Reporter's Notebook

The ‘Our Towns’ Notebook
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On this page you’ll find updates by James and Deborah Fallows, arising from their travels across the country for The Atlantic’s American Futures project and their 2018 book Our Towns.

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An Appalachian Saga That Is Different From Most You’ve Already Heard

An opening slide from the new documentary Moundsville, with the ancient Native American burial mound from which the town took its name in the background. John Miller / David Bernabo, from their film Moundsville

At the end of February, Deb Fallows and I were at an event in Pittsburgh at Alphabet City, a bookstore connected to the wonderful City of Asylum, which we wrote about several years ago. While there, we met John W. Miller, a former Wall Street Journal reporter turned filmmaker and local chronicler, who introduced us to a documentary film that takes a fresh and unusual look at a very familiar-seeming topic.

The movie is called Moundsville, produced by Miller and the Pittsburgh filmmaker David Bernabo, and it is about the travails of a West Virginia town that is coping with a usual-sounding range of Appalachian or declining-industrial-area woes:

Big, thriving factories had provided good, steady jobs—and then they closed, one by one, under pressure from automation or foreign competition. Downtown stores had held the town together—and then the big-box mall took the customers away. Young people who had the choice left town, and didn’t come back. The city’s population fell. Those who stayed got older, as the town’s hopes dwindled, and the remaining sources of work were the mall stores themselves, the fracking business, and a hoped-for tourist economy.

That sounds like a story you’ve heard many times. The Moundsville film, by Miller and Bernabo, presents the results in a way different from most other documentaries I’ve seen—but one strongly resonant with the experience Deb and I had in our “Our Towns” interviews across the country these past few years.

You can see the whole film (for $3.99) here, and a trailer is below. (A four-minute “Why Moundsvillle?” video with background on the project is here.)

Moundsville from David Bernabo on Vimeo.

The film is a little over an hour long, and it builds slowly from its economic-shock premise to an ending that is surprising on many levels. (The end involves the central role of a prison in the city’s economy and culture, but not in a way you would expect.)

What particularly struck Deb and me were three aspects of the film that were consistent with our experience in interviewing and traveling, but different from the standard declining-mill-town report:

The central canal in Indianapolis, Indiana
The central canal in Indianapolis, Indiana Zohra Bensemra / Reuters

Indiana Humanities has launched a two-year major program called INseparable, designed to improve connections and understanding between people in the state’s big cities and those in its smaller cities and rural areas.

This coming week, my wife, Deb, and I will be in four different Indiana cities as part of their INconversation series (in conjunction with New America’s Indianapolis program), to discuss what we’ve learned in other parts of the country and to hear about what is happening in their communities.

Details of these events are on the Indiana Humanities Calendar site, here. In short, we will be in:

Hope to see you in one of these places.

The West Virginia state capitol building, in Charleston. This picture was taken in 2010, at ceremonies for the death of the state's enormously influential long-time senator, Robert Byrd.
The West Virginia state capitol building, in Charleston. This picture was taken in 2010, at ceremonies for the death of the state's enormously influential long-time senator, Robert Byrd. Larry Downing / Reuters

Last week I mentioned how fresh and valuable I thought the new documentary Moundsville was, for presenting the hard-luck story of a West Virginia town that had lost its big factories and was trying to find a way ahead.

The setup of the story might seem familiar, from countless “lost hopes in the heartland” reports over the past few years. But its tone was quite distinct—and, as I argued in that piece, familiar to Deb and me from our reporting in similar towns in recent years. That is: The residents were clear-eyed about where the town now stood, and what its prospects were. But they spent little time on “Who did this to us?!?!” rage—which is worth noting mainly because reports of resentment, rage, and lashing out have been such a staple of recent political reporting from economically struggling areas. The difference in the Moundsville movie was the sense of humor, and of reality—and of agency, of people not carrying themselves as objects of trends starting somewhere else, though objectively big trends had displaced them, but instead as individuals with their own choices to make.

This is a setup for an endorsement of the op-ed this weekend by the novelist Robert Gipe, which The New York Times presented with the headline “Appalachia Is More Diverse Than You Think.” I read it as saying not that West Virginians and other Appalachians were “worse off” or “better off” or “angrier” or more or less “racist” than you thought. But rather that they were complex human beings, not markers on the simplified grid of pro-Trump/anti-Trump national politics.

For instance:

Many of my pro-Trump neighbors are frustrated and angry, but they are not naïve. They bear a hard-earned sophistication regarding the reliability of political promises …

What pains me and many of my neighbors in the mountains the most are divisive political posturing and partisan wrangling divorced from the realities of our economic struggles … We in Appalachia join our fellow Americans in asking: Who will encourage our best selves? Who will enable our joy? Who will release the energy hiding in our hearts?

The whole essay is worth reading, and I mention it for that reason and because it so strongly resembles what we have heard in many other places. In one form or another, people have been asking, “Who will encourage our best selves?” Thanks to Robert Gipe for highlighting the universality of this question, beyond all “red state”/“blue state” simplifications.