ast year, Amazon launched its search for a second headquarters. The company was looking not only for a large, skilled labor pool, but also space to expand and a high quality of life—including easy commutes, reasonable housing costs, and cultural amenities. This meant you could forget about Boston, New York, Washington, and San Francisco. Think instead of Charlotte and Indianapolis and Denver. Indeed, as the biggest metropolitan areas have become more expensive and crowded, many companies have begun moving to Middle America.
In Our Towns, Atlantic correspondent James Fallows and his wife, Deborah, usefully analyze the successes of non-coastal American life. And they offer a hopeful message for the country about the possibilities of regeneration.
On beginning the book, one worries that it will be another attempt to explain Donald Trump’s election by understanding the feelings of Middle America. As James Fallows writes in the introduction (the book is divided into some parts written by him and some by her), “many Americans feel even angrier about the country’s challenges than they should, and more fatalistic about the prospects of dealing with them.” And when we learn that the couple flew around the country in their private airplane in order to gather material, our suspicion is heightened even more. The Fallows go to great lengths to make the case that flying was merely practical and that the “sedan”-sized plane allowed them to touch down in some remote places. They also note their penchant for vending-machine food and low-cost motels as a way of offsetting the impression made by their mode of transportation.
Whether one is convinced by all this is somewhat beside the point, because Our Towns turns into something much better than an account of Washington insiders who dare to make contact with flyover country. It actually offers an explanation of what makes cities thrive—both the policies and the culture—and why people (and businesses) move to them. And the upbeat tone of the book comes as a welcome surprise given that its authors are card-carrying members of the mainstream media. “Despite the economic crises of the preceding decade and the social tensions of which every American is aware, most parts of the United States that we visited have been doing better, in most ways, than most Americans realize,” James Fallows writes.
Take Greenville, South Carolina, one of the first stops on the tour. Though NAFTA didn’t cause the decline of textile manufacturing in South Carolina, free trade probably didn’t help at first. The state lost 50,000 jobs in that industry alone after NAFTA went into effect, but Greenville managed to stay afloat and even flourish. It didn’t hurt that the state had low wages and a right-to-work law that attracted a number of businesses to the area. On finding out that his Houston company was transferring him, one executive said, “Greenville? Are you kidding?” This has since become a lighthearted mantra among locals. As the authors write, it’s as if the residents are saying, “People think we’re hicks, but we know we’ve developed something great.” The city has beautiful parks and riverfront walking trails, schools that teach kids high-tech skills, and strong support for arts and culture.
In writing about Greenville, other authors might have been tempted to fashion an overwrought tale about the old racist policies at Bob Jones University and how the city had to overcome its bigoted past to attract educated, cosmopolitan young people. But the Fallows didn’t fall for it.
Which is not to say that the authors ignore racial tensions in other locales. In Duluth, Minnesota, they visited a memorial to three black men who were lynched by a mob in 1920. The memorial didn’t open until 2013, and the names of the accusers weren’t even made public until 2000. But today, the Fallows find mostly reconciliation. There is a well-attended vigil held on the anniversary of the lynching and a scholarship fund set up in the name of the victims. “From what we saw during our visit,” writes Deborah Fallows, “the memorial achieved the goal that the people of Duluth sought, which was to create a respectful artistic place where the public could think about, talk about, and come to terms with the events that had happened.”
In Dodge City, Kansas, the demographic makeup of the population has shifted dramatically in recent years. The schools were about 20 percent Hispanic in the 1980s. Today, they’re at almost 80 percent Hispanic. The Fallows find that the schools have plenty of problems, captured by the array of social services they offer: “Counseling for students who are pregnant, who are already moms, who have incarcerated parents; resources for everything from suicide prevention to intervention in self-cutting and alcohol abuse. There were also reminders that drug-sniffing dogs would occasionally be present.” But racism doesn’t seem to be a particularly pressing issue. When they visit the school, the authors see kids of different races interacting naturally with one another.
In fact, the people of Dodge City seem to embrace new migrants enthusiastically. The Fallows quote an “Anglo former meatpacking employee…who summed up what we had hear from others”: “[The]reality here in southwest Kansas is that we are heavily influenced by the Hispanic culture, and not just economically…. They are part of the fabric of our community. If they decided to pack up and leave, Dodge City would be a ghost town. And we realize that the future success of the Hispanic community predicts the future success of our community as a whole.”
The authors offer a number of characteristics that these successful cities have in common, and their ability to assimilate newcomers is an important one. “The anti-immigrant passion that inflamed the 2016 election cycle was not something people volunteered as a threat or a problem in most of the cities we saw. On the contrary, politicians, educators, businesspeople, students, and retirees frequently stressed the ways their communities were trying to attract and include new people.”
And immigration policy wasn’t the only hot-button issue that the residents of these towns were uninterested in discussing. Gay marriage was also low on the agenda. “Overwhelmingly, the focus in successful towns was not on insoluble national divisions but on practical problems a community could address. The more often national politics came into local discussions, the worse shape the town was likely to be in.”
While the authors occasionally present an overly optimistic picture of places that are still struggling, such as Fresno or Columbus, Mississippi, they are reasonably skeptical about some of the grand plans they’re told about. One of the characteristics of a successful town, they find, is that “the phrase ‘public-private partnership’ refers to something real.” The Fallows note correctly that the slogan is often “a euphemism for sweetheart deals between big government and big business.” But in these towns it more often means that engineers from local companies are sent to teach math and science classes at the local high school.
The authors talk about the importance of community colleges, specialized high schools, vibrant downtowns, and other factors in the success of these communities. But they make at least one truly original observation: The presence of craft breweries is a robust sign of a town’s comeback. There’s an interesting logic here. A town with a craft brewery “has a certain kind of entrepreneur, and a critical mass of mainly young…customers.” Whether any of this can be shaped into a formula for success is an open question.
The book is longer than it needs to be, but it contains plenty of the kind of local reporting that has been missing from our national media. Not only have many local newspapers closed but the media that remain have become far too focused on national controversies when, as it turns out, those are not the things that affect most people’s day-to-day lives. There are almost no quotes in the book from Twitter or other forms of social media. Instead, we find face-to-face interviews with real people who have a stake in decisions that can mean the difference between whether a town thrives or fades away.
Much of the media could take an important lesson from the Fallows here. That Our Towns doesn’t contain any hysteria about Donald Trump, race relations, class warfare, or our general “decline” is refreshing. Maybe they can squeeze a few more reporters into the plane next time.