James Fallows is a writer for the magazine The Atlantic Monthly. He and his wife Deborah undertook a fascinating project: they spent the better part of five years in a small propeller plane traveling from town to town across the U.S. They spent days or weeks in dozens of towns ranging in size from Eastport, Maine (population 1267), to Columbus, Ohio. Most of the towns they visited had faced challenges, decline or crisis, but had successfully reinvented themselves through a combination of public policy and private initiative.
The story and lessons from their estimated 100,000 miles of travel are captured in their recent book, “Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America” that I recently read. The book had some important lessons for any jurisdiction that is contemplating its economic future; I would highly recommend it to those interested in economic development in Shenandoah County.
In writing the book, the Fallows alternate chapters with James telling the political and economic stories of resurgence in both small and large towns, and with Deborah (a Ph.D. linguist) sharing cultural and linguistic observations. For those interested in building a successful local economy, James’ chapters are far more relevant; but Deborah’s are fascinating as well.
In telling these tales of economic resurgence, James notes certain common threads among the successful towns – certain lessons and characteristics that seem to appear again and again. Some of them are:
Local patriotism. I love this term – it describes citizens whose love for their communities, and belief in those communities’ potential compel them to take the initiative in trying to develop those communities.
The absence of partisan politics. The Fallows visited places as liberal as Burlington, Vermont, and as conservative as Greenville, South Carolina, and everything in between. Every success story tells the story of bi-partisanship, or the lack of any partisanship at all in building strong communities. Deep blue San Bernardino had to take on toxic public employee unions; deep red Dodge City passed a sales tax increase to fund infrastructure.
People who “make things go.” In each town, the Fallows asked people “who makes things go around here?” Sometimes it was local politicians; sometimes it was business leaders, and sometimes it was non-profit leaders. The success stories were not organic. People – “local patriots” – made them happen.
The importance of a community’s perspective on itself. The book notes directly that the stories communities tell themselves about themselves are very important to those communities’ prospects of success, even when those stories are not 100 percent true. Optimism or pessimism on the part of a community about that community’s prospects tend to become self-fulfilling prophecies. A sense of community, history and shared destiny was present in every success story.
Patience is a virtue: while planting the seeds of local vitality might play out over months or a small number of years, those seeds bear fruit over a longer time, sometimes 10-20 years.
The importance of public-private partnerships. In each of the local success stories, there is a role for private companies and individuals and a role for local governments (as well as many nonprofits). But in most communities, these different interests cooperated, whether it was a sidewalk-heating system in Holland, Michigan, an industrial mega-site in Columbus, Mississippi, or a sports and entertainment complex in Allentown, Pennsylvania.
Schools matter. The book notes that communities on the rise prioritize and invest in education, but they particularly prioritize “innovative and distinctive” schools.
Particularly poignant to me – unlike other national journalists, the Fallows’ did not engage the locals with loaded questions about national topics. Instead, they asked people, “what is on your mind?” The answers they got were about local schools, local developments and local economics. They said that the more people wanted to talk about national politics, the more likely their towns were in decline. Towns on the rise had better things to talk about.
Perhaps the most appealing aspect of the book is something just below the surface that the reader finds out over time. At its heart, the Fallows’ account is a love-letter to America, but without any of the self-consciousness and sentimentality that plague most other such efforts. They paint an optimistic and affectionate portrait of America where this country really exists – in the hopes and efforts of millions of people in thousands of communities, trying to make their little corner of the world a better place. We can all learn from this.
Dan Walsh lives in Edinburg with his wife and daughters.