Words

Our Towns

Discovering the heart of America

Get It

What: Our Towns: A 100,000-mile Journey into the Heart of America” by James and Deborah Fallows

Where: Pantheon Books

Info: http://www.ourtownsbook.com

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

The title of James and Deborah Fallows’ new book, Our Towns: A 100,000-mile Journey into the Heart of America, recalls Thornton Wilder’s play, Our Town. But where Wilder displays a feeling of despair lingering in America’s small towns, the Fallows find a spirit of satisfaction, if not outright pride, by their residents.

The Fallowses do not pretend to update Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. There is no search for how a community’s ethos sustains our democracy—rather they talk about the rebirth of towns in the face of declining jobs, vanishing businesses and shrinking populations.

Over the span of five years, they fly their single-engine prop airplane to dozens of cities. Although the towns range in size—from East Port, Maine, with a population of 1,400, to Columbus, Ohio, America’s 15th-largest city—they mainly visit smaller and middle-sized cities that are not satellites of larger metropolitan areas.

Soon after their arrival, they would ask, “Who makes this town go?” As one might expect, often they end up talking to the civic leaders, most of whom are businessmen, wealthy benefactors and politicians. On occasion they speak to a worker, although never a union leader. In fact, the few times that unions are mentioned they are seen as obstructing efforts to improve their town.

In summarizing their observations at the end of the book, the Fallowses list a number of signs for civic success. Some are obvious, such as being next to a research facility, which attracts high-income-earning workers and a steady flow of government funding. The other standout indication is developing an attractive downtown that sustains small businesses and draws in regional shoppers.

One controversial sign they found was a reliance on public-private partnerships to attract new businesses, rebuild old downtowns and educate students who might otherwise be ignored. James Fallows admits he was unfamiliar with the concept, thinking it was a euphemism for sweetheart deals between big government and big business.

He is mute on that relationship in the examples he cites, the one exception being the experience of Allentown, Pennsylvania, which didn’t end well for the half-dozen public officials who pleaded guilty, or their mayor, who was indicted for taking payoffs in exchange for construction contracts.

Apparently, the voters didn’t mind some corruption if they experienced economic growth. More than $1 billion had been committed to their downtown over five years, after adopting a unique new tax scheme designating a multi-block downtown area, in which all state and city taxes generated by the new private development would go to retire bonds to cover construction costs. After being indicted, the mayor was re-elected to a fourth term. (No word from the authors about whether he was found guilty.)

An unexpected sign, one with a liberal approach, is having an open and welcoming culture to all ethnic groups, particularly for immigrants and refugees. Cities as diverse as Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and Burlington, Vermont, have been resettlement cities for refugees for decades. The civic leaders in those two cities believed they benefited from the refugees. The Fallowses found other cities shared that belief with regard to their dramatic increase in ethnic minorities, even at times outnumbering the host white population. A business manager in Dodge City, Kansas, whose school-age population is more than 70 percent nonwhite, said, “People here… recognize that we’re in this together. The immigrants are the engine that keeps this community alive.”

Overall, the Fallowses discovered that while national politics are divisive, successful communities ignore those divisions and focus on getting things done. They point to Michael Coleman in Columbus, Ohio, and Ashley Swerengin in Fresno, California—where a Democrat and Republican were elected and stayed in office, despite their respective communities being strongholds of the opposite party. They remained popular because they avoided rhetoric and focused on concrete solutions. It’s not a bad message to hear these days.

Nick Licata is a former Seattle City Council member and author of Becoming a Citizen Activist. Contact him at http://www.becomingacitizenactivist.org. A version of this article appeared in the Seattle Times

FCC Advent
More Words...
Booksellers' Best
The gift of words

Last December, I bought books for everyone on my gift list—whether they were avid readers or not. This required a bit of sleuthing. What exactly were my 20-year-old twin nephews in Missouri interested in these days? I discovered terrific books and, best of all, learned more about the…

more »
Season's Readings
A list for book lovers

The leaves have fallen, the hours of daylight grow shorter and there is a cold snap in the air reminding us that year’s end is nigh, and with it, holiday shopping!

Delight the book-lover in your life with these recent releases in adult nonfiction that explore how objects, books and…

more »
The 57 Bus
Race, class and the justice system

At Whatcom County Library System (WCLS), we believe that the act of reading offers readers a window into other people’s lives, and that reading develops empathy.

We host more than a dozen book discussion groups for the public each month at libraries across Whatcom County (see Events at

more »
Events
Today
The Giving Tree

10:00am|Village Books

Holiday Festival of the Arts

10:00am|Bellingham Public Market

Miracle Pop-Up Holiday Cocktail Bar

4:00pm|Swim Club

Winter Wear Drive

11:00am|Upper Skagit Library

Deck the Old City Hall

12:00pm|Whatcom Museum's Old City Hall

Bellingham at Home Holiday Party

1:00pm|Bellingham Senior Activity Center

Avalanche Awareness with NWAC

6:00pm|REI

Whatcom Writers and Publishers' Holiday Mixer

6:00pm|Nicki's Bella Marina

Forest Health

6:00pm|Mount Vernon City Library

Celtic Christmas with Geoffrey Castle

6:30pm|Transit Shed Events Center

Kareem Kandi Trio

7:00pm|Sylvia Center for the Arts

MVHS Holiday Concert

7:00pm|McIntyre Hall

O Christmas Tea

7:30pm|Mount Baker Theatre

VoicePlay
Tomorrow
The Giving Tree

10:00am|Village Books

Winter Wear Drive

11:00am|Upper Skagit Library

Deck the Old City Hall

12:00pm|Whatcom Museum's Old City Hall

MVHS Holiday Concert

7:00pm|McIntyre Hall

Birding Adventures

9:00am|Skagit Valley

Literacy Council Seeks Volunteers

10:00am

Valley Crafters Holiday Bazaar

10:00am|Deming Presbyterian Church

Holiday Festival of the Arts

10:00am|Bellingham Public Market

Gifts from Our Gardens

12:00pm|Healthy Connections Room

 BHS Showstoppers

12:00pm|Whatcom Museum's Old City Hall

English Country Dancing

1:30pm|Bellingham Senior Activity Center

Miracle Pop-Up Holiday Cocktail Bar

4:00pm|Swim Club

Jazz Jam

5:30pm|Illuminati Brewing

Astronomy Meeting

7:00pm|Whatcom Educational Credit Union

Spanish Brass Christmas Concert

7:00pm|Mount Baker Theatre

Balkan Folk Dancers

7:00pm|Fairhaven Library

The Best Bad Things

7:00pm|Village Books

Noel Noir

7:30pm|Anacortes Community Theatre

Annie

7:30pm|Lincoln Theatre

A Christmas Carol

7:30pm|Sylvia Center for the Arts

History Holiday Open Mic

7:30pm|Whatcom Museum's Old City Hall

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

7:30pm|Upfront Theatre

Trove Web Portland Cello
Friday
The Giving Tree

10:00am|Village Books

Winter Wear Drive

11:00am|Upper Skagit Library

Deck the Old City Hall

12:00pm|Whatcom Museum's Old City Hall

Birding Adventures

9:00am|Skagit Valley

Holiday Festival of the Arts

10:00am|Bellingham Public Market

Literacy Council Seeks Volunteers

10:00am

Valley Crafters Holiday Bazaar

10:00am|Deming Presbyterian Church

Miracle Pop-Up Holiday Cocktail Bar

4:00pm|Swim Club

Annie

7:30pm|Lincoln Theatre

Noel Noir

7:30pm|Anacortes Community Theatre

A Christmas Carol

7:30pm|Sylvia Center for the Arts

Wild Things

9:30am|Connelly Creek Nature Area

Pacific Arts Market

10:00am|Sunset Square

Hot Cider and Cool Art

10:00am|Morgan Block Studios

Drayton Harbor Shell-abration

4:00pm|G Street Plaza

Food Not Bombs

4:00pm|Downtown Bellingham

Story Time with the Grinch

4:00pm|Village Books

Tasting and Tour of Lights

5:00pm|Eagle Haven Winery

Saving Christmas Town

7:00pm|Mount Baker Theatre

Dances of Universal Peace

7:00pm|Center for Spiritual Living

Reeb Willms and Caleb Klauder

7:00pm|YWCA Ballroom

A Charlie Brown Christmas

7:00pm|Bellingham Arts Academy for Youth

Eager Beaver

7:00pm|Village Books

My Three Ghosts, LOL-apalooza

7:30pm|Upfront Theatre

Northwest Ballet Theater presents The Nutcracker

7:30pm|McIntyre Hall

see our complete calendar »

VoicePlay Trove Web Portland Cello Village Books Cascadia Weekly Subscribe Ad 1 Stomp Amethyst 2018 Gift Guide