A journey into the heart of America
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.
Los Angeles, CA
An Artist-in-Residence Creates a Sense of Place
We’ve seen artist-in-residence programs in a number of the towns we’ve visited. The first was in Eastport Maine, where we ran into Richelle Gribble, a young artist from California, whom I consider a resident-artist extraordinaire. Over the past three and a half years, Richelle (as I’ll refer to her) has been an artist-in-residence in 15 different programs around the world, from a biosphere in Arizona to a ranch in Wyoming to the Arctic Circle in Norway.
What Happens to Small Companies Now?
Will Craft Brewing Survive?
Three Guides to the Next America
Public Libraries’ Novel Response to a Novel Virus
Local Efforts in a Time of Extreme Global Stress
An Action Plan for the Future of Media
Looking at Libraries
A Portrait of Public Libraries
New Jobs, New Residents, and New Possibilities
‘I’m Not Tossing in the Towel Yet’
Why Local Innovation Is the Answer
‘After the Fall’: What Rome Means for America
The American Sense of Place
The Rituals of ‘Becoming America’
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.
Our Towns: On the Road, in the Air
A Company That Helps You Find Job B
Bitwise Goes Big
Four years ago, my wife, Deb, and I wrote about an ambitious and unusual tech startup called Bitwise Industries, in the gritty and long-struggling city of Fresno in California’s Central Valley.
For an introduction to Bitwise and its co-founders, Irma L. Olguin Jr. and Jake Soberal, please see “California’s Centers of Technology: Bay Area, L.A., San Diego, and … Fresno?” For what is at stake in their efforts to foster an inclusive, advanced-tech culture in an agriculture-dominated city, please see “Three Ways of Thinking About Fresno (and Why You Should Care).”
Coeur d’Alene, ID
Sparking a Small-Town Business Ecosystem
New York, NY
From Military Service to Civilian Leadership
A Public Library Brings Opportunity to the Blind
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, as with 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.
San Francisco, CA
A Different Kind of Civil-Service Organization
A Rural Health Center With a Pandemic Plan
How Artists Build the Spirit of a Town
The Surprising Rural Health-Care Legacy of the ’60s
‘Local, Local, Local’: How a Small Newspaper Survives
This is another road report on the state of local journalism, which is more and more important, and more and more imperiled.
It is important because so much of the future of American economic, cultural, and civic life is now being devised and determined at the local or state level. Educational innovation, promotion of new industries and creation of fairer opportunities, absorption of new arrivals (in growing communities) and retaining existing talent (in shrinking ones), reform of policing and prison practices, equitable housing and transportation policies, offsets to addiction and homelessness and other widespread problems, environmental sustainability—these and just about every other issue you can think of are the subjects of countless simultaneous experiments going on across the country.
The Gift of a Public Library
Andrew Carnegie was the force of Gilded Age philanthropy behind the building of public libraries. Along with other recognizable names who made their fortune in the late 1800s and early 1900s—Rockefeller, Ford, Mellon, Morgan, Stanford, Harriman, Heinz—Carnegie’s influence endures today largely because of the way he gave away the vast fortune he amassed.
Flying Down East
We were flying away from Washington D.C. again, leaving the Sturm und Drang of our hometown in early August for a point nearly as far east on the U.S. map as one can get. It is “Down East,” in the vernacular of Maine, and the town of Eastport, where residents say the sun first rises over the United States, as does the moon, which gets far too little attention.
A New Way for Californians to Serve
Report for America Goes Big
This week there is genuinely positive news about one of the experiments I wrote about this past summer: the Report for America initiative, which sends experienced-but-still-rising reporters and editors to news outlets across the country, especially in small towns and rural areas hardest-hit by the pressures on local news.
Photos Can Trigger Change in a Town
In 2008, National Geographic photographer Jodi Cobb and photographer and former Second Lady, Tipper Gore, talked about the role of photography at the then Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. The evening was called “How Photos Can Change the World.” Eleven years later, their comments (as reported by David Schonauer in Popular Photography) remain relevant and powerful.
Kansas City, MO
Democrats Should Talk About Place-Based Policy
In Defense of The Commercial Appeal
On the Virtues of Statewide Journalism
In Memphis, a Lab Experiment for Local News
Today we go to Memphis, Tennessee. This is of course the metropolis of western Tennessee, with the state of Mississippi just across the border to the south, and Arkansas just across the Mississippi River to the west. Memphis is the second-largest city in Tennessee, after Nashville.
The Modern Women of Rural America
Recently, I hit the motherlode, where well over 200 women from rural America met in Greenville, South Carolina for an annual gathering of the Rural Assembly, a coalition of nationwide organizations that advocates for rural communities. This one was the first ever rural women’s summit.
The Gem City Moves Forward
Almost every trend affecting modern America is on display in Dayton. It was one of the earliest, and hardest-hit, centers of the opioid disaster. Its economy, plausibly known as America’s “invention capital” in the early 1900s, as the home of the Wright brothers and with the highest-number of patents per capita, has been hurt even more than other midwestern cities’ by the demise and departure of big firms.
The New Approach to Local Journalism
A River of Words in Pittsburgh
As we’ve traveled around the country with our American Futures and Our Towns projects since 2013, my husband, Jim, and I have evolved from being skeptics to evangelists about the impact of public arts on communities. We have seen how towns’ self-image, their presentation to visitors, their marking of history or current experience, their civic engagement and quality of everyday life and interactions of residents can all be changed by the public arts.
‘We’re Doing It for Love of Community’
Do local public-radio stations play an important role? In big cities, from Boston and Washington to San Francisco and L.A.? In small towns, like those across Mississippi or Alaska or Maine? Do they matter in the South as well as the North? In inland states as well as those on the coast?
All the evidence I’m aware of, anecdotal and statistical, suggests that in every one of these places, the answer is a clear and obvious yes. Public radio matters; it matters all the more in remote and rural areas farther from other news outlets; and it is seen as mattering in a way that transcends normal regional or political dividing lines.
Rebuilding After Incarceration
More than 2 million Americans are in the country’s prisons and jails now, giving the United States both the largest number of prisoners and the highest per-capita incarceration rate in the world. For the U.S., the rate is well over 700 prisoners for each 100,000 of population. According to a recent BBC report, the only close contender is Russia, with an imprisonment rate of over 600 per 100,000 population. Most other developed countries are far behind—or ahead, in social-welfare terms. The rate for England and Wales, for instance, is under 150 prisoners per 100,000 population. Mexico’s rate is about 200 per 100,000. China, with a national population four times larger than America’s, has fewer total prisoners (at least according to official reports).
How Art Can Renew a Community
Building Your Future in Indiana
A Big Little Idea From Nashville
‘Lessons From Danville’
Three Big Lessons From One Small Town
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.
A Regional Approach to Rural Health Challenges
We began the first morning of our recent visit to Danville, Virginia, at an early-bird breakfast with the Rotary Club, where my husband, Jim, and I heard several personal hopes, celebrations, and notes of gratitude from its members, as they pitched bills into the Happy Dollars bucket. One Happy Dollar for good wishes to a son about to deploy with the military; another for a granddaughter, a rainbow baby (Google that), who had made it to her first birthday; two for the boys whom the mom had hauled out of bed to come to the breakfast on their first day of summer vacation.
How Danville Has Avoided Omaha’s Mistake
Two previous reports, first here and then here, described the bittersweet heritage of old tobacco and textile buildings in the former mill town of Danville, Virginia.
The bitter was obviously the loss of what had been the city’s economic mainstays. The potentially sweet was that Danville never got around to demolishing the old structures—and now is beginning to turn them to new use.
The Reinvention of Danville’s Downtown: Part 1
Factory towns face problems when the factories shut down. Everyone has heard versions of that story—involving steel and auto plants in the Midwest, sawmills in the Northwest, coal mines in Appalachia or copper mines in the Southwest, other facilities in other towns.
On a recent visit to Southside Virginia—the part of the state bordering North Carolina, and far from the tech-and-government-driven boom of the D.C. suburbs in northern Virginia and the military-based economy of Norfolk and the Tidewater—we were reminded of the problems cities had even when those factories were up and running. We also learned about the way they are trying to apply the mixed blessings of a lost manufacturing heritage as they figure out their next act.
A Community Within a Community
During our years of reporting for Our Towns, I’ve visited YMCAs all across the country. My quest began as a way to keep fit while traveling. I bought day passes to swim in Burlington, Vermont; Columbus, Mississippi; Redlands, California; Allentown, Pennsylvania; Duluth, Minnesota; and Wichita, Kansas.
If I couldn’t find a Y, I would swim at a local public pool, like in Holland, Michigan; Greenville, South Carolina; Dodge City, Kansas; Winters, California; and Bend, Oregon. As a last resort, I turned to nature, jumping into the Snake River in Clarkston, Washington; Lake Champlain in Vermont; Lake Erie in Erie, Pennsylvania; Lake Michigan in Holland, Michigan; the freezing Atlantic in Portland, Maine; and the also-freezing Pacific along the West Coast.
Recently I added another venue to my list: the YMCA of Danville, in the so-called Southside of Virginia, bordering North Carolina.
There’s Hope for Local Journalism
Everyone knows that local newspapers are in trouble. That’s why Deb Fallows and I have been chronicling examples of smaller papers that have bucked the economic trend—in Mississippi, in coastal Maine, in rural communities across the country.
But what “everyone knows” about the main source of the problem may be wrong—or misleading enough to divert attention away from a possible solution.
The Library That’s Also an Art Gallery
When it came to planning the new public library for downtown Winston-Salem, the people of the city had a lot to say, from the visionary to the practical. The library should “make an important statement” and “be a place for the public to be together,” Nan La Rosee, the central operations manager of the Forsyth County Public Library, told me during a recent visit.
Traverse City, MI
The Power of a Community College
The Choices Facing Community Colleges
A Public Library of, by, and for the People
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.”
‘A River, Not a Border’: Report From Brownsville
Sioux Falls, SD
How a City Talks About Itself: Sioux Falls
Sioux Falls Is Ready for Tom Hanks
When Small Towns Take the Big Stage
The longer and farther that Jim and I have traveled with our American Futures project, and then with Our Towns the book, and now for The Atlantic’s 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?
West Point, MS
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.
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
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.
A Mississippi School Striving for Excellence
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.
What Happens to Abandoned Malls?
Fort Wayne Makes Its Own Luck
‘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.