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

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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Issaquah, Washington

We Need More Veteran Entrepreneurs

Veteran-owned small businesses employ millions of people, contributing significantly to both local communities and the American economy. But starting a small business is always a challenge. Here’s how veterans can succeed.

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.

Houston, TX

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.

Wilmington, DE

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

Memphis, TN

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.

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Natchitoches, Louisiana

Bayou Without Borders

Louisiana Crawfish Company started out small 35 years ago. Now, this family business ships 2 million pounds of seafood all across the country. Here’s how they did it.

Greenville, SC

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.

Dayton, OH

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.

Ellenville, NY

Pittsburgh, PA

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.

Harvard, MA

‘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.

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Dallas, Texas

Indianapolis, IN

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).

Nashville, TN

Danville, VA

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.

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Solon, Ohio

Provincetown, MA

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.

Winston-Salem, NC

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.

Eastport, ME

‘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.

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Grand Island, Nebraska

Daniel Anderson: IT Support Specialist

When his fiancé got her first teaching job, Daniel Anderson left college and moved to Grand Island, Nebraska to be with her. Without a college degree, he struggled to find a job. Eventually, Central Community College hired him as a night security officer, but it was far from the career in technology he once envisioned.

Traverse City, MI

Brownsville, TX

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.”

Sioux Falls, SD

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Colorado Springs, Colorado

Ladyfingers Letterpress: Drawing from Experience

Arley-Rose Torsone and Morgan Calderini were tired of seeing greeting cards that reflected a narrow spectrum of relationships and identities. So after their wedding, the pair opened their own business, Ladyfingers Letterpress, and began making products that reflected their own experiences as LGBTQ+ authors, designers, and makers.

Chautauqua, NY

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?

New York, NY

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.

Fresno, CA

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).”

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.

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Madison, Wisconsin

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.

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Cleveland, Ohio

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.

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Birmingham, AL

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.

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Memphis, TN

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.

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Pikeville, KY

Our Towns