment, minimum wage, paid sick leave or addressing carbon emissions, we know the states have to act,” Mr. Wiener said in an interview before the vote….

CNBC poll results, from Steve Liesman report on April 4

A big theme in our ongoing reports from across the United States, and of my story in our March issue, is that Americans feel much better about the part of the country they can observe first-hand, than about the conditions elsewhere they hear or read about.

That is: According to almost everyone, America is going to hell. But according to most people, conditions in their city / region / family / company involve real challenges but are generally moving in the right direction.

Bryon Tonnis, Karen Tonnis, Laura Mullen, and Colin Mullen, the founders of Bent Paddle Brewing company in Duluth, Minnesota. Their company’s story illustrates the economic patterns that Jeff Alworth is describing. (James Fallows)

If you’re going to subscribe to only one magazine — well, really you should be subscribing to more! But you could start with The Atlantic, and then move on to include, as I have, All About Beer on your list (subscribe!).

I mention it now on general principles, and because its site now features an interesting piece by Jeff Alworth, author of The Beer Bible, extending my premise that craft breweries have become a no-joke indicator of larger civic revival. This is how he explains it, in a way that rings absolutely true to what my wife Deb and I have seen from Georgia to California to Mississippi to Minnesota:

[Fallows] suggests that the appearance of a craft brewery is one effect of community health—but I’d argue that it’s at least in part the cause of a community’s vitality.

Breweries are industrial operations, and they’re expensive. Beer is a mass beverage, and even making it on a brewpub scale means you have to have quite a bit of space for the brewhouse, fermentation, and storage. All that equipment costs a lot, and real estate does, too. When you’re spending a quarter- or half-million dollars on equipment, you can’t afford expensive commercial space. So breweries end up on the fringes, in bad parts of town where the rent is cheap. That alone is the first step of revitalization. [Emphasis in first paragraph was from Alworth. This emphasis is added by me.]

But breweries aren’t like the average industrial plant. They are people magnets, bringing folks in who are curious to try a pint of locally made IPA. In fairly short order, breweries can create little pockets of prosperity in cities that can (and often do) radiate out into the neighborhood. Pretty soon, other businesses see the bustle and consider moving in, too.

It doesn’t hurt that breweries often find run-down parts of towns that have great buildings. Once a brewery moves in and refurbishes an old building, it reveals the innate promise of adjacent buildings to prospective renters.

Downtown Fresno mural                                                                   (James Fallows)

Here are some generally positive developments from places we’ve visited in our travels.

Fresno: This evening Fresno, California, held its big “State of Downtown” event. You can see the details here. As we’ve reported over the years, Fresno’s bet on re-doing its downtown, made by Mayor Ashley Swearengin and many of the local business and civic leaders, is one of the most consequential in the country. You can hear tonight the update on how it’s going. Here’s a report on last year’s State of Downtown event.


Some of the startups at Bridgeworks (JF)

Allentown: Allentown, Pennsylvania, is two or three years ahead of Fresno on the downtown renovation cycle. In common with many other places we’ve been, it has an ambitious manufacturing-oriented startup/incubator zone, known as the Bridgeworks Enterprise Center.

Bridgeworks has just released a report on the new businesses that have started there. You can read it here. There’s some much less positive news also coming out of Allentown, as you can read here. We’ll go back there to follow up.

Skyline of the city that American Futures cruelly left out (Eric Schramm / Visit Salt Lake)

We’re back to followup on my March issue story about local-level civic coherence, even at a time of the worst national-level dysfunction in at least a century. Here goes:

1. Salt Lake City: Can’t We Just Get Along?

Until now, I’ve always considered myself on good terms with the “Crossroads of the West,” also known as SLC. Since my first visit there on a Boy Scout trip, I’ve returned many times. My wife Deb and I have put in visiting stints at both Brigham Young University, in Provo, and at the University of Utah, in Salt Lake City itself. It’s a great place!

Thus naturally my feelings were hurt by the headline below from the Daily Utah Chronicle, over a story by Emma Tanner:

People of Utah, please!

The Obamas in Havana today. If you keep reading, you’ll see the connection. (Carlos Barria / Reuters)

Let’s get back to some positive news — actually, let’s connect the positive news I’m about to give, to the drear of domestic U.S. political news that consumes us all.

In today’s NYT Magazine, Adam Davidson has an excellent and fresh analysis of the way Donald Trump talks about both business and international affairs. For Trump it’s all win or lose, smart or dumb, they’re screwing us and we have to start screwing them. The underlying reason, Davidson points out, is that Trump comes from a part of the business world that is abnormally “rent-seeking” (in the economist’s sense) and zero-sum: the world of Manhattan real estate.

There is only so much space to build in Manhattan, there are only so many permits to be had, only so many ways you can “be disruptive” or “change the world” through a real estate deal. What you can do, as Davidson points out, is get a little bigger slice of the pie for yourself, which leaves a little less for the other guy — making you the winner and the other guy the loser. This view underlies the way Trump talks about everything. Davidson says:

Manhattan real estate development is about as far as it is possible to get, within the United States, from that Econ 101 notion of mutually beneficial transactions.

This is not a marketplace characterized by competition and dynamism; instead, Manhattan real estate looks an awful lot more like a Middle Eastern rentier economy. It is a hereditary system. We talk about families, not entrepreneurs. A handful of families have dominated the city’s real estate development for decades: Speyer, Tishman, Durst, Fisher, Malkin, Milstein, Resnick, LeFrak, Rose, Zeckendorf. Having grown up in Manhattan myself, I think of these names the way I heard Middle Easterners speak of the great sheikhs who ran big families in Jordan, Iraq and Syria. These are people of immense power and influence, but their actual skills and abilities are opaque. They do, however, make ‘‘deals.’’

Of course deals matter at every level, from haggling at a bazaar to striking a nuclear arms-control agreement. But in the parts of economic and social life where new things are being created, the deal is the means, not the end itself. The founders of Apple and of Google, of Disney and of WalMart, of Tesla and of Nike and whatever example you’d choose, are aware of deals. But none of them began with the deal centrally in mind. The business, the product, the disruption, the creation were what originally fascinated and motivated them. The deals protected what they’d figured out. But figuring it out, and then making it happen, was the attraction and challenge.


Understanding the impulses behind entrepreneurship and creativity, and the practical circumstances that make these efforts more or less attainable, really matters for a society. It matters much more than “making good deals.” It matters because of the reality underscored in the Kauffman Foundation research that I mention in my March issue cover story, and the updated report that Kauffman put out last month.

Ohio Statehouse, in Columbus, last year. No, this story is not about the Ohio primaries! (Deborah Fallows)

A big theme of our March issue cover stories (main story here; “11 signs of success” checklist; “Library Card”) is that one the bleakest aspect of modern America is the one now dominating the headlines: the dysfunction and bitterness in our national-level politics. The bleakness of that theme is unfortunately what I’ve been writing about through the past week (for instance here).

Back toward the light! To break up the Götterdämmerung chronicles of our national struggle, here come some more reports on the local level. This weekend, my wife Deb reported on the way that public libraries were converting themselves into “maker spaces”—and recapturing some of Benjamin Franklin’s original vision.

Today, some connected reports, starting with ones on the reverse big sort.

In my article I mentioned that even as certain industries were concentrating in the big coastal centers, regional centers were also re-populating. People who had trained, worked, and lived in San Francisco or New York decided that the better overall life balance could be found in Duluth or Greenville or Fresno or Bend. On that theme, here’s an update on the expansion of the aerospace center that has emerged in Duluth, spawned by Cirrus; and another about startups at the Bridgework Enterprise Center in Allentown.

Nighttime photo of the Liberty Bridge, over the Reedy River, in downtown Greenville, South Carolina. This was the focus of a long struggle to revive the city’s downtown. (Rosales and Partners / Wikimedia commons.)

Last night the PBS NewsHour ran a 10-minute segment hosted by Judy Woodruff and shot in Greenville, South Carolina, where Deb and I have visited frequently and reported extensively over the past few years. A magazine article I did comparing the politically very conservative Greenville with the politically very liberal Burlington, Vermont, is here. Deb’s original and later stories on Greenville’s very innovative public schools are here, here, and here. A full collection of our Greenville and related South Carolina reportage is here.

I thought this NewsHour report did a very effective job of conveying a range of things we’ve seen in Greenville and elsewhere, and that Deb and I have written about in the March issue. Including:

how this part of the former textile zone prepared for the disappearance of that industry, and survived it; how a state with a very troubled racial history develops cross-racial institutions and organizations; how a region considered to be backward in public schooling has developed some of the most creative public schools in the country; how and why governance can function well locally, when it is paralyzed at the national level; how the inequalities and strains of the Second Gilded Age persist; and so on, including some aviation footage.

See for yourself! (A PBS embed is after the jump.) If you haven’t been to Greenville, I think you’ll be particularly surprised by the scenes from the very large (and racially diverse) Redemption Church, and from the Elementary School for Engineering and the Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities, among others. We appreciate the effort the NewsHour team put into this production, including filming during atypically frigid conditions in Greenville last month.

FDR signing the G.I. Bill into law in 1944. That’s what a national-level effort looks like. (Wikimedia)

The GOP/Fox last night was genuinely depressing. Donald Trump has brought the other candidates down to his level, in the process of demolishing the Republican party. No living American has seen anything like what is happening to the GOP this year, because the last time a national party split apart in such an apparently fundamental way was in the mid-19th century, with the self-destruction of the Whigs.

Meta-point: our two-party national politics and our national governing system are for-real in trouble, as I argued here and here. While they flounder, a damage-limiting step is to identify what parts of the American system are still working, and what might be done to expand their recognition and impact.

Three notes on this front:

1) The latest update by my wife Deb, about an innovative and encouraging public middle-school in Greeville, South Carolina. This follows her “America’s tiniest engineers” report on an innovation elementary school in Greenville. (Also, please see this Economist article on our reports and a new book by Antoine van Agtmael.)

2)  A note from a reader in Irvine, California, about the dangers of a persistent gap between viable local governance and failed national politics:

I've been reading the reactions to your recent article and your follow on commentary in the "notes" section with interest.  I've had a few thoughts regarding your reference of Warren Buffet's recent annual letter, the recent Tom Friedman column, and also the themes you've explored during the course of the American Futures project:

  • I think what you were thinking when you referenced Buffet is in line with what Paul Krugman would call a "Scandinavia lite" approach i.e. a country with open trade policies, flexible labor markets, whose citizens are shielded from the inherent uncertainty of such a system by a strong safety net that secures essential things like a universal basic income and healthcare for everyone.  However, doing this will require intelligent, pragmatic action at the federal level and not at the local, city level. [JF note: agree, as I pointed out.]

From Thomas Friedman in the NYT, emphasis added:

… what will be required to produce resilient citizens and communities [is] forcing a politics that is much more of a hybrid of left and right.

It is the kind of politics you already see practiced in successful communities and towns in America — places like Minneapolis; Austin, Tex.; Louisville, Ky.; Chattanooga, Tenn.; and Portland, Ore. — where coalitions made up of the business community, educators and local government come together to forge hybrid solutions to improve their competitiveness and resilience. We can’t get there at the national level since one of our two major parties has gone nuts and we have designed paralysis into our politics.

Sounds right to me! This is very much in sync with what my wife Deb and I have seen across the country, and have tried to explain here.


Previously in the Hmmm series:

  • We’ve seen things that fit Warren Buffett’s world view: America is in way better overall economic shape than the rest of the world, and also has better prospects than political rhetoric suggests. But it needs to do more to help those being hurt and left behind by today’s technological transformations.
  • We’ve internalized the Robert Wood Johnson / NPR / Harvard study: Americans think the nation’s health care system as a whole is a disaster, but are surprisingly satisfied with the care they get themselves.
  • Like the Kauffman Foundation (as noted here) and now Bo Cutter of the Roosevelt Institute (co-author of a new e-book called The Good Economy), we’ve seen signs of widespread startup, “maker,” and entrepreneurial activity around the country.
  • We what’ve seen place-by-place parallels the NYT’s observation that while politicians are angrier than ever, many voters (even while casting votes for the likes of Trump) take the longer, calmer view.
  • And now we’re nodding along with T. Friedman in his observation that local-level governance continues to function—partly because people there don’t have the luxury of becoming purely “shut it down!” obstructionist like the national-level GOP.

This compilation is just to note harmonic resonance among observations that don’t fit the “everything is getting worse” tone of national political discussions. The country has lots of problems, and lots of people figuring out solutions.