The public library system in Brownsville, Texas, has a long history of inventing and then reinventing itself to be of, by, and for the people. The library story began modestly at the end of the 19th century, with the personal collection of Irish-born U.S. Army Captain William Kelly, who had settled in Brownsville and become a renowned businessman, proponent of Brownsville’s first public schools, and a civic activist. His daughter Geraldine recollected later in the Brownsville Herald, “He had a very fine library, which he used continually and loved.”
In 1912, a group of Brownsville’s intellectual and high-minded women calling themselves the Learners Club started the town’s first subscription library. (Other women’s clubs have been promoters of early libraries: In 1905, the women’s club of Dodge City, Kansas, inspired some of its prominent citizens to ask Andrew Carnegie if he would support building one of his libraries in Dodge City. He did.)
A decade and a half later, the Learners Club and the city teamed up to transform the Brownsville subscription library into a public library in a larger space. It moved a few more times over the next decades, before partnering with Texas Southmost College and locating the public library on its campus. There they stayed until 1991.
Then, with the city’s support, the Brownsville public library pivoted toward its modern era.
Jerry Hedgecock, who has been with Brownsville libraries since 1993 and is now the director of the Public Information Services Department in Brownsville, described to me how the library was able to start back in the 1990s, in effect from scratch, with the driving mission to make the library a go-to destination for the residents of Brownsville. They erected a new building and ushered in new ideas and new programs.
After some early years, which Hedgecock described as, “to be honest, very boring,” they prepared to change emphasis so as to offer more services. It was all about being relevant to the community, he said: “What do the people want? What do we want?”
Library plans were farsighted; they were creative and intended to reflect the culture of the town and region; and they were executed efficiently and also patiently, adding projects piecemeal, year by year. With a line item in the municipal budget supporting them ($4.8 million in 2019), a library foundation that contributes to capital projects, and the still vital Learners Club and a Friends group pitching in, the library evolved.
One year, old wallpaper was removed. Another year, end panels with blown-up photos of important images of the region were affixed to the rows of bookshelves. To be both efficient and personalized, the library created a graphics department to make their own artwork, with double wins of being less expensive and more Brownsville-personal than what was available from generic catalogs.
The library currently owns and makes available to users 259 computers, as online access is critical to this community. But the library’s leaders expect that as more people become able to afford their own computers, the need will ratchet down, and the library will switch some of the computer space to suit different needs.
As with every other library I visited, use of space was a top concern. (This is despite the common impression that libraries must have lots of extra space, as some reduce their holdings of physical books.) Even in Texas, where the size and scale of everything from ranches to libraries feels vast, Hedgecock says that space in the library is tight, and they pay close attention to how they use every nook and cranny.
The “maker space” holds eight 3D printers, and there are plans for laser cutters and more.
Maybe they’ll build a tool bank, suggested Hedgecock, an area that would be stocked with devices and equipment to meet the expanding skill sets of their population. Being nimble and responsive to the population and their changing needs is critical. “Without new services,” Hedgecock said, “we won’t be relevant to the community. We can’t be complacent.”
The library took over the local-government access television channel, whose studio is housed inside the building. The public was delighted, but became distracted enough by its presence that the station is now out of sight behind unmarked closed doors. There are plans to relocate the station to a newly created municipal department. I found this recording from the station of a live event presented by Texas Monthly in Brownsville this July. This magazine, where my husband, Jim, worked in its founding days in the 1970s, when we were living in Austin while I did my graduate studies at the University of Texas, takes its show on the road around Texas for live 90-minute performances of music, video, reading, and storytelling, curated by the editors. You’ll do yourself a favor to watch this one, where writer Wes Ferguson reads about his return to Brownsville.
I visited the library on an early voting day for the city election, and the place was buzzing. People were wandering in and out, having lunch at the library’s cafeteria, checking books in and out, sitting at tables reading newspapers or at computers working.
What surprised me most in the Brownsville library was the teen space. It’s called Space 14s. You get it. We’ve all heard about the children’s areas—the reading readiness, the story hours and preschool activities. From what I’ve seen, most public libraries are sophisticated with the preschoolers by now, and for many libraries, making themselves relevant to teenagers is the next step.
Brownsville is ahead of the curve on this one. Several librarians around the country told me that teens are the hardest group to attract to the library. Brownsville took this challenge head-on and worked with the Library Interiors of Texas to design its two-story teen space in the library. The themes of outer space, diversity, and technology dominate wall murals everywhere you look. Colorful, comfortable seating around workstations, at tables, and in big chairs invites hanging around. The spotlighting and the upper-level overlook struck me as opening space to easily scope out everyone and everything happening, which is how I think of preferred teenage behavior.
Hedgecock described the public opening of the new teen space, Space 14s. The crowd gathered. A curtain was drawn in front of the space and lights were down. The curtain opened; lights were brought up. As Hedgecock relives the moment when people first laid eyes on the new teen space, “It was the first time I’ve heard an audible gasp from the public at a library.”
I asked about the Brownsville library as a “second responder,” as I had heard about other libraries that had stepped up to serve their people after the riots in Ferguson, or Hurricane Sandy in New Jersey, or the shootings in Orlando. Brownsville had its own story: During the recession, one family where both parents lost jobs and couldn’t afford to run their air conditioning (which is a big deal during the summers in Brownsville), came to the library and asked if they could spend their days inside. “Of course,” was the answer. After the father got another job, and the family was able to run their air conditioners again, they sent a thank you note to the library for helping them when it mattered.
I heard another second-responder story when I visited the second, smaller, neighborhood library in Brownsville, the Southmost Library. Librarians there told me about the kids who are bused in from the nearby migrant-detention center to watch movies, eat popcorn, and drink lemonade. Jim and I were not able to go inside a detention center, but it takes no leap of imagination to guess how the kids value this field trip to the public library.
Brownsville is the southernmost U.S. border town with Mexico, down at the very tip of the map of Texas. Across the Rio Grande is Matamoros. Some 20 miles to the east is the Gulf of Mexico. If you drive 60 miles to the north and west along the Old Military Highway to McAllen, you’ll see stretches of border wall, irregular in their size and design. It was very hot when we were in Brownsville last month. It reminded me of Nanjing, one of the so-called furnaces of China, where the soles of your sneakers sink into the soft tarmac of the roads.
Elon Musk has built his SpaceX site on the road from Brownsville to the coast. It is an assembly site for now, in a clearing that looks like half moonscape, half desert, with giant, surreal, bright-silvery sections of rocket being welded together. The plan is for rockets to launch from here one day. Just beyond SpaceX, the Boca Chica road fades to sandy coastal beach. It feels like the edge of the Earth.
Border Patrol agents cruise the highways and roads around Brownsville. One afternoon, as I was driving the highway north from downtown, a silent ambulance cruised by, with a Border Patrol SUV, caked with dust and dried mud, right on its tail. I realized that I didn’t have a clue of all that was really going on in Brownsville.
Some things about Brownsville are easy to see. The buildings of the downtown—many tattered now, featuring discount goods for the cross-border shopping market in Matamoros—still have great bones, as the architects say, and are waiting for their second chance. Brownsville was too poor to raze those buildings when businesses went dark, an obvious advantage now. (As we have seen elsewhere.)
A hip pizza and wine bar called Dodici opened recently in the old Fernandez building downtown. One of the owners is Trey Mendez, a lawyer who was just elected mayor in a runoff contest while we were visiting. The Market Square area is newly renovated, as part of a downtown-revival program under the mayor for the previous eight years, Tony Martinez. Brownsville has an outsize number of museums, including the Historic Brownsville Museum, which is a real gem. The Mitte Cultural District boasts “something for everyone,” with its zoo, pool, pavilions, playhouse, and much more. RJ Mitte (who played Walter White’s son in Breaking Bad) is of that Mitte family, and is carrying on the family philanthropic efforts of his grandfather. Other buildings are works in progress. More are still pipe dreams.
Of course, you cannot miss the border wall. The wall near downtown’s Gateway International Bridge has been there for about 10 years, long enough that the landscaping and vegetation along its river pathway and the Alice Wilson Hope Park on the U.S. side have grown in to looking normal.
On our first evening in Brownsville, when the heat of the day had subsided a little, Jim and I decided to walk across the International Bridge into Matamoros. How could we not? We had no chance of entering the detention centers that have become so notorious in the Rio Grande Valley and elsewhere along the border. We wanted to have at least a look at the routine daily flow north and south.
Our crossing was entirely simple and uneventful, of course, just like it is for residents of both Brownsville and Matamoros who cross the bridge daily for school, jobs, shopping, dinners out, or visiting friends and family. (Brownsville’s population is roughly 95 percent Hispanic, and many people have long-standing ties across the border. The interconnectedness of the two cities’ lives is the central theme of an acclaimed recent novel set in Brownsville: Where We Come From, by Oscar Cásares. When we were in town, then-Mayor Martinez gave us a copy of the book.) Along with a small handful of people also making the trip on foot, we deposited four quarters in the turnstile and pushed our way through to Mexico.
I looked up and down the river, assessing it with my swimmer’s eye, thinking how surprisingly narrow and benign it seemed, maybe 50 yards wide. The river was dark and muddy, not in the least inviting, even in the heat. The Rio Grande appeared to have no current. But of course we all know that surface appearances can deceive, as they most certainly did in the horrific episode when Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez of El Salvador and his 2-year-old daughter, Valeria, drowned trying to cross it not far from this spot, a few days after we were there.
Brownsville residents, who have lived all their life as part of a binational community extended on both sides of the river, have a different sense of the border from those for whom it’s an abstraction. “We don’t think of it as a border,” we heard from so many people that we stopped counting. “We think of it as a river.” I realized that it was just the way those of us who live on the border between Washington, D.C., and Virginia think of the Potomac.
Beyond these impressions of Brownsville, there are data points that are more quantifiable. This is where the public-health issues come to the forefront, and they are stark. (My thanks to The Atlantic’s Faith Hill for help collecting these data.)
Some 51 percent of the adult population in the area are obese; an additional 34 percent are overweight.
Of children 8 to 17 years old, 54 percent are obese, compared with about 33 percent nationally. Joseph McCormick, until just recently the dean of the Brownsville campus of the UTHealth School of Public Health, wrote in an email: “These children have higher BMI, higher waist to hip ratios, higher systolic and diastolic blood pressures, higher triglycerides and LDL (bad cholesterol), lower HDL (good cholesterol); They had higher insulin resistance (a precursor to diabetes), and elevated liver enzymes suggestive of fatty liver disease, a very common problem in our population in adults.”
Some 27 percent of adults have diabetes, about three times the national level. About one-third of those with diabetes didn’t know they had it before being tested.
Only 42 percent of Brownsville’s population have some kind of health-care insurance.
For more positive comparative news, life expectancy in Cameron County, which includes Brownsville, is about 80 years, four years longer than the national average.
And Texas has one of the country’s lowest rates of death from opioid-involved drug overdoses: 5.1 for every 100,000 people, compared with the national average of 14.6.
Brownsville is a poor town; nearly 31 percent of the residents live in poverty, 38 percent of children. The median income is $35,000. Some 87 percent of schoolchildren in Cameron County qualify for free or reduced lunch.
I had lunch one day to talk about these statistics with Rose Zavaletta Gowen, a medical doctor who grew up in Brownsville, trained in Dallas, and returned to practice medicine. She soon turned to public-health advocacy and added a new role as an elected city commissioner. Gowen framed her thinking, advocacy, passion, and action plans for her hometown this way: “We traditionally think we need economic development and education, and we’ll get to health later or afterwards.” She added, “But later may be too late, and putting it off hinders progress in economic development and education as well.”
Gowen is part of Brownsville’s Community Advisory Board (CAB), a network of more than 200 Brownsville residents and individuals from health-care, education, business, and community groups, and the UTHealth campus, which, with its newly appointed dean of the campus, Belinda Reininger, has been key in the founding and support of CAB. All together, they are pushing toward building a healthier population and lifestyle, in a very Brownsville-specific way.
Every community we have visited for our American Futures project and our subsequent book, Our Towns, has focused on the “local” as its guide and frame for plans and actions. In Brownsville, that eye on local seemed to us as compelling and powerful as in any other community we have seen, and maybe even more so. Sometimes “local” means a focus on physical assets, or geography, or demographics, or industry. In Brownsville, as we listened to citizens talk, “local” seemed to be mainly about culture.
The culture of Brownsville was the backdrop to their master plan for health and wellness—and many other town issues. “We are fighters. We stand by our family. We are proud. We may be poor, but we do not think of ourselves as just poor. We think of ourselves as blessed to have our families, customs, and region surrounding us.” And Gowen added in talking about outsiders’ impressions of Brownsville, “You don’t hear that on the news.”
Those traits translated into action. Brownsville is not looking or waiting for top-down solutions and proclamations. Members of its community decided to: make local-government regulations that support their goals. Get smart about seeking funding, from the government, foundations, and nonprofits. Not let rebuffs from big funding stop them; take it step by step; and find corners to improve. Educate the public and brand the message “Health and wellness.” Become a model for success.
Through its many initiatives, the Brownsville Wellness Coalition is all about healthy food and healthy bodies.The Community Gardens program teaches gardening classes and distributes free transplants and compost. Five gardens hold nearly 200 beds.
People can buy produce from the weekly farmers’ market with cash or with vouchers from federally subsidized programs such as SNAP, WIC, and the Farm Fresh Voucher program, especially important in this low-income town. Plans are under way through a coalition of funders to renovate an old town cannery, the Gutierrez Warehouse, into a permanent home for the farmers’ market. When finished, the Quonset hut plans also call for accommodating a food bank and a “kitchen incubator” with a commercial kitchen for small food businesses. And for those who can’t get to the farmers’ market, the Fresco Mobile Market food trucks may come to them.
And for the bodies, the Wellness Coalition sponsors a walking-group program, the Walking Club, with motivational support and progress tracking.
An annual challenge program organized by the city and the UTHealth School of Public Health, and drawing help from local gyms, nutritionists, trainers, and other experts, encourages not only weight loss, but also sustainable lifestyle changes toward better health. Nearly 7,500 people participated in the three-month program this year.
The monthly CycloBia closes some Brownsville streets to cars and opens them to the 10,000 participating residents to walk, bike, skateboard, skate, and run.
And for the timid, who may be the most reluctant to begin, the UTHealth School of Public Health has prepared online resources, Tu Salud Si Cuenta, where people can tiptoe into exercise and healthy eating and weight loss privately and solo. I found the stories poignant, and brave, and ended up rooting for them.
Brownsville is also part of a multiuse-trail program (bikes! paddling! hiking!) throughout the lower Rio Grande Valley that will link several towns, beaches, preserves, waterways, and cultural sites over 400-plus miles, incorporating as well a dream of tourism potential.
Is any of this working? According to McCormick, the rates of obesity and diabetes have dropped about 3 to 4 percent in Brownsville in about the past five years.
Trails through downtown Brownsville already give lots of folks options for daily commutes to school or work or, as in our case, a visit to 1848 BBQ, a slow-cook barbecue named for the year Brownsville was founded. As one who spent about five years living in Austin and got my graduate degree from the University of Texas, I feel that my Texas bona fides and palate entitle me to shout out Abraham Avila, the chef of 1848. Yeah, lots of calories, but sitting right on a hike-and-bike trail, you can worry about working it off later. It’s worth it.
For once, he may be on the wrong side of a power dynamic.
To use power, you must have it.
On the night of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's death, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced that a Trump nominee to replace Ginsburg would receive a vote on the floor of the Senate.
That announcement promised a use of power without hesitation or compunction, an abrupt reversal of the supposed rule that blocked an Obama nomination nine months before the 2016 election. This supposed rule would seem much better justified in 2020 than 2016. This time, the vacancy has occurred only 46 days before an election. This time, the party of the president making the nomination seems likely to lose, not win. This time, the Senate majority to approve the nomination may lose too.
With a Supreme Court vacancy after Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, Republican senators must again choose between country and party.
Nearly every reporter in Washington has experienced it: A Republican member of Congress says “off the record,” shifts into a quieter voice, and expresses how much he or she doesn’t like President Donald Trump. Soon after, you watch this same elected official speak up in favor of the president—or, more often, avoid saying anything meaningful at all. Sometimes about the same issue that they were complaining about to you in private. Sometimes within the same day. Sometimes within the same hour.
The battle to fill the Supreme Court vacancy created by Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death is a pivotal moment for these whispering Republicans in the Senate.
The prospect of a conservative-heavy Court persuaded many Trump-wary conservatives to support him in 2016. This election, Ginsburg’s death will likely energize Biden-wary Democrats—millions of dollars have been raised online since news of her death broke last night—but Trump will also hope for an enthusiasm boost. He’ll aim to shift the conversation away from his mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic toward an ideological battle for the future of abortion rights and other contentious issues in American culture.
The Supreme Court vacancy will surely inflame an already-angry nation.
Updated on September 18, 2020, at 8:47 p.m. ET.
A furious battle over a Supreme Court vacancy is arguably the last thing the United States needs right now.
The death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg today represents a devastating loss for feminists who held up the 87-year-old as an icon of women’s rights, and as a bulwark protecting abortion rights and a wide range of other progressive ideals on a conservative Supreme Court. The Brooklyn-born jurist became one of the nation’s foremost advocates against gender discrimination as a lawyer for the ACLU, decades before President Bill Clinton appointed her to be the second woman to sit on the high court.
But her passing less than two months before the presidential election also tosses one more lit match into the tinderbox of national politics in 2020: It will surely inflame a deeply polarized country already riven by a deadly pandemic, a steep economic downturn, and civil unrest in its major cities.
Changing voters’ minds is famously difficult, but a recent progressive effort found real success.
No state has haunted the Democratic Party’s imagination for the past four years like Wisconsin. While it was not the only state that killed Hillary Clinton’s presidential hopes in 2016, it was the one where the knife plunged deepest. Clinton was so confident about Wisconsin that she never even campaigned there. This year, it is one of the most fiercely contested states. The Democrats planned to hold their convention in Milwaukee, before the coronavirus pandemic forced its cancellation. Donald Trump is also making a strong play for Wisconsin.
Trump’s weaknesses with the electorate are familiar: Voters find him coarse, and they deplore his handling of race, the coronavirus, and protests. One recent YouGov poll found that just 42 percent of Americans approved of his performance as president, while 54 percent disapproved. But when the pollsters asked about Trump’s handling of the economy, those attitudes reversed: 48 percent approved and 44 percent disapproved, despite the havoc wreaked by the pandemic.
To make a point about the evils of white supremacy, the film subjects its Black characters to unceasing brutality.
This story contains spoilers for the film Antebellum.
Antebellum is the kind of film that requires true storytelling daring to pull off. A horror movie that blurs history, fantasy, and darkest nightmare, it would only work with the cleverest calibration, striking a balance between thrills and social commentary that recalls the films of Jordan Peele or the best episodes of Black Mirror. But Antebellum, the feature-length directorial debut of Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, is a cinematic perversion of the genre.
The film’s arresting premise was laid out in its stark, effective advertising: What if a modern-day Black American woke up one morning to find herself on a Civil War–era slave plantation? That’s what happens to Eden (played by Janelle Monáe), though the movie opens on her life in captivity and takes a while to reveal its contemporary twist. Antebellum evokes Octavia Butler’s chilling 1979 masterpiece, Kindred, in which an African American woman is mysteriously transported back in time and experiences the deep suffering of her enslaved ancestors. But that novel didn't relish the brutality that its protagonist experienced, and it offered profound insights into power, memory, and the psychology of enslavement.Antebellum isn’t worthy of the comparison. It loads up on visceral scares and disturbing imagery in service of a shallow film that feels like a gory theme-park ride showcasing the horrors of slavery.
The coming months of the pandemic could be catastrophic. The U.S. still has ways to prepare.
On April 13, Robert Redfield, the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, appeared on the Today show and assured viewers that the worst was nearly behind us. It had been a month since the last gathering of fans in an NBA arena; a month since the fateful week when Americans began panic-buying bottled water and canned beans. The segment’s host, Savannah Guthrie, was broadcasting from home in upstate New York. With the light of a makeshift camera reflecting in her glasses, she asked Redfield to address reports that we could be facing another three weeks of social distancing. “We are nearing the peak right now,” Redfield told her. “Clearly we are stabilizing in terms of the state of this outbreak.”
She wanted to escape her marriage. He wanted to escape his life sentence.
Toby Dorr never ran a red light, never rolled through a stop sign, never got so much as a speeding ticket. As a kid, she was always the teacher’s pet, always got straight A’s. Her parents never bothered to give her a curfew, because she never stayed out late. She married the only boy she’d ever dated, raised a family, built a career, went to church. She did everything she was supposed to do.
She’s in her early 60s now, just over 5 feet tall, and with her wry smile and auburn curls, she could be your neighbor, your librarian, your aunt. But people in Kansas City remember Toby’s story. She’s been stared at in restaurants, pointed at on sidewalks. For more than a decade, people here have argued about whether what she did was stupid and selfish or brave and inspirational. In the papers, she was known as the “Dog Lady” of Lansing prison, but that moniker barely hints at why she made headlines.
Climate change is killing Americans and destroying the country’s physical infrastructure.
The federal government spends roughly $700 billion a year on the military. It spends perhaps $15 billion a year trying to understand and stop climate change.
I thought about those numbers a lot last week, as I tried to stop my toddler from playing in ash, tried to calm down my dogs as they paced and panted in mid-morning dusk light, tried to figure out whether my air purifier was actually protecting my lungs, tried to understand why the sky was pumpkin-colored, and tried not to think about the carcinogen risk of breathing in wildfire smoke, week after week.
The government has committed to defending us and our allies against foreign enemies. Yet when it comes to the single biggest existential threat we collectively face—the one that threatens to make much of the planet uninhabitable, starve millions, and incite violent conflicts around the world—it has chosen to do near-nothing. Worse than that, the federal government continues to subsidize and promote fossil fuels, and with them the destruction of our planetary home. Climate hell is here. We cannot stand it. And we cannot afford it either.
In one of her most revealing interviews, the justice discusses her losses, her struggles, and her hope for the future.
Just days ago, on Thursday evening, the National Constitution Center awarded the 2020 Liberty Medal to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. At the justice’s request, we recorded her favorite opera singers and special friends offering personal tributes in words and music. The tribute video is a moving, inspiring, and now heartbreaking celebration of her achievements as one of the most influential figures for constitutional change in American history.
In her acceptance statement, Justice Ginsburg said the following:
It was my great good fortune to have the opportunity to participate in the long effort to place equal citizenship stature for women on the basic human-rights agenda. In that regard I was scarcely an innovator. For generations, brave women and enlightened men in diverse nations pursued that goal, but they did so when society was not yet prepared to listen. I was alive and a lawyer in the late 1960s, and the decade commencing in 1970. Conditions of life had so changed that audiences responded positively to pleas that society—men, women, and children—would be well served by removing artificial barriers blocking women’s engagement in many fields of human endeavor, from bar membership to bartending, policing, firefighting, piloting planes, even serving on juries. Helping to explain what was wrong about the “closed-door era” was enormously satisfying.
A young lawyer puts his former boss’s ideals into practice.
This past summer, on the last day of my clerkship with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, she rose from her cavernous desk and, following a hearty goodbye hug, asked me what was next. I told her that the next morning marked the start of my new job as a stay-at-home dad. She smiled warmly and wished me luck.
My wife had just begun her pediatrics residency at Georgetown, a job that leaves scarce time for domestic duties. And throughout my year of long hours and late nights at the Court, my daughter had grown from a delicate, impassive infant to a robust toddler with personality and character. In recent months, when I was able to make it home in time to see Caitlyn before bedtime, she’d rush headlong toward the door with shrieks of “Daddy Daddy!” I’d bundle her up in my arms, squeeze, and resolve to take some time, soon, to be with her completely. I had missed out on a lot and was determined to make up for it.