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.
Eventually we might all have to deal with COVID-19—but a shorter, gentler version, thanks to vaccines.
Boghuma Kabisen Titanji was just 8 years old when the hyper-contagious virus swept through her classroom. Days later, she started to feel feverish, and developed a sparse, rosy rash. Three years after being fully dosed with the measles vaccine, one of the most durably effective immunizations in our roster, Titanji fell ill with the very pathogen her shots were designed to prevent.
Her parents rushed her to a pediatrician, worried that her first inoculations had failed to take. But the doctor allayed their fears: “It happens. She’ll be fine.” And she was. Her fever and rash cleared up in just a couple of days; she never sickened anyone else in her family. It was, says Titanji, now an infectious-disease physician and a researcher at Emory University, a textbook case of “modified” measles, a rare post-vaccination illness so mild and unthreatening that it doesn’t even deserve the full measles name.
They’ve aligned themselves with forces they despise. But lefty anti-vaxxers don’t see the contradiction.
Conspiracy theorists who discount the safety and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines and other public-health mandates are often portrayed in the media as right-wing. That’s for good reason: a not-insignificant number of the most vocal conspiracists tie their ideology firmly to President Donald Trump and the right-wing MAGA movement he inspired. Videos of angry red-state demonstrators pushing back against school boards and other local authorities in public hearings, and repeating outlandish, baseless misinformation, have made the rounds in traditional media.
But in the hills of western Massachusetts and in neighboring regions of upstate New York, a traditionally left-leaning area, these theories also hold purchase. I grew up in the region and started my journalistic career there. I’ve been arguing with residents, many of whom are close friends, about vaccines for more than a decade. But despite my efforts, and the efforts of many others, a stubborn resistance to reality has set in here, and only deepened since the pandemic began. Late last month, Do We Need This?, a group of anti-vaxxers and vaccine-mandate opponents, held a “festival” in the region to raise money for their cause, suggesting a $20 donation for entry. They shared the proceeds with other national vaccine-skeptic groups, including NY Stands Up!, the Informed Consent Action Network, and Robert Kennedy Jr.’s Children’s Health Defense.
Today’s fictional North is defined by nostalgia for an icier time.
This article contains spoilers for The Terror and The North Water.
Of all the horrors of a 19th-century European voyage to the Arctic—noses and cheeks turned necrotic by frostbite, snow blindness, sea madness, broken bones badly knit—perhaps most ghastly was scurvy. The disease often starts with stiff limbs and ulcerating skin. Gums bleed and blacken, then engorge and protrude over the teeth or their absent weeping sockets like a dark second set of lips. This tissue is actively rotting, so living men smell dead. Odors and sounds become agonizingly, even dangerously, intense; hearing a gunshot can kill. And because many sufferers hallucinate that they are among the foods and comforts of home, some doctors called the affliction “nostalgia.”
Dear Evan Hansen was lauded on Broadway, but the film adaptation only emphasizes its flaws.
When Dear Evan Hansen premiered on Broadway in 2016, it drew near-universal praise from New York’s theater critics. Ben Platt, playing an anxious teenager who becomes an internet celebrity after misrepresenting his role in a local tragedy, was showered with plaudits, and the show ended up winning six Tony Awards—the most of the season—including Best Musical and a leading-actor trophy for Platt. A film version was thus hardly a surprise. But when the director Stephen Chbosky’s extremely faithful adaptation premiered as the opening-night movie of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival—the movie will be released in theaters this Friday—the reviews that followed were … broadly bad.
What changed? It wasn’t the story or the songs. Dear Evan Hansen the film is written by Steven Levenson, who wrote the narrative of the Broadway show, and largely retains the score, by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (a few of the least compelling numbers have been cut; others have been added). And while the cast around Platt is mostly filled out by movie stars rather than Broadway veterans, the performances from actors such as Amy Adams, Julianne Moore, Kaitlyn Dever, and Amandla Stenberg are uniformly solid. Did something get lost in translation, or is this an emperor’s-new-clothes moment revealing that Dear Evan Hansen never was any good in the first place?
The pandemic keeps changing, but these principles can guide your thinking through the seasons to come.
Updated at 9:28 a.m. on September 21, 2021.
For nearly two years now, Americans have lived with SARS-CoV-2. We know it better than we once did. We know that it can set off both acute and chronic illness, that it spreads best indoors, that masks help block it, that our vaccines are powerful against it. We know that we can live with it—that we’re going to have to live with it—but that it can and will exact a heavy toll.
Still, this virus has the capacity to surprise us, especially if we’re not paying attention. It is changing all the time, a tweak to the genetic code here and there; sometimes, those tweaks add up to new danger. In a matter of weeks, the Delta variant upended the relative peace of America’s early summer and ushered in a new set of calculations about risk, masking, and testing. The pandemic’s endgame shifted.
Texas’s refusal to allow a pastor to pray while holding a dying man’s hand is an offense to basic Christian values.
Devotees to the cause of religious liberty may be startled to discover during the Supreme Court’s upcoming term that the latest legal-theological dispute finds the state of Texas locked in conflict with traditional Christian practice, where rites for the sick, condemned, and dying disrupt the preferences of executioners.
A recent stay in Ramirez v. Collier has again put Texas on the defense in a series of cases about whether death-row inmates have the right to be joined by clergy of their choice in the execution chamber. Earlier this month, the Court agreed to hear John Henry Ramirez’s claim that Texas’s refusal to allow a pastor to lay hands on and pray over him in the execution chamber is a violation of his constitutional rights; lower courts had held that silent prayer would suffice, which Ramirez protested. The Court issued a stay in a similar case in June 2020, when another Texas inmate, Ruben Gutierrez, asked for a Catholic priest to join him as he was killed. The Court has likewise intervened in Alabama, which has banned all clergy from its execution chamber, a policy that Texas enacted two years ago but reversed in April. Now Texas says it will allow clergy of any faith, provided they are vetted and pass a background check—though still with other limitations, as Ramirez shows.
Conventional wisdom says that venting is cathartic and that we should never go to bed angry. But couples who save disagreements for scheduled meetings show the benefits of a more patient approach to conflict.
For decades, when Liz Cutler’s husband, Tom Kreutz, did something that bothered her, Cutler would sometimes pull out a scrap of paper from the back of her desk drawer. On it she would scribble down her grievances: maybe Kreutz had stayed late at work without giving her a heads-up, or maybe he’d allowed their kids to do something she considered risky. The list was Cutler’s way of honoring a promise she and her husband had made. They would talk about their frustrations only in scheduled meetings—which they held once a year for a time, and later, every three months. It’s a system they’ve adhered to for more than 40 years.
Any psychologist will tell you that conflict is both an inevitable and a vital part of a close relationship. The challenge—which can make the difference between a lasting, satisfying partnership and one that combusts—is figuring out how to manage conflict constructively.
The pandemic disrupted soft work—the gossip, eavesdropping, and casual relationship-building that aren’t a formal part of your job.
As the Age of Delta scrambles back-to-office timelines, I find myself wonderingwhat offices are good for in the first place.
I am pro-office. I miss a good eavesdropping, the promise of midday gossip, the “quick random question” that blooms into a half-hour conversation, and, theoretically, the magical combustion of creativity forged by these connections.
These things aren’t what I’m directly paid to do when I’m in the office, and they’re not what I’m annually evaluated for doing. Instead, they’re what I think of as “soft work.” “Hard work,” for me, is reading, researching, calling people, transcribing conversations, and writing articles. For others, it might include managing employees, working in Excel or PowerPoint, or reading and writing a zillion emails. (This kind of hard work, I should note, doesn’t have to be physically difficult.) If the past year and a half has taught us anything, it’s that white-collar workers can do hard work from home just about as well as they can do it in the office—and maybe even better, precisely because their colleagues aren’t interrupting them.
Behind shipping delays and soaring prices are workers still at mortal risk of COVID-19.
At this point, the maddeningly unpredictable Delta variant has changed the expected course of the coronavirus pandemic so much that it can be hard to know exactly what you’re waiting for, or if you should continue waiting at all. Is something like before-times normalcy still coming, or will Americans have to negotiate a permanently changed reality? Will we recognize that new normal when it gets here, or will it be clear only in hindsight? And how long will it be before you can buy a new couch and have it delivered in a timely manner?
Somehow, that third question is currently just as existential as the first two. Everyday life in the United States is acutely dependent on the perpetual motion of the supply chain, in which food and medicine and furniture and clothing all compete for many of the same logistical resources. As everyone has been forced to learn in the past year and a half, when the works get gummed up—when a finite supply of packaging can’t keep up with demand, when there aren’t enough longshoremen or truck drivers or postal workers, when a container ship gets wedged sideways in one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes—the effects ripple outward for weeks or months, emptying shelves and raising prices in ways that can seem random. All of a sudden, you can’t buy kettlebells or canned seltzer.
Perhaps you’ve noticed that ebooks are awful. I hate them, but I don’t know why I hate them. Maybe it’s snobbery. Perhaps, despite my long career in technology and media, I’m a secret Luddite. Maybe I can’t stand the idea of looking at books as computers after a long day of looking at computers as computers. I don’t know, except for knowing that ebooks are awful.
If you hate ebooks like I do, that loathing might attach to their dim screens, their wonky typography, their weird pagination, their unnerving ephemerality, or the prison house of a proprietary ecosystem. If you love ebooks, it might be because they are portable, and legible enough, and capable of delivering streams of words, fiction and nonfiction, into your eyes and brain with relative ease. Perhaps you like being able to carry a never-ending stack of books with you wherever you go, without having to actually lug them around. Whether you love or hate ebooks is probably a function of what books mean to you, and why.