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 12 Newer Notes
At the airport in Demopolis, paper mill in the background. Deborah Fallows

We woke up in Demopolis, Alabama, on day two of the final journey of our American Futures series for The Atlantic. We were one day out of Washington D.C. (first installment here) and already decades away in so many ways. The weather was balmy. In the Best Western breakfast room, Ms. Nettie was making grits and biscuits for us and the out-of-town workers who had come in to oversee the “planned outage” at the cement factory.

Ms. Nettie’s tip box at the Best Western (Deborah Fallows)

Jim was troubleshooting one of the weather apps in the plane; the software wasn’t communicating to bring in the current weather updates, including radar depictions of areas we needed to avoid. Before this technology existed, we had flown many years without such real-time information, but given the forecast for the next few days along our route to Southern California, we preferred to have everything working before we headed up again into the skies.

Now, only two small things stood between us and progress west. One was the needed update part for our onboard-weather system. That would take a day to reach the nearest Cirrus-proficient service shop, which was in the Addison airport just north of  Dallas. The other was the real-time weather. The forecast crosswinds that afternoon for Dallas were gusting above 30 and even 40 knots, far exceeded the safe landing guidelines for the plane.

Historic downtown of Demopolis (James Fallows)

We decided to spend another day in Demopolis, and depart when the winds would be less fearsome and the weather-software part would have arrived. I loved this kind of on-the-go pivot in plans, which had led us to unexpected stays in places like Red Oak, Iowa and Cheyenne, Wyoming and Toccoa, Georgia along our American Futures journey.

Susan and Mike Grayson at Le Bistro (Deborah Fallows)


The night before, at a cozy, delicious  Demopolis bistro, called of course Le Bistro, we ended up in conversation about the town with owner Mike Grayson, who it turns out had been the Mayor of Demopolis for the previous eight years. In small towns like this, we often found that the energetic folks wore multiple hats. In Eastport, Maine, the local theater stage manager by night was the morning barista at the coffee shop, as well as the nephrologist at the town’s clinic and new owner of the dog kennel.

At the top of my list of Grayson’s suggestions was the Demopolis Public Library. Over the last three years, I often found that the local public library showed the heart and soul of a community. I wrote about many of them here.

In Demopolis we strolled down Washington Street, past as many boarded up storefronts as there were ones in business, thinking that the bones of those buildings offered great potential for future success stories.  The public library was indeed the showpiece of the town. In a move showing great foresight, the city engineered an effort to purchase and renovate the former  Ulmer Furniture Company store and warehouse. It is a truly beautiful building, as elegant and graceful as any Carnegie library I’ve seen. The second story mezzanine has a wraparound balcony overlooking the main reading room, with wooden Mission style worktables and lamps. Oversized photos of some of the town’s historic moments lined the walls. There was Woodrow Wilson visiting nearly a century ago for the then-legal cockfighting at a fundraising auction to build a bridge over the Tombigbee River.

Looking over the mezzanine level into the library reading room (James Fallows)

Connie Lawson, the circulation manager and a librarian there for over 20 years, recounted detail for detail a more recent visit in 1998 by Bill and Melinda Gates, who came by to see how one of their first computer donations from the Gates Library Foundation was doing. Connie said that she and her colleagues, intent on making a good impression,  had spent days cleaning the library “down to the baseboards.” They were all so nervous, she told us, stressing that Bill Gates was the richest man in the world then, and it’s not every day you get to meet the richest man in the world.

Downtown Eastport, from above. The large square waterfront structure on the left, long abandoned, is the site of the new development just announced. The smaller square waterfront structure three buildings over to the right, between the piers, is The Commons of Eastport, where we rented rooms to stay on our visits. The low building next to the Commons, with a white front and red roof, is the locally famous Waco Diner. Aerial photo copyright Don Dunbar

Since our first visit in the fall of 2013, Deb and I have reported frequently on the grit, vision, resilience, and apparently indomitable drive of the roughly 1300 people who live in the little city of Eastport, Maine. For reference, I did a 2014 magazine story on Eastport called “The Little Town That Might”; we did a visit and report with Marketplace radio around the same time; Deb and I, with John Tierney, did a long series of web posts, all collected here; and this past fall Deb and I returned for an update on some of the buffets Eastport had suffered from shifts in the political and economic landscape many thousands of miles away from their Down East locale. For instance: warfare in Syria had disrupted the port business in Maine, through a causal chain explained here. And the collapse of a breakwater badly affected the cruise ship and tourism industries on which the town was placing many hopes.

This past week Eastport got a much-needed dose of very good news. The Arnold Development group of Kansas City specializes in the kind of walkable, environmentally sustainable, mixed-use and downtown-residential developments that make a huge difference in making cities feel “livable.” And this month Arnold has announced an $18 million undertaking, with partners in Eastport, to renovate the most imposing structure in the city’s downtown.

Classic roll-top sardine can (Wikimedia)

This is the now-derelict works of what was once the Seacoast Canning Company, a factory that produced tin cans during Eastport’s early 20th-century heyday as a world capital of the sardine industry. Ever seen old pictures of roll-top sardine tins? This building is where millions of them came from.


Montgomery County traffic, Cirrus Four-Three-Five Sierra Romeo taking Runway One-Four, VFR (visual flight rules) departure to the west, Montgomery.

Rolling down Runway 14 for takeoff from Montgomery County Airpark in Gaithersburg, Maryland. (Deborah Fallows)

And with that, we were off in our small Cirrus airplane for the last official journey of our American Futures series for The Atlantic, flying away from frigid Washington D.C. and its political turmoil, on a southerly route to California.

We have flown over 60,000 miles during the past three-and-a-half years, from the upper Midwest to Maine, south through New England and the Mid Atlantic states to Georgia and Florida, sweeping through the deep south, to Texas and the southwest, up the central valley of California to Oregon and Washington, and closing the loop to Montana, all the while snaking in and out of the so-called flyover country, the middle of everywhere through Wyoming, Kansas, Missouri, Ohio, West Virginia, and much of the rest.

Map of the first few legs of our travel, as shown last year in Jim’s cover story.

“Flyover” to us has meant landing in dozens of towns for jam-packed visits of a week or two, often returning for unfinished business, reporting, or nostalgia. The purpose of this last journey is a little different. Our destination is sunny, warm, mind-clearing and political soul-cleansing inland southern California, to Jim’s hometown of Redlands. We plan to ponder all we’ve seen and try to make some sense of it on a more composed canvas than the pointillist collection of hundreds of blog posts that we have written along the way.


Over SoCal on a recent trip. We're headed there again soon. Deborah Fallows

For me this is the third post of the day, and probably the last in this space for quite a while.

Effective today, I’m beginning a five-month book-writing leave from online and print activities for The Atlantic. At the start of June I plan to be back, recharged for the fray, and by then my wife Deb and I should—will!—have finished a book on the America we’ve seen in our travels across the country these past four years, and what that means for the years ahead.

Some practical notes:

  • A major satisfaction in writing in this space and its precursors since the mid-1990s has been engagement with readers. But by the final few chaotic months of this year’s campaign, I had given up even pretending to answer reader emails (or any emails), or sorting them for reader-comment posts. There are still hundreds I would like to have quoted but have not managed to use. I will soon forward some of those, and anything that arrives in coming weeks, to the impresario of our Notes section, Chris Bodenner, who has skillfully curated reader discussions. And not for the first time I’ll be considering the “email bankruptcy” option.
  • The last time I took a blogging leave was five years ago, when Deb and I moved back to China for me to finish my book China Airborne. (Her wonderful Dreaming in Chinese had just come out.) Back then, the concept of “blogging” still existed—that is, of frequent, incremental, voicey dispatches on a range of personalized topics—and I had the joy of assembling a stellar cast of guest bloggers to fill in. Really, it was an incredible group: check them out here. Times have changed, and there is no longer a set personal-blog space here for guests to fill. Our site keeps evolving, and I’m not sure what it will offer by the middle of this year. But for now you will just have to make do with the dozens of other items The Atlantic serves up each day.
  • Why a cold-turkey break? For an external reason, and an internal one.
    The external reason involves the new reality of the Donald Trump era. During the final six months of his campaign, I tried to keep up with the “norm-breaking,” unprecedented things the candidate kept doing and saying. That became a nearly full-time activity, and the number of entries ultimately reached 152. Since the election, the pace of Trump’s transgressions and aberrations has only increased. As a reporter you can keep up with this, in the full intensity it deserves, or you can do anything else. I am 100% on board in supporting the reporters, editors, and analysts at The Atlantic and elsewhere who are girding for daily engagement with the implications of Trump. But I think that the greatest journalistic value I can add is not by spending all my time as one more voice in the fact-check/ norm-defense patrol but instead in reporting on how the rest of the country can and should respond. And I know that the latter is the story I am more excited to tell.
  • This leads to the other, internal reason, which involves my personal journalistic metronome. Through my long career with The Atlantic I’ve had a sequence of shifts in topic and location. Through the early 1980s, I was heavily involved in debates about the military and budgetary policies of the incoming Ronald Reagan administration, including with my book National Defense. After five years of this, my family moved to Asia, to spend the late Reagan and early GHW Bush years viewing the U.S. from outside (and for me to do my books More Like Us and Looking at the Sun). I’ll skip ahead several topics and moves to the early 2000s, when I was back in Washington and heavily involved in debates about responding to the 9/11 attacks and invading Iraq (don’t do it!). After four-plus years of that, and reporting on the aftermath, in 2006 my wife and I moved to China, to spend the late GW Bush and early Obama eras seeing that country and viewing the U.S. from its perspective.

    This time, I’ve done what I can through the past year to lay out the consequences of this year’s presidential choice. Those consequences are now upon us. As with every other major shift in national direction, the resulting story needs to be told at many levels. The version of the story I’m most passionate about telling, and that I believe is least likely to tell itself otherwise, involves the implications of what we’ve seen in dozens of places like San Bernardino and Sioux Falls and Erie and Allentown and Ajo and Greenville and Columbus and Charleston and Dodge City and Duluth.             
  • The good and the bad of being in Washington is that what happens in national politics is right in front of you, unavoidably in your face all day long. The good part is why we’ve lived here for half of the past 40 years. The bad part is why we’ve lived elsewhere during the other half, in several-year installments.
    These next few months will be an “other half” period. We’ll be based in inland Southern California, in Redlands, for the writing-camp period. And I’m undertaking a variety of additional “mind in the right place”/attention-protective moves, from reading more things on paper to being less exposed to cable TV. Related: The more time passes, the more I find myself agreeing with Andrew Sullivan’s famed essay on this topic. The public’s attention really has been treated as a free good in the tech-distraction era. We need to fight to protect it. Or at least I do.
  • Might there be an exception to the online sabbatical? Anything is possible. Suppose Xi Jinping were to announce that he’s personally taking up small-plane aviation, in a speech that begins “I often think of the example of the boiling frog” and ends “may God Bless the United States of America!” (which would be quite a speech), all while holding a leafblower in one hand and a craft beer in the other. I’d probably have to say something.  

Online life changes and moves on, even more quickly than life in general. There are inevitable costs to stepping away. But in this case I believe there are greater benefits. See you in June.  

Barn at the Deerwood Ranch wild horse refugee, outside Laramie, Wyoming this past November. James Fallows

This is the first of three posts on this New Year’s Day, building toward a change in (my part of) this space for the next few months.

First installment: quick updates on a few places and projects that my wife Deb and I have learned about in our American Futures travels these past few years.

  • Pittsburgh, Pa. The wonderful City of Asylum community, which Deb wrote about online here and which I described briefly in my cover story in March, has just won a $100,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Congratulations! It’s an important and much-deserved recognition.
  • San Bernardino, Ca. Long before it was featured in global news because of the terror-related mass shooting a year ago, San Bernardino had struggled with one economic and political blow after another, as we reported here and here. The most dramatic downward step happened in the 1990s, when the enormous Norton Air Force Base, dominant employer when I was growing up in the area and long a bulwark of the regional economy, was closed for good.
    This past month the San Bernardino Sun reported on a study showing that all the job loss from that closure has finally been recovered, and that the shift — largely to logistics operations for the likes of Amazon, the Stater Brothers grocery chain, and Kohl’s — has on a spending-power basis offset the loss of the base. The former Norton property is now San Bernardino International airport, SBD, which has itself become a major employer. I wrote about SBD several times, for instance here, when our propeller airplane was based at its Luxivair facility during our 2015 California travels; we’re headed there again soon. Through this past shopping-and-shipping season the San Bernardino airport won a major new UPS contract. The city of San Bernardino is now looking toward its post-civic-bankruptcy future, as Ryan Hagen of the Sun describes here. Good luck to a town that deserves much more of it.
  • Fresno and Clovis, Ca. I’ve talked about Fresno’s economic, cultural, technological, and downtown renovations in an endless series of posts; Deb has described schools there and in neighboring Clovis. Here’s a report on a big new environmental victory for Clovis; here’s a time-lapse video cam of the ambitious reconstruction work underway on Fresno’s downtown Fulton Street Mall; here are a few of the ever-expanding civic and tech activities of the training and incubator company Bitwise (including, topically for now, a seminar on how to avoid conflict and actually persuade in an era of polarized views); and here is the latest brewpub to announce its opening in Fresno’s reviving downtown. Happy New Year to all.  
  • Eastport, Me. This fall the Boston Globe had a report on some of the plans, achievements, and frustrations we’ve been describing over the years in the little Down East city of Eastport, Maine. Now the Christian Science Monitor adds to the discussion of how climate shifts are affecting life in this part of the world.   

  • Louisville, Ky. Back in June I reported on the exciting FirstBuild maker / prototyping / incubator facility in Louisville. Had the campaign (and China) not consumed so much of my life in the following months, I would have already said more about the stream of new products continuing to come onto the market from FirstBuild. During my visit I was intrigued by its Prisma cold-brew coffee maker, then still in early prototyping. The whole idea of the FirstBuild operation is to enable more Americans to make (and then sell) technically innovative, commercially viable, manufactured products. You can read about a range of the offerings, most based on crowdsourced pre-orders and funding, on FirstBuild’s blog and their Facebook page.

I’ve got a dozen more items on the update list, but these will have to do for now. There’s a lot happening inside the country. Happy New Year to everyone busily making America greater.

How different would this have been if it were a giant chicken? Or a duck? Norman Rockwell, 'Freedom From Want,' US National Archives

When you are an American living overseas, Thanksgiving is an even more powerful nationally unifying holiday than the Fourth of July. All the Americans know something special is going on; for everyone else, it’s just another Thursday. Even for non-Americans who are aware of the concept, the shifting date means they can’t quite keep it in mind, as they can with July 4. So the overseas bands of Yanks figure out where they can scrounge up our national-cuisine oddities like actual turkeys (usually we made do with great big chickens in Malaysia, and once a duck in China), cranberries, filling for pumpkin and pecan pies, etc. Even the tiny marshmallows to go with sweet potatoes. Then the American expats gather at someone’s home in the evening. Back in the days of VCRs, we would play a tape of some old football game for atmosphere.

This is on my mind because this is the first Thanksgiving that I will technically miss, for dateline reasons. I’ll get on a plane when it’s still Wednesday night in the U.S., and get off on the other side of the Pacific when Thursday is almost done. It’s a brief out-and-back trip and a long story, but “2016: The Year Without Thanksgiving” is an uncomfortably close match for my mood.

Nonetheless! As time allows in the coming days and weeks, I’ll put up some brief Thanksgiving-toned items about regrowth, recovery, resistance, reform, renovation, renaissance, and overall re-themed efforts at the local level. Let me start with this one now, which involves one of the towns that epitomized the mainly white, economically beset, distressed-manufacturing zones that were Donald Trump’s mainstay. This is our frequent haunt of Erie, Pennsylvania, long a Democratic stronghold that this time went narrowly for Trump. But even as the votes were being counted, the city had some good news.

Citizens of Stockton at city council meeting considering library expansion "Raising Literacy," Robert Dawson

I mentioned yesterday that several local initiatives could mean as much to their communities or states as the outcome of most national races. The two historical examples I naturally think of are from California, Propositions 13 and 187. Prop 13, which was passed nearly 40 years ago, strictly capped property taxes—and in so doing helped shift California’s public schools from among the best-funded in the country, as they were in my school days, to among the worst.

Proposition 187, which was passed in 1994, limited public services for illegal/undocumented immigrants. It was a Republican-backed measure, championed by then-governor Pete Wilson, and was very unpopular with Latinos. You can’t prove exact cause and effect, but there’s no denying this change: In the decades leading up to Prop 187, the California of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan was a reliably Republican state in presidential elections. Since then, coincident with its growing Latino population, California has been the Democrats’ most important bulwark. (In the 11 presidential elections from 1948 to 1992, Harry Truman through Bill Clinton, California went Democratic only twice. In every election since then the Democrat has won, with margins that keep going up.)

Two of the measures I mentioned yesterday were city-wide. One is San Bernardino’s long-overdue reform of its dysfunctional city charter, via Measure L on today’s ballot. The other is Stockton’s attempt, through its Measure M, to approve a very small (quarter-cent) sales tax increase to fund libraries and recreation centers for young people and families who now badly lack them.

Stockton, once a site of commercial and industrial wealth, has become one of California’s poorer cities. Many of its people are immigrants; the population mix is roughly “40/30/20/10,” or roughly 40% Latino, 30% white, 20% Asian, and 10% black. “We’re the most diverse medium-sized city in America,” Mas’ood Cajee, a Stockton dentist who is one of the leaders of the Yes on M movement, told me yesterday.

Another gigantic turbine blade is delivered in Spearville, Kansas Nicolas Pollock / The Atlantic

At its peak, nearly one century ago in 1920, the coal-mining industry employed nearly 800,000 people in the United States. Decade by decade, as America’s population has swelled and its economy has grown, and as total coal output as also increased, employment in coal mines has steadily fallen. (The one exception was in the late 1970s, immediately after the first “oil shocks,” when the number of miners rose from about 195,000 to about 230,000. By 1985, it was back down to 170,000.)

Presidential administrations come and go; energy and environmental policies change; but the one-way pressure of technology is such that the barely 80,000 people who now work in U.S. mines produce vastly more coal than 800,000 did a century ago. It’s no “war on coal.” It’s what has happened in the world since the dawn of the industrial age.

But of course the plight of the coal industry, which is all too real for the people affected, comes up frequently in political and economic discussions—compared with, say, the situation of dental hygienists, of whom there are more than twice as many as coal miners. Or of bus drivers, of whom there are nearly ten times as many.

Or, crucially, of those employed in the energy industries that come after coal: solar, wind, tidal and geothermal, and other renewable sources. Employment there is growing much faster than it’s shrinking in coal, yet somehow this is barely part of our political or state-of-America awareness. Employment in solar alone nearly doubled in just three years, from around 120,000 in 2012 to around 240,000 in 2015. That’s three times as many solar-industry employees as coal miners, but they have at best one-third the mind-share in media and politics.

This is understandable: what’s familiar, and fading, is easier to recognize than what’s new and just taking form. But it does distort the way Americans think (and feel) about so many things, starting with the overall balance between decline and renewal in the country.


Wind turbine display in western Kansas (Nic Pollock / The Atlantic)

This is the set-up for the next video in The Atlantic’s election-season American Futures coverage. This one is from our familiar and favored stomping grounds of Erie, Pennsylvania; Fresno and environs in California; and Dodge City and neighboring Spearville in western Kansas.

A view of Eastport, with the old sardine cannery, the Tides Institute and Museum of Art, a former bank, a new restaurant, and more. (Courtesy of Tides Institute and Museum of Art)

The Boston Globe had a story over the weekend about the never-say-die small city of Eastport, Maine. As we’ve been chronicling online for the past few years, and in this magazine story in early 2014, Eastport balances the difficulties and the opportunities of its unusual location, at the northeastern extreme of Down East Maine across a strait from Campobello Island in Canada.

Difficulty: it is so far from anyplace else. It’s two-plus hours by car from Bangor, four-plus from Portland. Opportunity: its distant setting is so pristine and beautiful, and so close to both the tidal-power potential of the Bay of Fundy and the touristic and marine-economy potential of the sea.

Sisters originally from Darfur, resettled in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The young lady on the left was a proud member of public high school ROTC. Deborah Fallows / the Atlantic

Deb Fallows has a new post up, about what’s actually involved in settling immigrants from Syria—or Somalia or Congo or Bhutan—in the American cities that have taken the lead in doing so. It’s based on our reporting in Sioux Falls, Burlington, Erie, Fresno, Dodge City, and elsewhere. I encourage you to read it on general principles, and for these additional reasons:

1. More and more an axis in this campaign, and in the ongoing struggles to define what comes next for America, is a disagreement over whether America is better as a more racially and culturally diverse society, or as one that is more “traditional” homogeneous society.

Compared with most other developed societies, Americans are more pro-diversity. That is what a major Pew global survey found this year:

Pew Global Attitudes Survey, 2016

But within the United States, Democrats/Clinton supporters are dramatically more comfortable with this kind of change than Republicans and Trump supporters. From another Pew survey:

Pew Research Center, August 2016

If you’d like to see those differences playing themselves out, I invite you to check out (warily) the comments section of Deb’s latest post, in which some people lambaste the menace of outsiders and others welcome them.


2. Our experience around the country has been that the more people are exposed to immigrants and refugees, the less panicked they are about them. I won’t try to give you a referenced-and-linked proof of that right now, though I will give a link to this video. I will say that it’s a powerful, consistent impression—and that, for instance, you’ll hear Donald Trump get lustier cheers for “Build that wall!” in New Hampshire or Iowa than you will in Texas or California.

The interior of America was exciting for Albert Bierstadt and the imaginative landscape painters of the 19th century. It's newly exciting, in a different way, now. ('Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains,' Albert Bierstadt, 1868, Smithsonian Institute, via Wikimedia)

1) Meet the Press podcast. Yesterday afternoon I spoke with Chuck Todd for his podcast; the segment has gone up today, and you can find it here on Soundcloud or here from the MTP site.

Mainly we were talking about the election, immigration, the cycles of class friction through American history, the strategic and economic implications of TPP, and so on. But near the end, Chuck (whom I know from his days as editor of Hotline, part of the Atlantic combine) asked me where I’d like to live next.

The premise was: over the years my wife Deb and I, plus our kids when they were little, had lived in a sequence of foreign spots, reporting on what seemed interesting. What and where would be interesting next?

I hadn’t been expecting the question and just said, without thinking, “the interior of the United States.”

By “interior” I meant a shorthand for the places other than the handful of big coastal cities that dominate media awareness and the sense of chic: Boston to DC on the East Coast, Seattle to LA in the west, a courtesy extension to Miami and San Diego, and a smattering of others. Basically this media-mind-map creates a picture of the United States as if it were Australia, with the action all happening along the rim.

Of course a sense of excitement about the rest of the country reflects what Deb and I have been reporting in our travels these past few years, but it actually is something I believe more strongly the more I see. If you were traveling the country wide-eyed and mainly tuned out from the national political news, you would think this is a big, interesting, diverse civilization, in the process of dealing with and beginning to solve the many ills of the era.

Much as I wasn’t expecting the question, Chuck wasn’t expecting the answer, but we agreed and went on to some of the political and economic ramifications thereof.

RJ Messenger (left), successful Erie entrepreneur, at the Radius CoWork space in downtown Erie. Nicolas Pollock / The Atlantic

I hope you'll check out the second in the series of short films that The Atlantic’s video team has done with my wife Deb and me, as we’ve been on the move around the country during the election year. The first in the series is here, and my item describing it is here.

Both these videos, produced by The Atlantic’s Nic Pollock, are meant to match issues that are prominent in the national campaign level with their city-by-city ramifications. This one has scenes from three cities coping with economic and social dislocations: Erie, Pennsylvania; Dodge City, Kansas; and Fresno, California.

You can see for yourself what it shows. But for me one very powerful theme that comes through is the generational contrast we’ve encountered again and again across the country.

It’s starkest in Erie: people in their 50s and 60s, or older, grew up expecting a steady job in a big factory. The last of those giant factories is slowly closing down—sending most of its jobs not to Mexico or China but to (gasp) Texas—and people who used to work there are mournful. People in their 20s and 30s never expected to have those jobs and are reacting differently. As you will see:


To extend a point we’ve made nonstop through these reports since 2013 and in my cover story earlier this year, the dislocations, the polarization, the pain, and the anger of America’s Second Gilded Age are real. But what’s also real is the sense in many (of course not all) parts of the country that a response is possible, that they can be agents of their own destiny, and their community’s, rather than just objects of crushing outside forces.