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.
This has become a common refrain among the cautious—and it’s wrong.
For many fully vaccinated Americans, the Delta surge spoiled what should’ve been a glorious summer. Those who had cast their masks aside months ago were asked to dust them off. Many are still taking no chances. Some have even returned to all the same precautions they took before getting their shots, including avoiding the company of other fully vaccinated people.
Among this last group, a common refrain I’ve heard to justify their renewed vigilance is that “vaccinated people are just as likely to spread the coronavirus.”
This misunderstanding, born out of confusing statements from public-health authorities and misleading media headlines, is a shame. It is resulting in unnecessary fear among vaccinated people, all the while undermining the public’s understanding of the importance—and effectiveness—of getting vaccinated.
Some of the plots to overturn the election happened in secret. But don’t forget the ones that unfolded in the open.
Last year, John Eastman, whom CNN describes as an attorney working with Donald Trump’s legal team, wrote a preposterous memo outlining how then–Vice President Mike Pence could overturn the 2020 election by fiat or, failing that, throw the election to the House of Representatives, where Republicans could install Trump in office despite his loss to Joe Biden. The document, which was first reported by the Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Robert Costa in their new book, is a step-by-step plan to overthrow the government of the United States through a preposterous interpretation of legal procedure.
Pence apparently took the idea seriously—so seriously, in fact, that, according to Woodward and Costa, former Vice President Dan Quayle had to talk him out of it. Prior to November, the possibility of Trump attempting a coup was seen as the deranged fever dream of crazed liberals. But as it turns out, Trump and his advisers had devised explicit plans for reversing Trump’s loss. Republican leaders deliberately stoked election conspiracy theories they knew to be false, in order to lay a political pretext for invalidating the results. Now, more than 10 months after the election, the country knows of at least five ways in which Trump attempted to retain power despite his defeat.
The jet-setting cosmopolitans of popular imagination exist, but they are far outnumbered by a less exalted and less discussed elite group, one that sits at the pinnacle of America’s local hierarchies.
American wealth and power usually have a certain look: glass-walled penthouse apartments in glittering urban skyscrapers, sprawling country mansions, ivy-covered prep schools, vacation homes in the Hamptons. These are the outward symbols of an entrenched oligarchy, the political-economic ruling class portrayed by the media that entertains us and the conspiracy theories that animate the darker corners of the American imagination.
The reality of American wealth and power is more banal. The conspicuously consuming celebrities and jet-setting cosmopolitans of popular imagination exist, but they are far outnumbered by a less exalted and less discussed elite group, one that sits at the pinnacle of the local hierarchies that govern daily life for tens of millions of people. Donald Trump grasped this group’s existence and its importance, acting, as he often does, on unthinking but effective instinct. When he crowed about his “beautiful boaters,” lauding the flotillas of supporters trailing MAGA flags from their watercraft in his honor, or addressed his devoted followers among a rioting January 6 crowd that included people who had flown to the event on private jets, he knew what he was doing. Trump was courting the support of the American gentry, the salt-of-the-earth millionaires who see themselves as local leaders in business and politics, the unappreciated backbone of a once-great nation.
The pandemic keeps changing, but these principles can guide your thinking through the seasons to come.
Updated at 9:28 a.m. on September 21, 2021.
For nearly two years now, Americans have lived with SARS-CoV-2. We know it better than we once did. We know that it can set off both acute and chronic illness, that it spreads best indoors, that masks help block it, that our vaccines are powerful against it. We know that we can live with it—that we’re going to have to live with it—but that it can and will exact a heavy toll.
Still, this virus has the capacity to surprise us, especially if we’re not paying attention. It is changing all the time, a tweak to the genetic code here and there; sometimes, those tweaks add up to new danger. In a matter of weeks, the Delta variant upended the relative peace of America’s early summer and ushered in a new set of calculations about risk, masking, and testing. The pandemic’s endgame shifted.
On the day that SpaceX’s first space tourists launched, Elon Musk was there at Kennedy Space Center, in Florida, to see them off, cheering as the private astronauts walked to the Teslas that would take them to suit up. And after they landed safely, having orbited Earth about 45 times, Musk was there again to congratulate them in person.
The Inspiration4 mission marked SpaceX’s fourth successful human spaceflight, and a SpaceX official says the company wants to fly paying customers “three, four, five, six times a year at least.” In this era’s space race among private companies, Musk’s SpaceX pulled ahead on essentially every measure but one—giving the CEO a lift above the atmosphere. Branson did it, Bezos did it—so why hasn’t Musk himself flown yet?
Eventually we might all have to deal with COVID-19—but a shorter, gentler version, thanks to vaccines.
Boghuma Kabisen Titanji was just 8 years old when the hyper-contagious virus swept through her classroom. Days later, she started to feel feverish, and developed a sparse, rosy rash. Three years after being fully dosed with the measles vaccine, one of the most durably effective immunizations in our roster, Titanji fell ill with the very pathogen her shots were designed to prevent.
Her parents rushed her to a pediatrician, worried that her first inoculations had failed to take. But the doctor allayed their fears: “It happens. She’ll be fine.” And she was. Her fever and rash cleared up in just a couple of days; she never sickened anyone else in her family. It was, says Titanji, now an infectious-disease physician and a researcher at Emory University, a textbook case of “modified” measles, a rare post-vaccination illness so mild and unthreatening that it doesn’t even deserve the full measles name.
After last year’s eerie lull, flu viruses could be poised to return packing a bigger punch.
On Saturday morning, I finally rolled up my sleeve for the vaccine I’d been waiting for all summer: my annual flu shot, a technological marvel that I opt to receive every fall.
During non-pandemic times, the flu vaccine is a hot autumn commodity that holds a coveted place in the public-health spotlight. As of late, though the shot’s been eclipsed by the prominence of its COVID-blocking cousins, fueled by debates over boosters and mandates. It’s also been a while since we’ve had to tussle with the flu directly. Thanks to the infection-prevention measures the world took to fight SARS-CoV-2 when the pandemic began, many other respiratory viruses vanished. Last winter, we essentially had “no flu season at all,” Florian Krammer, a virologist at Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine, told me. The human attention span is short; the flu’s brief sabbatical might have purged it from our minds at an inopportune time.
They’ve aligned themselves with forces they despise. But lefty anti-vaxxers don’t see the contradiction.
Conspiracy theorists who discount the safety and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines and other public-health mandates are often portrayed in the media as right-wing. That’s for good reason: a not-insignificant number of the most vocal conspiracists tie their ideology firmly to President Donald Trump and the right-wing MAGA movement he inspired. Videos of angry red-state demonstrators pushing back against school boards and other local authorities in public hearings, and repeating outlandish, baseless misinformation, have made the rounds in traditional media.
But in the hills of western Massachusetts and in neighboring regions of upstate New York, a traditionally left-leaning area, these theories also hold purchase. I grew up in the region and started my journalistic career there. I’ve been arguing with residents, many of whom are close friends, about vaccines for more than a decade. But despite my efforts, and the efforts of many others, a stubborn resistance to reality has set in here, and only deepened since the pandemic began. Late last month, Do We Need This?, a group of anti-vaxxers and vaccine-mandate opponents, held a “festival” in the region to raise money for their cause, suggesting a $20 donation for entry. They shared the proceeds with other national vaccine-skeptic groups, including NY Stands Up!, the Informed Consent Action Network, and Robert Kennedy Jr.’s Children’s Health Defense.
Dear Evan Hansen was lauded on Broadway, but the film adaptation only emphasizes its flaws.
When Dear Evan Hansen premiered on Broadway in 2016, it drew near-universal praise from New York’s theater critics. Ben Platt, playing an anxious teenager who becomes an internet celebrity after misrepresenting his role in a local tragedy, was showered with plaudits, and the show ended up winning six Tony Awards—the most of the season—including Best Musical and a leading-actor trophy for Platt. A film version was thus hardly a surprise. But when the director Stephen Chbosky’s extremely faithful adaptation premiered as the opening-night movie of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival—the movie will be released in theaters this Friday—the reviews that followed were … broadly bad.
What changed? It wasn’t the story or the songs. Dear Evan Hansen the film is written by Steven Levenson, who wrote the narrative of the Broadway show, and largely retains the score, by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (a few of the least compelling numbers have been cut; others have been added). And while the cast around Platt is mostly filled out by movie stars rather than Broadway veterans, the performances from actors such as Amy Adams, Julianne Moore, Kaitlyn Dever, and Amandla Stenberg are uniformly solid. Did something get lost in translation, or is this an emperor’s-new-clothes moment revealing that Dear Evan Hansen never was any good in the first place?
People who opt out of shots shouldn’t expect their employers, health insurers, and fellow citizens to accommodate them.
For months, institutions and companies have been drafting plans to aggressively promote vaccination or require it outright, and last week the FDA gave them license to click the “Send” button. The same day the agency granted full approval to the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, New York City’s public school system announced that its teachers and other employees will be required to get shots. The next day, Louisiana State University made a similar demand of its students and faculty. Within about 24 hours of the FDA move, other major employers, such as Chevron and Goldman Sachs, rolled out new vaccine mandates. In a novel twist, Delta Air Lines announced that it would impose a $200-a-month health-insurance surcharge on unvaccinated employees. Regardless of the reasons for their hesitancy, unvaccinated employees will literally have to pay for it.