The public library system in Brownsville, Texas, has a long history of inventing and then reinventing itself to be of, by, and for the people. The library story began modestly at the end of the 19th century, with the personal collection of Irish-born U.S. Army Captain William Kelly, who had settled in Brownsville and become a renowned businessman, proponent of Brownsville’s first public schools, and a civic activist. His daughter Geraldine recollected later in the Brownsville Herald, “He had a very fine library, which he used continually and loved.”
In 1912, a group of Brownsville’s intellectual and high-minded women calling themselves the Learners Club started the town’s first subscription library. (Other women’s clubs have been promoters of early libraries: In 1905, the women’s club of Dodge City, Kansas, inspired some of its prominent citizens to ask Andrew Carnegie if he would support building one of his libraries in Dodge City. He did.)
A decade and a half later, the Learners Club and the city teamed up to transform the Brownsville subscription library into a public library in a larger space. It moved a few more times over the next decades, before partnering with Texas Southmost College and locating the public library on its campus. There they stayed until 1991.
Then, with the city’s support, the Brownsville public library pivoted toward its modern era.
Jerry Hedgecock, who has been with Brownsville libraries since 1993 and is now the director of the Public Information Services Department in Brownsville, described to me how the library was able to start back in the 1990s, in effect from scratch, with the driving mission to make the library a go-to destination for the residents of Brownsville. They erected a new building and ushered in new ideas and new programs.
After some early years, which Hedgecock described as, “to be honest, very boring,” they prepared to change emphasis so as to offer more services. It was all about being relevant to the community, he said: “What do the people want? What do we want?”
Library plans were farsighted; they were creative and intended to reflect the culture of the town and region; and they were executed efficiently and also patiently, adding projects piecemeal, year by year. With a line item in the municipal budget supporting them ($4.8 million in 2019), a library foundation that contributes to capital projects, and the still vital Learners Club and a Friends group pitching in, the library evolved.
One year, old wallpaper was removed. Another year, end panels with blown-up photos of important images of the region were affixed to the rows of bookshelves. To be both efficient and personalized, the library created a graphics department to make their own artwork, with double wins of being less expensive and more Brownsville-personal than what was available from generic catalogs.
The library currently owns and makes available to users 259 computers, as online access is critical to this community. But the library’s leaders expect that as more people become able to afford their own computers, the need will ratchet down, and the library will switch some of the computer space to suit different needs.
As with every other library I visited, use of space was a top concern. (This is despite the common impression that libraries must have lots of extra space, as some reduce their holdings of physical books.) Even in Texas, where the size and scale of everything from ranches to libraries feels vast, Hedgecock says that space in the library is tight, and they pay close attention to how they use every nook and cranny.
The “maker space” holds eight 3D printers, and there are plans for laser cutters and more.
Maybe they’ll build a tool bank, suggested Hedgecock, an area that would be stocked with devices and equipment to meet the expanding skill sets of their population. Being nimble and responsive to the population and their changing needs is critical. “Without new services,” Hedgecock said, “we won’t be relevant to the community. We can’t be complacent.”
The library took over the local-government access television channel, whose studio is housed inside the building. The public was delighted, but became distracted enough by its presence that the station is now out of sight behind unmarked closed doors. There are plans to relocate the station to a newly created municipal department. I found this recording from the station of a live event presented by Texas Monthly in Brownsville this July. This magazine, where my husband, Jim, worked in its founding days in the 1970s, when we were living in Austin while I did my graduate studies at the University of Texas, takes its show on the road around Texas for live 90-minute performances of music, video, reading, and storytelling, curated by the editors. You’ll do yourself a favor to watch this one, where writer Wes Ferguson reads about his return to Brownsville.
I visited the library on an early voting day for the city election, and the place was buzzing. People were wandering in and out, having lunch at the library’s cafeteria, checking books in and out, sitting at tables reading newspapers or at computers working.
What surprised me most in the Brownsville library was the teen space. It’s called Space 14s. You get it. We’ve all heard about the children’s areas—the reading readiness, the story hours and preschool activities. From what I’ve seen, most public libraries are sophisticated with the preschoolers by now, and for many libraries, making themselves relevant to teenagers is the next step.
Brownsville is ahead of the curve on this one. Several librarians around the country told me that teens are the hardest group to attract to the library. Brownsville took this challenge head-on and worked with the Library Interiors of Texas to design its two-story teen space in the library. The themes of outer space, diversity, and technology dominate wall murals everywhere you look. Colorful, comfortable seating around workstations, at tables, and in big chairs invites hanging around. The spotlighting and the upper-level overlook struck me as opening space to easily scope out everyone and everything happening, which is how I think of preferred teenage behavior.
Hedgecock described the public opening of the new teen space, Space 14s. The crowd gathered. A curtain was drawn in front of the space and lights were down. The curtain opened; lights were brought up. As Hedgecock relives the moment when people first laid eyes on the new teen space, “It was the first time I’ve heard an audible gasp from the public at a library.”
I asked about the Brownsville library as a “second responder,” as I had heard about other libraries that had stepped up to serve their people after the riots in Ferguson, or Hurricane Sandy in New Jersey, or the shootings in Orlando. Brownsville had its own story: During the recession, one family where both parents lost jobs and couldn’t afford to run their air conditioning (which is a big deal during the summers in Brownsville), came to the library and asked if they could spend their days inside. “Of course,” was the answer. After the father got another job, and the family was able to run their air conditioners again, they sent a thank you note to the library for helping them when it mattered.
I heard another second-responder story when I visited the second, smaller, neighborhood library in Brownsville, the Southmost Library. Librarians there told me about the kids who are bused in from the nearby migrant-detention center to watch movies, eat popcorn, and drink lemonade. Jim and I were not able to go inside a detention center, but it takes no leap of imagination to guess how the kids value this field trip to the public library.
Brownsville is the southernmost U.S. border town with Mexico, down at the very tip of the map of Texas. Across the Rio Grande is Matamoros. Some 20 miles to the east is the Gulf of Mexico. If you drive 60 miles to the north and west along the Old Military Highway to McAllen, you’ll see stretches of border wall, irregular in their size and design. It was very hot when we were in Brownsville last month. It reminded me of Nanjing, one of the so-called furnaces of China, where the soles of your sneakers sink into the soft tarmac of the roads.
Elon Musk has built his SpaceX site on the road from Brownsville to the coast. It is an assembly site for now, in a clearing that looks like half moonscape, half desert, with giant, surreal, bright-silvery sections of rocket being welded together. The plan is for rockets to launch from here one day. Just beyond SpaceX, the Boca Chica road fades to sandy coastal beach. It feels like the edge of the Earth.
Border Patrol agents cruise the highways and roads around Brownsville. One afternoon, as I was driving the highway north from downtown, a silent ambulance cruised by, with a Border Patrol SUV, caked with dust and dried mud, right on its tail. I realized that I didn’t have a clue of all that was really going on in Brownsville.
Some things about Brownsville are easy to see. The buildings of the downtown—many tattered now, featuring discount goods for the cross-border shopping market in Matamoros—still have great bones, as the architects say, and are waiting for their second chance. Brownsville was too poor to raze those buildings when businesses went dark, an obvious advantage now. (As we have seen elsewhere.)
A hip pizza and wine bar called Dodici opened recently in the old Fernandez building downtown. One of the owners is Trey Mendez, a lawyer who was just elected mayor in a runoff contest while we were visiting. The Market Square area is newly renovated, as part of a downtown-revival program under the mayor for the previous eight years, Tony Martinez. Brownsville has an outsize number of museums, including the Historic Brownsville Museum, which is a real gem. The Mitte Cultural District boasts “something for everyone,” with its zoo, pool, pavilions, playhouse, and much more. RJ Mitte (who played Walter White’s son in Breaking Bad) is of that Mitte family, and is carrying on the family philanthropic efforts of his grandfather. Other buildings are works in progress. More are still pipe dreams.
Of course, you cannot miss the border wall. The wall near downtown’s Gateway International Bridge has been there for about 10 years, long enough that the landscaping and vegetation along its river pathway and the Alice Wilson Hope Park on the U.S. side have grown in to looking normal.
On our first evening in Brownsville, when the heat of the day had subsided a little, Jim and I decided to walk across the International Bridge into Matamoros. How could we not? We had no chance of entering the detention centers that have become so notorious in the Rio Grande Valley and elsewhere along the border. We wanted to have at least a look at the routine daily flow north and south.
Our crossing was entirely simple and uneventful, of course, just like it is for residents of both Brownsville and Matamoros who cross the bridge daily for school, jobs, shopping, dinners out, or visiting friends and family. (Brownsville’s population is roughly 95 percent Hispanic, and many people have long-standing ties across the border. The interconnectedness of the two cities’ lives is the central theme of an acclaimed recent novel set in Brownsville: Where We Come From, by Oscar Cásares. When we were in town, then-Mayor Martinez gave us a copy of the book.) Along with a small handful of people also making the trip on foot, we deposited four quarters in the turnstile and pushed our way through to Mexico.
I looked up and down the river, assessing it with my swimmer’s eye, thinking how surprisingly narrow and benign it seemed, maybe 50 yards wide. The river was dark and muddy, not in the least inviting, even in the heat. The Rio Grande appeared to have no current. But of course we all know that surface appearances can deceive, as they most certainly did in the horrific episode when Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez of El Salvador and his 2-year-old daughter, Valeria, drowned trying to cross it not far from this spot, a few days after we were there.
Brownsville residents, who have lived all their life as part of a binational community extended on both sides of the river, have a different sense of the border from those for whom it’s an abstraction. “We don’t think of it as a border,” we heard from so many people that we stopped counting. “We think of it as a river.” I realized that it was just the way those of us who live on the border between Washington, D.C., and Virginia think of the Potomac.
Beyond these impressions of Brownsville, there are data points that are more quantifiable. This is where the public-health issues come to the forefront, and they are stark. (My thanks to The Atlantic’s Faith Hill for help collecting these data.)
Some 51 percent of the adult population in the area are obese; an additional 34 percent are overweight.
Of children 8 to 17 years old, 54 percent are obese, compared with about 33 percent nationally. Joseph McCormick, until just recently the dean of the Brownsville campus of the UTHealth School of Public Health, wrote in an email: “These children have higher BMI, higher waist to hip ratios, higher systolic and diastolic blood pressures, higher triglycerides and LDL (bad cholesterol), lower HDL (good cholesterol); They had higher insulin resistance (a precursor to diabetes), and elevated liver enzymes suggestive of fatty liver disease, a very common problem in our population in adults.”
Some 27 percent of adults have diabetes, about three times the national level. About one-third of those with diabetes didn’t know they had it before being tested.
Only 42 percent of Brownsville’s population have some kind of health-care insurance.
For more positive comparative news, life expectancy in Cameron County, which includes Brownsville, is about 80 years, four years longer than the national average.
And Texas has one of the country’s lowest rates of death from opioid-involved drug overdoses: 5.1 for every 100,000 people, compared with the national average of 14.6.
Brownsville is a poor town; nearly 31 percent of the residents live in poverty, 38 percent of children. The median income is $35,000. Some 87 percent of schoolchildren in Cameron County qualify for free or reduced lunch.
I had lunch one day to talk about these statistics with Rose Zavaletta Gowen, a medical doctor who grew up in Brownsville, trained in Dallas, and returned to practice medicine. She soon turned to public-health advocacy and added a new role as an elected city commissioner. Gowen framed her thinking, advocacy, passion, and action plans for her hometown this way: “We traditionally think we need economic development and education, and we’ll get to health later or afterwards.” She added, “But later may be too late, and putting it off hinders progress in economic development and education as well.”
Gowen is part of Brownsville’s Community Advisory Board (CAB), a network of more than 200 Brownsville residents and individuals from health-care, education, business, and community groups, and the UTHealth campus, which, with its newly appointed dean of the campus, Belinda Reininger, has been key in the founding and support of CAB. All together, they are pushing toward building a healthier population and lifestyle, in a very Brownsville-specific way.
Every community we have visited for our American Futures project and our subsequent book, Our Towns, has focused on the “local” as its guide and frame for plans and actions. In Brownsville, that eye on local seemed to us as compelling and powerful as in any other community we have seen, and maybe even more so. Sometimes “local” means a focus on physical assets, or geography, or demographics, or industry. In Brownsville, as we listened to citizens talk, “local” seemed to be mainly about culture.
The culture of Brownsville was the backdrop to their master plan for health and wellness—and many other town issues. “We are fighters. We stand by our family. We are proud. We may be poor, but we do not think of ourselves as just poor. We think of ourselves as blessed to have our families, customs, and region surrounding us.” And Gowen added in talking about outsiders’ impressions of Brownsville, “You don’t hear that on the news.”
Those traits translated into action. Brownsville is not looking or waiting for top-down solutions and proclamations. Members of its community decided to: make local-government regulations that support their goals. Get smart about seeking funding, from the government, foundations, and nonprofits. Not let rebuffs from big funding stop them; take it step by step; and find corners to improve. Educate the public and brand the message “Health and wellness.” Become a model for success.
Through its many initiatives, the Brownsville Wellness Coalition is all about healthy food and healthy bodies.The Community Gardens program teaches gardening classes and distributes free transplants and compost. Five gardens hold nearly 200 beds.
People can buy produce from the weekly farmers’ market with cash or with vouchers from federally subsidized programs such as SNAP, WIC, and the Farm Fresh Voucher program, especially important in this low-income town. Plans are under way through a coalition of funders to renovate an old town cannery, the Gutierrez Warehouse, into a permanent home for the farmers’ market. When finished, the Quonset hut plans also call for accommodating a food bank and a “kitchen incubator” with a commercial kitchen for small food businesses. And for those who can’t get to the farmers’ market, the Fresco Mobile Market food trucks may come to them.
And for the bodies, the Wellness Coalition sponsors a walking-group program, the Walking Club, with motivational support and progress tracking.
An annual challenge program organized by the city and the UTHealth School of Public Health, and drawing help from local gyms, nutritionists, trainers, and other experts, encourages not only weight loss, but also sustainable lifestyle changes toward better health. Nearly 7,500 people participated in the three-month program this year.
The monthly CycloBia closes some Brownsville streets to cars and opens them to the 10,000 participating residents to walk, bike, skateboard, skate, and run.
And for the timid, who may be the most reluctant to begin, the UTHealth School of Public Health has prepared online resources, Tu Salud Si Cuenta, where people can tiptoe into exercise and healthy eating and weight loss privately and solo. I found the stories poignant, and brave, and ended up rooting for them.
Brownsville is also part of a multiuse-trail program (bikes! paddling! hiking!) throughout the lower Rio Grande Valley that will link several towns, beaches, preserves, waterways, and cultural sites over 400-plus miles, incorporating as well a dream of tourism potential.
Is any of this working? According to McCormick, the rates of obesity and diabetes have dropped about 3 to 4 percent in Brownsville in about the past five years.
Trails through downtown Brownsville already give lots of folks options for daily commutes to school or work or, as in our case, a visit to 1848 BBQ, a slow-cook barbecue named for the year Brownsville was founded. As one who spent about five years living in Austin and got my graduate degree from the University of Texas, I feel that my Texas bona fides and palate entitle me to shout out Abraham Avila, the chef of 1848. Yeah, lots of calories, but sitting right on a hike-and-bike trail, you can worry about working it off later. It’s worth it.
Only one top Biden adviser isn’t joining him in the White House—but she’ll still stay close.
When Julián Castro wasn’t given a speaking slot at the Democratic National Convention in August, he complained that Joe Biden’s campaign wasn’t showing proper respect to Latino voters. The real explanation for the snub is much simpler: The former housing secretary and presidential candidate had implied that Biden was senile in a primary debate and then didn’t endorse him until June, though the primary race had been over since April, when Bernie Sanders dropped out.
Anita Dunn, a senior adviser to the Biden campaign from the start, declined to comment on what happened with Castro. (An aide to Castro insisted he offered to endorse in April, but the Biden campaign sat on that, and an offer for advice on Latino outreach.) But keeping track of who crosses Biden—staff, reporters, politicians—is part of what she does. She watches. She listens. She remembers. She is completely comfortable with giving a firm no.
Looking at the long views from the Hubble space telescope might be good for you.
In December of 1995, astronomers around the world were vying for a chance to use the hottest new tool in astronomy: the Hubble space telescope. Bob Williams didn’t have to worry about all that. As the director of the institution that managed Hubble, Williams could use the telescope to observe whatever he wanted. And he decided to point it at nothing in particular.
Williams’s colleagues told him, as politely as they could, that this was an awful idea. But Williams had a hunch that Hubble would see something worthwhile. The telescope had already captured the glow of faraway galaxies, and the longer Hubble gazed out in one direction, the more light it would detect.
So the Hubble telescope stared at the same bit of space, nonstop, for 10 days—precious time on a very expensive machine—snapping exposure after exposure as it circled Earth. The resulting image was astounding: Some 3,000 galaxies sparkled like gemstones in the darkness. The view stretched billions of years back in time, revealing other cosmic locales as they were when their light left them and began coasting across the universe.
Americans will soon grow tired of the former president, despite his efforts to stay in the limelight.
President Donald Trump has made one thing painfully clear: After he grudgingly leaves the White House, he will keep doing what he can to stay in the news. He will tweet insults and conspiracy theories. He may start his own television channel. And according to members of his inner circle, he may even run for president in 2024.
After half a decade under his spell, many pundits and political observers assume that Trump will succeed in keeping the nation’s attention. I can see why. A sizable minority of Americans believe that the election was stolen and remain deeply devoted to the outgoing president. Even now that Trump’s loss has liberated the GOP from its captor, elected Republicans seem to be suffering from a bad case of Stockholm syndrome. And the 45th president has proved, again and again, that he has a real talent for staying in the limelight.
Minority rule is fast becoming the defining feature of the American republic. In 2000 and 2016, presidential candidates who received fewer votes than their opponents were nevertheless sent to the White House. Joe Biden’s 2020 victory came not because he won nearly 7 million more votes nationally than President Donald Trump, but rather because he won about 200,000 votes more in a handful of swing states. Congress has seen a similar dynamic: Though Republican senators make up the majority in the chamber, they represent more than 20 million fewer Americans than Democratic senators do. Such lopsided electoral calculus seems to fly in the face of both parties’ principles. It cannot last.
The former mayor’s fevered efforts to overturn the election results may be about self-preservation more than anything else.
Updated on December 1, 2020, at 5:32 p.m. ET.
In his frenzied crusade to help President Donald Trump overturn the 2020 election result, Rudy Giuliani has displayed many of the characteristics that Trump has long demanded in his personal lawyers—albeit with more surreal and comedic elements.
Giuliani has shown unswerving loyalty, gleefully obfuscated facts, launched wild attacks on the media, hosted circus-style press conferences, and gone to court, all in a fruitless, evidence-free quest to persuade several states to block Joe Biden’s electoral victories.
But that might not be Giuliani’s only—or ultimate—goal.
The former New York mayor might just be trying to save himself, according to the Department of Justice veterans and legal experts I spoke with. Giuliani seems to be facing growing legal threats, and he may be angling for a presidential pardon, they told me in interviews over the past few weeks.
“When can we stop thinking about Trump every minute?” the New York Times columnists Gail Collins and Bret Stephens asked yesterday. As usual with such queries, the correct answer is “What do you mean ‘we’?” To a remarkable degree, people have already stopped paying attention to the 45th president.
The past few weeks have offered a preview of what Donald Trump’s post-presidency might look like: The president fulminates at length, playing pundit, but is a practical nonfactor in policy discussions. He can still command the affection of millions—and raise millions of dollars from them—but the balance of the country has already moved on and tuned out. Trump’s ability to command the news cycle has been eclipsed by the virus he couldn’t be bothered to stop and the rival candidate he couldn’t beat.
The movie and book don’t show the positive side of the area, because that wouldn’t serve the story’s purposes.
My Aunt Ruth won’t watch Hillbilly Elegy, the movie adaptation of J. D. Vance’s memoir about growing up in and eventually escaping Appalachia and a mother coping with addiction. Practically speaking, my aunt doesn’t have a Netflix account or any of the smart technology she’d need to stream it. But she also has no interest in watching a story of her community that doesn’t reflect what she sees and that she knows will be exploitative, harmful, and not helpful to moving her or her neighbors forward.
Hillbilly Elegy doesn’t show the positive side of Appalachia that my aunt and I know, because that wouldn’t serve the story’s purposes. The film and book need Appalachia to be poor, broken, and dirty, because they depend on us believing that the mountains are somewhere we want Vance to escape. They need to frame poverty as a moral failing of individuals—as opposed to systems—because they have to imply that something about Vance’s character allowed him to get away from his hillbilly roots. Hillbilly Elegy has to simplify the people and problems of Appalachia, because it has decided to tell the same old pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps narrative that so many of us reject.
Pod means something different to everyone, and that’s a problem.
Americans’ social lifelines are beginning to fray. As the temperature drops and the gray twilight arrives earlier each day, comfortably mingling outside during the pandemic is getting more difficult across much of the country. For many people, it’s already impossible.
To combat the loneliness of winter, some of us might be tempted to turn to pods, otherwise known as bubbles. The basic idea is that people who don’t live together can still spend time together indoors, as long as their pod stays small and exclusive. And pods aren’t just for the winter: Since March, parents have formed child-care bubbles. Third graders have been assigned to learning pods. Some NBA teams were in a bubble for months. A July survey of 1,000 Americans found that 47 percent said they were in a bubble.
U.S. COVID-19 statistics are about to look better—even though the reality is almost certainly getting worse. It’s time to hibernate.
Here is what we know about the state of COVID-19 as we approach the winter holiday season.
On Thanksgiving Eve, more than 1 million passengers cleared airport security, the highest single-day volume since the coronavirus reshaped American life in March. While airplanes are not likely settings for super-spreader events, everything before and after people step on a plane is somewhat risky. This includes parents shouting at their misbehaving kids in security lines; individuals munching on Auntie Anne’s pretzels, masks dangling from their chins, in departure-terminal crowds; and, most importantly, extended families swapping sweet-potato pie and invisible pathogens over the dinner table in poorly ventilated homes. A holiday surge on top of the calamitous autumn surge could be coming soon.
Just because we know bad things about the 45th president, don’t assume that there’s nothing bad left to find out.
How well do we know Donald Trump? Pretty well, it would seem. Nobody has ever accused the outgoing president of possessing a complex personality. His behavior in office confirmed the common view, barely disputed even by his allies, that he is a shallow narcissist, blind or indifferent to common decencies, with poor impulse control and a vindictive streak. His futile attempt to litigate away electoral defeat may appall you, but it probably doesn’t surprise you.
Still, just because we know bad things about the 45th president, don’t assume that there’s nothing bad left to find out. Journalists like to pretend that we know everything about a president in real time, but our information is never close to complete. There’s always more to learn, and it’s seldom reassuring.