Reporter's Notebook

Murals of teenagers on the wall of the teen space in the Brownsville Public Library's main branch
Murals on the wall of the teen space in the Brownsville Public Library's main branch Courtesy of Deborah Fallows

The public library system in Brownsville, Texas, has a long history of inventing and then reinventing itself to be of, by, and for the people. The library story began modestly at the end of the 19th century, with the personal collection of Irish-born U.S. Army Captain William Kelly, who had settled in Brownsville and become a renowned businessman, proponent of Brownsville’s first public schools, and a civic activist. His daughter Geraldine recollected later in the Brownsville Herald, “He had a very fine library, which he used continually and loved.”

In 1912, a group of Brownsville’s intellectual and high-minded women calling themselves the Learners Club started the town’s first subscription library. (Other women’s clubs have been promoters of early libraries: In 1905, the women’s club of Dodge City, Kansas, inspired some of its prominent citizens to ask Andrew Carnegie if he would support building one of his libraries in Dodge City. He did.)

A decade and a half later, the Learners Club and the city teamed up to transform the Brownsville subscription library into a public library in a larger space. It moved a few more times over the next decades, before partnering with Texas Southmost College and locating the public library on its campus. There they stayed until 1991.

Then, with the city’s support, the Brownsville public library pivoted toward its modern era.

Jerry Hedgecock, who has been with Brownsville libraries since 1993 and is now the director of the Public Information Services Department in Brownsville, described to me how the library was able to start back in the 1990s, in effect from scratch, with the driving mission to make the library a go-to destination for the residents of Brownsville. They erected a new building and ushered in new ideas and new programs.

The Brownsville Public Library’s main branch (Courtesy of Deborah Fallows)

After some early years, which Hedgecock described as, “to be honest, very boring,” they prepared to change emphasis so as to offer more services. It was all about being relevant to the community, he said: “What do the people want? What do we want?”

Library plans were farsighted; they were creative and intended to reflect the culture of the town and region; and they were executed efficiently and also patiently, adding projects piecemeal, year by year. With a line item in the municipal budget supporting them ($4.8 million in 2019), a library foundation that contributes to capital projects, and the still vital Learners Club and a Friends group pitching in, the library evolved.

End panels on bookshelves of the Brownsville Public Library (Courtesy of Deborah Fallows)

One year, old wallpaper was removed. Another year, end panels with blown-up photos of important images of the region were affixed to the rows of bookshelves. To be both efficient and personalized, the library created a graphics department to make their own artwork, with double wins of being less expensive and more Brownsville-personal than what was available from generic catalogs.

Computers at the Brownsville Public Library (Courtesy of Deborah Fallows)

The library currently owns and makes available to users 259 computers, as online access is critical to this community. But the library’s leaders expect that as more people become able to afford their own computers, the need will ratchet down, and the library will switch some of the computer space to suit different needs.

As with every other library I visited, use of space was a top concern. (This is despite the common impression that libraries must have lots of extra space, as some reduce their holdings of physical books.) Even in Texas, where the size and scale of everything from ranches to libraries feels vast, Hedgecock says that space in the library is tight, and they pay close attention to how they use every nook and cranny.

The “maker space” holds eight 3D printers, and there are plans for laser cutters and more.

The “maker space” at the Brownsville Public Library (Courtesy of Deborah Fallows)

Maybe they’ll build a tool bank, suggested Hedgecock, an area that would be stocked with devices and equipment to meet the expanding skill sets of their population. Being nimble and responsive to the population and their changing needs is critical. “Without new services,” Hedgecock said, “we won’t be relevant to the community. We can’t be complacent.”

The library took over the local-government access television channel, whose studio is housed inside the building. The public was delighted, but became distracted enough by its presence that the station is now out of sight behind unmarked closed doors. There are plans to relocate the station to a newly created municipal department. I found this recording from the station of a live event presented by Texas Monthly in Brownsville this July. This magazine, where my husband, Jim, worked in its founding days in the 1970s, when we were living in Austin while I did my graduate studies at the University of Texas, takes its show on the road around Texas for live 90-minute performances of music, video, reading, and storytelling, curated by the editors. You’ll do yourself a favor to watch this one, where writer Wes Ferguson reads about his return to Brownsville.

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The new 'Arc of Dreams' sculpture over the Big Sioux River in downtown Sioux Falls, South Dakota, in July 2019, shortly before its formal unveiling.
The new 'Arc of Dreams' sculpture over the Big Sioux River in downtown Sioux Falls, South Dakota, in July 2019, shortly before its formal unveiling. James Fallows / The Atlantic

In June 2013, my husband, Jim, and I first landed our small, single-engine Cirrus propeller airplane at the main airport, Joe Foss Field, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

It was the first stop on our American Futures project, and we were excited and a little nervous wondering what we might find—if anything—to explore and write about there.

We needn’t have worried.

We learned about the waves of refugees and immigrants, and their children who made up nearly 10 percent of the school system and spoke more than 60 languages. We learned about the John Morrell packing plant, where Muslim women slaughtered pigs all day, keeping the plant in business and establishing an economic beachhead for their families. And the USGS-EROS site, which captured, downloaded, and stored the entire country’s satellite imagery every 90 minutes, day in and day out, over the decades. And Raven Industries, which developed and manufactured precision-agriculture equipment and made balloons for the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade.

We met nurses who had moved to Sioux Falls from all over the region to study and practice, and with their “Midwest nice” treated us to a beer at the Granite City brewery when they learned it was our anniversary. We rode bikes on the path that circled the city, passing again the airport, the state penitentiary, and downtown area and falls and many fields where the New Americans played soccer.

Our initial gee whiz reaction to Sioux Falls sprang from the multitude of the town’s endeavors and the loftiness of its citizens’ dreams. How could so much be going on in one town that we had barely heard of before? Little did we know that after visiting 10 or 30 or 50 more towns around the country, we would come to expect similar ventures, or more accurately, local versions of them, as we grew to admire the creative energy that so many Americans poured into their hometowns across the country.


More than five  years and 100,000 miles later, Sioux Falls became the first city we wrote about in our book, Our Towns. We returned again a few weeks ago with an HBO film crew, for a documentary scheduled to come out next year. With them we wanted to see and document how the town had changed, to revisit some of our favorite places, and to discover new ones.

Once again in Sioux Falls, we found a more mature, nuanced town. Some early initiatives had come to fruition, like the expanded sculpture walk and the capstone of sculpture, the gallant Arc of Dreams, which soars across the Big Sioux River. Or the additional blocks and blocks of new restaurants, bars, shops, and hip lofts stretching down the main street. Others remained a work in progress. Some problems, opioid addictions above all, were much more front of mind, proof that Sioux Falls was in sync with the rest of America.

After our first visit in 2013, I made a word cloud of words and phrases that I heard around Sioux Falls that struck me as reflecting the spirit of the city. After our latest visit a few weeks ago, I made another. You can compare and contrast, as college teachers of my generation used to say. Here is the first one:

Word Cloud of Sioux Falls, from Our Towns (Courtesy of Deborah Fallows)

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The headquarters of the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research, in Danville, Virginia
The headquarters of the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research, in Danville, Virginia Courtesy of the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research

Here is another look at the far-southern-Virginia town of Danville: once a thriving tobacco-and-textile center, now trying to figure out what to do after all the mills have shut down.

In keeping with the previously announced intention to keep drawing connections, parallel themes, and lessons from the communities we visit, here are three aspects of Danville’s story worth noticing elsewhere, as boiled down as I can make them. A summary:

  • First, Danville’s civic renewal shows the importance of a relatively new form of philanthropy.
  • Second, it shows the importance of creative use of a onetime historical event—in this case, the “tobacco settlement,” which directed billions of dollars from the tobacco industry to local institutions. (This naturally leads to questions about whether a comparable “opioid settlement” might have similar transformative effects.)
  • Third, it shows the importance of public investment in infrastructure, specifically in broadband capacity.
Old mill buildings in downtown Danville being reoccupied (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

Previously, I did several reports on Danville’s attempt to put its extensive (and beautiful) inventory of old mill buildings to modern use: “The Reinvention of Danville’s Downtown, Part 1,” “Danville’s Story, Part 2,” and “How Danville Avoided Omaha’s Mistake.” Deb Fallows has written about the involvement of Danville’s faith community (and others) in dealing with rural health issues (“A Regional Approach to Rural Health Challenges”), and about the exceptional new Y that has opened alongside the Dan River downtown ( “A Community Within a Community”).

On to the details.


1) The role of foundations—and foundations of a particular sort: Institutions called “community foundations” are well known, active, long-established, and important across the country. Each year, they give a total of more than $5 billion to civic and charitable efforts in their areas.

The evolution of Danville and its surroundings has been very heavily influenced over the past 15 years by a similar-sounding but structurally different sort of charitable organization, the “health conversion foundation.”

In Danville, the relevant organization is called the Danville Regional Foundation, or DRF. The DRF’s effects in this part of Virginia and North Carolina are too broad and deep to cover in any detail here. For more of the specifics, I direct you to the DRF’s informative site, or articles like this in The State of the South or this in Perspectives on History. Almost everything under way in the vicinity—from the revival of Danville’s downtown to the launching of regional initiatives connecting smaller towns that have lost tobacco, textile, or furniture industries—bears the mark of the DRF. Its area of responsibility includes the city of Danville itself, neighboring Pittsylvania County in Virginia, and the larger Dan River area extending into Caswell County in rural North Carolina.

Why is this worth mentioning? Because of the foundation’s origin story. It’s one of a group of health conversion foundations across the country that have played a surprisingly large civic role over the past generation. Or at least surprising to me, since I hadn’t know about this specific form of modern philanthropy until our first trip to Danville last fall.

You can read extensive details about health conversion foundations from Health Affairs, but in brief: These are charities set up when a nonprofit hospital or similar facility is sold to a private company. Hundreds of them operate around the country, with total assets in the tens of billions. Some examples are the Rapides Foundation, of Louisiana, founded with $140 million in hospital-sale proceeds in 1994; the Cameron Foundation, of Petersburg, Virginia, founded in 2003 with hospital-sale proceeds valued at about $90 million in 2008; and the Harvest Foundation, of Martinsville, Virginia, which was also founded with the proceeds from the sale of a hospital, in 2002, with assets valued at about $200 million in 2008. Many more examples are listed in the Rural Health Initiative newsletter, here.

In Danville’s case, the foundation was formed after the sale of the local Danville Regional Hospital Center to a private company, LifePoint Hospitals, in 2005 for about $200 million. The DRF has given out some $116 million in grants since then; and through the magic of investments and the market, its endowment is now larger than when it began.


The restored tobacco building on Bridge Street in downtown Danville that the Danville Regional Foundation shares with Averett University (Courtesy of the Danville Regional Foundation)

Could the sale of a nonprofit health center to a for-profit firm conceivably be a net benefit for a community? As opposed to one more step toward an over-marketized, winner-take-all society?

I started out skeptical, and I still assume that the outcomes must vary case by case, depending on how the new foundation’s money is put to use, and how the new for-profit system runs. But an initial look at think-tank and academic papers suggests that many of the foundations have tried to address public-health and community-improvement goals in their areas.

For instance, here are some reports and articles I’ve seen: “With the ACA Under Fire, Can Health Conversion Foundations Patch the Safety Net for Low-Income Americans?,” in Health Affairs in 2017; “How Are Health Conversion Foundations Using Their Resources to Create Change?,” also in Health Affairs, in 2018; “Health Conversion Foundations: How to Make Them Relevant,” in Nonprofit Quarterly in 2016; and “A New Generation of Health Foundations,” in Healthcare Finance in 2014. On balance, they offer a positive assessment.

“I won’t say that every one of these foundations has fulfilled its potential,” Karl Stauber, who is stepping down this summer after a dozen years as the head of the Danville Regional Foundation, told me. “But my estimation is that two in 10 have had an oversized impact on the revitalization of the areas that they serve.”

Maybe everyone else reporting on rural and smaller-town development already knew about health conversion foundations. I hadn’t understood the importance of this recent part of the philanthropic landscape until we were introduced to it in Danville. (Now, of course, I see signs of it everywhere.)

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What Deb Fallows discovered in the children's museum at the Washington Pavilion, in Sioux Falls
What Deb Fallows discovered in the children's museum at the Washington Pavilion, in Sioux Falls James Fallows / The Atlantic

A year ago, America’s Favorite Actor™, Tom Hanks, triggered a series of reports on TV and in the Argus Leader newspaper in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He did so with one little tweet saying that he’d read about the town in a new book—as it happens, the book was Our Towns, by Deb Fallows and me—and that he was eager to see the city himself, and might even move there.

You can get a sample of what happened next here, here, here, and here.


Now Deb and I are back in Sioux Falls, working with our colleagues from HBO on our upcoming film.

  • The town still has the exceptionally low unemployment rate we talked about early on.
  • It still has its agricultural economy that we discussed, though buffeted by trade tensions and extreme weather, plus the region’s rapidly growing health-care and high-tech sectors.
  • It now has a dramatically spiffed-up and revitalized downtown, compared with our last visit several years ago—offsetting the malls and sprawl-growth around its periphery that we discussed here. The downtown has new hotels and restaurants and stores and pubs; many more residential condos and lofts; a much richer array of outdoor public art in its ambitious SculptureWalk; and generally a sense of more active street life.
  • In its “Washington Pavilion,” a mammoth former public high school whose rescue and conversion into an arts-and-museum space starting 20 years ago was the turning point toward the city’s downtown recovery, we saw two signs that the city is seriously ready for Tom Hanks’s visit.

One was backstage at the elegant 1,800-seat main performance hall, with a wall of signatures from guest artists. These ranged from Yo-Yo Ma to B. B. King, Joan Baez to Blue Man Group, Garth Brooks to the Paul Taylor Dance Company, with countless others in between. I saw a space that looked as if it were waiting for Tom Hanks’s name.

The other sign—could this be a coincidence?!—was in the wonderful, interactive children’s-science museum within the same Washington Pavilion. On the upper floor there is an oversize piano keyboard, playable with your feet and labeled “Big,” that could have been taken straight from a memorable scene from Tom Hanks’s early filmography.

Yes, I am talking about his famous piano-dancing duet with Robert Loggia more than 30 years ago, in Big. This was a Hanks from long before Forrest Gump or A League of Their Own, before Cast Away or Saving Private Ryan, before Philadelphia or Sleepless in Seattle or Apollo 13—and it is worth watching now, with awareness of all those other films to come.

And it’s another reason for him to make his visit. The town’s all ready for you, Mr. Hanks!

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Tanks in Washington D.C. ten days ago, when plans for a Fourth of July parade were the emergency of the moment
Tanks in Washington D.C. ten days ago, when plans for a Fourth of July parade were the emergency of the moment Kevin Fogarty / Reuters

In response to this item yesterday, “There’s No Understanding Donald Trump,” other readers weigh in.

As a reminder: The main point of the previous piece was that trying to analyze why Donald Trump does the things he does is like trying to analyze the motives of a cat. Each of them acts. Now, more comments.

1) What you’re overlooking. A reader at a tech company writes:

I completely agree with this piece, except for one thing.

You and the reader you quote describe the part we see and the part that gets reported.  Absolutely a reality show.

All of the journalistic analysis is far beyond ridiculous.

The other half (below the surface) that is so grossly under-reported is the very Republican direction of decisions made in every agency in the government and by every cabinet member.  These are not made for TV because they are boring to read about.  But they are consistent in how they continue the transfer of wealth to the one percent and the one percent of the one percent.

Several other readers return to this theme: that too much of the press is too wrapped up in the impossible mission of “understanding” Trump, and too few are spending too little time unveiling the what of this era’s policies.


2) What if this theory is correct? Also on the predicament of the press, from another reader:

Just read the piece about the reader who says, "the people most accustomed to “analyzing” political actions and decisions...are the ones least able to recognize what the world is experiencing with Donald Trump."

I believe he’s right and wrong—right in the sense that we have “a structural failure of analysis in the Trump years,” but wrong, or not quite right, in his explanation of this.

Specifically, in my view, the problem isn't a lack of understanding about Trump. Rather it’s what they [analysts and the press] actually do understand, or at least strongly suspect on some deeper or sub-conscious level, but struggle to accept, because of the problematic implications of accepting this.

For example, suppose the reader is right that Trump is actually governing as if he were doing a reality TV show. How would journalists convey this, without creating the impression that they're irrational and biased against Trump?

I believe the reader's theory is credible, but the idea also makes me very uncomfortable. Were I to tell someone else that I took this notion seriously I would be hyper-aware of how irrational this sounds. Indeed, I hold my tongue with friends and family at times for this reason. I would guess most journalists would experience a similar level of discomfort.

And suppose some of them could overcome this—how do they convey this without discrediting themselves in the process? I think there might be ways to do this, but there's no certainty it would work. Because of that I have some sympathy for journalists and political analysts. At the same time, I'm also extremely frustrated. In my view, alarm bells should be ringing, or at least ringing much louder and clearer. I think we need an equivalent to shouting “the Emperor has no clothes!,” but in a way that doesn't make the messenger seem like he lost his marbles.

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From the Brownsville side, the wall. On the other side is the Rio Grande, whose centerline marks the official border between the United States and Mexico in this part of Texas.
From the Brownsville side, the wall. On the other side is the Rio Grande, whose centerline marks the official border between the United States and Mexico in this part of Texas. James Fallows / The Atlantic

Brownsville is the southernmost U.S. border town with Mexico, down at the very tip of the map of Texas. Across the Rio Grande is Matamoros. Some 20 miles to the east is the Gulf of Mexico. If you drive 60 miles to the north and west along the Old Military Highway to McAllen, you’ll see stretches of border wall, irregular in their size and design. It was very hot when we were in Brownsville last month. It reminded me of Nanjing, one of the so-called furnaces of China, where the soles of your sneakers sink into the soft tarmac of the roads.

Elon Musk has built his SpaceX site on the road from Brownsville to the coast. It is an assembly site for now, in a clearing that looks like half moonscape, half desert, with giant, surreal, bright-silvery sections of rocket being welded together. The plan is for rockets to launch from here one day. Just beyond SpaceX, the Boca Chica road fades to sandy coastal beach. It feels like the edge of the Earth.

Border Patrol agents cruise the highways and roads around Brownsville. One afternoon, as I was driving the highway north from downtown, a silent ambulance cruised by, with a Border Patrol SUV, caked with dust and dried mud, right on its tail. I realized that I didn’t have a clue of all that was really going on in Brownsville.

At Elon Musk’s SpaceX, near the coast outside Brownsville (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

Some things about Brownsville are easy to see. The buildings of the downtown—many tattered now, featuring discount goods for the cross-border shopping market in Matamoros—still have great bones, as the architects say, and are waiting for their second chance. Brownsville was too poor to raze those buildings when businesses went dark, an obvious advantage now. (As we have seen elsewhere.)

Downtown structures with “good bones” on Washington Street in Brownsville (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

A hip pizza and wine bar called Dodici opened recently in the old Fernandez building downtown. One of the owners is Trey Mendez, a lawyer who was just elected mayor in a runoff contest while we were visiting. The Market Square area is newly renovated, as part of a downtown-revival program under the mayor for the previous eight years, Tony Martinez. Brownsville has an outsize number of museums, including the Historic Brownsville Museum, which is a real gem. The Mitte Cultural District boasts “something for everyone,” with its zoo, pool, pavilions, playhouse, and much more. RJ Mitte (who played Walter White’s son in Breaking Bad) is of that Mitte family, and is carrying on the family philanthropic efforts of his grandfather. Other buildings are works in progress. More are still pipe dreams.

Sam’s Pool, at the Mitte Cultural District (Courtesy of the Mitte Cultural District board)

Of course, you cannot miss the border wall. The wall near downtown’s Gateway International Bridge has been there for about 10 years, long enough that the landscaping and vegetation along its river pathway and the Alice Wilson Hope Park on the U.S. side have grown in to looking normal.


On our first evening in Brownsville, when the heat of the day had subsided a little, Jim and I decided to walk across the International Bridge into Matamoros. How could we not? We had no chance of entering the detention centers that have become so notorious in the Rio Grande Valley and elsewhere along the border. We wanted to have at least a look at the routine daily flow north and south.

Our crossing was entirely simple and uneventful, of course, just like it is for residents of both Brownsville and Matamoros who cross the bridge daily for school, jobs, shopping, dinners out, or visiting friends and family. (Brownsville’s population is roughly 95 percent Hispanic, and many people have long-standing ties across the border. The interconnectedness of the two cities’ lives is the central theme of an acclaimed recent novel set in Brownsville: Where We Come From, by Oscar Cásares. When we were in town, then-Mayor Martinez gave us a copy of the book.) Along with a small handful of people also making the trip on foot, we deposited four quarters in the turnstile and pushed our way through to Mexico.

Headed toward the Mexican side of the border on a Sunday late afternoon (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

I looked up and down the river, assessing it with my swimmer’s eye, thinking how surprisingly narrow and benign it seemed, maybe 50 yards wide. The river was dark and muddy, not in the least inviting, even in the heat. The Rio Grande appeared to have no current. But of course we all know that surface appearances can deceive, as they most certainly did in the horrific episode when Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez of El Salvador and his 2-year-old daughter, Valeria, drowned trying to cross it not far from this spot, a few days after we were there.

The Rio Grande, between Brownsville and Matamoros (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

Brownsville residents, who have lived all their life as part of a binational community extended on both sides of the river, have a different sense of the border from those for whom it’s an abstraction. “We don’t think of it as a border,” we heard from so many people that we stopped counting. “We think of it as a river.” I realized that it was just the way those of us who live on the border between Washington, D.C., and Virginia think of the Potomac.

Beyond these impressions of Brownsville, there are data points that are more quantifiable. This is where the public-health issues come to the forefront, and they are stark. (My thanks to The Atlantic’s Faith Hill for help collecting these data.)

The foot traffic headed back north across the border, toward Brownsville, on a Sunday evening in June (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

Some 51 percent of the adult population in the area are obese; an additional 34 percent are overweight.

Of children 8 to 17 years old, 54 percent are obese, compared with about 33 percent nationally. Joseph McCormick, until just recently the dean of the Brownsville campus of the UTHealth School of Public Health, wrote in an email: “These children have higher BMI, higher waist to hip ratios, higher systolic and diastolic blood pressures, higher triglycerides and LDL (bad cholesterol), lower HDL (good cholesterol); They had higher insulin resistance (a precursor to diabetes), and elevated liver enzymes suggestive of fatty liver disease, a very common problem in our population in adults.”

Some 27 percent of adults have diabetes, about three times the national level. About one-third of those with diabetes didn’t know they had it before being tested.

Only 42 percent of Brownsville’s population have some kind of health-care insurance.

For more positive comparative news, life expectancy in Cameron County, which includes Brownsville, is about 80 years, four years longer than the national average.

And Texas has one of the country’s lowest rates of death from opioid-involved drug overdoses: 5.1 for every 100,000 people, compared with the national average of 14.6.

Brownsville is a poor town; nearly 31 percent of the residents live in poverty, 38 percent of children. The median income is $35,000. Some 87 percent of schoolchildren in Cameron County qualify for free or reduced lunch.


I had lunch one day to talk about these statistics with Rose Zavaletta Gowen, a medical doctor who grew up in Brownsville, trained in Dallas, and returned to practice medicine. She soon turned to public-health advocacy and added a new role as an elected city commissioner. Gowen framed her thinking, advocacy, passion, and action plans for her hometown this way: “We traditionally think we need economic development and education, and we’ll get to health later or afterwards.” She added, “But later may be too late, and putting it off hinders progress in economic development and education as well.”

Gowen is part of Brownsville’s Community Advisory Board (CAB), a network of more than 200 Brownsville residents and individuals from health-care, education, business, and community groups, and the UTHealth campus, which, with its newly appointed dean of the campus, Belinda Reininger, has been key in the founding and support of CAB. All together, they are pushing toward building a healthier population and lifestyle, in a very Brownsville-specific way.

A map of Brownsville’s ambitious hike-and-bike-trail network, part of an effort to promote fitness (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

Every community we have visited for our American Futures project and our subsequent book, Our Towns, has focused on the “local” as its guide and frame for plans and actions. In Brownsville, that eye on local seemed to us as compelling and powerful as in any other community we have seen, and maybe even more so. Sometimes “local” means a focus on physical assets, or geography, or demographics, or industry. In Brownsville, as we listened to citizens talk, “local” seemed to be mainly about culture.

The culture of Brownsville was the backdrop to their master plan for health and wellness—and many other town issues. “We are fighters. We stand by our family. We are proud. We may be poor, but we do not think of ourselves as just poor. We think of ourselves as blessed to have our families, customs, and region surrounding us.” And Gowen added in talking about outsiders’ impressions of Brownsville, “You don’t hear that on the news.”

Those traits translated into action. Brownsville is not looking or waiting for top-down solutions and proclamations. Members of its community decided to: make local-government regulations that support their goals. Get smart about seeking funding, from the government, foundations, and nonprofits. Not let rebuffs from big funding stop them; take it step by step; and find corners to improve. Educate the public and brand the message “Health and wellness.” Become a model for success.

This kind of positive, panoramic, inclusive approach is one we’ve seen in niche initiatives and big plans in many of the towns we’ve visited. Libraries in Bend, Oregon. Arts and entrepreneurship in Fresno. Education in Greenville. Downtowns and Main Streets everywhere. Workforce training and new industry in Mississippi’s Golden Triangle. The entire town of Eastport, Maine.

The restored Market Square in downtown Brownsville (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

Through its many initiatives, the Brownsville Wellness Coalition is all about healthy food and healthy bodies.The Community Gardens program teaches gardening classes and distributes free transplants and compost. Five gardens hold nearly 200 beds.

People can buy produce from the weekly farmers’ market with cash or with vouchers from federally subsidized programs such as SNAP, WIC, and the Farm Fresh Voucher program, especially important in this low-income town. Plans are under way through a coalition of funders to renovate an old town cannery, the Gutierrez Warehouse, into a permanent home for the farmers’ market. When finished, the Quonset hut plans also call for accommodating a food bank and a “kitchen incubator” with a commercial kitchen for small food businesses. And for those who can’t get to the farmers’ market, the Fresco Mobile Market food trucks may come to them.

The Happy Kitchen/La Cocina Alegre holds classes on nutrition, food preparation, and healthy eating.

And for the bodies, the Wellness Coalition sponsors a walking-group program, the Walking Club, with motivational support and progress tracking.

An annual challenge program organized by the city and the UTHealth School of Public Health, and drawing help from local gyms, nutritionists, trainers, and other experts, encourages not only weight loss, but also sustainable lifestyle changes toward better health. Nearly 7,500 people participated in the three-month program this year.

The monthly CycloBia closes some Brownsville streets to cars and opens them to the 10,000 participating residents to walk, bike, skateboard, skate, and run.

(Courtesy of CycloBia and the city of Brownsville)

And for the timid, who may be the most reluctant to begin, the UTHealth School of Public Health has prepared online resources, Tu Salud Si Cuenta, where people can tiptoe into exercise and healthy eating and weight loss privately and solo. I found the stories poignant, and brave, and ended up rooting for them.

Brownsville is also part of a multiuse-trail program (bikes! paddling! hiking!) throughout the lower Rio Grande Valley that will link several towns, beaches, preserves, waterways, and cultural sites over 400-plus miles, incorporating as well a dream of tourism potential.

Is any of this working? According to McCormick, the rates of obesity and diabetes have dropped about 3 to 4 percent in Brownsville in about the past five years.

Abraham Avila outside his 1848 BBQ. He regularly runs along the city hike-and-bike trail that goes right past his restaurant. (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

Trails through downtown Brownsville already give lots of folks options for daily commutes to school or work or, as in our case, a visit to 1848 BBQ, a slow-cook barbecue named for the year Brownsville was founded. As one who spent about five years living in Austin and got my graduate degree from the University of Texas, I feel that my Texas bona fides and palate entitle me to shout out Abraham Avila, the chef of 1848. Yeah, lots of calories, but sitting right on a hike-and-bike trail, you can worry about working it off later. It’s worth it.

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Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un
Just two weeks ago, this was the headline news. KCNA via Reuters

It’s been barely two weeks since Donald Trump became the first American president to step onto North Korean soil, with all attendant theorizing about what the move meant, or didn’t. Was it the “biggest moment of the Trump presidency so far” and “already a political win,” as some media figures claimed? Was it, on the contrary, another sign of Trump’s “dictator envy” and “authoritarian buffoonery”? Was it a move toward peace—or war, or both, or neither, or simply more uncertainty? Who was outwitting whom?

Although it was just two weeks in the past, that moment feels like two centuries ago, given the nonstop series of crises and “Breaking news!” emergencies since then. For instance: the census showdown; the Jeffrey Epstein/Alexander Acosta disasters; the leaked British ambassador cables; more rumblings about Iran and China; the horrors of migrant-detention-camp conditions; and the long-threatened kickoff this weekend of ICE roundup raids.

Today I got a reminder note from a reader who had written in just after that “historic” encounter at the Korean DMZ. He argues that the uninterrupted torrent of (usually Trump-generated) emergencies since then reinforces the point he originally made.

His point involved a structural failure of analysis in the Trump years. That is: The people most accustomed to “analyzing” political actions and decisions—journalists, historians, political veterans, people who pride themselves on figuring out what is “really” going on—are the ones least able to recognize what the world is experiencing with Donald Trump.

This is obviously not a brand-new insight. But the reader states the case trenchantly enough that I think it’s worth sharing. Two weeks ago, after the Korean episode, the reader wrote:

I had an epiphany sometime around the midterms, after about 2 years of watching and reading heavy duty analysis by so many serious folks who, because it’s their job I suppose, tend to *project* seriousness, intent, thought, strategy, forethought, planning, and other such things, each time Trump does something. No matter how loose the cannon gets, most serious journalists default to a polite interpretation that suggests, say, Trump had something in mind when he just did that ridiculous thing.

Put another way, they’re suggesting he’s crazy like a Fox, not just an idiot.

At some point I found myself trying to explain to a friend why Trump did something kooky. As I considered everything I concluded what he was doing was strictly for the attention. It was for one news cycle. No strategy, no planning, no idea about implications. And no intention of following up even a day later.

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Exterior of the Mississippi state capitol at dawn in Jackson, Mississippi
The Mississippi state capitol in Jackson, Mississippi, where Larrison Campbell grew up—and where she returned. Nagel Photography via Shutterstock

This dispatch is in the form of a newsletter update, on reactions from readers and significant developments around the country on the local-renewal fronts. It follows this Fourth of July post, about Eric Liu’s argument for a revival of “civic religion,” and this post by Deb Fallows, on our increasing effort to connect, compare, combine, and in other ways “biggify” the multiple, dispersed examples of local renewal around the country.

Four entries in that direction:

1) “Does America need a ‘civic religion’?”: Eric Liu has long argued yes. Mike Lofgren, a longtime veteran of congressional operations, writes in to say that he begs to differ:

Does America need a civic religion?

No.

This subject, like the thesis that “Democrats need to talk about their faith” (I thought the Constitution banned religious tests for office), is a favorite chew-toy of centrist and left-of-center public intellectuals who fear the Republicans have stolen their clothes with all the flag-worship and similar ritualized razzmatazz. Apart from the tactical issue that the subject plays on the Right’s turf, there are fundamental objections.

Religion and modern democratic civil government do vastly different things. It is true that governing entities arose amid all manner of ritual, but they were hierarchical, and religion and state were the same thing.

Enforced ritual is essential to maintaining monarchies, class-based societies, and militaries. The Founders tried to dispense with a lot of the typical ritual of European monarchies for the new republic, such as addressing the president as Your Excellency; and Washington conspicuously wore no medals on his uniform coat.

There are more reasons, but I wanted to keep this brief.

We’ll have more on this theme.


2) Going home, to Jackson. A reporter for Mississippi Today named Larrison Campbell has been in the national news this week. She has been covering a gubernatorial candidate named Robert Foster, who has now refused to let her ride with him (unaccompanied) on a campaign swing, “out of precaution.” Precaution against—oh, it’s not worth even dignifying the claim by spelling it out.

Although this has nothing to do with the central merits of Foster’s stance, it is worth mentioning that Campbell is openly gay and is married to a woman named Courtenay. Together they are raising two young children in Jackson.

Their home in Jackson is the reason I mention this development. Last year, for Architectural Digest, Larrison Campbell wrote a very nice essay on her decision to move from Los Angeles, where she had spent nearly two decades developing a successful media career, to Mississippi, where she grew up.

Her story is, of course, unique in its particulars, but familiar in its general themes to what Deb and I have heard in many places. Campbell’s whole article is here. Some samples:

Sometimes you can be blinded by love or infatuation; friends probably thought we were [to go back to Mississippi]. But in L.A., no one’s direct enough to tell you you’re acting like a fool. Instead, half a dozen friends showed up at our going-away party with large bottles of vodka and bourbon “to help with the move.” Subtext: Adventures aren’t often easy …

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A collection of Our Towns players from Ajo, Arizona; Erie, Pennsylvania; and Columbus, Mississippi. From left to right: Morgan Adams, Ben Speggen, Erin Williams, Ferki Ferati, Dairian Bowles, Stuart Siegel, Emily Siegel, Deb Fallows, Jim Fallows, and Chuck Yarborough, standing in front of the Chautauqua Institution's Hall of Missions.
A collection of Our Towns players from Ajo, Arizona; Erie, Pennsylvania; and Columbus, Mississippi. From left to right: Morgan Adams, Ben Speggen, Erin Williams, Ferki Ferati, Dairian Bowles, Stuart Siegel, Emily Siegel, Deb Fallows, Jim Fallows, and Chuck Yarborough, standing in front of the Chautauqua Institution's Hall of Missions. Courtesy of Deborah Fallows

The longer and farther that Jim and I have traveled with our earlier American Futures reporting in The Atlantic, and then with Our Towns the book, and now for this new Our Towns project, the more frequently people have asked some version of these questions:

We admire how Greenville has rebuilt its downtown and Main Street from seedy to spectacular, but how do we do that? Or, Fresno had some creative ideas that had a big impact on its schools, but how can that scale? Or, Ajo, Arizona, came up with a master plan of reinvention that worked for a tiny desert town, but how do we come up with a version that would work for us in the Plains, or on the water, or in Appalachia?

We’ve been thinking about comments and questions like these for quite a while now. And we’ve added some of our own. How can one town learn from another, very different town? Are there best practices for reimagining libraries or downtowns or health clinics? Is there a way to broadcast the successful messages with a bigger megaphone? How can we connect the people we have met, and how can we amplify their messages? In essence, how can we “biggify” this entire endeavor?

In early July, we had the chance to try out one answer. We went small for starters, to “just get the puck onto the ice,” as one of our new friends said. We were at Chautauqua for one of the institution’s week-long summer sessions, this one on the theme of community. Right up our alley.

The Hall of Philosophy (Courtesy of Deborah Fallows)

Thanks to the department of religion at the Chautauqua Institution, we had the chance to bring together people, in the august setting of the Hall of Philosophy, from two of our favorite places—Ajo, Arizona, and Columbus, Mississippi—along with our friends from Erie, Pennsylvania, just down the road from Chautauqua. We wanted them to meet one another, to share their stories with the appreciative Chautauqua audience, and to see what might happen as a result.

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An Oscar Mayer hot dog float, from the traditional Palisades neighborhood Fourth of July parade along MacArthur Boulevard in Washington D.C., in 2017. This is America.
From the traditional Palisades neighborhood Fourth of July parade along MacArthur Boulevard in Washington D.C., in 2017. This is America. James Fallows / The Atlantic

Our two great American holidays are, of course, Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July.

They’re particularly American: Independence Day, for obvious reasons. Thanksgiving, because no one else observes it (other than Canadians, who have their own version on their own timetable), or can keep track of when it is. For Americans overseas it’s a particularly wonderful gathering day, on what the Brits or Koreans or French people around you assume is just another Thursday.

They have their rituals: In November, when it’s cold, we have the family gatherings, the pie and turkey, the stuporous sessions watching football or parades on TV. In July, when it’s hot, we have the picnics, the parades, the hot dogs, and the fireworks.

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A shelf holds children's books in braille
Courtesy of Deborah Fallows

The Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library, a branch of the New York Public Library system, is in the Flatiron district of Manhattan. It looks like another storefront, opening onto a sidewalk with overhead construction scaffolding, like so many buildings in New York City these days.

I have visited many, many public libraries around the U.S., but I had never visited a braille library. So when Jim, my husband, and I happened to be in New York City in early June, I grabbed the chance and took Jim with me. We saw sighted and blind people entering—moms pushing strollers, younger people who looked like students, older people coming to bide their time. And we learned about yet another way in which modern libraries are serving their communities.

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The 2019 journalists for Report for America
The 2019 journalists for Report for America Courtesy of Report for America

Because I’m not a politician, I don’t have to wear an American-flag lapel pin. (I’ve never seen a photo of, say, Dwight Eisenhower, or FDR, or JFK, wearing a flag pin. Richard Nixon did it occasionally, in the Vietnam War era. It became de rigueur for public figures some time after the 9/11 attacks of 2001.)

But this is the story of a pin I’ve started wearing recently. The pin says Report for America, as you can see below. You could read those three words as an imperative-mood reminder of what people in the journalism business are supposed to do (at least the Americans). They also represent a promising movement, in discouraging times.

The fate of local news looms very large in the fate of smaller-town America:

  • Cities and regions need to hold their business and public leaders accountable. National news is not going to do that for them.
  • They need to understand what Deb Fallows and I have called “the civic story”: what makes this town different from others, what challenges it’s gone through and what opportunities it might seize, and where it stands on an arc that might lead to a more promising future. Only their local publications will help them refine and share those stories.
  • They need simply to have a forum for connection: What businesses are opening (or closing) in the town, what people are moving in and out, what opportunities there are for children, older people, those interested in music or sports or history or gardening.
My jacket, just now (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

Independent local publications are of such tangible importance that (according to a much-noted academic study last year), bond ratings go down, and the cost of issuing bonds goes up, for cities or counties that don’t have viable local newspapers.

Yet nearly every place we’ve gone, we’ve heard about the economic pressures on local newspapers, websites, and other publications as being even worse than those weighing down the press as a whole.


Which brings us to: Report for America. Earlier this month, in Houston, Deb and I met the 60-plus young men and women whose photos you see at the top of this item. They’re part of the second “corps” of Report for America members headed to newspapers, broadcast stations, or other news sites mainly in rural or small-town America, where they will add coverage on issues that will shape those communities’ futures.

Last year, for its first corps, Report for America sent out a total of 13 reporters. This year, more than 60. Next year it’s aiming for 250, toward a goal of 1,000.

The Report for America project is part Peace Corps, part Teach for America, part something entirely new. No one innovation or source will in itself be the answer to local journalism’s crisis. But a lot of experimental approaches might add up to an overall answer—and Report for America has the potential to be an important part of that solution. (For the record: Deb and I have no connection with RFA except being given the lapel pin and some RFA-branded reporter notebooks when we spoke at the training session in Houston, plus having known its co-founder, Steven Waldman, for many years.)

What’s the Report for America concept? It is—from my perspective—a shrewd combination of short- and long-term incentives and ideas.

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