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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Another Non-victimized View of Appalachia

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.

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.

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 famous "rising sun" chair from the Constitutional Convention in 1787, which led to Benjamin Franklin's famous question about whether it depicted a setting sun, or a rising sun. National Park Service

The prospect for governance at the national level is dark. If you were in doubt, here is some recent grist.

This makes it all the more important to notice, to connect, and to learn from the dispersed examples of local-level renewal, progress, and reinvention around the country. That is the intended theme of this ongoing thread.

With minimal elaboration, here are a few recent installments and bits of evidence toward this end:

1. Progressive federalism: My friends Lenny Mendonca and Laura Tyson have written extensively on this phenomenon, and how exactly cities, states, and regions and work most effectively in a time of national dysfunction. (Lenny Mendonca is the former head of CalForward and recently announced chief economic adviser to new California Governor Gavin Newsom. Laura Tyson was head of Bill Clinton’s National Economic Council and is a professor at UC Berkeley.)

In an article “America’s New Democracy Movement,” they detail a theme discussed here over the months, and evident in the 2018 mid-term results: moves toward structural improvements in the machinery of governance, at the local and state level. The state-level moves in the opposite direction, notably in North Carolina and Wisconsin, are well known. Mendonca and Tyson say there is an opposing and more positive trend:

But the story of the 2018 midterms is about more than Trump and the future of his presidency. It is about an American electorate yearning for democratic reforms. Like in the Progressive era of the early twentieth century, when citizens and states spearheaded a wave of measures to improve democratic governance, voters from both parties used the election to signal their support for democracy….

With the federal government mired in dysfunction and now in its third shutdown since January 2018, voters are taking charge. Come 2020, there is every reason to expect that “progressive federalism” will usher in democratic reforms on a scale not seen since the heyday of the original Progressive movement.


2. Also in California, the governor-once-removed Arnold Schwarzenegger is continuing his drive for progressive democratic reform, notably through anti-gerrymandering measures. On January 10 his institute at USC had a big “Fair Maps Incubator” conference about a new approach to districting. I look forward to seeing the results.


The sun sets, and a rainbow rises, over the U.S. Capitol on this past election day. The imagery may seem over-obvious, but it's a real photo, and appropriate. Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Back in the days before all data was stored everywhere, forever, never to disappear even if you try, writers and composers shared the experience of waking up at 3am, in cold-sweat terrors because of the “lost manuscript” nightmare.

This fear was based on hoary stories about some novelist or historian who got into a cab with a bag containing a 1,000-page manuscript representing years of work — and got out of the cab leaving the bag behind, impossible to retrieve. Or, in a variant, the only copy of the manuscript was sitting in the house, when the house burned down—or aboard a boat, when the boat sank.

Apparently real-life writers have actually suffered this misfortune. You can read an account covering authors from Milton to Hemingway to Edna St. Vincent Millay here, and others here and here.

I’ve personally seen a real-life version of this nightmare. As described here, the very first story I ever wrote for my college newspaper was about a fire that destroyed the university economics department. On the sidewalk outside, I encountered a man sobbing as he watched the blaze: the only extant copy of the book he’d been working on for years was inside, and was reduced to ashes. (As I confessed: “The moment had a career-changing effect on me. As the first question I asked, for the first story I wrote, I turned to this unfortunate and said: Well, Dr. Swami, how does it feel to see your life's work vanish? I was becoming a journalist.”)

And I’ve recently encountered a minor-league real-world version. On a long-haul flight on the morning after this past week’s election, I ground out a “meaning of it all” dispatch for our web site. But for oddball logistics reasons, that couldn’t get posted right away — and ever-changing news headlines made what I’d originally written seem oddly framed.

So this post, kicking off a new Thread, has two points. One is to summarize the post-election wrap-up I had laid out, in lost-manuscript form. The other is to give some illustrations of what I argue is the fundamentally promising post-election theme.