Reporter's Notebook

Sioux Falls, South Dakota
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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)

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!