Reporter's Notebook

Michael Jones leans against a stone wall, smiling slightly, with a mountain behind him
Courtesy of June Jones

Last week, at his home in Sunnyvale, California, a man named Michael T. Jones died of cancer, at age 60. This past weekend the local San Jose Mercury-News ran an appreciation of him and summary of his career, which you can read here. He is mourned by the many friends he made over the decades, of course most of all by his wife, June, with whom he recently celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary.

I considered Michael Jones a good friend, and someone with the too-rare combination of intellectual brilliance and temperamental big-heartedness. It was because of both factors—his virtuosity in the technological world, and his generosity on a personal level—that he was a leading figure in an Atlantic article I wrote ten years ago, called “Hacked.” The article described what happened after the email account and related electronic identities of my wife, Deb, were taken over by a hacker.

Michael Jones
Courtesy of June Jones

Remember those phony emails you used to get, from what appeared to be a friend’s account? “I regret to inform you that I have been mugged in Manila. Please wire me $10,000 immediately, and include your banking details,” etc. Deb’s account was an early vector for such a scam—pulled off by a hacker, later traced to West Africa, whose first step was to permanently erase the entirety of her existing messages. Michael Jones was at the time the Chief Technology Advocate for the Google company as a whole—a job title invented specifically for him—and, as explained in the article, he helped me understand exactly how the hackers worked; how tech companies were trying to keep ahead of them; and how, eventually, many years’ worth of Deb’s correspondence could be retrieved.

Also I learned: Always use two-factor sign-on systems!

Deb and I had known Michael for several years at that point. I first met him at a tech-world conference where he and colleagues from a small company called Keyhole were describing a new digital-mapping product they had developed. In 2004, Google acquired that Keyhole company and its software, which in turn became the basis of Google Earth. I don’t know how many people around the world would recognize Michael Jones’s name or be aware of his story. But by most reckonings at least a billion people around the world, every day, use the company’s mapping tools—Google Earth, Google Maps, and related products—to get through traffic, to find out if a store is open, to see how their house looks from above. That last example is deliberate: When demonstrating Google Earth’s aerial view to me in the program’s early stages, Michael said that the first thing nearly all users did was enter their own address and zoom in on it.

In 2013, I did a Q-and-A with Michael Jones in the magazine on how always-available mapping had already changed daily life, and what changes lay ahead. One of his answers illustrated his constant linking of technology and the humanities. (Although his formal education lasted only through one year at North Carolina State University, he was deeply informed about history and literature, and their connections with technology). He likened the rise of digital mapping tools to previous revolutions in systematized knowledge:

I would consider this [digitized mapping] like Dr. Johnson’s compilation of a dictionary of the English language, or maybe the rise of the encyclopedia. It’s the creation of a universal reference work, reflecting a lot of labor and great expense, that everybody can rely on.

If you think about Dr. Johnson’s dictionary from the point of view of English literature, you might say, “Well, Johnson—he did a dictionary.” But what else could you do with words on a piece of paper? Maybe you could write mysteries, or comedy, or adventure stories. You can do a lot of things with the words in his dictionary.

We think there will be a new literature from the mapping dictionary that’s now being built.

And another answer reflected what I can only call a boyish joy in discovery and learning, which lasted through his final days. I asked what had surprised him in the effects of mapping technology, and he said that one bad surprise was the touchiness of many governments about geographical-labeling issues. But:

A better surprise has to do with the interest of people in geography.

Geography was a class that few embraced in school. In elementary school, they make you color in maps to show where the oceans and continents are. And yet, when we were starting Keyhole, we read a report that one-fifth of American elementary-school students couldn’t point out the Pacific Ocean on a map.

We thought, “This is wrong. We’re going to fix this problem. We’re going to make learning about the Earth fun, instead of boring …. ”

We were saying … “We are going to make discovering the Earth a joy”—like you’re dating a planet and you want to know it, to hear all about its past and hopes. That’s what we did: we made something immersive and engaging and personal. You can fly to your home—fly to your parents’ home—and remember the time you snuck out in the backyard and did something you shouldn’t do, or the place where you had a first kiss, or the place you got married.

What we didn’t expect was how many people would share that joy with us.

Such was Michael’s polymath curiosity that he also discovered the truth about the unavoidable “boiled frog” cliché. It turns out, as Michael reported here, that a frog will indeed sit still in a pot of gradually heated water, just as the cliché holds. But it will do so only if its brain has already been removed. A normal, sentient frog will hop out as soon as things get too warm. It occurred to a German scientist to demonstrate this experimentally in the late 1800s.

Last summer, the Royal Geographical Society in London awarded Michael Jones its highest honor, its Patron’s Medal, as I noted at the time. He did a revealing interview with the RGS, about the meanings of maps, of geography, and of the inventor’s temperament. In an outtake version of that interview, which June Jones shared with me, Michael said this:

Everyone is an inventor; you need only ignore limits and preconceptions then ask yourself “how should it be?” Inventors are just laborers toiling to make things be as we feel they should.

For me, a key trait is passion for ideas, loving them as parents love children and grandchildren: embracing them, sacrificing for them, excusing the worst and believing the best of them, being patient and supportive with an enduring love as they mature. Like children, they take time to develop into the brightness of their promise.

I have been this way all my life.

I miss Michael Jones and am glad to have known him. Those who never met or knew of him should pause in appreciation of what he and others like him have done.

A woman wearing a mask stands in front of a store going out of business, with "STORE IS CLOSING" written on the window and 80% off signs
Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

The pandemic ravaged America’s big cities first, and now its countryside. The public-health and economic repercussions have been felt everywhere. But they have been hardest on the smallest businesses, and the most vulnerable families and communities.

This is an update, following a report last month, on plans to repair the damage now being done.

1) What the federal government can do: The Institute for Local Self-Reliance is a group concentrating on the business-structure, technological, political, and other obstacles that have held small cities and rural areas back—and how they might be reversed.

This month the ILSR released a report on steps the federal government could take to foster business and civic renewal at the local level. The report is available in PDF here, and a summary is here. The larger argument is designed to:

… help the federal government avoid the mistakes made in the wake of the 2007-08 financial crisis …

Rather than the housing sector [as in the previous crisis], the current economic fallout is decimating America’s small businesses. Nearly 100,000 small, independent businesses have already closed their doors permanently, with Black-owned businesses taking the biggest hit. As of early November, small business revenue was down a stunning 31 percent from January. As small businesses close or hang on by their fingernails, meanwhile, a handful of big corporations are recording massive profits, increasing their already-dominant market share, and dramatically accelerating concentration of the economy….

People are losing their dreams and livelihoods. Neighborhoods are losing beloved local stores and gathering spots. The country is losing much of its local productive capacity. To answer this generational challenge, we must have a federal economic recovery strategy focused on rebuilding, creating, and growing America’s small, independent businesses.

The report covers large policy areas—a different approach to antitrust—and very tangible specifics, like the way credit-card processing fees are handled. It is certainly worth consideration by the Biden team. (And, in the same vein, here is another worthwhile piece, by Maddie Oatman in Mother Jones, on the importance of economic prospects for rural America.)

2) What some state governments can do (a California model): Responding to a crisis that is both global and intensely local naturally involves a combination of measures—international efforts to detect and contain disease, nationwide economic strategies, and city-by-city and state-by-state responses to the problems and opportunities of each locale.

California, which has roughly one-eighth of the whole population of the United States and produces roughly one-seventh of U.S. economic output, also has been responsible for an outsize proportion of innovations. Some of them have run afoul or amok, as Mark Paul and Joe Mathews described a decade ago in their book The California Crackup (and as I mentioned in this 2013 profile of Jerry Brown). Others are a positive model for other states and the nation as a whole—notably, a non-partisan, anti-gerrymandering approach to drawing political-district lines. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was governor when this reform came in, has been taking the anti-gerrymandering cause nationwide, as Edward-Isaac Dovere reported here.

One of California’s innovations that deserves broader attention is its “Little Hoover Commission.” After World War II, current president Harry Truman appointed former president Herbert Hoover to head a commission looking into broad questions of government organization and efficiency. That was the “big” Hoover Commission.

California’s “Little Hoover Commission” counterpart was created in 1962 and was meant to be a permanent, independent, non-partisan source of oversight and expertise about the state’s long-term challenges, and the state government’s response to them. In my new print-magazine article, I argue that, on the national level, formal commissions have played a surprisingly important role in investigating calamities (the space shuttle Challenger explosion, the 9/11 attacks) or assessing crises and trends (educational failures, resegregation and racial justice). California has, in effect, institutionalized this kind of non-partisan inquiry.

This month, the Little Hoover Commission has released its report on how badly the pandemic-era economic implosion is hurting businesses and families in California, and what might be done about it. The executive summary is here, and the full report is here.

I won’t attempt to summarize the whole thing here, but in essence their recommendation is an emergency effort to link public and private resources of all sorts—individual donors, NGOs, corporations, financial institutions—in a “rebuilding fund.” The fund, in turn, would concentrate on small businesses, and especially those in disadvantaged communities. One of its recommendations:

The state needs to use its megaphone to make financial institutions, private investors, and philanthropic donors aware of the Rebuilding Fund and to encourage high-net-worth individuals, impact investors, and major corporations to lend and/or donate to the Rebuilding Fund.

This may include working with regional business councils to disseminate information about the Rebuilding Fund and explain why it is vital to support small businesses, especially those in underserved communities. It may also include fully leveraging existing state investment networks..

In order to encourage investment, GO-Biz and IBank should also develop a strategy for publicly recognizing institutional investors and explore additional means for incentivizing participation.

In parallel with this effort, two California-based business-and-economic authorities, Laura Tyson and Lenny Mendonca, have put out a paper on the urgency of a new federal stimulus program. (For the record, both of them are friends of mine.) They say:

It is incumbent on the federal government to provide more generous and flexible funding for state and local governments. Governors and mayors across the country are pleading for help ahead of a challenging winter. Most states and cities have exhausted rainy-day funds and are facing a collective shortfall of $400 billion or more, according to the most recent estimates.

Because most state and local governments cannot legally spend more than they receive in revenues, they need federal funds to cover their growing fiscal gaps. Without such support, they will have no choice but to raise taxes or cut essential services and employment in health, public safety, and education, as many are already doing. Either option will undermine the countercyclical effects of federal stimulus, thereby weakening the recovery.

At the fiat of Mitch McConnell, the U.S. Senate seems likely to end this year without addressing the states’ and cities’ needs. Many states and cities are improvising in useful ways, but national crises require a national response. Help!

(And while I am at it, here is another locally based initiative to create more supportive ecosystems for entrepreneurs.)

3) Ways around the college-degree bottleneck: Research universities and four-year colleges are simultaneously the glory and the heartbreak of America’s educational system. They’re the glory for obvious reasons. They’re the heartbreak because of the financial challenges for many liberal-arts schools, and the student-debt burdens for millions of young people, and the factors that can make higher education reinforce existing privileges, rather than offset them.

The negative power of judging people purely by sheepskin credentials is very familiar. (I actually did an Atlantic cover story about it 35 years ago, here.) But a positive counterpart in the past few years has been rapidly opening pathways to careers that don’t require a four-year degree. That’s what we’ve emphasized in our reports on community colleges, “career technical” programs in high schools, apprenticeship systems, and other ways of matching people with the opportunities of this moment.

Last week The New York Times had a story by Steve Lohr with the headline, “Up to 30 Million in U.S. Have the Skills to Earn 70% More, Researchers Say.”

This is a great headline that conveys the essential point: There are opportunities (post-pandemic) for people who for various reasons have not completed the four-year bachelor’s gantlet. More information is available at Opportunity@Work and through the Rework America Alliance. (For the record, I know many of the people involved in the Opportunity and Reword initiatives.)

As with previous dispatches, none of these approaches is “the” answer to this era’s many crises. But they’re all potential parts of an answer. They deserve attention.   

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Someone hands another person a stack of books over a library counter. We can only see their arms and hands.
Tyler Olson / Shutterstock

When I was a kid, the sin of returning books late to the public library populated a category of dread for me next to weekly confessions to the Catholic priest (what can an 8-year-old really have to confess?) and getting caught by the dentist with a Tootsie Roll wrapper sticking out of my pocket. So decades later, when I heard about libraries going “fine-free,” it sounded like an overdue change and a nice idea.

Collecting fines for overdue books has been going on for over a century, originally seen as a source of revenue and as an incentive for people to behave responsibly and actually return borrowed books. Then, as early as the 1970s, research and experiments with going fine-free began to pick up steam. But as recently as four years ago, over 90 percent of libraries in the U.S. were still charging small change for late returns.

A Seinfeld episode from 1991, called The Library Cop, seems at once timely and untimely. This is Seinfeld; it will make you laugh.

Missions, Policies, Changes:

The last five years have been very busy in the world of overdue fines. In what has been the “Fine-Free Movement,” many librarians have begun to question the traditional policy of overdue fines, and attitudes have begun to change. Are fines consistent with a fundamental mission of libraries: to serve the public with information and knowledge? And to address that mission equitably across the diverse population of rich and poor library users?

A 2016 Colorado State Library system report showed that eliminating overdue fines removed barriers to access for children. While some people only notice fines as an irritation, others feel the weight heavily enough to be driven away from the library.

In 2017, a Library Journal poll of 450 libraries found that over 34 percent considered eliminating at least some fines.

In 2018, a poll of Urban Libraries Council (ULC) member libraries found that the most common reason (54 percent, dwarfing all others) responding libraries had gone fine-free was that eliminating fines increased access for low-income users and children.

By late in 2018, several big-city public-library systems including San Diego, Nashville, Salt Lake City, BaltimoreSt. Paul, and Columbus, Ohio eliminated overdue fines.

The powerful American Library Association, representing some 55,000 members, adopted “a resolution of monetary fines as a form of social inequity” at their midwinter meeting in 2019.

In January, 2019, the city of San Francisco issued an extensively-researched and influential report called Long Overdue, on the impact of fines on the mission of libraries, and the costs of eliminating fines on libraries, users, and the city and county of San Francisco. The report ultimately recommended eliminating overdue fines throughout the public library system.

When the pandemic closed libraries and made it hard or impossible for people to return books, many libraries revisited their policies on overdue fines. In Washington D.C., an early shorter-term amnesty experiment at the beginning of COVID-19 grew into a subsequent vote by the Public Library Board of Trustees to expand eliminating fines for only youth, to everyone.

Experiments in fines, amnesties, alternatives:

Libraries have been experimenting with lots of different ways to address fines for overdue books. Some stopped fining all patrons; others only children or youth; still others exempted active military and veterans from fines. Some forgive fines up to a certain dollar amount. Santa Barbara, California, follows one common practice—forgiving fines for a certain number of days (30 in this case) days, then charging for the cost of the book, which can be forgiven upon its return.

Lost or damaged books are in a different category. The loss of a book is much more costly and cumbersome to a library than a late return, and libraries work out various ways to address that.

When libraries offer popular amnesty periods for returning overdue books, the books often pour in like gushers. An amnesty program in Chicago brought in 20,000 overdue items; Los Angeles nearly 65,000; San Francisco just shy of  700,000. And a bonus: After the Chicago library went fine-free, thousands of users whose fees were forgiven returned to the library for new cards, and readers checked out more books overall than before.

Other libraries found substitutes for monetary fines. In 2018, the public libraries in Fairfax County, Virginia, began a food-for-fines program, which collected 12,000 pounds of food to donate to a nonprofit food pantry. Each donated item accrued one dollar toward a maximum $15 fine forgiveness. In Queens, New York, the public library has a program for young people to “read down” their 10-cent per day fines. One half hour of reading earns one dollar in library bucks to pay off fines.

Calculating costs of fines and the benefits of going fine-free:

The 2017 Library Journal poll of about 450 libraries across the country estimated that nearly $12 million in monthly library fines would be collected nationwide that year.

In fact, loss of revenue takes different size bites from libraries’ budgets. Some seemed like nibbles. When the New Haven, Connecticut, public library went fine-free in July 2020, the sum of overdue fines was less than one-quarter of one percent of the library’s annual budget. In San Francisco, fines in FY 2017-18 represented 0.2 percent of the operating budget. In Schaumburg Township, Illinois, 0.25 percent of the annual budget. In Santa Barbara, 1 percent. The St. Paul, Minnesota, libraries found that they spent $250,000 to collect $215,000 in fines.

But a late 2018 ULC poll of its roughly 160 members reported that one in five libraries that were considering eliminating fines named the biggest deterrent as financial. (Only larger was political reasons, at 34 percent.) The Long Overdue report found that fines disproportionately harmed library customers in low-income areas and those with larger proportions of Black residents. While libraries in all areas “accrued fines at similar rates,” those located in areas of lower income and education and higher number of Black people have “higher average debt amounts and more blocked users.”

As Curtis Rogers, the Communications Director of the Urban Libraries Council described the findings to me: “Overdue fines do not distinguish between people who are responsible and those who are not—they distinguish between people who have or do not have money.”

Funding sources for libraries vary considerably. Some libraries enjoy a secure line item in a city or county budget. Others patch together a more fragile existence of fundraising, philanthropy, public bonds and levies, and other sources.

Other factors have changed the landscape as well. The growth of e-book lending, which can automatically time out and incur no fines, have cut into overall fine revenue numbers somewhat.

To make up for losses in revenues, libraries have come up with creative answers. For example: processing passport renewals; a “conscience jar” for overdue books; charging fees for replacing lost cards and for copying, scanning, and faxing; charging rent for community rooms or theaters; and general tightening of spending.

The impact of fines should be measured in ways beyond cash revenues. Collecting fines and blocking accounts can be time-consuming, stressful, and unpleasant for librarians, and can cause general discomfort and even ill will in a community.

I witnessed a small episode of the toll that fines can take on the strong currency of people’s trust and goodwill in libraries. During a summer visit a few years ago to the public library in an unnamed town in the middle of the country, I was hanging around the check-out-desk when I saw a man reach the front of the line to borrow a few books. The librarian told him that his card was blocked, and he needed to pay his fines before he could borrow the book. The man was part of the town’s sizable Spanish-speaking population, and he didn’t understand the librarian. She repeated her message, louder each time. A line was building at the check-out. Finally, the man went to fetch his elementary-school-age daughter to translate for him. It all ended badly: He was embarrassed, the daughter was embarrassed. Others like me who witnessed the exchange were embarrassed. The man left without borrowing the books. The librarian was stuck behind non-transparent rules, although I have seen more gracious handling of such situations.

In 2016, the Orange Beach, Alabama,  public libraries swapped overdue fines with voluntary donations, which they soon dropped as well. Steven Gillis, the director of the public library, wrote that the overall goodwill the library earned in the community with their new fine-free policy had leveraged into increased municipal funding from a sympathetic and appreciative city council.

The Long Overdue report also found that eliminating fines increased general goodwill between users and staff, and also increased the numbers of users and the circulation of books. They saw no increases in late book returns.

                                                     *      *      *

In 2018, a young research fellow at the Urban Libraries Council (ULC), Nikolas Michael, set out to tell the story of libraries going fine-free by creating an interactive map, which has since become one of ULC’s most used resources.

Here is the map and how it works:

View larger map | Provided courtesy of the Urban Libraries Council

Each arrow on the map represents a library that ULC has logged to tell its story of going fine-free. The gold arrows are ULC member libraries; silver are non-member libraries.

The map is interactive; click on an arrow and you’ll see some of the whys, wherefores, and impact of the change on a particular library. The map updates with each additional entry.

Curtis Rogers, from ULC, and Betsey Suchanic, a program manager there, described on a Zoom call the background and impact the map has made on telling the story and building a movement.

The map helps libraries make well-informed decisions, as they use it for research and evidence to weigh the pros and cons of going fine-free.

In Philadelphia, Councilwoman Cherelle Parker called for a hearing to explore eliminating fines at the Free Library of Philadelphia. She directly referenced the ULC map of fine-free libraries as evidence. ULC also submitted written testimony for the  hearing.

The map and ULC’s other reporting on the fine-free movement contribute to larger-context conversations—for example, on the topic of the pros and cons of other kinds of municipal fines, like parking tickets.

The Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County just went fine-free, and they used the map specifically to make their case to their board. You can see the map on page 8 of the library’s PowerPoint presentation.

                                                *     *     *

America’s current national focus on issues of racial, economic, educational, health, and environmental equity, and on policing and justice, has a way of reaching a sound-bite ending in media segments or conference panel wrap-ups. It goes something like this: “We need to have a national conversation about …”

Public libraries, which are in business to be responsive to public needs and wants, are a model for moving beyond conversations to action. For example, public libraries open their doors to homeless people, they feed hungry children in after-school programs, they offer free Wi-Fi access for people and places (especially rural) where it is hard to come by, and in increasing numbers, they find ways to forego monetary fines. These actions shore up in a tangible way a major mission of public libraries: to provide equal access to information and knowledge for all citizens.

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An abandoned-looking steel mill on a sunny day
A steel mill in Mingo Junction, Ohio, shut down in 2008. Mingo Junction is part of the Ohio River Valley, often stereotyped in national discourse as the land of coal mines and closed factories. ERIC THAYER

As it was in 2016, so it is again in 2020: A central axis of national-election results is the rural-urban gulf. Larger cities—really, conurbations of any sort—mainly went for Joe Biden. Donald Trump’s major strength was in the smallest cities and in rural areas.

Obviously there has been more to Donald Trump’s power than purely regional dynamics. (In particular, there are racial dynamics, as laid out here and here and here.) And as Deb Fallows and I have argued for years, the United States looks more hopelessly divided when it comes to national elections than it does from any other perspective. For instance, see these dispatches from western Kansas, back in 2016.

But also obviously, national elections matter, and regional and locational polarization makes every other challenge for America more difficult. In a new paper for Brookings, John Austin argues that Midwestern voting patterns for Trump and Biden show how the sense of being “left behind” fuels resentment-driven politics—and how a sense of possibility can have the opposite effect. August Benzow of The Economic Innovation Group has a related paper on the stark differences within rural America on racial diversity, economic positioning, and political outlook.

Does anyone have an idea of how to blunt these differences and open more opportunities? Especially as a new administration faces all the economic, public health, law-enforcement, and other crises the new Biden team is about to take on? Here are some recent items worth noticing:

1) A Marshall Plan for Middle America: During election years, reporters troop into cities (and especially diners) in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and other parts of “interior America” to get political quotes. Then, typically, the press spotlight moves someplace else.

This past weekend in The Washington Post, the mayors of eight of these middle-American cities wrote about what could be done to move their areas ahead. These are places we know and have written about, many of whose mayors we also know personally. The cities are Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Cincinnati, Columbus, Dayton, and Youngstown in Ohio; Louisville, Kentucky; and Huntington and Morgantown, West Virginia. All are in the Appalachian or Ohio River Valley regions, often stereotyped in national discourse as the land of coal mines and decrepit factories.

The mayors argue that it is time to draw on the region’s manufacturing heritage, and recreate its economy in a fundamental way. For instance:

According to our research, taking advantage of our community assets, geographic positioning and the strengths of our regional markets can help create over 400,000 jobs across the region by investing in renewable energy and energy efficiency upgrades to buildings, energy infrastructure and transportation assets.

Renewable sources of power are proving less expensive, and fossil fuel companies are increasingly dependent on federal subsidies to survive. Couldn’t these subsidies be strategically shifted to invest in a green economy that keeps these largely suburban and rural jobs but transitions them, with federal support, into new industries that will grow in the 21st century?

Like our friends at Reimagine Appalachia—a grass-roots community and environmental organization—we believe a Marshall Plan-scale reinvestment is necessary. Rather than a “Green New Deal,” our plan would seed long-term regional investments in Appalachia’s rural and suburban communities, while leveraging the technological successes of our tentpole cities to assist them. The same goes for our neighbors in the Ohio River Valley throughout the Rust Belt and up to the Great Lakes region.

I agree with their pitch, and hope their prospectus gets attention. Here is a complementary argument from Bill Peduto, the mayor of Pittsburgh, and another from Annie Regan, in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

2) Reducing Polarization by Modernizing Rural Policy: The political and cultural ramifications of a rural-urban divide are hot topics journalistically. “Rural policy,” not so much. But in a new report for Brookings (available here), Anthony Pipa and Nathalie Geismar argue that straightening out the rat’s-nest of programs intended to help rural America could make a big difference.

Rat’s nest? Take a look at this organization chart included in the Brookings report:

Courtesy of the Brookings Institution

“The economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to further disrupt local economies that in 2019 were still recovering from the Great Recession” and other long-term disruptions, Pipa and Geismar write. They add:

Just recently, COVID-19 prevalence in nonmetro U.S. areas surpassed those in metro areas for the first time; Rural residents are now almost 2.5 times more likely than urban residents to die from the virus. This is compounded by the decreasing access to health care that many rural communities face …

Now, rural communities must navigate a virtual world of work with intermittent broadband access and adapt to additional shocks to manufacturing and agriculture supply chains ….

Despite these challenges, rural communities are diverse—both demographically and economically—and entrepreneurial. They help power, feed, and protect America at rates disproportionate to other geographies. They house 99 percent of wind power capacity and will play a key role in national climate strategies that require investments in clean energy infrastructure.

The report has many recommendations, but here are the three main ones:

  1. Launch a new development corporation, to invest in local vision and leadership through long-term block grants at the community level and innovative financing tools that give communities a fighting chance to strengthen and renew their local institutions, economies, and vision.
  2. Create a national rural strategy, elevate White House and interagency leadership, and undertake a set of specific and targeted reforms to enhance federal coherence and effectiveness.
  3. Appoint a bipartisan congressional commission to undertake a top-to-bottom review regarding the effectiveness of federal assistance and build political momentum to transform federal rural policy.    

3) Local journalism and local recovery: This is a big ongoing theme, which will only gain in importance if recovery efforts like those mentioned above are giving a serious try in communities across the country. Margaret Sullivan of The Washington Post, a former editor herself and an indispensable media observer, published a book this year about the accelerating forces working against local news. Just after this year’s election, Dan Kennedy, another important longtime media writer, argued on the GBH news site that shoring up local journalism would have direct benefits community-by-community, plus the broader potential of calming down now-fevered national discussions. On the Poynter site, Rick Edmonds—yet another important longtime media writer—gives a comprehensive overview of how “shoring up” might actually work. For instance:

As the pandemic advertising recession and longstanding negative trends have made the financial precariousness of these enterprises obvious, Congress has pretty much decided it should come to the aid of local news. The question of how remains, together with making the help timely.

My take comes from conversations with a variety of advocacy groups pushing one form or another of legislative assistance. A surprising favorite approach has emerged, too—direct subsidies for news subscribers, local journalists and small business advertisers.

That’s the structure of HR 7640, the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, sponsored by Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz.), Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.) and more than 70 co-sponsors from both parties.

There is a lot more detail in Edmonds’s piece, and the others. (See also this pre-election analysis at the Ground Truth Project, by Steven Waldman, whose work I have described here.) And while I’m at it, please check out the latest dispatch from John Miller, creator of the film Moundsville, about regional culture gaps. Also this, by Katherine Bindley in The Wall Street Journal, about big-city tech-industry people who have considered entirely different careers, in entirely different parts of the country, because of the pandemic.

Important transformation work is underway at the national level, as I’ll discuss in an upcoming print-magazine article. But that would be doomed, or at least limited, without comparably intense efforts to improve local-level prospects. These ideas are a start.

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Downtown Akron, from the city's North Hill neighborhood, over the Little Cuyahoga River Valley. Akron is one of countless cities whose recovery plans have been upended by the pandemic.
Downtown Akron, from the city's North Hill neighborhood, over the Little Cuyahoga River Valley. Akron is one of countless cities whose recovery plans have been upended by the pandemic. Courtesy of Jason Segedy

What else is going on in the country, with less than two weeks in this consequential election season? Here is a sampling of recent articles and developments worth notice.

Prospects for local journalism: The strength and importance of local journalism have always grown from its attention to the local: What is happening in the town or region, what is getting better or worse, how local institutions are responding. Even as national politics have become more polarized and tribal, local news organizations have often been able to focus attention and engagement on important issues (rather than divisive spectacles) that can be solved (rather than just argued about).

This is why several trends of recent years have been so destructive in civic terms. These include the economic pressures on small, independent news outlets; the gobbling up of many surviving outlets by private-equity chains; and the determination of national TV chains like Sinclair to convert local TV-news outlets into extensions of the national-politics crusades. A recent story by Davey Alba and Jack Nicas in The New York Times has drawn a lot of attention for showing how the Sinclair model—franchised, faux-“local” versions of national messaging—is spreading to the print and online realms.

Some recent developments worth noting, on the other side:

  • From Poynter, an essay by Steven Waldman on why these new pressures on local journalism matter, and what could be done about them. Waldman, a longtime friend, is among other things a co-founder of Report for America, which I have written about, and of the Rebuild Local News coalition. In his Poynter essay he points out the goods and bads of this moment in local news:

    As a point of reference, consider this: One of the most positive trends has been the rise of local nonprofit news organizations. Today, there are about 300 of them, according to the Institute for Nonprofit News. Yes, that’s less than one quarter of the number of these faux news sites that have popped up recently.

    The problem is increasingly not that communities will get no information but that they’ll get disinformation, or information whose provenance is unknown.

  • From David Plotz, long of Slate and Atlas Obscura, the announcement of a new locally oriented podcast series, called City Cast. In a post on Medium describing the project, Plotz writes:

I’m starting City Cast because I believe the future is local ….

Thanks to the pandemic, a staggering economic crisis, the protest movement against police violence and systemic racism, and well, just 2020 in general, America has never needed great local journalism more than it does today ….

Where local news is sparse or feeble, communities suffer: Political activity declines; local businesses weaken; mistrust grows. We become more divided, more insular, and more hopeless. If you live in a community with hollowed-out media, you feel that every day.

Good luck to Plotz and his City Cast colleagues.

  • For another illustration of an innovative local model, check out Canopy Atlanta, and its inaugural issue on the city’s West End—and this report by Rick Edmonds, of Poynter, about the way three regional papers are trying to expand rather than budget-cut their way to survival.

  • And, for an economic-development perspective on which accurate local news matters, see a recent installment of The Chung Report, by James Chung, which has had an ongoing focus on development in Chung’s original hometown of Wichita, Kansas. In “Why Transparency Matters,” Chung explores how a medium-sized city like Wichita, with a strong university presence (Wichita State) and a historic role as a center of aerospace technology, can deal with its long-term civic and economic challenges.

Economic recovery after the pandemic: The story of the moment is of accelerating economic and public-health damage from the (disastrously managed) pandemic. The next story will be about the ways families, companies, cities, and regions can begin to recover.

Some of this effort will be national and global in scale. Some will be intensely local. Here are several worthwhile guides:

  • From the Heartland Forward project, a report on an economic recovery strategy for Northwest Arkansas. Why this part of the country? Heartland Forward’s founders include younger members of the Walton family and, along with the Walton Family Foundation, it has concentrated on economic and civic revival in non-coastal America, notably including the Walmart headquarters area of Northwest Arkansas.

This new report (in PDF here) is largely devoted to both the immediate and the longer-term effects of the pandemic. It also addresses the region’s diversity and racial-justice issues. Historically, this part of the state (which was not part of the antebellum plantation economy) has had a large-majority white population; according to the report, only 2.5 percent of the local population is Black. The report flatly says that to progress, the region must intentionally make itself more welcoming and inclusive:

“It is paramount that the region’s major employers continue to attract and retain diverse talent … In addition, building up diverse populations assists new members to the community feel comfortable and secure, as well as helps to make the existing culture more welcoming to outsiders …. NWA [Northwest Arkansas] should consider ways to make diverse populations feel more welcome in the community …”

Even if you’re not interested in this part of the country, the report is worth noticing as an illustration of how regions with distinctive strengths and limitations can think realistically about their possibilities.

  • From Jason Segedy, planning director for the city of Akron, two valuable essays on how cities can approach these new rebuilding challenges. One, in The American Conservative, is about how cities can become more “inclusive” even in the face of likely long-term decline. The other, for the Economic Innovation Group, is about how “legacy cities,” of smaller size and yesteryear’s industry, can find a future. He uses the example of another city we’ve written about, Dayton:

    There is also a certain level of love for a mid-sized city like Dayton that is often not as present in larger places, where many people might be there for less emotional and more utilitarian economic reasons. This can lead to higher levels of civic engagement and community support. Innovators, entrepreneurs, and the civically-engaged and community-minded can potentially have more of a positive impact, being bigger fish in a smaller pond. “When you really love something, you want to make it better,” says Torey Hollingsworth, senior policy advisor to Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley.  

    At the same time, the way that the economy has changed over the past four decades has made it far more difficult for these cities to succeed. Consolidation of major industrial corporations has really hurt cities like Akron and Dayton, as these cities first lost thousands of blue-collar production jobs and then ultimately lost most of the white-collar professional jobs that remained.     

  • From Allentown, Pennsylvania, an update on the ongoing redevelopment of the city’s old heavy-manufacturing sites. Several years ago John Tierney wrote about small, modern startups in what was once the Mack Truck plant. (It is now known as the Bridgeworks Enterprise Center.) The next industrial site for renovation is a former steel fabrication plant, known as the Metal Works. You can read about its situation here.

  • From the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a report on how much money state and local governments have already devoted to sustaining small businesses through the pandemic era—but how much more federal help will inevitably be needed. The report (PDF here), by Kennedy Smith, says:

    “The relief programs provided by local and state governments have kept hundreds of thousands of small businesses afloat so far and helped them adapt to the surreal commercial environment the pandemic has created. But absent additional and ongoing funding these crucial programs will cease, leaving hundreds of thousands of small businesses at risk of going under in the coming months.”

Small businesses across the country have been through very tough times these past six-plus months. But—as in so many other aspects of pandemic effects—without help, even tougher times may lie ahead. For a previous ILSR report on steps cities can take to sustain their independent businesses, see this.  

  • One of our ongoing threads through the years has been the importance of skilled-trades jobs, as sources of opportunity and offsets to an ever-more-polarized economy. Advanced-manufacturing jobs, work designing and maintaining robotic systems, jobs in aerospace and health care and advanced agriculture—almost all of these have had more job openings than applicants in recent years, and many do not require a four-year college diploma. NPR has a new segment on this trend, and the importance of apprenticeships. You can read its report by Adedayo Akala and listen to the broadcast here.

Cityscape: I very much enjoyed this map of fall foliage in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where we have spent a lot of time. Check it out. Sample shot below.

Courtesy of the City of Sioux Falls

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Win McNamee / Getty

This evening we’ll see Donald Trump and Joe Biden on the same stage, in the first of what are scheduled to be three debates.

I will confess that I did not think this event would occur—and I am still not sure about the subsequent ones. So many things are outside usual norms this year; so many points of potential disagreement could arise (would there be an audience? who would be the moderators? what about fact checkers—or mask requirements, or allowing the candidates to direct questions at each other?); so little enforcement power is in the hands of the Commission on Presidential Debates, or the networks, or anyone except the candidates and parties themselves.

Many people assume, “Oh, sure, we’ll have debates,” but it turns out that these are among the many fragile norms of modern politics. After the most famous televised debate, which nearly everyone has heard of, between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy in 1960, there were no debates for half a generation. Not in 1964, nor 1968, nor 1972, and not until 1976—and then only because incumbent Gerald Ford, far behind Jimmy Carter in the polls, agreed to meet him in debates. (For the record, I was a speechwriter on Carter’s campaign then, including in debate prep.)

Even after the debate tradition was revived in 1976, there was only one debate in 1980—because Jimmy Carter, as the incumbent, would not agree to debates that included not just Ronald Reagan but also the third-party candidate, Republican Representative John Anderson of Illinois.

But here we are. I’ve done print-magazine previews of the previous debate cycles in this century. These include: “An Acquired Taste,” 20 years ago, about the showdown between Al Gore and George W. Bush; “When George Meets John,” in 2004, about Bush and John Kerry; “Rhetorical Questions,” about Barack Obama and John McCain in 2008; “Slugfest,” in 2012, predicting that the incumbent Obama would not sufficiently prepare for Mitt Romney; and “When Donald Meets Hillary,” four years ago, in which I quoted Jane Goodall on the resemblances between Donald Trump’s on-stage demeanor and the “dominance rituals” she had seen among male chimps.

That was then. This time, I’ll do live commentary on this site. Kickoff comments, an hour before things begin:

  • Usually debates don’t really “matter.” Tonight’s encounter is a moment of high drama—as I’ll get to, in a moment. And from the annals of debate history a handful of moments stand out and have even become part of popular lore. For instance in 1988, Lloyd Bentsen, then Michael Dukakis’s Democratic running mate, dressing down Dan Quayle, then running with George H. W. Bush, with “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” Or eight years earlier, Ronald Reagan lightly dismissing the earnest Jimmy Carter with, “There you go again.” They have been, at times, gripping TV. But political scientists are unconvinced that they have really been decisive axes in most elections.
  • But we watch anyway, for two reasons. One is: Debates bring the two presidential contenders together in the same place at the same. That almost never happens otherwise. The other: They’re live. Anything can happen. As I write, I don’t know whether one candidate or the other might say or do something significant. No one knows, which is why we watch.
  • The results are already predictable. Trump supporters will think that Trump has won. Biden supporters and Trump opponents will not. Everything about Trump—his showmanship strengths, his accuracy and comportment weaknesses—is well known, and allowed for, by those who support him and those (like me) who don’t. I have learned that my imagination cannot fully encompass current realities, but it’s hard for me to imagine Trump saying or doing anything that would erode his base of report.
    A related point: “Winning” or “losing” in debates, even in more reality-based times than our own, has virtually nothing to do with policies or ideas or factual disputes. It’s about comportment, confidence, the dreaded “likability,” and other factors making voters feel comfortable with the idea of you in their living room.
  • The incumbent curse: As I mentioned in my Bush-Kerry and Obama-Romney pieces, an incumbent president usually struggles in the first debate of a fall campaign. (Also as mentioned, incumbent Jimmy Carter’s first debate against Ronald Reagan was his only debate, which magnified the effects of his relatively weak performance in that one.) For most presidents, this is because of the preceding years of deference from all they meet, who don’t dare say, “You’re just wrong…” How this will affect a man like Donald Trump, I dare not guess.
  • The related “expectations game”: Since there is no objective way to determine winners and losers, for decades political aides had worked on beating expectations. This is the political version of beating the point spread in sports wagering. “Our guy held his own,” “he was ready for all their attacks,” “she did surprisingly well”—judgments like these dominate post-debate spin. As I mentioned in my 2004 piece, George W. Bush and his team very consciously played this game. How could he, a humble Texas lad, hope to match fancy phrases with silver-tongued John Kerry? (He had previously used this strategy against Ann Richards during Texas gubernatorial debates.)
    For reasons I can’t explain, Trump representatives have mainly tried the opposite strategy with Biden—stressing that he is old, senescent, can barely string together words. We’ll see how this pans out. (After Biden gave a very effective speech at the Democratic National Convention, commentary from Trump partisans was, “That’s nothing, anyone can read from a prompter.”)
  • The big unknown: Whether Biden and his team will decide to go
    angry/outraged in response to Trump’s foreseeable attacks—on Hunter Biden, on Biden’s mental state, on his life in “the swamp,” et cetera—or instead to seem genially dismissive and above the fray. A tell for the first approach would be remarks on the lines of “how dare you...”; for the second, a counterpart to “There you go again,” or even “You’re no Jack Kennedy.”
  • The other big unknown: How the moderator, Chris Wallace, will wrestle with the foreseeable farrago of false claims by Trump. In his interview shows, he has directly said, “Sir, that’s not true.” Presumably he will leave most of that work to Biden, but some may fall to him.

We’ll see. In the meantime, here are two other articles that I think do a good job of discussing the knowns-and-unknowns this evening.  One is by Bill Goodykoontz, in AZ Central. The other is by Matt Cooper, in The Washington Monthly.

Will weigh in later this evening.

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The burnt remains of trees in the hills of Santa Barbara, California, after the Cave Fire in 2019
The burnt remains of trees in the hills of Santa Barbara, California, after the Cave Fire in 2019 David McNew / Reuters

Back in the early days of the pandemic, when some people imagined that changes in American life might be a matter of months rather than of years, I wrote about California Volunteers and its response to the crisis.

This is a publicly sponsored organization, serving the nation’s most populous state, designed to do what organizations from the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps, to the Kennedy-era Peace Corps, to more contemporary organizations (with a variety of funding models)—from the Job Corps to Americorps to City Year to Report for America to Code for America—have aspired to do. Namely: matching people of all ages (but mainly younger people) who have an interest in service with the most pressing needs for service in the America of these times.

This past week, California Volunteers announced an expansion of its program: a new California Climate Action Corps, designed to address both the causes and the effects (drought, wildfire, mudslides, intense heat) of California’s exposure to climate change. The state’s governor, Gavin Newsom, announced the creation of the Climate Action Corps a day after his executive order that all cars sold in the state (the largest single auto market in the U.S.) meet a zero-emissions standard by 2035.

In practice, this new program will mean that some 250 “climate action fellows” will work on sustainability projects across the state. The benefit for the fellows is that they receive a stipend and experience during their period of service, and afterwards receive a grant to help cover college costs. “We’re going to work city-by-city toward meeting their community goals,” Josh Fryday, the head of California Volunteers, told me last week. “In Los Angeles, it could be helping them meet their tree-planting goals.” In other communities, it could be efforts to support sustainable forestry or agriculture (for instance, with the Grizzly Corps), or to help food banks, or other goals determined locally.


I asked our friend Shelli Stockton, head of Alumni and Community Relations at the University of Redlands, what these Climate Corps members might do in her city of Redlands, which has been closely involved with Josh Fryday’s group in planning roles for Climate Corps members.

She said there were several areas of climate-mitigation work in which a community like hers—in an arid edge of the Mojave Desert, very hot, surrounded by recent wildfires—might use efforts like those the state is now preparing for. (And, to be clear, a “community like hers” is also a “community like mine”—this is the place, in the “Inland Empire” of California, where I grew up and which I still consider home.)

“One was tree planting,” she said, as previously described here. The larger argument is that community-by-community tree-planting efforts obviously are not the answer to the world’s climate issues—but they are nonetheless a large source of impact for most people in most parts of the world.

Others included “food diversion” efforts, to direct “waste” and surplus food from grocery chains and large restaurants to food banks and other organizations that could put the food to use. Also: “fire resilience” efforts, to help protect businesses and homes in the many fire-prone areas in the vicinity.

“But the project I’m most excited about,” Stockton told me, “involves the social-justice aspects of tree canopy cover.” As mentioned in this post about Los Angeles, in the hottest parts of the country, tree cover has been an increasingly important environmental-justice issue. Where there are suburbs and big houses, there have been trees; where not, not. “We’d like to identify the areas with the lowest tree-canopy cover, and send out fellows to help people in the community understand how to help these trees thrive,” she said. “Without help on the front end, a lot of these trees are just going to die.”

California’s Climate Action Corps is not the answer to all of the state’s modern problems. But it is a step in the right direction.

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Ted Halstead at a New America conference, nearly 20 years after he helped found the organization. He died in a hiking accident, at age 52, last week in Spain. Courtesy of New America

Everyone who knew him has been shocked by the news that Ted Halstead, a founder of New America and pioneer of many other causes and organizations, has died in the past few days in a hiking accident in Spain. He had recently turned 52.

Accidental deaths are by definition shocking, but intensely so in Ted’s case, because he has seemed to personify youth and promise. At age 25, he founded a group called Redefining Progress, designed to examine the equity, sustainability, and inclusiveness of economic growth. This led to a cover story in The Atlantic two years later, by Ted, Jonathan Rowe, and Clifford Cobb, with the prescient title, “If the GDP is Up, Why is America Down?”

In 1998, just after he turned 30, Ted was a co-founder (with Michael Lind, Walter Russell Mead, and Sherle Schwenninger) and the first CEO of the New America Foundation, now known as New America. It was because of New America that I met Ted in that summer of 1998. I had just been cashiered from a doomed journalism job (news magazine editor, for an owner who routinely ran through editors), and was about to go to work in the software business. Ted called to introduce himself and ask if I would join the New America cause. I served as board chairman over the next dozen years, before moving to China, and spent much of the first few years going with Ted on fundraising missions to get this think tank off the ground.

New America flourished; Ted was an influential speaker and author, with two books and a number of pieces for The Atlantic (and elsewhere). After an intense, nonstop ten years in this role, he left New America (succeeded by Steve Coll, and then Anne-Marie Slaughter) and stepped aside from the world of dawn-to-dusk meetings with legislators, presentations at conferences, sessions with New America’s growing ranks of researchers, and trips to the green rooms of cable-news shows. Instead, he spent nearly five years sailing around the world in a small catamaran with his wife, Veronique.

In 2012 they sold the boat and settled in Majorca, to start a family. My wife, Deb, and I frequently talked about when we would go visit them—and kept putting it off. Then in 2016, while in his 40s, Ted founded the Climate Leadership Council, whose idea (as with New America) was to bring together progressives and conservatives, business people and scientists and civic activists and others, all to promote policies of decarbonization and sustainability measures. That was the center of his speaking, writing, and organizing activity until his sudden death.

Successful entrepreneurs, founders, visionaries, leaders—they have a certain personality that is different from the rest of us. They talk big, they dream big, they promise big, and the best get others to believe along with them. Ted Halstead was one of the best. From an early age, he thought, talked, promised, and achieved on a very big scale. I am very glad to have known and worked with him, and I hope his example will inspire many others.

A shot from the film 'A Most Beautiful Thing' © 2019 Richard Schultz. Courtesy 50 Eggs Films.

The new NBCUniversal streaming service Peacock is now offering the documentary A Most Beautiful Thing as a free feature. (Details here.) Last week I wrote about the movie, and its surprising timeliness and power, in this article. The film, based on a memoir by Arshay Cooper, is the saga of young men from the West Side of Chicago who in the 1990s formed what appears to have been the first all-Black high-school rowing team in the country.

In response, Peter Gadzinski, previously of Vermont but now living in Europe, writes about the themes of the book and movie, and how different this sport can seem from another country’s perspective.

Through my son I have been introduced to rowing, and it is a great sport.

We have been living in Portugal, where my wife is from, and where our son is going to school, and they have a slightly different take on rowing here that I wish was in America.

First, none of the schools have any sports teams. Sports teams are all organized by town clubs. That means that the whole town can cover the expense, and you can be in the club from literally 8 years old to 80. There is none of this sports-stops-cold when you graduate high school or college. Also, the rowing club out here is open to anyone, with a just fee of $40 a month which is waived for those who can’t afford it, which makes the otherwise very expensive sport of rowing available to everyone.

The other thing here is that they race in all of the types of boats: singles, doubles, fours, and the eight, with one and two oar boats in the doubles and fours. I grew up playing soccer, and like most team sports, it is all about only the first string playing, and everyone else sitting on the bench. By racing in all boat classes, in a meet here it is like a track meet, in that everyone races. Everyone knows what the club “A” boat is, but everyone races in a meet.

The saying is that you put your best and your worst people in the single. The best so that they are not slowed up by lesser people in a multiple seat boat, and the worst, so they don’t slow up anyone in a multiple seat boat. But in a big meet everyone races, from the kids in elementary school, to the “veterans”: the gray haired adults, with even special boats with outriggers for the handicapped. This thing in America where in college it is all about getting a “crew” seat in “the 8” doesn’t exist here, which is good.

But as you pointed out, there is something special and unique about rowing. Once you get past both the expense of it and the preppy reputation of it, there is something very special about it. The way I explain it to people is that the only comparable activity would be to play music in a classical or jazz quartet. You become one group, all together and synchronized. Except in rowing you are breathing a lot harder. It is really something to behold, and something to be part of.

Not only are rowers in perfect mental and physical synchronization when rowing, but due to the extreme motion of their bodies back and forth they are like birds in flight and breathe in and out with their body movements. That means that the entire boat is breathing together as well. There is supposed to be something beneficial to singing together. Rowing together is the same, except with a lot more horsepower.

I had grown up thinking rowing was just some bizarre preppy thing for rich kids. It still is in a lot of America, but in Europe it is a lot more common and public. If I were a billionaire philanthropist I would put all of my money into paying for rowing clubs all over the country. It is a really good thing to do. As the saying goes: “Rowing is a sport, everything else is a game.” Get a bunch of young people to give their all and literally all pull together is a wonderful thing.  There should be more of it.

Update: Another reader, with a military-aviation background, writes in with another comparison:

When reading The Boys in the Boat. I was struck by how much rowing reminded me of flying close formation aerobatics with the Blue Angels. I’m giving copies to my former wingmen for Christmas

All notes on "Chicago, Illinois" >
Members of the pioneering Manley crew, which in the 1990s was the first Black high school rowing team, gathered again last year. From left: Preston Grandberry, Malcolm Hawkins, Arshay Cooper, Alvin Ross. ©2019 Richard Schultz. Courtesy of 50 Eggs Films

This week, NBCUniversal’s new Peacock streaming service will begin showing the feature-length documentary A Most Beautiful Thing. A trailer of the film is on Vimeo here, and the main site for the project is here. I saw a preview version last week and recommend it. The film’s story would be surprising and engrossing at any time, but it has a current power and relevance its producers could not have foreseen when they began making it.

The film is based on a book of the same name by Arshay Cooper, first self-published as Suga Water five years ago. In it, Cooper—who grew up in a violent and drug- and gang-dominated neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago—described the formation of what appears to be the first all-Black high school rowing team, including members of rival gangs who gathered at Chicago’s Manley high school (officially the Manley Career Academy High School).

The high school and college rowing world has been the subject of celebrated books ranging from David Halberstam’s The Amateurs to Craig Lambert’s Mind Over Water to the perennially best-selling The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown. As these books and other rowing chronicles indicate, participants in the sport have been overwhelmingly white. In class terms, rowing has also had a strong but not complete prep-school/upper-class tone. Strong, because of signature races like the Oxford-Cambridge and Harvard-Yale showdowns. Not complete, because—as Boys in the Boat, especially, points out—some successful rowers have been from modest, rural, working-class, or other non-fancy backgrounds, and have converted their aptitude for this sport into college scholarships the way basketball or football players have done. (Of course without the pro-career prospects to follow.)

But the story Arshay Cooper recounts is far starker and more dramatic. Manley high school had never had a rowing team; the students who finally agreed to join the boat were from rival gangs and in other circumstances would have been fighting with one another; few of them even knew how to swim. Basketball and football were sports for real men. Rowing? They were mocked by many of their Black schoolmates—and by many of the white rowers whose world they tried to join. On one of the Manley crew’s first forays onto the water in Chicago, all of its rowers were wearing life jackets, which was one of many reasons they were the object of sneers from the all-white high school and college crews also on the water.

“I notice that most rowers are white, tall, and lean,” Cooper writes in the book about an early visit to a boathouse. “I am none of these things.” The first time their all-novice, non-swimmer boat goes on the water, after long training in indoor tanks, Arshay Cooper and his teammates are terrified:

I push with everything I have [against the dock] and we glide out into open water. My triumph is immediately followed by fear as the boat starts to drift away. It’s not even close to being balanced.

“Blades flat on the water and oars pressed against the oarlocks,” Coach Jessica shouts.

“No, no, take me back in,” Dashaun yells. His panic is contagious, and everyone starts freaking out …

Coach Jessica tries to quiet us and instructs Alvin and me to row first, but we tell her we can’t. We are too afraid.

Alvin Ross (left) and Arshay Cooper, author of the book ‘A Most Beautiful Thing.” (© 2019 Clayton Hauck, courtesy of 50 Eggs Films)

What happens to the members of that crew—in the 1990s, and now—is the subject of the book and the new movie. I won’t spoil the story they have to tell. But I will say that through the vehicle of a niche-seeming sport, both the book and the film address issues of generations-long racial trauma, and relations between Black residents and the police, that are the center of attention now.

The most obviously 2020-relevant aspect of the movie is its immersion in the racial divide within Chicago and America as a whole. All the young men who made up the Manley crew had childhoods marked by crime, poverty, drug use, and discrimination. “When Alvin and Arshay drove me around their old neighborhood, they showed me the block-by-block topography of the different gangs there,” Mary Mazzio told me. Mazzio, herself a former Olympic rower, is a documentary maker and the writer, director, and producer of this film. “They told me there was no safe way to get to school. The concept of ‘inequality of safety’ began to dawn on me.”

The family stories in Cooper’s book, bolstered by many interviews in the film (especially with the rowers’ mothers), explore countless other realms of inequality. The movie’s final section, which I’ll let you learn about yourself, explores the tensions between Black families and the mainly white police force in a surprising way. The movie was completed last year but is very much of this moment.

The other quietly emerging theme in the movie involves the sport of rowing itself—not its class and racial signifiers, but the physical action of people pulling together on their oars.

As The Boys in the Boat and other books have emphasized, a crew in a racing shell may represent the most profound expression of teamwork in all of sports. It is possible for one rower to make an error that penalizes the whole boat. This is by “catching a crab,” or digging an oar too deep in the water and being unable to pull it out. And it is possible for a coxswain to make a costly mistake in steering the boat or pacing the rowers.

But otherwise, which is the great majority of the time, a team wins or loses utterly together, as a group. Their collective effort either is enough to beat the other teams, or it falls short. There is no I in crew—a variation on the cliché used by coaches in every sport, but especially true here. “We were able to get rival gang members together in a single boat,” Arshay Cooper told me when I spoke with him last week. “We hated each other, and we became like brothers.” As the last part of the film reveals, he has tried to extend that team-building possibility across the chasm of suspicion separating his Black neighborhood from the police.

The Manley alumni team rowing in Chicago (© 2019 Richard Schultz, courtesy of 50 Eggs Films)

Beyond teamwork, the mechanics of the sport proved important to Cooper and his teammates. “I grew up with a lot of trauma,” he told me. “Gunshots in our sleep, being chased home right after school, gangs everywhere.” Like many neighborhood boys, he grew up playing basketball. “But it’s a trash-talking sport. ‘You suck,’ ‘you are garbage’—it triggers a lot of trauma.” He played football, “and the coach is always saying, ‘Knock ‘em dead.’” When he got in a boat, he discovered, “it was non-combative, a non-conflict sport. It took me out of the neighborhood for a while. I could focus on the person sitting in front of me, and the person behind me, on developing that magical rhythm, together.” The swing and timing and unison of a boat, Cooper said, “really calmed the storm—rather than other sports, where the storm came out of me.”


Where will this all lead? Mary Mazzio said that she hoped philanthropy spurred by the film (“so many of today’s captains of industry have at some point picked up an oar”) could help make the sport more accessible. “The limiting factor is infrastructure—getting to the water, and to oars, boats, ergs.” “Ergs,” or ergometers, are the land-based rowing machines, of which the best known is the Concept 2. As Arshay Cooper put it, “You can walk to a basketball court, but you can’t just walk to a rowing site.”

“So many kids play basketball or football as a way out,” Mazzio said. Those rich, top-end opportunities for a handful of star athletes will never be matched by crew. But for admirable reasons and shadier ones, rowing has, especially for women, become an edge in college scholarships and admissions.  

“This beautiful film shines light on the kinds of education experiences that launch kids into lives of purpose,” Ted Dintersmith, a former venture capitalist who has written extensively about education, told me. “The rowing program gets kids excited about school, while the entrepreneurship program equips them with essential career skills.”

“Maybe this year there are 500 Black rowers at the high-school level,” Arshay Cooper told me. “I’m hoping that in five years, it’s 5,000, or more.” He says that he has been making the rounds of high schools and colleges discussing why this collaborative, disciplined, “meditative” form of competition is especially valuable for people surrounded by trauma. “The biggest lesson I learned is, I can’t do the work of eight people,” he said. “But I need eight people to do the work.”

You’ll see the experience that view comes from, if you watch the film.

Members of the Manley high school crew, reunited two decades later for the film A Most Beautiful Thing (© 2019 Clayton Hauck, courtesy of 50 Eggs Films)

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A "Welcome to Lemmon" sign on the road in to Lemmon, South Dakota
On the road to Lemmon, South Dakota Courtesy of John Lopez

In March of this year, as the coronavirus and its effects were unfolding, Dakota Resources, a 24-year-old community development financial institution (CDFI) in Renner, South Dakota, launched a series of Zoom coffee breaks for people from across the state. Every morning, at 10:30, a few dozen people logged in to talk for an hour or so about what was on their minds, and to share their stories. (More on this coming soon.)

I was invited in and have joined as many of them as I’ve been able to. That’s how I met Judy Larson. Larson lives in Lemmon, South Dakota—or more precisely, 14 miles north of Lemmon, just across the border in North Dakota, where she and her husband operate their family farm and ranch with their five homeschooled kids. I knew from the beginning that she must be one of the activists of Lemmon; the tale-teller is her Zoom background, an image of the bold new greeting sign, Welcome to Lemmon, which was designed, crafted, and installed by local citizens, artists, and artisans.

Larson talks frequently about the role of the arts in tiny Lemmon, population about 1,200. During our years of travel for our book, Our Towns, Jim Fallows and I witnessed similar stories about how the arts revived and reinvigorated other towns, from Ajo, Arizona, in the Sonoran Desert to Eastport, Maine, down east on the Bay of Fundy. Lemmon may not be as far along that path as these towns, but as Larson has described, its sights are set high.

During this non-traveling COVID-19 era, I talked by phone and exchanged emails with Larson and a few of Lemmon’s artists. Here are the stories of two of them, Michael van Beek and John Lopez.


Michael van Beek grew up in Bismarck, North Dakota, spending a lot of time on his family’s farms, where he found his ease with rural life, nature, and wild animals. I caught up with Van Beek one evening after his day in his pickup truck, during sunflower-bug spraying season.

Van Beek said he enjoyed this season; it was nice to be out in the fields, looking at sunflowers all day. Besides sunflowers being beautiful, which Van Beek considers a priceless attribute, they are also a decent-paying crop for farmers. You can always count on the sunflower-oil market, and during the pandemic, there’s been a bump in black sunflower seeds, which people buy for their bird feeders.

"Road to the Grand River" (courtesy Michael Van Beek)
“Road to the Grand River” by Michael Van Beek (Courtesy of Michael Van Beek)

Van Beek’s day job is at “the elevator,” which is the vernacular for Lemmon’s Southwest Grain, a 1981 consolidation of eight grain cooperatives. He is an agronomist, advising farmers on choosing seeds and troubleshooting issues with crops. He talks with a genuine Dakotan humility about advising the farmers, some of whom have been at their trade for more years than he is old. Also, with co-workers at a local farmer’s co-op, he tackles what sounds to me like everything to do with farming—from the tough work of loading, hauling, and delivering fertilizer, seed, feed, and grain with trucks, semis, and trains, to managing precision agriculture technology.

Van Beek, 33, was a good artist as a kid, and went on to study architecture, landscape architecture, and environmental design at North Dakota State University (NDSU). Somewhat by chance, he began spending time at a friend’s ranch near Lemmon, which led to his job at the elevator five years ago.

“Grand River” by Michael Van Beek (Courtesy of Michael Van Beek)

Van Beek also kept at his art. He got to know John Lopez, an artist and Lemmon legend, who encouraged Van Beek. He accompanied Lopez to the Black Hills Stock Show, bringing and even selling some of his art. Lopez invited him to paint in his studio. Van Beek developed his skills as a landscape painter, including his two-year production of a very large mural, more than 20 feet long, for the Lemmon Public Library. He also led the community-design team for the Welcome to Lemmon sign, from concept to fabrication.

Van Beek talked at length about what art has meant to Lemmon, careful to signal that he didn’t want to sound artsy-fartsy about it. I don’t think people from South Dakota are capable of sounding artsy-fartsy; I can say that, with my Midwest upbringing and ear. Van Beek spoke about how he thinks art can help people shape the places where they want to live.

As for Lemmon, Van Beek says that the town has “the fodder” for making a good life. It has tangible attributes like affordable houses, jobs, a low cost of living, the outdoors, and smart neighbors. It also has intangible appeals, like a sense of opportunity and community. And he brought up a point that Jim and I became convinced of during our travels, that small towns like Lemmon are closer to democracy. He said that in contrast to bigger towns where he’s lived, where you may study about government, in Lemmon you can actually be part of it. You learn how to be on councils, second a vote, and more quickly gravitate to more responsible roles.  

“The Land Before,” a mural by Michael Van Beek in the Lemmon Public Library. (Photo by Jennifer Suter.)

Van Beek believes that art is now central to Lemmon’s aspirations of being a textured and accomplished town, and that people not only appreciate the role of art on that path, but are willing to support it. How did an evolution like this happen? Van Beek points to John Lopez, and what Lopez has done to catalyze Lemmon.


I talked and emailed with John Lopez, now 49, who grew up on an isolated ranch outside Lemmon, 45 minutes from the closest town. In the late 1800s, his family were homesteaders in Colorado, in what Lopez describes as “poor, really rough country.”  His grandfather Albert moved to South Dakota with the Diamond A Cattle Company in 1920.

Lopez told me he spent a lot of time on horseback, close to nature and animals. He was also a natural artist from a family of artists of all sorts, including quilters and needlepointers. The calendars of Charles Russell, Lopez said, made a big impression on him when he was growing up. After college at Black Hills State University, he got a job at the studio of Dale Lamphere, South Dakota’s current artist laureate, from Sturgis. As it happens, Jim and I met Lamphere in Sioux Falls as he was putting the final touches on the installation of his glorious Arc of Dreams, which spans the Big Sioux River just above the falls and at the edge of downtown. At Lamphere’s studio, Lopez met Dallerie Davis, who guided him from his self-described path of “fumbling about” to a direction he would take from then on.

“Arc of Dreams,” by Dale Lamphere, over the Big Sioux River in Sioux Falls on July, 2019, shortly before its unveiling  (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

A professional breakout moment in Lopez’s long, expansive resume was a commission by Davis for Rapid City’s City of Presidents sculpture walk, where he would spend the next 10 years, from 2000 to 2010, making a dozen life-sized bronze sculptures of presidents, including John Adams, Jimmy Carter, John Kennedy, and Teddy Roosevelt. Jim and I had also been to Rapid, as the city is called colloquially, during our reporting, and had spent a full day following the presidents’ sculpture walk.

Lopez also described a momentous personal experience, when his Aunt Effie, his beloved true believer and champion, was killed in a car accident 10 years ago. Lopez returned to her farm to help bury her and build the cemetery fence, and to sculpt in her honor a statue of an angel for the top of the gate. He made a composition of scrap metal, in the style that would become the hallmark of his art.

“Hugh Glass” by John Lopez (Courtesy of John Lopez)

Lopez returned to Lemmon, for reasons I’ve heard from others from small towns with deep cultures. For Lopez, there was a pull to come home what he knew as a child and where his parents were growing older, and in his personal case, to ranch, have a horse, and own acreage.

The city of Lemmon welcomed Lopez and asked him to sculpt a statue of its founder, G.E. “Ed” Lemmon. Lopez committed himself further, buying an empty lot in the heart of town to install it, now called Boss Cowman Square—named for Ed Lemmon—and a run-down former bar next to it, the Kokomo, which he has renovated into his studio, the Kokomo Gallery. Lopez describes this move as good for both Lemmon and for himself. It has become a go-to place for both residents and out-of-towners.

The Kokomo Gallery (Courtesy of John Lopez)

Lopez was doing well enough with the presidents’ work that, as he puts it with Dakotan humility, he could “go off on the scrap iron thing.” We talked about where he sources his cast-off metal, and his answer again pointed to the sense of people and place that are also important to Larson (whom Lopez has known since high school) and Van Beek.

“Everybody knows everybody. I know a lot of different people scattered over large area. I have all their scrap metal at my disposal. One thing that really stands out about that: People I get metal from are real people and ranchers. Their stuff has history to it.” People seem to like being part of the effort. “Sometimes I’ll get a call,” Lopez says. “There’s an auction. And the person will say, ‘You can come pick through it first.’”

Now for a twist to the story, surprising for sure in the middle of the Dakotas. Dotun Popoola, in Lagos, Nigeria, wanted to learn to weld and to fabricate artwork. He found Lopez’s images on Pinterest, contacted him, and dogged him until he wrangled an invitation. After Dotun made the trip from Nigeria and eventually came to Lemmon by bus. Lopez picked him up at the bus station and gave him shelter, instruction, and guidance. Dotun returned to his homeland but made another trip to Lemmon the next year, with his friend and fellow artist, Jonathan Imafidor, to paint the mural on the side of the Kokomo.

Dotun Popoola and Jonathan Imafidor working on mural painting in Lemmon (Courtesy of John Lopez)

Lopez describes a kind of “weird, dynamic, magical element” to the entire experience. Popoola and Imafidor became part of the excitement of renovating the Kokomo. The people of Lemmon bought lots of their art.  


Judy Larson, with her own Dakotan humility, describes herself not as an artist but as a hobbyist, supporter, connector, and community enthusiast. “My talent lies in seeing things in people they don’t see in themselves. Connecting the right situation and encouraging and making opportunities happen for them.” She and her family are artists more than she lets on. Her husband is the lead guitarist for a band called Eclectic Wreck; she has a folk-arts apprenticeship on the accordion with the North Dakota Council on the Arts, and also plays guitar and accordion with Eclectic Wreck.   

Larson describes more that is in process in Lemmon: a placemakers’ cooperative, an arts council, a newly remodeled theater that includes a live performance stage, a plan for an artist-in-residence program, various music programs in town, and discussions about what to do with the school when it is replaced with a new one. “The ‘underground creatives’ have been watching and have been inspired,” Judy describes.

And she gives a lot of the credit to Lopez. “John really changed how we see ourselves as a community—we are an arts community, not just a cow town.”

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Staff of the Almanac Beer Company, in Alameda, California—which, despite pandemic restrictions, is improbably having its best sales ever.
Staff of the Almanac Beer Company, in Alameda, California—which, despite pandemic restrictions, is improbably having its best sales ever. Courtesy of Almanac Beer Company

Here is one more item about a bellwether business category that until recently had been an indicator of downtown renewal and locally focused entrepreneurship—and which now is figuring out how and whether it can survive.

I am talking about the small, independent, start-up breweries and distilleries whose numbers have increased by the thousands in the past decade—but many of whose members are now just trying to hang on.

In previous installments, I reported on businesspeople from Massachusetts to Minnesota to Southern California who were trying to adapt to pandemic-era realities. Among their themes:

  • The newest companies are the most vulnerable. Those that survive are usually drawing on at least a few years of market awareness, built-up savings, and civic support to get through these bleak times.
  • Adaptability is everything. Start canning and selling beer you previously dispensed via taps. Move operations outdoors. Make hand sanitizer (although even that market has drastically changed.) Do whatever it takes.
  • Embrace the “shift to quality.” As people are spending less time and money in bars and restaurants, some of them are “buying up” to higher-level food and drink to have at home.
  • Recognize long-standing sources of friction. Antiquated distributorship laws, described here and here, had for years been a nuisance for small businesses. With the pandemic, they became a life-or-death threat. Shortages and soaring prices of aluminum cans, labels, and canning machinery suddenly were crucial to whether small businesses could last this collapse.

Now, two more brief reports, from different kinds of small businesses in different parts of the country. One is a small, relatively young taproom-based operation in Pensacola, Florida. The other is a longer-established independent brewery with wide distribution in California. Each underscores some of the previous principles and illustrates new ones.


Perfect Plain in Pensacola, Florida: Almost three years ago, the Perfect Plain brewing company opened in a still-reviving part of downtown Pensacola, the westernmost city on the Florida panhandle. The name came from a locally famous description that Rachel Jackson had given the region in 1821, when her husband, Andrew, was the incoming governor of Florida. “Pensacola is a perfect plain,” she wrote to a friend. “The town is immediately on the bay, the most beautiful water prospect I ever saw … There is something in it so exhilarating, so pure, so wholesome, it enlivens the whole system.”

The city has long had an economic bulwark in the nearby Naval Air Station, and of course its beach and resort areas, as well as a deliberately nurtured and increasingly popular arts-and-events scene. Its downtown has followed the retail, restaurant, and residential pattern of revitalization we have seen in many other cities. Part of that downtown growth was the opening of the Perfect Plain’s taproom, downtown on East Garden Street, in November 2017.

I visited Pensacola, to take part in its CivicCon public-discussion series, a few months after Perfect Plain opened. Naturally I made the taproom part of my inspection tour of the town (along with the stadium for the Blue Wahoos minor league baseball team, which has been put to creative use during the pandemic). I talked then, and have stayed in touch since, with D.C. Reeves, a Pensacola native and former sportswriter in his mid-30s. He co-founded Perfect Plain (with Reed Odeneal) in 2017, and has since written a how-to handbook for aspiring microbrewery entrepreneurs.

Over the next two-plus years, the business grew fast; Reeves hired more staff (17 people, from the original 8), and Perfect Plain leased more space for expansion. Pensacola was on the rise as a resort destination. Although the brewery’s only sales were (by choice) through its own taproom, rather than through retail or restaurant distribution, by early this year Perfect Plain had entered the top quartile of overall beer production in the state.

The team at Perfect Plain, before the pandemic (Courtesy of Perfect Plain)

But what happens now, when the very elements of a downtown brewery’s success—crowds in the taproom, live events, drop-in traffic from tourists or ballgame crowds or shoppers strolling the downtown—are gone or diminished?

When I talked with Reeves last week, he repeated some themes I’ve heard and reported on elsewhere. For instance, he told me that his company was in better shape than some other, newer outlets, because it had nearly three years to build its brand and generate community support. And all-fronts scrambling, he said, was an expected part of the start-up path.

“There is this built-in creativity to the business,” he said. “If you have a brewery, or want to open a brewery, you know you’re going to have to claw and fight and create to keep a business alive.” He and his team ramped up sales of canned beer-to-go; they produced and sold hand sanitizer, the profits from which went directly to the staff. The company’s scrambling had been centered on trying to minimize layoffs. Perfect Plain received about $90,000 in PPP grants and devoted it all to staff salaries. Those funds expired in June. Since July, Reeves and Odeneal have reduced their own salaries to zero.

And, as we had heard elsewhere, Reeves underscored that the craft-brew business had always been volatile. The current crisis, coupled with an already impending plateau of craft-beer saturation, was weeding out any company without a sound business strategy—in addition to penalizing others that simply had not had enough time to establish their brands.

But he also mentioned a distinctive Florida aspect: the “magical hotdog,” or plate of food.

Florida’s handling of the COVID-19 threat has been, at best … well, you can fill in the adjective. One of its regulatory aspects was a bright-line distinction between “restaurants” and “bars.” In the closings-and-openings of businesses across the state, enterprises officially classified as restaurants were at first treated like bars, both of which were closed down. Then restaurants were given much more leeway to reopen while bars remained closed. Since restaurant owners were also desperately doing whatever they could to survive, the result was an additional challenge for businesses like Reeves’s.

“What we’ve seen is, in effect, restaurants becoming bars,” Reeves told me. “You can sit outside and have drinks all afternoon, but if you’ve got that plate of jalapeño poppers, it’s ‘safe’”—because you’re in a “restaurant.” The same drinks with the same spacing on a similar outdoor patio, minus the jalapeño poppers, would mean you were in a “bar,” which was supposed to be shut down. “The rules put a brewery like ours, with expansive square footage to space people out, in the same category as a boom-boom room in Miami,” Reeves said.

Inside the Perfect Plain taproom (Courtesy of Perfect Plain)

Because their business plan was based solely on sales on their own premises, closing the taproom initially cut off their entire revenue stream. “But it was a different market when everyone was closed down”—that is, bars and restaurants alike. “We could capitalize on having an exclusive product and do the things breweries know how to do”—including to-go sales of canned beer. “We’ve been ready to wash cars, deliver on an ice-cream truck, do whatever it takes,” Reeves said. But when the restaurants were opened and the bars were not, revenues plunged once again. “It’s hard to convince someone to pick up a can of beer to go when they can sit on a restaurant patio and drink all day and night as if it’s a bar,” Reeves told me in an email.

What was the answer? The civics-course response was an open letter from Florida’s craft brewers to the governor, asking for comparable treatment to restaurants. Halsey Beshears, the secretary of the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation (which oversees brewery and liquor licenses), responded with a tour of small breweries around the state, including a stop in the Florida panhandle. He heard from Perfect Plain and its counterparts about strategies for reopening, and what to do in the case of another spike. After the trip, Reeves told me, “we felt heard by Halsey,” and new plans may be in store.  

In the meantime, the scramble-for-survival answer was to convert their taproom into a “restaurant” as quickly as possible, a trend rapidly spreading statewide. (Here is a Pensacola News Journal report on the ways bars were rushing to obtain “restaurant” licenses.) “Hot dogs, hummus, chips and salsa—we’ve got it!” Reeves said. Just inviting a food truck wouldn’t qualify for a restaurant license. (Florida has since allowed it if the truck’s permanent address is the brewery/bar) But the Perfect Plain building had a sink and kitchen equipment in a back room. “We worked full bore for about seven days to get it all ready, and get our plan set for review..” Hotdogs, hummus — “We’ll do what it takes.”


Almanac in Alameda, California: Almanac’s story differs from that of Perfect Plain in several obvious ways. Almanac is nine years old, versus nearly three for Perfect Plain. From the start it has been based in the prospering and food-and-drink conscious San Francisco Bay area, rather than in a town of 50,000 close to the Florida-Alabama border. And comparatively little of its business has been made up of direct sales through its own taproom, compared with distribution through other outlets. (For the record: One of my sons, an Almanac customer in California, has invested in the company.)

But the sharpest difference is how Almanac has fared through the pandemic. While most food-and-beverage outlets are scrambling to make it week by week, Almanac just had its best quarter ever.

Why, and how? I asked Damian Fagan, a design specialist and longtime homebrew enthusiast who, with Jesse Friedman, co-founded Almanac in 2011. The name was explicitly based on the venerable Farmer’s Almanac, and was meant to signal the farm-to-table (or in this case, farm-to-tap) spirit of the company’s operations.

“The idea is to have ‘Northern California in a bottle,’” Fagan told me. “Farmers’ markets here are open 52 weeks a year. There is always a cornucopia of delicious agricultural offerings we can use.” Fagan pointed out that the farm-to-table ethos had made restaurants proud of describing where their tomatoes were grown and how chickens or cattle had been raised. “Beer is 100 percent an agricultural product, but people weren’t paying attention to it in that way.”

In Almanac’s first few years of operation, before it had its own brewery, it specialized in “sours” and fruit-based beers, made under contract by local brewers. “Given where we are geographically, we have access to fruit year round.” Sours, which are aged in oaken wine barrels, now constitute about 30 percent of the company’s business. At one point it had a taproom in San Francisco, which has closed. Shortly before the pandemic it opened a sizable brewery and taproom in a former aircraft hangar near the former Alameda Naval Air Station, in the East Bay.  

Almanac’s brewery and taphouse in Alameda, California, across the Bay from San Francisco (Courtesy of Almanac Beer)

“When the first shelter-in-place order [for California] was delivered, in mid-March, we panicked, like most people,” Fagan told me. “We had to shutter our tap room, which had become a big part of our business.” The phone started ringing—with calls from wholesalers and other distributors canceling their orders, or greatly reducing their scale.

“We wondered, is the sky falling?” Fagan said. The key to survival, he told me, was “to be nimble and adaptive.” Every business would use those words, but Fagan laid out what that meant, specifically, for his company.

“The first thing we did, within 72 hours, was to spin up an online beer store—a direct-to-consumer channel that we had not had before.” People anywhere in California can now order their beer online, for delivery to their homes. Almanac pushed online sales hard in its social-media outlets. Business through this new channel grew rapidly, and according to Fagan “went a very long way in filling the giant hole caused by closing the tap room.”

Almanac also quickly ramped up to-go sales of canned beer, from its Alameda brewery. Last year Almanac had invested in its own canning line; this meant it could avoid some of the problems other breweries encountered in trying to shift rapidly to takeaway sales. Recently I described how the Bent Paddle brewery, in Duluth, Minnesota, had made tough COVID-era safety standards part of its brand. Almanac took a similar approach. It had customers stand in line; it set up contactless pick-up; “we really dialed in on ways for people to feel safe,” Fagan said. “The irony is, when we combine to-go sales with the online store, we’re actually generating more revenue through our taproom with it being closed, than when it was open.” Almanac’s overall revenues for the first half of this year are about 10 percent higher than for last year—even with the near-disappearance of its taproom and restaurant sales.


Almanac has one other enormous advantage: Just weeks before the pandemic, its distributor made a deal with Safeway, which means its beers will be carried in some 170 Safeway stores in Northern California, along with some other retail outlets. Last month I quoted Jim Koch, of Sam Adams in Boston, on the make-or-break, life-or-death power that distributors have over many start-ups in this industry. Fagan said that Almanac, which had had difficult distributor relationships in the past, was now on the good side of that divide—“which allowed us to get this massive placement all at once.”

Sales through distributors now account for most of Almanac’s revenue. And in these stores, the company is now benefiting from the same “flight to quality”/“trading up” process mentioned before. “Instead of buying a four-pack of beer in the store, they may buy a case,” Fagan said—and of fancier products, like his. “People are buying in higher volumes, and drinking at home more.” The public-health aspects of this part of the pandemic are still to be understood. As a business trend, it is keeping some small companies alive.

Are these the biggest business and civic stories of America’s current disastrous dislocations? Of course they are not. But the rise of small, locally minded restaurants, coffee shops, bars, breweries, and other gathering places has been an important element in many cities’ growth in the past decade. Whether, and how, small businesses like these survive is important too.

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