The solutions to America’s biggest problems can be found in its smallest communities, according to James and Deborah Fallows.
The Fallowses returned to Chautauqua for the third time Tuesday to discuss highlights of their ongoing project for The Atlantic titled “City Makers: American Futures.” The duo has spent the last two years crisscrossing the country in a single-engine, propeller plane to investigate how small and mid-size cities are forging livable communities in the aftermath of the Great Recession.
What they both found is a landscape of audacious, pragmatic communities banding together to forge an American future in opposition to the negativity emanating from what James called an “insurmountable coastal centrism.” The headlines might shout doom and despair, he said, but the actions of individuals at the local level say otherwise.
“News media often portray the country as if we’re all objects of these big historic forces,” he said. “But the country is made of people who don’t think of themselves as objects. They think of themselves as taking creative control of what they’re doing.”
This statement comes from two members of that media. James has served as national correspondent for The Atlantic since the late 1970s, and Deborah is a contributing writer. A former speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter, James is the author of 10 books. Deborah holds a Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of Texas at Austin, and is the author of Dreaming in Chinese: Mandarin Lessons in Life, Love and Language.
Living and working abroad for years, the Fallowses spent time covering China amid its rise to global prominence. Along the way, they said, they discovered that China’s meteoric rise was not always positive. Upon returning to America, however, they were immersed in a narrative of decline that applied the malaise of American business and politics uniformly across the nation. The genesis of “American Futures” was to investigate the truth of that narrative.
But deciding which cities to visit proved difficult. James and Deborah, who both came of age in small towns, looked to their pasts for ideas. James additionally put out a cattle call for destinations on his blog, which received more than 1,000 detailed and passionate responses from citizens looking to share their community’s story.
The duo then narrowed the list based on research, ultimately hopping from place to place by plane. Each weeklong visit involved stops at the local newspaper, mayor’s office, chamber of commerce, places of worship, schools and various other civic institutions. Often, the couple would return for additional visits.
Dozens of cities later, the Fallowses purport a tremendous consistency to what works across geography and culture. James offered Burlington, Vermont, and Greenville, South Carolina, as examples where, despite opposite political and regional distinctions, livable communities exist.
At the highest level, the Fallowses said success stories are punctuated by ambitious citizens steeped in local pride. These “local patriots” get involved with forging earnest public-private partnerships and work to pool civic resources in targeted ways, James said. Things might not be perfect in these communities, but James said local patriots are personally invested in working toward improvement. This infectious spirit is part of what James found attracts newcomers, particularly young people, to be part of something new and exciting.
“If you want to consume a great urban environment, if you want to consume a livable city, you will move to San Francisco or to Brooklyn or to stylish areas of any other big city,” James said. “If you want to create that, you will come to Fresno.”
Another trait of successful communities is a willingness for politicians to work together and solve problems effectively. The “poison of national politics” has yet to sour local government, James said.
“The traits you would like to think characterize America at its best — being practical minded and no-nonsense and nonideological and being fair-minded — we have found those in the civic governance of many of these places,” he said.
Dividing the reporting evenly, James focused on political and economic aspects, while Deborah covered education, libraries and arts in each community. Deborah said she is particularly impressed with the ways cities are educating their youth for the future.
In Greenville Deborah discovered A.J. Whittenberg Elementary School of Engineering, where even the youngest students are taught to think with an engineering mindset. Deborah recalled a particular example in which Whittenberg students combined a lesson on the physics of flight with a local production of Peter Pan in a way that uniquely integrated science and art.
“That kind of joint effort from the arts, from education, from the businesspeople in the town is a model of something we have seen in many of the other towns we have gone to,” Deborah said.
This nontraditional approach to education is something she discovered in public boarding schools and extensive vocational programs across the nation. In each situation, she observed innovative approaches intended to solving the idiosyncratic needs of the communities they serve.
James echoed Deborah’s sentiment, underscoring the benefits of strong educational institutions on a community. Research universities, with their influx of students, international talent and frequent business spinoffs are vital to stimulating local economies and workforces. But for cities not lucky enough to have a university, he said, community colleges, with their affordable job training and role as a stepping stone to further education, exist as invaluable and attainable institutions for any city.
“If there is going to be some connective mechanism which helps us offset the polarization and inequality of our era, it is the community college,” he said.
Yet, the most exciting commonality among successful communities, James said, is a shared commitment to thinking big. In Holland, Michigan, the local government collaborated with community leaders to devise a system to pipe waste heat from the coal-fired power plant to heat sidewalks and streets. Now, a community that endures more than 100 inches of snow annually proudly declares itself snow-free, supporting a revival of the troubled downtown.
Ideas like this, James said, are why the “American Futures” project has been so energizing and, he said, why he and Deborah will commit themselves to it for the foreseeable future. Two years ago, the couple set out to investigate whether the depressing headlines matched the reality in American cities. While that investigation is not yet complete, James said his impression remains decidedly optimistic.
“We ended up feeling much much better than we could have possibly imagined two years ago,” he said. “If you thought this was a country in the midst of reinvention and recovery, then you think the kinds of things we have found in South Dakota and Central Valley California and Mississippi fit that narrative, as opposed to the narrative of a country having lots of big problems.”