"Our Towns": a massive story of local renewal, underneath the US's Trump headlines
Here's a delightfully optimistic book and story from the US - which has great resonance, we think, in a UK in which local power is growing, and the national polarisations are exhausting.
Our Towns, by James and Deborah Fallows, records the authors journeying over five years - travelling by their own light propeller plane, and landing on some of the thousands of strips available in the country - to record the small-town life of the US. [We are reminded of our friend Pete Lawrence, taking his campervan to UK towns in service of his Campfire Convention].
What the Fallows' found there defied the mass depression about the country's prospects, beneath the Trumpian farce . From Harvard Magazine:
The United States they experienced is not the surly democracy that has dominated political conversation, sharply polarized between the largely blue [Democrat] coasts and the mostly red [Republican] heartland.
Their country is a big, open vessel of possibilities that divergent places are realizing wonderfully in their own ways, despite much-better-known troubles. That discovery—largely missing from public awareness—is unexpected, heartening news.
...The Fallows developed a pattern for their reporting. They would usually start at the local news outlet, check out a local brewpub or distillery and the art zone, and ride on bike trails or walk in parks. Deb went to the public library, the schools, civic clubs, and the YMCA or sports center. Jim went to the town’s office of economic development, community college, and tech start-up zone.
They also developed “a checklist of the traits that distinguished a place where things seemed to work.” The 10-item list begins with what was missing. “Given the places we were traveling, I imagine that many of the people we interviewed were Trump supporters,” Jim writes. “But it just didn’t come up”: “Divisive national politics seemed a distant concern.”
The list ends with what was missing at the national level yet effervescent in the towns and small cities: “They have big plans. For the United States as a whole, the very idea of ambitious ‘national greatness’ projects seems preposterous. There’s no money; the only big efforts the government can undertake are military: it now counts as a victory simply to keep funding for the national parks, for NASA or NOAA, for health or science research from being cut.”
The most interesting items in between are about stories and leaders. Each place had a civic story to tell, which may not have been “precisely accurate” but gave “citizens a sense of how today’s efforts are connected to what happened yesterday and what they hope tomorrow will bring.”
For Allentown, Pennsylvania, for example, it was “walkable manufacturing,” building manufacturing and white-collar workspaces near the downtown. When they arrived in a new place, they would ask, “Who makes this town go?” The answers varied a lot (a folk musician, in a West Virginia city; the commanding officer at a military base, in another southern city), but there was always an answer: a local patriot, heavily invested in helping make a viable future for the place.
The Fallows are not naive about their perspective. In The Atlantic magazine, James Fallows writes:
Everyone knows how genuinely troubled the United States is at the level of national politics and governance. It is natural to assume that these disorders must reflect a deeper rot across the country. And indeed, you can’t travel extensively through today’s America without being exposed to signs of rot, from opioid addiction to calcifying class barriers
But by showing up in Mississippi and Kansas and South Dakota and inland California and Rust Belt Pennsylvania, we saw repeated examples of what is happening in America’s here and now that have important and underappreciated implications for America’s future.
Continuing in the Atlantic piece, the Fallows have three clear conclusions about what the processes are that will further fuel this national renewal from the local level:
- ONE: Improving connections, both conceptual and operational.
Across the country, millions of people in thousands of organizations are working toward common goals, generally without being aware of how many other people and organizations are striving toward the same end.
The more we traveled, the more parallels and resonances we saw. This public-art project in southern Arizona was like that other one in Maine. This library program in Oregon was like that one in Ohio. This creative public school in California was like that one in Georgia. This conservation effort in Montana resembled others in California, and Louisiana, and Idaho. This “civic tech” project we heard about in Massachusetts was like the ones we learned about in Indiana and in Southern California.
Every place had its local features, but together those efforts formed a pattern whose sweep and power can be hard to discern from any single instance.
Recognizing that these emerging networks exist in parallel is important in practical terms, so that people can share examples of success, plus increase the networks’ collective leverage.
It matters at least as much in outlook. It’s one thing to work in what you imagine to be a lonely outpost, defending yourself against decline all around. It’s different and more exhilarating to know that you are part of something bigger, and that you are going down a path others have helped blaze.
- TWO: Emphasizing engagement, of almost any kind.
I’d always known about this as a platitude, or as the academic concept of “social capital.” Now I understand it as a tangible thing.
Early in our travels I received a note from a young man who had moved from a big coastal city to a town in North Texas. “If you want to consume a fabulous community, you could move to some place like Brooklyn,” he said—or San Francisco, or Seattle, or Paris, or Amsterdam, or any other glittering site with restaurants, parks, vistas, and public spaces to enjoy.
“If you want to create a great community, you move someplace that needs your help,” like his new hometown. Creating in this sense means taking responsibility for the invention and sustenance of the community in which you’d like to live. The idea of engagement, then, boils down to sharing responsibility for the world outside one’s individual household.
Any step in that direction—as modest as voting or attending PTA meetings, as dramatic as running for office or leading a group to deal with local problems—is a step that encourages civic creation, not just consumption.
And the evidence of past waves of reform, from the labor-rights and women’s-suffrage movements of the early 1900s through the civil-rights and environmental movements of mid-century, suggests that national transformations must start from local roots.
- THREE: Correcting perceptions and dealing with what is already recognized as a national emergency: the distorted picture of events beyond our immediate experience that comes through the media, professional and informal alike. The strain on local media, whose effects we saw everywhere, is an important part of this distortion.
One to-do step for citizens: Subscribe to local publications while they still exist. A to-do step for plutocrats and philanthropists: View news-gathering as a crucial part of the public infrastructure of this era, just as Carnegies, Rockefellers, and Mellons viewed libraries, museums, and universities as part of the necessary infrastructure of their time. The most urgent place to start would be with local and state-capital newspapers, which have been even harder hit than national publications by the evaporation of journalism’s late-20th-century economic base.
The challenge of journalism is always to make what’s important interesting. This is hard enough in the best of circumstances. It’s harder when the reality you’re conveying involves a mixture of developments both encouraging and alarming, rather than a stark exposé or a success story. It’s harder still when the reality involves TV and video. And it is nearly impossible in the case of cable-news channels, above all politically driven ones like Fox.
What 24-hour cable news introduced and Fox perfected in the modern news consciousness is an unending stream of horrors from … somewhere else. The natural result of well-meaning liberal media is thus a kind of pity for the heartland, and of conservative media, a survivalist fear about what people Out There are trying to get away with.
The problems of journalistic proportion hardly began with the last presidential campaign. You name a decade from the 1700s onward, and I can show you an essay on the failings and pernicious effects of the contemporary press. But those defects crest in certain eras, and Americans’ inability to see clearly the state of their nation represents one of those dangerous peaks now.
A clear view of the America of this era contains serious perils, like always, but also more promise than at many other times. Through the long saga of American reinvention, the background question has been the one Benjamin Franklin is said to have pondered at the Constitutional Convention when looking at a painting of the sun on the back of George Washington’s chair.
Franklin said that he had “often and often” looked at that sun “without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting.” As the Constitution was being signed, Franklin declared that he had “the happiness to know” the sun was rising. It can rise again, and across the country we have seen rays of its new light.