Civic grit

Reasons to be hopeful about America’s future, from unlikely places off the beaten path

BOOK REVIEW — Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America, by James Fallows and Deborah Fallows (Pantheon Books, 413 pages)

PEOPLE WHO LIVE in cosmopolitan Boston and only venture beyond the metropolis to visit the Cape in summer or ski in the north in winter might assume that nothing much of interest happens in places like Worcester, Pittsfield, or New Bedford. The husband and wife team of James and Deborah Fallows have written a book telling them what they are missing.

“In early 2013, I placed a short item on The Atlantic’s web site asking for advice from readers about cities of a certain type,” recalled Jim, who has written for the magazine since the 1970s. “We wanted to hear about cities whose recent dramas might reveal something about the economic and cultural resilience of the United States.”

“I asked about cities that had suffered some kind of economic, political, environmental, or other hardship during the financial crash or earlier, and whose response was instructive in either good or bad ways. I said we were looking for smaller cities, by which I really meant anything less famous than the big stylish centers of the East and West Coasts.”

“I also said that we definitely were not looking for the merely quaint… or undiscovered gems or entries on a list of ideal low-budget retirement sites. Rather we hoped to treat seriously parts of flyover territory that usually made the news only after a natural or man-made disaster, or as primary-campaign or swing-state locations during presidential-election years.”

Out of that crowd-sourcing appeal came a three-year road trip to dozens of locations, where the couple stayed for days at a time to soak in the local scene. Early in the trip they were joined by Jim’s brother-in-law, John Tierney, a former Boston College political science professor who is married to Susan Fallows Tierney, who was Massachusetts secretary of environmental affairs under former governor William Weld. Their journey was featured along the way on The Atlantic’s website, on National Public Radio’s “Marketplace,” the PBS News Hour, and the website americanfutures.org, which remains a trove of their original, narrow-angle-lens dispatches.  Their book, Our Towns, is the latest product of that reporting.

James Fallows and the president from Plains: Click here to read how Jimmy Carter, whom Fallows once famously savaged, also inspired him with his small-town values.

“There is a high-toned tradition of road trips as a means of discovering America, from Lewis and Clark and Tocqueville through John Dos Passos, John Steinbeck, and William Least Heat Moon,” writes Jim. Rather than go by car, however, they made the trip in a four seat, single-engine propeller Cirrus SR22, the better to reach small cities in out of the way locations.

James Fallows and Deborah Fallows

The cross-country trip Jim and Deborah Fallows embarked on did not include any Massachusetts Gateway Cities, but the several dozen places they visited have a lot in common with the Bay State communities that are trying to reinvent themselves in a 21st century economy that has not generally been kind to such places.

In the knowledge economy, talent flows from places with limited opportunities to coastal magnets with leading research universities. Traveling in the opposite direction, the authors found “nearly everywhere we went we were surprised by evidence of a different flow: of people with first-rate talents and ambitions who decided that someplace other than the biggest cities offered the best overall opportunities.”

Our Towns features nearly 30 small cities, underdogs such as Eastport, Maine; Erie, Pennsylvania; and Jim’s hometown of Redlands and nearby San Bernadino, in California’s Inland Empire, a world away from coastal affluence. Each city featured has its own story, but all exhibit “a process of revival and reinvention that has largely if understandably been overlooked” in negative media narratives about the hollowing out of America, the disappearance of manufacturing jobs and the death of the middle class.

Prior to this project, the authors used the same inductive field research to report on China, drawing conclusions only after observing patterns on the ground with open eyes. For example, in the US, they were surprised by how much Greenville, South Carolina — a city of 68,000 in the Carolina backcountry of Appalachia that is home to ultra conservative Bob Jones University — reminded them of Burlington, Vermont, the crunchy home of the University of Vermont and transplants from Brooklyn Bernie Sanders and Ben & Jerry.

Greenville lost of tens of thousands of textile jobs after NAFTA’s ratification in 1994 and China’s admission to the World Trade Organization in 2001. Today, the formerly gritty mill city is reborn, thanks to sustained state government efforts to attract advanced manufacturing drawn to Greenville’s skilled (but non-union) labor and a roll-up-your-sleeves work ethic left over from the mills. In 2005, the city lured the Boston Red Sox Class A minor league affiliate.

Greenville and Burlington both have vibrant and appealing historic downtowns that are case studies in urban revitalization. Behind the surface appearances, the authors found each municipality governed by pragmatic rather than ideological leaders. The economies of both places benefit from strong public-private collaboration and business leadership in agreement with an easily articulated local vision of what the place can be.

The cities featured in Our Towns share many of these positive traits, a do or die spirit, pride of place and civic grit. Local dealmakers who are featured, people with the most connections and biggest family fortunes, are driven less by greed than by duty to their hometowns. By contrast, the authors found that communities where resentful leaders blame others and complain the loudest about politics in Washington were the places farthest behind.

Another surprise to the authors: immigration in the places they visited was not a bogeyman to be exploited for political gain but an economic necessity to be embraced and welcomed, whether in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, or in Dodge City, Kansas, both deep in the heart of red state country.

Among other indicators of civic health the authors observed was the presence of one or more innovative schools, such as the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science, a public, statewide, two-year boarding school in Columbus, population 23,640. Less important than what form these schools take (i.e., charter, merit-based, or technical curriculum, etc.) is what they represent — local openness to experiment and make things work.

Strong community colleges are also vital institutions in strong local economies. “Not every city can have a research university. Any ambitious one can have a community college… offering a connection to high-wage technical jobs for people who might otherwise be left with no job or one at minimum wage.”

In Our Towns, transit and affordable housing don’t rank as top local priorities as often as they do in Boston. In these cities, housing is more affordable and free parking is plentiful. Instead of trying to cram yet more housing units into Boston’s clogged neighborhoods and overburdened transit infrastructure, an alternative approach to growth in Massachusetts would look to steer new jobs and migrants to Gateway Cities that offer more affordable options for young people and immigrants making their start as new households.

Meet the Author

“If you want to consume a fabulous community, you could move to some place like Brooklyn,” one coastal refugee in Texas told the authors. “If you want to create a great community, you move someplace that needs your help.”

Carter Wilkie was an advisor to Boston Mayor Thomas Menino and is co-author of Changing Places: Rebuilding Community in the Age of Sprawl.