From the Atlantic to the Pacific, from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico and Mexican border, smaller towns across the United States are transforming themselves. “City makers” — individuals and organizations turning ideas into action — are creating more inclusive and viable futures.
At least that is the bird’s-eye and on-the-ground perspective of James and Deborah Fallows, who have been crisscrossing the country in their small plane for two years, setting down in cities for a week or two to interview, observe and often to return for another week.
Each has been chronicling their findings and impressions for The Atlantic, for which James has written since 1979. Deborah is a contributing writer.
Deborah is the author of Dreaming in Chinese: Mandarin Lessons in Life, Love and Language, while James is the author of 10 books. In addition to The Atlantic, their work has appeared in other major publications.
At 10:45 a.m. today in the Amphitheater, the Fallowses will share typical and memorable experiences they have had thus far as part of their ongoing, multi-year project for The Atlantic, “City Makers: American Futures.” This will be their third visit to Chautauqua.
During the first year of their “American Futures” journey, they focused on the Midwest, East Coast and South. For eight months of their second year, the Fallowses were based on the West Coast. They studied cities in the Southwest and California, and then the Pacific Northwest, from Oregon to Washington, Montana and Colorado.
“Going into the project, there were a couple of ideas that came together as a confluence,” James Fallows said.
They had just been living in China, where they had been purposefully getting out of the cities, he said. They also wanted to try this in the U.S. When they returned to America, it was in the trough of economic collapse.
The Fallowses wondered what they would see if they looked at political, economic and cultural developments from state to state. James said “a half-joking criteria” for choosing cities was whether people from fancy universities, and from cities such as New York and Seattle, would think of them as “the sticks.”
As it happens, both Fallowses were raised in small towns and attended Harvard University for undergraduate study. Deborah, who grew up in Ohio, also earned a Ph.D. in linguistics from Harvard. James grew up in California and went on to study economics at Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar.
Two years ago, the couple settled down in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and they noticed the interaction of economics and livable communities, James said.
“I think livability came as a surprise; discovering what a widespread, compelling change it was,” Deborah said.
One of their criterion for livability, James said, is a consciously willed downtown, including a public library and civic places for young people. Another is that the city serves as a compelling regional center.
James pilots their plane. After landing, they start out together, Deborah said.
“We round up the usual suspects — mayors, and chamber of commerce and local leaders. We meet with them and then we split up,” she said. “Jim will do politics, economics, new industry, and I do libraries, schools, public spaces, cultural change.”
The couple estimated that they’ve visited nearly 24 cities so far.
“There are four to five we’ve been to recently that we have still to write about,” James said. “There’s a positive vibe. We’ve noticed how similar they are without their being aware of it as a collective.”
Everywhere, they’ve seen “the old power elite wanting the same things and working with the younger ones,” Deborah said.
Just as they are seeing the younger and older groups working together, they are seeing Democrats and Republicans working together without regard for party affiliation, she said.
“The good news, which my wife and I have been surprised by as we’ve traveled in smaller-town America these past few months, is that once you look away from the national level, the American style of government can seem practical-minded, nonideological, future-oriented and capable of compromise,” James wrote in the March 2014 Atlantic. “These are of course the very traits we seem to have lost in our national politics.”
In particular, James identified two Eastern cities that are “superficially different” yet have “surprising points of resonance” — Greenville, South Carolina, and Burlington, Vermont. Republican nominee Mitt Romney carried Greenville in the 2012 presidential election, and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., served as mayor of Burlington for four consecutive terms in the 1980s.
“If you didn’t know this, you would think it’s the same place,” James said.
In other words, in spite the polarization and paralysis of U.S. politics as a whole, in the “sticks” as well as in big cities, people are feeling that they can be part of something exciting and have an effect.
“One of the biggest surprises was that I kept waiting for Washington to come up, and it never, never came up,” Deborah said. “People are too busy making change.”
People “are taking things into their own hands,” she said.
Here, the Fallows were not only referring to new and renovated civic structures that are one of the means by which cities have been creating community and lifting their economies out of the troughs caused by the national and global financial crisis. They have also been finding that the racial and immigration-related polarization occurring in national politics is not necessarily reflected locally.
It is amazing how cities in Mississippi and elsewhere are finding local ways of dealing with the racial and immigration divide, James said. For instance, the pair spent a lot of time in Fresno, California, where “there’s a positive ethnic and racial future for the U.S.”
“The way we think of America is as a positive and open country to all,” she said. “We ran into many small towns embracing immigrants and making them players in running the town. It’s not been easy, but it’s a mindset.”
Across America the outlook is not all rosy. To date, the Fallowses have landed in a few cities that are failing. On May 18, for instance, James posted an article on the digital version of The Atlantic about San Bernardino, California, with the title, “Today a Bankrupt City Votes on Its Next Steps.”
“They don’t have the levers,” he said.
“We are finding places that don’t work,” Deborah said. “But even there, we find people wanting to do what works in places that are really chugging along.”
This year, they will not be spending seven or eight months on the road, as they have during the first two years of the American Futures Project, James said. They will, however, continue to write about their experiences.
“We have been East to West, North to South, Deborah said. “There are places we still want to go to and things we missed, such as a type of town. We are at a transition point, where we are starting to understand more and more what we’re doing.”
Like their visits in China and Japan, the Fallowses have found that everything is so vivid it’s been easy for them to bring it all back afterwards.
“We didn’t know what to expect, and it’s been so much better,” Deborah said. “We’ve learned so much.”