In the summer of 2013, my wife—Deb Fallows—and I began a project to visit smaller towns around the country—places that show up in the news usually only as backdrops for national-politics coverage, or when some human or natural disaster has struck—and to report on how schools, businesses, families, and civic life were faring “out there.”

Now we’re beginning the next stage of the journey. The guiding principle of this reporting is one we have developed—city by city, story by story, question by question, surprise by surprise—through our years of travel. The central premise is that the most positive and practical developments in this stage of American life are happening at the local and regional level—but that most Americans have barely heard of those developments except in the communities where they themselves live.

Of course the paralysis and division of national politics matter. Of course every community has its entrenched problems, of which the opioid and addiction crisis is the most acute and racial injustice is the most intractable. Any view of this nation, at any point, will include the tragic and the inspiring.

But the underappreciated and potentially useful news of this moment is the extent of locally based renewal and experimentation, directed at many of the same challenges that now seem practically hopeless from a national perspective. That is the theme we hope to explore here.

Our Towns

Danville, Virginia

West Point, Mississippi

How a ‘Communiversity’ Works

Here’s a difference between the world of national politics and that of public problem-solving at the local and regional levels. Four or five years ago, I would have had no idea of this. Now I notice it practically every day.

In national politics, terms like partnership or collaboration are hard to utter with a straight face, or a non-sinking heart. At best, they can seem boring or (damning with faint praise) “worthy.” At worst, they seem like euphemisms for sweetheart deals or favor-trading.

What David Halberstam Learned in Mississippi

In 1981, the writer David Halberstam published a memoir in Esquire magazine, with the headline “Starting Out to be a Famous Reporter.”

At the time Halberstam was well-known enough that the story’s title would have seemed both mildly self-mocking and accurately descriptive. He’d come to national prominence while still in his 20s through skeptical and award-winning New York Times reporting from Vietnam.

Washington, DC

When Libraries Are ‘Second Responders’

Everyone knows about first responders. I’ve come to think of libraries as playing a crucial role as “second responders.”

In Ferguson, Missouri, the public library stayed open when the schools were closed after the riots, to offer the kids a safe place and even classes taught by volunteers. After the hurricanes in Houston, some library websites were immediately up and running, announcing that they were open for business. After Hurricane Sandy, some libraries in New Jersey became places of refuge.

And in the Queens Library’s Far Rockaway branch, which didn’t have heat or light, the librarians set up shop in the parking lot to continue children’s story hours “to give them a sense of normalcy,” says Christian Zabriskie, who was a Queens librarian then.

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Pikeville, KY

Angola, IN

An Engineering School Pulls Off an ‘Epic Trick Play’

Last month we wrote about the surprising partnership in Angola, Indiana between a city-redevelopment movement, which has brought new life and activity to a historic small-city downtown, and the adjoining Trine University, which has had an extremely high success rate in placing its graduates in jobs or advanced-degree programs.

Over the past two decades, smaller private universities across the country, especially those far from major cities, have struggled to attract students and keep their doors open. But as detailed here, in those two decades Trine has quadrupled its enrollment, and it claims that graduates leave with an average student-debt burden of less than $30,000.

A Community Finding a Path Forward

Last month we traveled by car through several cities in Indiana, in a project organized jointly by New America Indianapolis, where our main partner was Molly Martin, and Indiana Humanities, as part of their new two-year-long INseparable program intended to foster conversations across the usual partisan divides. There we worked mainly with the IH director Keira Amstutz and the community-engagement director Leah Nahmias.

Columbus, MS

Can Schools ‘Teach Students to Think’?

Last week I wrote about what Jim and I had seen on another visit to the (exceptional) Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science (MSMS), a public, residential two-year school for juniors and seniors.

We’ve been reporting on the school over the past five years. In the latest dispatch, I described the way a committed English teacher at MSMS, Thomas Easterling, was “teaching students to think” through a rigorous analysis of the novel Dirty Work, by the renowned Mississippi writer Larry Brown.

How to Teach Students to Think

The only thing traditional about Thomas Easterling’s 11th-grade English class at the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science (MSMS) was his short quiz at the start of the class. It was the last of the year, he told his students, and I guessed that this was his way to keep the kids focused on their final assignment.

It may also have been a nudge toward the good habit of reading, for a generation of students with Netflix always at their fingertips. They scrambled beyond their laptops for bits of paper to write their answers on and handed them to Easterling, who assembled a messy little stack.

The Last Family-Owned Daily in Mississippi

As mentioned in the kickoff post in this new “Our Towns” series, anyone who cares about America’s civic, cultural, and economic future should care about the fate of the local press.

Journalism everywhere is coping with a variety of well-known stresses. The pressure to adapt, while there could still be time to survive, is especially intense on smaller, local outlets that may be the only source of community-wide information and accountability in their locale.

On Emancipation Day, Back to Mississippi

Five years ago today, Deb Fallows and I were in Columbus, Mississippi, to observe the commemoration of Emancipation Day held in the cemetery there. My dispatch about it at the time is here; in the years that followed, Deb and I made repeated visits to Columbus and its neighbors in the “Golden Triangle” of northeastern Mississippi.

Winters, CA

National Policies Have Local Effects

The ongoing theme of this site is the possibility and practical-mindedness of much of local-level America, at just the moment when national-level politics have become so bitter and dysfunctional.

But of course cities exist within states and regions, and states and regions are subject to national policy and international trends. Here are two illustrations, from opposite sides of the country, of the way national policies of the moment are affecting local efforts we’ve chronicled over the years. One is from the rich farmland of California; the other, from a challenged city in industrial Pennsylvania.

Fort Wayne, IN

Dead Malls, Everywhere

One more installment on the question of whether an unloved and unsightly part of America’s infrastructure—the giant sprawl-malls that drained business from classic downtowns in the 1960s and 1970s, only to become bankrupt dinosaurs in their turn—might actually become the sites of civic and architectural rebirth.

The original post, about Fort Wayne, Indiana, was here; followed by this (partial) defense of malls; and this elaboration on what is happening to malls around the country.

Dead Malls, Reborn Cities

We can all think of things that have gotten worse about journalism, in the era of continual distraction and internet-borne hysteria and info silos.

Here’s something I’ve continued to appreciate as an improvement, ever since The Atlantic became one of the first publications to establish an online presence back in 1995.

Muncie, IN

‘Unknown Outside Indiana’

The previous four “Our Towns” posts have been about Indiana: One about Angola and the importance of its relationship with Trine University; one about Fort Wayne and its ambitious reconstruction of a cavernous abandoned GE works; and two about Muncie, first about sustainability programs and then about a virtually unique approach to the long-troubled public schools.

They had a common theme: how surprising it was simply to show up in these towns and hear about what was happening, since so little of this news had ever made its way to the national press.

An Unusual Way to Bridge the Town-Gown Divide

This post is about a development that few people outside the state of Indiana have ever heard or read about, but that has implications for the country as a whole. It’s about a highly unusual approach to a highly familiar problem: the economic challenges of public schools. This news comes from America’s original “Middletown,” the midsize Indiana city of Muncie.

In the preceding installment about Muncie, I mentioned three aspects that surprised Deb and me—and that would have surprised most visitors, given their absence from the national press.

San Bernardino, CA

Building for the Future, in California’s Famously Failed City

Today’s Los Angeles Times has a big take-out by Joe Mozingo, with photos by Francine Orr and extensive online graphics, about the ongoing woes of San Bernardino, California. The city’s problems, as we’ve set out in previous installments, have been a heartbreaking vicious-cycle combination of economic misfortune worsened by political dysfunction. Over the past generation, San Bernardino has lost every one of its traditional big sources of blue-collar employment: a steel mill, a railroad yard, the commerce related to a major Interstate (before it was relocated 15 miles west), and then an enormous Air Force base.

Louisville, KY

Why the Maker Movement Matters

In the first entry in this series, I discussed why the Maker Movement, sometimes dismissed as quaint and cutesy by people not familiar with it, should in fact be taken seriously as the source and stimulus for the next wave of manufacturing innovation.

St. Marys, GA

High School in Southern Georgia: What ‘Career Technical’ Education Looks Like

Earlier this month my wife and I spent about a week, in two visits, in the little town of St. Marys, Georgia, on the southernmost coast of Georgia just north of Florida and just east of the Okefenokee Swamp. It’s a beautiful and historic town, which is best known either as the jumping-off point for visits to adjoining Cumberland Island National Seashore or for the enormous Kings Bay naval base, which is the East Coast home of U.S. Navy’s nuclear-missile submarine fleet and which is the largest employer in the area.

Our Towns