Reporter's Notebook

People bike past the remains of the ancient Colosseum in Rome
Andrew Medichini / AP

This is the latest installment in a series that began back in 2019, with an article I did for the print magazine on Americans’ long-standing obsession with the decline-and-fall narrative of Rome.

Many people wrote in to agree, disagree, or otherwise react. The online discussion begins here. But the most sustained line of response has been from my friend Eric Schnurer, a writer and long-time advisor to state and local governments.

In his first installment, in the fall of 2019, Schnurer emphasized the parts of the America-and-Rome comparison he thought were most significant—and worrisome. Then last summer, during the election campaign and the pandemic lockdown, he extended the comparison in an even-less-cheering way. In a third and more cautionary extension of his argument this summer, he concentrated on the U.S. Senate.

Now, chapter four: crossing the Rubicon. Schnurer argues that this is more than just a familiar phrase. And he says that a U.S. Rubicon moment is in view—which would be triggered by a possible indictment of Donald Trump. Over to Eric Schnurer:

Crossing the Rubicon:
If the United States, in recent years, has been tracking the decline and fall of Republican Rome, when do we pass the point of no return?

By Eric B. Schnurer

As James Fallows has observed, Americans long have been fascinated by the fall of the Roman Empire and frequently fret whether a similar fate awaits our own. But the more pressing comparison is the collapse of the Roman Republic: How did a wealthy, powerful, and successfully self-governing people—proud of their frontier origins, piety and traditional values, and above all their origin story in throwing off monarchical rule—essentially commit democratic suicide and settle, more-or-less willingly, for a half-millennium of dictatorship?

Over the last two years I’ve been charting how our politics today increasingly resemble those of ancient Rome. From rising economic inequality, political violence, and governmental dysfunction on through the generally lackadaisical reaction of the Senate to a losing chief-executive candidate’s conspiracy to murder many of them, overthrow the government, and thereby block certifying his defeat, events in ancient Rome have remarkably paralleled some you might recognize more recently.

History isn’t destiny, of course; the demise of the Roman Republic is a point of comparison—not prediction. But the accelerating comparisons nonetheless beg the question: If one were to make a prediction, what comes next? What might signal the end of democracy as we know it?  There is, it turns out, an easy answer at hand.

While there is no precise end date to the Republic, there was a bright-line occurrence generally recognized as the irreversible beginning of the end for participatory government. In fact, it is such a bright line that the event itself has become universally synonymous with “point-of-no-return”: Julius Caesar’s crossing of the river Rubicon.

And there is indeed an event looming—probably before the end of this year— that poses almost precisely the same situation as what provoked Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon: the possible indictment of former president Donald J. Trump.

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A sea of green overlooking a forest
The Garcia River Forest near Longvale, California Reuters

My wife, Deb, has written about the concept of “Big Little Ideas.” These are modest-seeming, simple-and-practical steps that can have surprisingly large consequences.

I am drawn to the parallel concept of “New Old Ideas.” These are themes from the American past that have new relevance for the United States of this moment and the years to come.

Every nation has its leitmotifs: its tendencies and excesses and achievements, which run through its history. Probably because I know more—or at least have read more—about the history of the U.S. than of anyplace else, I’m more alert to these recurring themes than for other countries. (Of the many books in this vein, two that stick in my mind are Thinking in Time, by the late professors Ernest May and Richard Neustadt, and Special Providence, by Walter Russell Mead.)

As the United States of the early 2020s considers its possibilities in the aftermath of the public health, economic, and civic tragedies of recent years, I think that the record of its most successful past renewal efforts deserves close attention.

Because Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs went on for so long, and came in response to such a sustained and dire economic crisis, they are naturally and obviously a main source of parallel guidance. And the parallels are profound: What the Rural Electrification Administration meant to Americans of the 1930s, in bringing millions to the possibilities of electric lighting for the homes and electric refrigeration for their food, a nationwide effort to improve rural broadband access could mean today. What the Federal Writers’ Project did to shape Americans’ view of the contradictions and extent of their country, a new writers’ projectlike the one that Rep. Ted Lieu, of California, has proposed—might help achieve now. The architectural and infrastructure legacy of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Federal Art Project is still a major part of America’s cityscape—in auditoriums and amphitheaters, libraries and post offices, archways and murals—more than 80 years later. During our travels, Deb wrote about the lasting imprint of New Deal programs, including the National Youth Administration, in a little town in coastal Maine. The creations and constructions of the Civilian Conservation Corps, the most celebrated of the New Deal programs, are also still part of the visible public landscape, and the invisible public infrastructure.

As described at length here and here and elsewhere, these New Deal programs, and the breakthroughs of other reform-and-renewal eras in American history, were notable for their rapid-cycle, trial-and-error experimentation. Those experimental projects on the national level were, in their turn, often based on local or state-level innovations through the preceding years.

That is why I think programs like California Volunteers deserve attention. (As described early in the pandemic lockdown, and again last fall.) Because of California’s quasi-national scale—with an economy larger than the U.K.’s or India’s, and as home to one eighth of all U.S. residents—projects there have unusual heft, whether they intend to or not. The people in charge of the Cal Volunteers project, and especially its new “Climate Action Corps” project, are in this case quite intentional about the example they hope their programs will set.

“From the start, this [Climate Corps] effort was very much with the idea of being a real-time laboratory, for ideas that could be a model for the nation,” Josh Fryday told me this spring. Fryday, a former mayor of the small town of Novato, California, is the state’s “Chief Service Officer,” which has been made a cabinet-level position under governor Gavin Newsom.

When I spoke with Fryday recently, he gave me many details of how the Climate Action Corps was launching sustainability and climate-mitigation efforts across the state. (For instance, this venture in my own home town of Redlands, in San Bernardino County, which is shown in the main photo above.) You can get many updated details, plus photos and sign-up information, at at their site. For the moment my attention is on the way Fryday described the rationale behind the program, and the longer-term, larger-scale effects he hoped it might have.

He said there were three big-picture ways in which he thought the California experimentation might be a guide for the nation. To oversimplify then, and add my own commentary, they were:

  • Service, along with “policy”: “We’re applying the idea of service, and civic engagement, to tackle climate change,” Fryday told me. “Most people have focused on policy to leverage climate change. We are talking about people power–people power at scale. We’re trying to foster a culture of climate action here. That is an important change for how climate is approached at a policy level.”

    Obviously policies matter. In California’s case, the most famous example is the state’s insistence, from the 1960s onward, on fuel-efficiency and pollution-control standards for cars that were more rigorous than in the rest of the country. But Fryday is arguing that “muscle memory,” and civic habits and incentives, can be marshaled in the same direction.
  • Local flexibility and innovation: “First and foremost we are supporting local goals,” Fryday said. Although he didn’t put it this way, the idea paralleled the famous maxim, “Think globally, act locally.” In California’s case, this meant recognizing the ultimate goals—reducing emissions, improving resilience, increasing awareness—but adapting the tactics place-by-place and opportunity-by-opportunity.

    “Climate means different things in different communities,” he said. “We have built this program to be adaptive to rural communities, suburban communities, every community that wants to be part of it, and will be part of it. We’re bringing state resources, convening the resources of universities and businesses and civic society, to support and meet locally defined goals and opportunities.” All of this is fully in the “New Old Ideas” spirit of combining national/global support with the lessons of local adaptability.
  • Tools for connection, not division: “It is really important to us to create an opportunity where the power of service can unite people, to bring them together rather than divide them,” Fryday told me. This is of course a deliberate invocation of the CCC model, plus subsequent iterations, of the idea that service projects can bring people of different backgrounds together in unexpected ways.

    This unifying spect of service in America has a very long pedigree. It was part of William James’s renowned assessment of the aftereffects of the Civil War, the influence of broad military service in World War II and thereafter, and the Peace Corps and Americorps and Habitat for Humanity and many other illustrations. “We have a real chance to use this as an opportunity to bring people together across different backgrounds,” Fryday said. “But if we’re going to do that, we can’t just focus the program on a few people.” Toward that end the Climate Action Corps program has an elaborate tiered structure of service opportunities, which I won’t detail at the moment but may prove useful guidelines for other communities.

    (In summary: On the most-involved tier, people in California would sign up for a period of dedicated service, on the model of the old CCC, and in exchange for educational and other benefits. On the other end of the spectrum, they could learn from a list of “Ten Things You Can Do At Home” for climate improvement, from planting a tree to reducing food waste. More details later, as results of these real-time local-laboratory experiments come in.) “We want to have a pyramid of service,” Fryday said. “Whether you have an hour to give, or a year, we’d like to create an opportunity for you to be involved in climate action.”
Sign saying "Welcome to Treestock"
Picking up trees from “Treestock” this month at the University of Redlands (Carlos Puma)

The core of the “New Old Idea” here is that local or state-wide innovation can be a model for projects elsewhere. Are there signs of national-level movement in similar directions? Here are a few:

  • In March in The New Yorker, Jim Lardner had a story titled “The Civilian Climate Corps is a Big Government Idea That All Americans Can Embrace.”
  • For NPR in May, Scott Detrow and Nathan Rott had a report on the Biden administration’s climate-corps plans.
  • For MSNBC also in May, Talia Levin wrote about the potential for revived versions of the Federal Writers’ Project and similar arts efforts.
  • A group of young state-and-local elected officials have informally organized in a group called NewDEAL, with the goal (among other things) of adapting past successful models to current challenges.

There will be more, which deserve attention and support.

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two towering pillars amidst a landscape of ruins
The Roman Temple of Hercules at the Amman Citadel, an ancient Roman landmark Muhammad Hamed / Reuters

Over the weekend, this space held the third installment in the “Lessons of Rome” chronicles by my friend Eric Schnurer. This one went into the comparison between the Roman Senate, in the era of Cicero and the Catiline conspiracy, and the current one in Washington.

If you haven’t read it yet, please give it a try—among other reasons, for the speechwriter’s view of classic Latin rhetoric. This third piece also updated the “doomsday sundial”—a Roman Empire twist on the famous “doomsday clock” of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists—and set its time to “a year before midnight.”

Now, some reader reactions. First, from a reader with extensive experience in national government:

Thank you for conveying the very thoughtful observations of Eric Schnurer comparing our situation to that of late republican Rome.

One striking element is the complacency highlighted by Schnurer at the time of Cicero, and so evident now in the mistaken belief that “it” can’t happen here because we’re “exceptional.”  

As political scientist David Faris observed in a recent interview on “Vox,” we could not be more wrong. Republicans are working to deprive the majority of its ability to control the agenda or to change the leadership. If they succeed, the result will be undramatic but definitive: “People are going to wake up the next day and go to work, and take care of their kids, and live their lives, and democracy will be gone.”

For all their failures (which have become ever more obvious), the Founders did not have this outlook. They had a lively fear that “it” could indeed happen here, and they constructed the government they made to preclude that outcome.  

Our misfortune is that, partly because of the deficiencies of that design (owing largely to several forced compromises) and partly because of later developments (such as the emergence of parties and of the filibuster), we face the reverse of one of their fears: a dictatorship not of the mob but of an entrenched minority. And we don't seem to be coping with that danger any better than did Ciceronian Rome. So we come to where Faris placed himself in his interview: “My current level of concern is exploring countries to move to after 2024.”

He did not quite despair, nor evidently does Schnurer. But the hour is indeed late, and time by our “atomic clock” is swiftly passing.

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Sundial with the sun behind it
Gonzalo Fuentes / Reuters

The U.S. Senate’s abdication of duty at the start of this Memorial Day weekend, when 11 senators (nine of them Republican) did not even show up to vote on authorizing an investigation of the January 6 insurrection, makes the item below particularly timely.

Fifty-four senators (including six Republicans) voted to approve the investigative commission. Only 35 opposed it.

But in the institutionalized rule-of-the-minority that is the contemporary Senate, the measure “failed.” The 54 who supported the measure represented states totaling more than 190 million people. The 35 who opposed represented fewer than 105 million. (How do I know this? You take the list of states by population; you match them to senators; you split the apportioned population when a state’s two senators voted in opposite ways; and you don’t count population for the 11 senators who didn’t show up.)

The Senate was, of course, not designed to operate on a pure head-count basis. But this is a contemporary, permanent imbalance beyond what the practical-minded drafters of the Constitution would have countenanced.

Why “contemporary”? Because the filibuster was not part of the constitutional balance-of-power scheme. As Adam Jentleson explains in his authoritative book Kill Switch, “real” filibusters, with senators orating for hours on end, rose to prominence as tools of 20th-century segregationists. Their 21st-century rebirth in the form of phony filibusters (where senators don’t even have to make a pretense of holding the floor) has been at the hands of Mitch McConnell, who made them routine as soon as the Republicans lost control of the Senate in 2006.

The essay below, by a long-time analyst and practitioner of governance named Eric Schnurer, was written before the Senate’s failure on May 28, 2021. But it could have been presented as a breaking-news analysis of the event.

Several days ago I wrote a setup for Schnurer’s essay, which I include in abbreviated form below. Then we come to his argument.

Back in 2019, I did an article for the print magazine on Americans’ long-standing obsession with the decline-and-fall narrative of Rome. Like many good headlines, the one for this story intentionally overstated its argument. The headline was, “The End of the Roman Empire Wasn’t That Bad.” Of course it was bad! But the piece reviewed scholarship about what happened in the former Roman provinces “after the fall,” and how it prepared the way for European progress long after the last rulers of the Western Empire had disappeared.

Many people wrote in to agree and, naturally, to disagree. The online discussion begins here. One long response I quoted was from my friend Eric Schnurer. I had met him in the late 1970s when he was a college intern in the Carter-era White House speechwriting office, where I worked. Since then he has written extensively (including for The Atlantic) and consulted on governmental and political affairs.

In his first installment, in the fall of 2019, Schnurer emphasized the parts of the America-and-Rome comparison he thought were most significant—and worrisome. Then last summer, during the election campaign and the pandemic lockdown, he extended the comparison in an even-less-cheering way.

Now he is back, with a third and more cautionary extension of his argument. I think it’s very much worth reading, for its discourses on speechwriting in Latin, among other aspects. I’ve slightly condensed his message and used bold highlighting as a guide to his argument. But I turn the floor over to him. He starts with a precis of his case of two years ago:

I contrasted Donald Trump’s America then—mid-2019—with the Rome of the Gracchus brothers, a pair of liberal social reformers who were both assassinated. Of course, the successive murders of two progressive brothers at the top rung of national power would seem to suggest the Kennedys more than, say, Bernie Sanders and Elisabeth Warren, to whom I compared them. But that’s to say that no historic parallels are perfect: One could just as fruitfully (or not) compare the present moment to America in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a period we managed to make it through without ultimately descending into civil war.

Yet, historical events can be instructive, predictive—even prescriptive—when not fully de-scriptive of current times and customs.

What concerned me about the Roman comparison was, I noted at the time, “the increasing economic inequality, the increasing political polarization, the total eclipse of ‘the greater good’ by what we’d call ‘special interests,’ the turn toward political violence, all of which led eventually to the spiral of destructive civil war, the collapse of democracy (such as it was), and the wholesale replacement of the system with the imperial dictatorship: Looks a lot like the present moment to me.”

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I don’t know how many people in the reading public would recognize the name Dan Frank. Millions of them should. He was a gifted editor, mentor, leader, and friend, who within the publishing world was renowned. His untimely death of cancer yesterday, at age 67, is a terrible loss especially for his family and colleagues, but also to a vast community of writers and to the reading public.

Minute by minute, and page by page, writers gripe about editors. Year by year, and book by book, we become aware of how profoundly we rely on them. Over the decades I have had the good fortune of working with a series of this era’s most talented and supportive book editors. Some day I’ll write about the whole sequence, which led me 20 years ago to Dan Frank. For now, I want to say how much Dan Frank meant to public discourse in our times, and how much he will be missed.

Dan Frank laughing in front of a bookshelf
Dan Frank during a 2015 interview with Thomas Mallon at the Center for Fiction in New York

Dan started working in publishing in his 20s, after college and graduate school. While in his 30s he became editorial director at Viking Books. Among the celebrated books he edited and published there was Chaos: Making a New Science, by James Gleick, which was a runaway bestseller and a critical success. It also represented the sort of literary nonfiction (and fiction) that Dan would aspire to: well-informed, elegantly written, presenting complex subjects accessibly, helping readers enter and understand realms they had not known about before. As it happened, Gleick worked with Dan on all of his subsequent books, including his biographies of Richard Feynman and Isaac Newton, as well as Faster and The Information.

In 1991, after a shakeup at Pantheon, Dan Frank went there as an editor, and from 1996 onward he was Pantheon’s editorial director and leading force. As Reagan Arthur, the current head of the Knopf, Pantheon, and Schocken imprints at Penguin Random House, wrote yesterday in a note announcing Dan’s death:

During his tenure, Dan established Pantheon as an industry-leading publisher of narrative science, world literature, contemporary fiction, and graphic novels. Authors published under Dan were awarded two Pulitzer Prizes, several National Book Awards, numerous NBCC awards, and multiple Eisners [for graphic novels] ….

For decades, Dan has been the public face of Pantheon, setting the tone for the house and overseeing the list. He had an insatiable curiosity about life and, indeed, that curiosity informed many of his acquisitions. As important as the books he published and the authors he edited, Dan served as a mentor to younger colleagues, endlessly generous with his time and expertise. Famously soft-spoken, a “writer’s editor,” and in possession of a heartfelt laugh that would echo around the thirteenth floor, he was so identified with the imprint that some of his writers took to calling the place Dantheon.

There are surprisingly few photos of Dan available online. I take that as an indication of his modesty; of the contrast between his high profile within the publishing world and his intentionally low profile outside it; and of his focus on the quiet, interior work of sitting down with manuscripts or talking with authors. The only YouTube segment I’ve found featuring him is this one from 2015, when Dan interviewed the author Thomas Mallon at the Center for Fiction in New York. (I am using this with the Center’s permission.)

Dan is seated at the right, with his trademark round glasses. The clip will give an idea of his demeanor, his gentle but probing curiosity, his intelligence and encouragement, his readiness to smile and give a supportive laugh. Watching him talk with Mallon reminds me of his bearing when we would talk in his office at Pantheon or at a nearby restaurant.

Everything that is frenzied and distracted in modern culture, Dan Frank was the opposite of. The surest way to get him to raise a skeptical eyebrow, when hearing a proposal for a new book, was to suggest some subject that was momentarily white-hot on the talk shows and breaking-news alerts. I know this firsthand. The book ideas he steered me away from, and kept me from wasting time on, represented guidance as crucial as what he offered on the four books I wrote for him, and the most recent one where he worked with me and my wife, Deb.

Dan knew that books have a long gestation time—research and reporting, thinking, writing, editing, unveiling them to the world. They required hard work from a lot of people, starting with the author and editor but extending to a much larger team. Therefore it seemed only fair to him that anything demanding this much effort should be written as if it had a chance to last. Very few books endure; hardly any get proper notice; but Dan wanted books that deserved to be read a year after they came out, or a decade, or longer, if people were to come across them.

The publisher’s long list of authors he worked with, which I’ll include at the bottom of this post, only begins to suggest his range. When I reached the final page of the new, gripping, epic-scale novel of modern China by Orville Schell, called My Old Home, it seemed inevitable that the author’s culminating word of thanks would be to his “wonderful, understated” editor, Dan Frank.

What, exactly, does an editor like this do to win such gratitude? Some part of it is “line editing”—cutting or moving a sentence, changing a word, flagging an awkward transition. Dan excelled at that, but it wasn’t his main editing gift. Like all good editors, he understood that the first response back to a writer, on seeing new material, must always and invariably be: “This will be great!” or “I think we’ve really got something here.” Then, like all good editors, Dan continued with the combination of questions, expansions, reductions, and encouragements that get writers to produce the best-feasible version of the idea they had in mind. Their role is like that of a football coach, with the pre-game plan and the halftime speech: They’re not playing the game themselves, but they’re helping the athletes do their best. Or like that of a parent or teacher, helping a young person avoid foreseeable mistakes.

You can read more about Dan Frank’s own views of the roles of author, editor, publisher, and agent, in this interview in 2009, from Riverrun Books. It even has a photo of him! And you can think about the books he fostered, edited, and helped create, if you consider this part of Reagan Arthur’s note:

Dan worked with writers who were published by both Pantheon and Knopf. His authors include Charles Baxter, Madison Smartt Bell, Alain de Botton, David Eagleman, Gretel Ehrlich, Joseph J. Ellis, James Fallows, James Gleick, Jonathan Haidt, Richard Holmes, Susan Jacoby, Ben Katchor, Daniel Kehlmann, Jill Lepore, Alan Lightman, Tom Mallon, Joseph Mitchell,  Maria Popova, Oliver Sacks, Art Spiegelman, and many, many others.

Deb and I will always be grateful to have known Dan Frank, and to have worked with him. We send our condolences to his wife, Patty, and their sons and family. The whole reading public has benefited, much more than most people know, from his life and work.

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FDR at his desk for a fireside chat
Harris & Ewing / Library of Congress

The renowned filmmaker Ken Burns has a new project called UNUM, about the sources of connection rather than separation in American life.

His latest segment involves “Communication” in all its aspects, and it combines historical footage with current commentary. Some of the modern commenters are Yamiche Alcindor, Jane Mayer, Megan Twohey, Kara Swisher, and Will Sommer. You can see their clips here.

One more of these segments covers the revolution in political communication wrought by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s radio addresses known as “fireside chats.” It was drawn from Burns’s earlier documentary Empire of the Air, which was narrated by Jason Robards. You can see a clip from that documentary here.

As part of the UNUM series of contemporary response to historical footage, Burns’s team asked me to respond to the FDR segment. (Why me? In 1977—which was 44 years after FDR’s first fireside chat, and 44 years ago, as of now—the newly inaugurated President Jimmy Carter gave his first fireside chat, which I helped write. It’s fascinating to watch, as a historical artifact; you can see the C-SPAN footage here.)

This is what I thought about FDR’s language, and how it connects to the spirit of our moment in political time:

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Jill Biden speaks at the podium at Tidewell Community College with Joe Biden in the background
Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

In the last week of April, Joe Biden gave his address to a joint session of Congress, which is of course what first-year presidents do, instead of an official “State of the Union” message. In the first week of May, both he and Jill Biden spoke at Tidewater Community College, in southern Virginia.

The theme connecting their presentations is one of the stalwarts in reports over the years at this site: Namely, the role of community colleges as linchpins of education and opportunity in the United States. For more on why community colleges are the institutions of this American moment, please see this dispatch from Michigan, or this from Ohio, or this with responses from Maine to Texas to California and beyond, or this thoughtful reply by Matt Reed for Inside Higher Ed. For now, my goal is to explain why a 93-second video clip, which you’ll find at the end of this post, deserves your attention.

In his joint-session speech, Joe Biden spoke on behalf of his large-scale “American Families Plan” and “American Jobs Plan,” which both followed the immediate stimulus plan he promoted, called the “American Rescue Plan.

(Here’s a rhetorical note from a one-time political speechwriter: Simpler is always better, when it comes to naming big new projects. Cautionary example: During the Obama era, the U.S. and five other countries reached an agreement with Iran. Nearly everyone, admirer or critic, refers to that agreement as “the Iran nuclear deal”; almost no one outside a bureaucracy calls it by its ungainly formal title, the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” or JCPOA. By contrast, the matched set of three titles for this administration's main programs—American Rescue Plan, American Jobs Plan, American Families Plan—are marvels of concision. Each name is three words long; two of the three words are “American” and “Plan”; and the remaining words are “Families,” “Jobs,” and “Rescue.” Unless they had chosen “Motherhood” and “Apple Pie,” it would be hard to improve on this as a naming strategy. Students of Americana will also note the resonance with the famous three-word titles of many of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal initiatives, from the Civilian Conservation Corps, or CCC, to the Rural Electrification Administration, or REA.)

The idea and ambition of the new “American (Rescue/Jobs/Families) Plan” programs, as noted in this previous post, involve seizing this moment’s historic opportunity to address long-festering inequalities and failures. Will Americans look back, decades from now, at the sweep of these proposals as something comparable to the New Deal, in brightening prospects for the nation as a whole? Or will they see it as successful in more narrowly defined terms, like the race to space in the 1960s? Or will it be seen as another sad mismatch of intentions and effects? Obviously no one knows the answer now; less obviously but just as certainly, the answer is being determined week by week, through actions of citizens, businesses, and institutions across the country.

"No matter where I go, I feel most at home at community colleges." Jill Biden, the first lady, at Tidewater Community College, in southern Virginia, on May 3, 2021. (White House video)

Joe Biden’s part of the community college saga came last week, in the Capitol, when as part of his lengthy address he proposed guaranteeing two free years of community college to all students. At Tidewater Community College this week, Dr. Jill Biden appeared in her capacity as a long-time English professor at Northern Virginia Community College, outside Washington—where, she said, she was known as “Dr. B.” She spoke before her husband did, and she made the case for community colleges as today’s expressions of an American ideal: of mobility for individuals, of security for families, of revitalization for towns and regions.

“Our schools accept everyone,” she said, “regardless of age or race or income, or family legacy.” If you watch her presentation (on C-SPAN video here), you’ll see her stressing these points, starting around time 3:00. “They offer classes that are flexible, so students don’t have to choose between work and school. They train for real-world jobs. They tailor to the community they serve.”

Obviously community colleges have their failures and shortcomings and scandals, as any institution does. But both of the Bidens emphasized the theme that has struck Deb and me in our travels: how important the community-college opportunity is, for how many people, at a time when so many other avenues of opportunity have been closed off.

America’s K-12 system is the bedrock of public education; its research universities, liberal arts colleges, and other four-year schools are crown jewels. But everyone already knows about the importance of those institutions—the public schools, the famous universities. Right now, in the political and economic straits of the 2020s, community colleges may most deserve extra attention and help.

You can hear both Bidens making the extended case, in the C-SPAN video from Tidewater. But if you’d like the TL;DR version of this argument, I most enthusiastically recommend spending the next 93 seconds of your life watching Raj Shaunak, of East Mississippi Community College, explain what his institution has meant to the people of his state.

Many of them, he says, are “one flat tire away from losing their job, or not finishing their education.” This is a clip from the HBO documentary “Our Towns,” and I think it will give you an idea of why we have become such proponents of strengthening these engines of American opportunity.

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A young boy in a blue shirt and glasses plays chess with a slightly older boy
Project Fighting Chance, in San Bernardino, California, trains young people in boxing, chess, music, and more. It is one of the communities portrayed in "Our Towns." Courtesy of Steven Ascher / HBO

Last night HBO aired its new documentary, Our Towns, which grew out of a long Atlantic series and later a book, as I described here yesterday. It has a number of upcoming screenings on HBO and is available for streaming on HBO Max.

Coinciding with the film’s debut, The Atlantic’s editor in chief, Jeffrey Goldberg, interviewed the film’s creators—Jeanne Jordan and Steven Ascher of West City Films—and Deb Fallows and me about what it was like to turn print reporting into a movie, and how the resulting theme and message matched the realities of an America that has been coping with pandemic, division, and polarization.

I think the results were very interesting. You can see them here:

Near the end of the session, Jeff Goldberg made a point that rings true to me. He said that this was a film and message “for the 80 percent.” That is, for the substantial majority of Americans who believe in possibility, in practicality, in reasonable paths forward. I hope you’ll hear the interview—and watch the film.   

A curly haired artist reads from a book, in front of a mural he painted.
The artist Charly Hamilton stands before his mural in downtown Charleston, West Virginia, and reads a passage from Julius Caesar, in a closing scene from HBO’s new Our Towns film. Courtesy of Steven Ascher / HBO

This evening—April 13, at 9 p.m. ET—HBO will air its new documentary Our Towns. The film will be available for streaming on HBO Max, and you can see a brief trailer for it here.

Naturally my wife, Deb Fallows, and I have a special interest in this film. It is based on the book, Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America, that Deb and I wrote, which was published three years ago. That book in turn grew out of a multiyear project of traveling around the country and reporting on smaller cities and rural areas, as part of The Atlantic’s “American Futures” series. We had many partners in this project and made many friends along the way, whose stories we told in the hundreds of online dispatches and several print-magazine stories we filed. We have stayed in touch with a large number of these people and communities, and we have continued to follow their successes, setbacks, and the lessons learned and taught since the time of our first visits.

Deb and I spent much of 2019 on the road with our HBO colleagues—the filmmakers Jeanne Jordan and Steve Ascher, of West City Films, and their team—doing the reporting, interviewing, and 100 days of on-location filming work that went into the movie. Then, during the long year of lockdown, Jeanne and Steve, with their partners at HBO, edited and crafted the film in a process that distilled the countless hours of footage into 97 exquisite minutes on screen. (HBO’s longtime leader, Richard Plepler, was the original champion of this project, and the heads of HBO’s documentary division, Lisa Heller and Nancy Abraham, guided it from early stages through release.)

Having presented our view of America strictly in words, Deb and I had no idea how these themes and impressions could be rendered mainly through images and scenes. As print-world people, we couldn’t have explained, or even imagined, what a film version of our journey might ideally look like. But once we saw the first edits we realized, it would look like this. The film exceeded our hopes and expectations for conveying the splendor (and also the scarring) of the American landscape; the passion, humor, and self-awareness (and sometimes self-delusion) of people wrestling with challenges for their communities and their country; and the achievements (and also disappointments) of an America that generally escapes the media’s attention.

So we hope you will watch the film, because we believe it is beautiful, inspiring, surprising, and surprisingly timely. In the months to come, as the weather warms and public life resumes, we hope there will be occasions to show clips from it in viewing sessions around the country, in cities we visited and many more like them.

But the other reason we hope you will watch the film is that we believe the message and spirit expressed in these 90-plus minutes on-screen are even more important in post-pandemic America than we could have foreseen when we began this work.

In short: This film tells the story of America through examples of renewal and recovery that had been on display through decades of the country’s history, and which we captured just before the traumas of the pandemic era set in. As the country begins moving toward the “after” stage of this historic dislocation, those same traits will, we believe, be the keys to successful rebuilding and reconciliation in the years ahead.

Cargo ship in beautiful waters of coastal Maine, at sunset.
A cargo ship in the waters outside Eastport, Maine, from HBO’s new “Our Towns” film (Bryan Harvey / HBO)

It is impossible to fully understand history as we are living through it. But everyone who has lived through, and in many cases been battered by, the turmoil of the past few years understands that these times—our times—will be studied and analyzed long after today’s Americans are gone, as one of the critical moments in the nation’s story.

The United States has endured the worst public-health crisis in living Americans’ memory; its schools and businesses have reeled from the impact, not to mention its families; and its political system has been abused and tested in ways not seen in half a century or more. This has been a dark time around the world, and in certain ways darker for the United States than for many other countries.

The question no one can answer in real time is whether this bad period will eventually be seen as a prelude to conditions that got even worse—or whether, as so many times before in the nation’s history, a time of crisis might shock the country in an era of long-overdue improvements and reforms. Will people a century from now look back on 2021 as a poignant last remnant of the “good old days”—a time before pandemics became even more frequent and uncontrollable, before economic opportunities and rewards became even more skewed, while democratic institutions still seemed repairable, while many of the Earth’s ecosystems might still be saved? Or will our times stand instead as shorthand for yet another of the country’s “bad old days” turning points, in which the country’s institutions and momentum hit bottom and then turned in a more hopeful direction?

No one can know that answer. But nearly everyone can influence what the answer turns out to be.

That is the fundamental idea behind the movie, and the book, and the ongoing efforts Deb and I hope to carry out: That we are all determining, today, what the country will look like tomorrow, and that most of us could use help in doing so. And—the additional idea—at a time when effective new ideas are at a premium, as is the very concept of optimistic possibility, many of the most promising new approaches are being hammered out not in national-level debates but state by state and city by city, town by town.

The importance of flexible, local-level innovation, and the fertile creativity of American society at all its levels, is one of the most familiar themes in American history. It is part of what Alexis de Tocqueville remarked upon in the 1800s. It was the basis of Louis Brandeis’s famous remark, in a 1932 Supreme Court dissent, that localities and states, in their diversity, were the real “laboratories of democracy” for a complex nation. It is a theme that has run through dozens of Deb’s and my reports.

But we believe the concept of local-level experimentation is especially urgent now, because the climate is brightening for putting locally generated ideas into effect. Through several presidential administrations, for a generation or more, national-level politics in this United States has “failed” in its most important functional role. It has become mainly an arena for taking stands and thwarting opponents, rather than matching the still-enormous resources of this nation to its also-enormous problems. In recent times, the place where that matchup has been most likely to work has been not in federal government but at the local and sometimes statewide level. At their experimental and innovative best, local- and regional-level organizations have played a role (loosely) like monasteries in the Middle Ages, as reservoirs of a society’s possibility and learning.

Now, in the wake of the pandemic, the national prospects are changing. This is the result of a partisan event—Joe Biden’s victory over Donald Trump, and his party’s narrow control of Congress—but it is not fundamentally a partisan phenomenon. How so? The rapid expansion of the interstate highway network in the 1950s, and of public-school science and language instruction in that same era, resulted from a partisan event—Dwight Eisenhower’s ascent to the presidency—but was more a national than a partisan phenomenon. The expansion of the Land Grant University system from the 1860s onward arose from Republican-sponsored legislation but was a cornerstone of a progressive, nationally minded vision.

In 2021, the resources that will soon be flowing to states, cities, and specific communities—for roads and bridges, for modern broadband connections and repairs on antique water pipes, for trains and airports, for health centers and food banks—result from one party’s support but soon will shape the whole nation’s prospects. And how they have that impact—whether we look back on this as a time of renewal, or sloppily missed opportunities—will turn largely on whether past lessons and discoveries of local innovation are successfully applied.

On the last page of the Our Towns book, which we wrote a few months after the presidential election of 2016, Deb and I argued that a moment like the current one could be foreseen. From the 1880s through the 1920s, states and localities had tried out a variety of economic, political, and civic-reform efforts largely ignored at the national level. But “when the national mood after the first Gilded Age favored reform, possibilities that had been tested, refined, and made to work in various ‘laboratories of democracy’ were at hand.” And in our times:

After our current Gilded Age, the national mood will change again. When it does, a new set of ideas and plans will be at hand. We’ve seen them being tested in places we never would have suspected, by people who would never join forces in the national capital. But their projects, the progress they have made, and their goals are more congruent than even they would ever imagine.

HBO’s new movie makes this point in a more emotionally powerful way. Its final scene is of the artist Charles Jupiter Hamilton, known as Charly, whose works include a wonderful history-of-our-community mural on a building wall on the west side of Charleston, West Virginia.

When we came across Charly during our filming, he explained the background of the painting—as you’ll hear in the film. And then, unexpectedly, he pulled out a book of Shakespeare plays, and began reading a famous speech by Brutus, from Julius Caesar.

The passage goes:

There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat …

“I always felt this way,” Charly told us, as he put down the book. “This is a place where the tide is in. If you put your boats out, put your ventures out, right now, we can make something of ourselves.”

Coming where it does—in the film, in the drama of West Virginia, in the current history of the United States—the presentation has tremendous power. And it is our guiding principle. On such a full sea are we now afloat.

A row of people sitting at computers in a library
Steve Helber / AP

Across Franklin County, which surrounds the city of Columbus, Ohio, civic-minded partners from government, business, education, and the nonprofit world have been collaborating on the newly-timely topic of digital equity. For years people have known that broadband connectivity, which in theory could equalize opportunities, has in many cases had the opposite effect. The past year of pandemic has dramatized the importance of fairer internet access—and the surprising new roles that American libraries are assuming.

This is a report about how that drama is playing out in one sizable American city, and what its lessons indicate for the country as a whole.

We all understand the costs of digital inequity better now that we have seen first-hand how the pandemic has affected the digital requisites of people’s lives. Pick a topic: the virtual education of students, access to hospitals and health care, securing appointments for vaccinations, applying for unemployment benefits, PPP, or CARES relief. The list is long and personal.

The Columbus Metropolitan Library system (CML) has been an important driver in long-term planning for the digital life of citizens before, during, and what will one day be life after COVID-19. And for the library itself, understanding their current roles and imagining their future roles in the entire scheme is part of their own particular effort.

Over the past few months, I have spoken by phone with three managers of branch libraries in Columbus, with administrators in the Columbus library system, and with people in the Urban Libraries Council, which also works on these issues. We also used ArcGIS software from Esri, the geospatial mapping company based in Redlands, California, to create three interactive maps that offer another perspective of the digital culture of libraries. (Note: Esri is a long-time partner and supporter of our use of maps to promote “geo-journalism,” dating back to my husband, Jim’s, advocacy of advanced mapping literacy for journalists at the international Esri User Conference in 2013.)

Broadband and computers, critical to all libraries, fit into the ecology of libraries in different ways, depending on the demographics, the wants and needs, and technological experience of their customers. Here are three examples.

The Hilltop—a library, a community hub, and a tech center:

John Tetzloff is the manager of the Hilltop branch of CML in the southwest section of the county. The Hilltop is a middle- and lower-middle-class neighborhood, of tightly packed housing, with big segments of deep poverty. Tetzloff described its melting-pot history, which began with an early influx of Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s. Then followed immigrants from Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America, and in the 1990s came a wave of professional-class Somali immigrants. In the 2000s came the agrarian Somali Bantus, many of whom had waited a decade in refugee camps for their chance to settle in America. The Hilltop has seen considerable second-wave immigration from around the U.S. And there have been lots of undocumented people as well.

The Hilltop library functions as a rare and much-appreciated community hub. Pre-pandemic, 1,000 people a day would come there for books and movies, to read the papers, use computers, and attend programs. The kids came for homework help and summer programs. Service organizations and other community partners came too, to meet with clients about legal or social problems. “There are few if any other places people can go to be with community,” says Tetzloff, who has worked in a number of different libraries, and describes this one as a high-energy place. “I love it,” he says, not missing a beat.

The culture of the library pre-lockdown saw a steady stream of people who came to use the computers. They logged on for all kinds of reasons: recreational games, Facebook, YouTube, the transactional necessities of life like checking bank accounts, inquiring about medical issues, applying for benefits, and more recently, researching housing options in a market where costs have skyrocketed. “Not a day goes by without surprises,” Tetzloff says.

In a quickly changing digital environment, Tetzloff describes a neighborhood where lots of people are left behind. “People come in and are very unsure how to use computers. It is a lot of our job: How to use a mouse, use a computer, from square one.” Then he continues importantly, “Even kids. In conventional wisdom, kids are naturals; they’ve grown up with it. But in fact, our kids are not very good at technology. They know how to get to favorite games, look at videos. But they don’t have the slightest idea how to research a paper for school.”

These are the kids who haven’t grown up exposed to the internet, who have no access at home, who don’t have a parent who can teach them. For them, “the tech gap is getting worse, not better,” he said.

During the pandemic of course, it’s all gotten worse. Schooling in Columbus has been mostly virtual. The libraries have been open-closed-open-closed. “It’s becoming a blur,” says Tetzloff, trying to put dates on it. But then he recounted a conversation with a woman at his newly-reopened library a day or two before. “You know,” she told him, “I know things are getting better if the library opens. If the library is open —and I know you’re careful, smart—it’s getting closer to the end.”

Northern Lights, where the computers are always 100 percent full:

The Northern Lights branch library was romantically-named, I thought. But as hard as I have searched for the name’s origin, I couldn’t confirm whether the Northern Lights shopping center, the library’s original home, was named for the actual Northern Lights, or perhaps from some electric company in that shopping center. (Crowd sourcing please: Anyone out there have an idea?) The library is now a little north of the center of Columbus, in a community quite similar demographically to The Hilltop. Like other branch managers, the Northern Lights manager, Andrea Villanueva, whom I also spoke with by phone, finds hers unique.

The community is home to a variety of New Americans, a favored moniker for recent immigrants. African immigrants come from many countries, especially Somalia. There is also a strong Hispanic community. Villanueva, herself Hispanic, feels her ethnicity equips her to be culturally aware of her diverse community. The populations of English language learners will easily fill a class with 60 or 90 people. The homework helpers see three times as many children as even the next busiest branch. Big Somali families, with seven or eight children, place a high emphasis on education, and they comprise a large part of her population, Villanueva told me.

“All this makes what we do very different from other branches in the community we serve,“ she says. There is a compelling need for computers at the library. “Our computers are always 100 percent full,” says Villanueva. At Northern Lights, many people use them for anything document-related—printing, scanning, and faxing. There are lots of forms, which demand lots of one-on-one help from library staff to find and complete.

After the most recent COVID-driven library closure, people were at the door at 9 a.m., waiting for the library to reopen. The arc of the day moves from daytime to after-school to evening, which was the busiest time of all in the pre-COVID-19 era. The shutdowns were challenging as the library tried to continue services curbside and drive-through. And people would go to the parking lot with laptops to use the Wi-Fi. The library, like others, answered in other ways, too. They have a NetSupport system, where library staff could work one-on-one with customers, screensharing remotely, to help them through their issues. The library system was really good about innovating different ways to help the community, says, Villanueva, but it was hard, and it took patience. Language issues made remote help particularly demanding.

Hilliard, where the need for broadband access dominates:

Across town to the west, in the diverse but overall more affluent area called Hilliard, is the recently-opened Hilliard branch, a 63,000-square-foot renovated space that was originally built as a senior community center, which never actually opened. Creating people space was a priority, says branch manager Amy McLanahan. There is something for everybody, and families are a big part of it: a huge children’s area, a teen section, meeting rooms, study rooms where people work individually or collaboratively. Some people come in to work or go for coffee in the café, or take part in the programming. All of this makes the library viable as a community gathering place.

Computers are significant, but McLanahan describes a different role they play in Hilliard compared with what I heard from The Hilltop and Northern Lights. To extend this era’s medical metaphor, at Hilliard computers are more of a booster shot than a ventilator. In Hilliard, broadband is the thing. More people have their own devices, and bring them in to log on to the library’s Wi-Fi. Looking around the study tables and into the small meeting rooms, she says that everybody is using the Wi-Fi. Why? “Some can’t afford Wi-Fi, for sure.” Teenagers will come in with the iPads issued by their schools to use Wi-Fi they may not have access to at home.

McLanahan goes through the litany of other reasons people come to the library: It is crowded at their houses, they need a quiet place to work, they are lacking an office. Some will collaborate with others at the library. Others just want company.

McLanahan also talks about the range of ways the staff help people on computers. Some need help applying for jobs or unemployment or guidance through the basics. Others—not just the older crowd—need the tech training, how to navigate or use Excel.

On another level, people can Google the basics, but stop right there. For example, a typical request might be “I need X or Y; can you recommend me a book?” McLanahan says library staff can do much more than recommend books—they can connect people with resources they didn’t know existed, showing them databases, subscriptions, interactive courses they can take for training or certification.

To tell these stories in a different, visual way, we have used Esri technology to create three interactive maps that include data from the 22 branches in the CML system.

The first map shows the amount of computer use in the different library branches, varying with neighborhood income levels. Not surprisingly, people in branches located in less affluent areas used the library’s public computers more often than people in branches in more affluent areas. Here’s what to look for and here’s how you can explore the maps for yourself:

  • In the map’s background colors, dark blue represents the areas’s highest income households. In descending order of income levels, grey background is next, then white, light green, and dark green.

  • Each circle represents a library branch. The size of the bright yellow of the circle shows the number of people who visit the library annually; the bigger the yellow circle, the greater the number of visitors.  The size of the pink circle shows the number of sessions recorded by the computers; the bigger the pink circle, the greater the number of sessions per computer.

  • If you click on the two arrows in the upper left of the map, the legend will pop up. If you click on a library, a set of pop-up bubbles offer geographic and demographic information for that branch. You can click through screens of information in the bubble including data for this map; the breakdown of income levels in the geographic tracts around the branch; and more.

For example, on this map, Hilliard, the big branch within a relatively affluent area of Columbus, is the westernmost circle. The big size of the yellow circle indicates the high number of visitors; the bubble will tell you those numbers exactly.  The inner circle (a pink overlay on the yellow) shows relatively moderate use of the computers.

By contrast, the Hilltop branch (southwesternmost circle) and the Northern Lights Branch (north-central), in relatively less affluent neighborhoods show a relatively higher use of each library computer.

The second map shows the amount of computer use in different library branches, varying with the number of households in the area that have computers at home. The load on the branch’s computers is higher where fewer households have home computers.

  • In the map’s background color, the darker the shade of red, the greater the number of households with computers; the lighter the color, the fewer households that have computers.

  • As with the previous map, the size of the yellow ring represents the number of annual visitors to the branch. The size of the green ring represents the number of sessions on each computer.

  • The pop-up bubbles show the percentage and the raw numbers of households without home computers for the tracts surrounding the library’s location.

In general, the libraries in areas where fewer households have computers at home, the greater the load on the libraries’ computers.

The third map shows the use of the public Wi-Fi when people brought in their personal devices to the library. Again, not surprisingly, and in accordance with comments from the library staff, the Wi-Fi carries a heavier load in libraries where more people bring in their personal devices.

  • The purple rings show the load on the public Wi-Fi; the orange rings show the load on the library’s computers.

Spotlighted by the pandemic, the scope and breadth of the need for computers and broadband access are recognized as bigger than the libraries alone can cover. In Columbus, local partners are addressing this together. Around Columbus, for example, the library has been working with partners at the Franklin County Digital Equity Coalition, including those from the Columbus Foundation to the YWCA, among many others. Here is their new report.

And breaking news: The federal government, via the FCC, has approved emergency broadband benefit to help pay for people’s internet service. And the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan includes $7 billion to help students secure internet access. These are steps.

As libraries continue to examine their role in digital life, they recognize that one of their critical and unique weapons is the hands-on, brains-on human capital of the librarians and library staff. They have been helping people research and navigate through their online lives for a long time. With libraries’ well-earned and precious reputation as a trusted place with trusted people, libraries are in a position to augment and ramp up these efforts.

Besides partnering with local organizations of all sorts, libraries are scaling up digital training at many levels, surrounding it with education and counsel. And libraries are building new dedicated spaces where they can offer classes to reach more customers more effectively. Northern Lights already has a learning space. The Hilltop will, too, when their new building opens.

All these efforts are ways that public libraries are addressing huge needs, making it possible for all citizens to partake in the internet, which Patrick Losinski, the CEO of the CML calls “the fourth utility.”

Amy McLanahan brings the national topic of digital equity and libraries’ role in it right down to the human experience, “We level the playing field for people. We can’t make it equal, but we can make it so someone has what they need to become successful.”  

Early 1900s image of the old Toledo Post Office
An early 1900s image of the old Toledo Post Office, slated to become a new tech center Courtesy of the City of Toledo

The country is full of “underdog cities”—communities and regions that are aware of losing out and having been overlooked. Some are in Appalachia, some in the Deep South, some around the Great Lakes, some in inland regions of otherwise-prospering states in the West. The imbalances in American opportunity—by race, by gender, by neighborhood and region, by class and economics—are of fundamental importance in the politics of the past generation, and in the prospects for renewal in the generation ahead.

Today’s installment is the story of how a company that started in one of these places is now involving people and businesses in another—and why that matters in the next stage of equitable American recovery.

The company is Bitwise Industries; its site-of-origin is Fresno, in California’s agriculturally rich (but otherwise poor) Central Valley; and its latest project will be in the once-strong, recently troubled American manufacturing belt along the Great Lakes. This week, Bitwise announced a new $50 million venture to expand a model that has proven effect in California to other “underdog” parts of the country, starting with the city of Toledo, Ohio.

The money has come from private investorsKapor Capital, JPMorgan Chase, Motley Fool Ventures, and the Toledo-based health-care non-profit ProMedica. Its announced goal, according to Bitwise, is “to support the actions needed to stop the widening wealth gap, end institutional discrimination, and remove the barriers for accessing high-wage, high-growth jobs.” In practice this means creating technology-training centers, incubators for startup businesses, partnerships with schools and universities, and in some cases physical renovations of run-down buildings.

The funding is based on Bitwise’s track record of success in expanding opportunities for tech-related jobs in under-served communities in California. Its first project, in Toledo, will be opening a new training, incubator, coworking, and apprenticeship center in a historic downtown structure that for years has stood vacant and decaying.

For Bitwise, this venture is an application of what its leaders call the “Digital New Deal”—opening more of this era’s opportunities to those who have lacked them. For Toledo it is, as the mayor, Wade Kapszukiewicz, put it to me, “a sign that the city is moving in the right direction,” and that people within the city “whose economic futures have been uncertain, they’ll have a chance to be on a better path.”

As always, whether this will pay off is unknowable. But it is based on ideas and practices that in other parts of the country have so far proved their worth.

Now, a word about the participants, their backgrounds, and the idea.

Fresno and Bitwise: Fresno is the largest city in the Central Valley, whose farms, vineyards, groves, and orchards are acre-for-acre some of the most valuable farmland in the world. But despite the area’s phenomenal productivity, the people of the valley are on average very poor by national standards, and subject to the educational, social, and health handicaps that accompany poverty. By some calculations, if California ever carried out a scheme to divide itself into six states—which it won’t—the resulting new state of Central California would be the very poorest in the Union.

Over the past six years, starting here and here and running through this last year, Deb Fallows and I have frequently reported on economic, civic, and cultural comeback activities in Fresno and the vicinity. One important economic and cultural driver there has been Bitwise. This was a startup firm when we first wrote about it, which has expanded into a combination of software house, tech-training center, and overall civic connector that has played a significant role in the city’s attempts at revival. (We’ve written about similar efforts from smaller tech companies in, for instance, Erie, Pennsylvania.) Deb and I have been impressed enough by their work that we’ve become paying customers of Bitwise on some web-design projects.

The company’s cofounders, Irma Olguin Jr. and Jake Soberal, have been explicit in saying that their goal is to expand tech-economy opportunities for individuals, families, communities, and regions that the larger tech boom has left behind.   “Bitwise is a tech ecosystem, activating human potential to elevate underdog cities around the country,” the company says on its web site. “My grandmother came here from Mexico, and my grandfather grew up very poor,” Soberal told me, when I spoke with him and Olguin on the phone this week. Olguin herself grew up in a Central Valley field-working family. The opportunity to go to college, and to start a business in the tech industry, dramatically changed her prospects. She has spoken many times about the countless others who thirst for such opportunities, in the technology business that had traditionally been closed to people from backgrounds like hers.

In 2019, Bitwise raised $27 million in “Series A” startup money, mainly to expand beyond Fresno to other “underdog” cities in California, like Bakersfield, Merced, and Oakland. With this $50 million in new “Series B” money, it intends to go national, toward other places with similar challenges—and potential. “The spread of COVID-19 and events of 2020 exposed the deep flaws that have existed for decades in the United States, and laid bare the unsustainable nature of our current systems/policies, and how they trap people in a cycle of poverty,” Olguin said in a statement announcing the new funding. “The past year showed us that there is no time to waste and we need to be aggressive about driving change now.”

Plans for the renovated Jefferson Center building (Courtesy of the City of Toledo)

“We were really rolling in California, and began asking ourselves, if we were to expand further, where would we go next?” Jake Soberal told me. “We wanted to see where we could have maximum impact.” The answer turned out to be Toledo.

Toledo and ProMedica: What agriculture has been to Fresno’s economy, manufacturing has historically been to Toledo’s. This has especially been true for firms related to the auto industry in nearby Detroit, most notably in glass. Toledo’s nickname is “Glass City,” and it is still the headquarters of Owens-Illinois, Owens-Corning, Libbey, and other major glass makers.

But the city’s biggest employer is now a health-care organization—something that Deb and I found to be true in a strikingly large number of places. For Toledo, that organization is ProMedica, which operates hospitals, clinics, and doctors’ offices in the area, and senior-care centers in 26 states.

ProMedica is organized as a non-profit, and describes itself as a “health and well-being organization” with a commitment to reviving its local community. Its CEO, Randy Oostra, told me this week that “when you look at health outcomes, it’s 20 percent clinical care, 40 percent social determinants” (and the rest is other things). That is, to foster healthy patients, you need healthy communities.

“An emphasis on social determinants is in our DNA,” he said. “We see our mission as actively looking to improve people’s lives—which include people’s ability to learn, to get a job, to support healthy families.” He said that ProMedica also considered itself an “anchor institution” for the revival of Toledo as a whole. In 2017 it moved its headquarters to the downtown waterfront, where as part of a $60 million construction project it had renovated a huge old steam-power plant. In 2019 it contracted to buy from the city’s school board the huge, once-magnificent downtown structure that had been built in 1911 as the Main Post Office and, after a variety of incarnations, had fallen into disuse.

At a virtual conference last summer, Robin Whitney, ProMedica’s chief of strategic planning, heard Irma Olguin talk about Bitwise’s record in Fresno and its desire to bring its model to other cities. As it happened, Olguin had a connection to the city. After finishing high school in the Central Valley, she had got her computer-science degree in the early 2000s at the University of Toledo. Whitney got in touch and said, what about Toledo?

“They more we talked, the more we realized we were kindred spirits,” Robin Whitney told me. “The passion they had, the idea that you have to give more people a real opportunity, it was a match.”

“My having an understanding of that area was helpful,” Olguin told me, when I asked: Why Toledo? “When I was first there, I was young and inexperienced and didn’t have the experience of starting a company under my belt. But the conversations we have now, and the absolute thirst to uplift the city, make a lot more sense. Too many people feel they have been left out, and need a chance.”

“What people feel about Fresno, or Bakersfield, they feel about Toledo,” Jake Soberal said. “The underdog nature, the willingness to work together.” “Working together,” which sounds like a platitude, has been an important part of the Bitwise model: partnerships among city and state governments, universities, community groups and NGOs, and companies large and small, with a local focus. They felt that they found that level of connection in Toledo.

“I know it’s a cliche to say ‘win-win,’ but I think that’s what this project is, for all involved,” Mayor Kapszukiewicz, a Democrat first elected in 2017, told me about the project. “Whether or not you buy into the notion that everything between the East Coast and the West Coast is ‘flyover country,’”—and by the way, I don’t—“in the economy there are winners and losers. In this region, we have done a lot of losing over the last 70 or 80 years.”

In the long run, he said, cities along the Great Lakes might be enviously referred to as “the Water Belt”—rather than the Rust Belt or the Snow Belt—because “we are sitting on one-fifth of the world’s supply of fresh water.” With a warming climate, their location could become a strategic plus. But in recent memory, factories had still been closing, and populations falling.

“There are communities and individuals our economy has overlooked,” he said. “People whose economic future is uncertain, they can be put on a path to better themselves and their families, with marketable skills that have real value.” As the mayor himself admitted, any sentiments of this sort sound platitudinous. But the problem he’s describing is very obviously real. And the elements of the response—businesses with an intentional civic focus, partnerships among a variety of groups, guiding focus on inclusion—have proven their value in communities with problems more acute than Toledo’s.

“I don’t know what people on ‘the coasts’ might say about towns like Toledo,” the mayor remarked, when I told him I was calling from my house in Washington. “We’re not New York City, and we don’t want to be New York City. You can get anywhere you want, in 12 minutes. If you pay $200,000 for a house, you can get 3,000 square feet.”

He stopped himself, and laughed—“Yes, this sounds like a mayor being a booster. But I think it’s the case for Toledo, and a lot of towns like this, that we have a little bit of a chip on our shoulder. We get the sense that people might be snickering at us. And we make that an advantage, in the civic zeitgeist. It’s a nice town, we get along, and if someone ‘in the family’ gets picked on, everyone stands up for them.”

The chip on the shoulder, very much the spirit of Fresno—or Erie, or Dayton, or San Bernardino, or many other places we have written about—is part of what the Bitwise founders recognized, and welcomed.  

“Toledo has been knocked down and punched in the gut several time,” the mayor said. “But I will say that if there is anything about being knocked down, it’s that you know how to get up. Toledo is a resilient place. We know how to take a punch. Toledo is a place that never gives up.”

Mayor Wade Kapszukiewicz, with a bridge behind him
Toledo Mayor Wade Kapszukiewicz (Courtesy of the City of Toledo)

The Jefferson Center: “The property they’re using is an interesting representative of Toledo as a whole,” Nolan Rosenkrans, of the Toledo Blade, told me on the phone this week. He was talking about the vintage-1911 Main Post Office, recently known as the Jefferson Center, which will be the Bitwise/ProMedica site.

“It’s right next to the Toledo Club, another stately historic structure, which is a center of wealth. And on the other side is a homeless shelter and community kitchen. In between is this huge block-long center that’s just empty now, and which is not the easiest kind of structure to redevelop.” He said that he thought most people would be glad the building would survive.

As for the larger success of the project, people in Toledo and elsewhere will have to wait and see. But Bitwise intends this as the first of a series of projects for underdog cities in the Midwest and elsewhere. They will represent important new venues for the drama of whether the American economy can open more possibilities to more of its people.

A black-and-white photo of Franklin D. Roosevelt, sitting in a chair and looking at the camera
Associated Press

A few days ago, I was talking with the mayor of a medium-sized “red state” city about how his community was weathering today’s public-health and financial crises. I told him I was mainly curious about his observations, rather than looking for on-the-record quotes. We talked over some details about his town, and then I asked him about prospects for post-pandemic recovery, in the broadest sense: restoring lost jobs, reviving lost businesses, regaining economic momentum, recreating opportunities for people and communities that have been left out. How did the upcoming wave of national and global trends look, from his perspective a long distance from Washington?  

“When I got into politics,” he said, referring to the late 1980s and early 1990s, “it was the era of Jack Kemp for the Republicans, and Bill Clinton for the Democrats. Balance the budget, lean government, and so on.” Twenty-five years ago, in his 1996 State of the Union address, Bill Clinton had memorably declared, “The era of big government is over.”

“All of those things were important, of course,” the mayor said. “But unless I’m misreading things, people now are really ready for a different approach.” That different approach, he said, would be more growth-minded, less constrained by fear of deficits. More Keynes and New Deal, less balanced-budget amendment.

These are not radically novel views to express in early 2021. An excellent, long New York Times Magazine story by Noam Scheiber recently went into this shift, as do frequent reports in The Atlantic and practically every other publication. Personally I’m all in favor of the change, toward a Keynesian/New-New Deal mentality—but my point for the moment is that this mayor volunteered it as the coming trend.

“I have a sense that we’re moving toward an environment where there’s broader support for public spending,” he said. “And that is exactly what cities need. In one word, infrastructure. Roads and bridges and sewers”—and, obviously, electric power systems. “They’re getting old, and they’re expensive to rebuild. My sense is not only that we need it, but that we’re in a political moment where it may be possible.”

That is the drama we’ll be seeing play out on the national stage, as the new administration at the national level either can or cannot enact its new policies. And we’ll see the real test of effectiveness, adaptability, and innovation played out as the policies are implemented city by city, region by region, and state by state.

That too would have resonance with the original New Deal, when the big, sweeping changes that were launched from Washington often drew from earlier experimentation at the local or state level—and took different effects as applied place-by-place. If national-level policy, in the Biden era, is now trying to support economic recovery and renewal of left-behind areas, ideas on how to do that, and the experimentations and implementations on getting it done, are largely going to occur at the local level. (In The Washington Monthly, Daniel Block has a new piece on how a federal renewal effort can best take advantage of the local ability to adapt and innovate.)

As a prelude to more chronicles of this national-local and rural-urban interaction, here are a few leads to reports, ideas, and developments worth note.