In 2012, James and Deborah Fallows embarked on a journey in their single-engine Cirrus SR22 to explore American life on roads less traveled. Over five years and 100,000 miles later, the husband-and-wife team had flown to dozens of towns and cities across the country, listening to residents beaming with civic pride and witnessing firsthand evidence of economic reinvention. Their journey evolved into Our Towns: A 100,000 Mile Journey Into the Heart of America, a book that examines everything that’s going right in the country.
Exploring places that, on their surface, seem to have more differences than commonalities — Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Eastport, Maine; Allentown, Pennsylvania; and San Bernardino, California, are just a few — the Fallows unearth stories of resilience and creative pursuit.
These towns and cities are not places that pop up on many travel itineraries — which is why they are so often overlooked, James Fallows, a longtime national correspondent for The Atlantic, told NationSwell during a recent conversation. It doesn’t help that the opioid crisis looms large in many economically depressed areas, overwhelming any positive news that might otherwise register on a national scale. But many of these places are not just surviving; they’re thriving, say the Fallowses. While the national narrative has tilted toward chaos over the past few years, Our Towns can be read as a kind of corrective to the pessimism that currently pervades much of American society.
“I think it’s an actual struggle for the future of the country, between everything that is poisonous at the national level and everything that is potentially renewed and healthy at the local level,” James Fallows says. “And we think it matters to have these people who are doing ambitious things locally be known about, and be connected with one another too.”
NationSwell: Why did you choose the places you visited? And why not a city like Detroit, which has become something of a poster child for urban renewal?
James Fallows: So Detroit obviously has been on our mind because it’s such a classic case. There has been a fair amount of attention on the Detroit story, and we were looking generally for smaller places. And I say “smaller” rather than “small” partly because we went to a few biggish places like Columbus, Ohio, which is huge, and Pittsburgh, which is significant. But mainly the criteria was, places that weren’t getting much normal media attention, where they’d only be covered if there were some kind of disaster or a political race.
We were also looking for [places where] there was some kind of challenge and response; where there was something that was illustrative one way or the other about how the city was doing. We went to different parts of the country and different sizes of cities and saw different racial mixes and different degrees of economic recovery. This wasn’t meant to be scientific in any way, but I feel as if in the end it became representative.
NationSwell: Was it pretty easy to get people to talk to you? Did you encounter any suspicion about what you were doing?
Fallows: Even though I’ve worked for The Atlantic forever, both Deb and I think of ourselves as being small-town people. Many places were sort of similar to where we thought of ourselves as being from, so I think it wasn’t, “We are here from the big city to examine you as specimens.” Rather it was, “Hmm, this looks familiar. Tell us how it works.”
Also, we were not going there saying, “Why did you vote for Trump? What do you think about Obama? Are you a racist?” It was essentially, “What’s happening here? Are the kids moving in, or are they moving out? How does this school work? Is this business going to fly?” We never ask people about national politics, mainly because our experience was once you do, the results are never interesting. It’s going to be just like turning on the TV.
NationSwell: True. You don’t pass judgment on anything you learn, either, even when it’s kind of jarring, like when you talk about the giant pig slaughterhouse in Sioux Falls, or shipping pregnant cows to Turkey from Eastport. Is it ever hard to be neutral?
Fallows: For anybody who eats meat, it’s part of what things are. I am not a vegetarian and so therefore implicitly I endorse the existence of slaughterhouses. It’s been this really central, but also changing, part of the fabric of Sioux Falls. That’s where the Eastern European immigrants worked a hundred years ago, and then it had a sort of good job, union wage, and now it’s where all these Muslim immigrants are killing pigs. It really is surreal.
NationSwell: Something that crops up in several places in the book is the idea of public-private partnerships being central to a city’s economic development. Why do you think such partnerships are important?
Fallows: I think for anybody in D.C., if you hear that phrase, “public-private partnership,” you instantly think BS, because you think it’s just sort of a log-rolling or pork-barreling provision of some appropriations bill. I always thought of it as epitomizing the bad parts of combined corporate and public power.
But in many places [we visited], people could point to something specific and say, “This bridge, this library, this auditorium, this garden, this river walk was the result of a public-private partnership.” And I think that the simplest illustration is this thing in Greenville, South Carolina, the A.J. Whittenberg Elementary School of Engineering, a public school where engineers from BMW and GE are teaching these little kids from the poorest parts of town how to become engineers, and it wouldn’t work if both the public and the private weren’t engaged there. So I think my reflexive cynicism about it was incorrect.
NationSwell: You end the book on a chapter you call “10½ Signs of Civic Success.” Can you touch on your most important findings?
Fallows: The secret of U.S. vitality over the centuries has been [that] it’s always stronger when it makes itself more open and always weaker when it fails to do that. [Thriving towns] make themselves open, and by open I mean to immigration, to people at different stations in life, of allowing people to reinvent themselves, etc. To me, that is the idea of America, and it’s at its best when it does that and worst when it doesn’t. So that’s another way in which something is bad at the national level [but] now seems to be the opposite at the civic level.
Another component here is, I think, practical educational innovation. Not every place can have a big research university. That’s something you have or you don’t. But places that are innovating with community colleges and creative schools, K-12 schools, those are important to connect people with new opportunities, and that was surprising because [we found them] in the South, largely. Engagement and also innovation [like with libraries] — you think libraries would be doomed like the corner newsstand. The corner newsstand is in fact doomed, but libraries, even though they were created around physical books, in many places seem to be reinventing themselves. And then, of course, we have the brew pubs, sort of a show of hands for entrepreneurial arts community.
There’s a line in the book from a guy who said, “If you want to consume a great community, you move to Paris or Brooklyn. You want to create a great community, you move to some little podunk place and you’re part of creating it.” People decide that a certain place matters to them. They’re not just passing through there and just looking for a great restaurant and thinking of where they’re going to go next, but how this place will be in the future, both 10 years from now and when their children are deciding where to live.