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Our Towns

A 100,000-MILE JOURNEY INTO THE HEART OF AMERICA
Format: Hardcover, 432 pages
Publisher: Pantheon
On Sale: 05/08/2018
Price: $28.95
ISBN: 978-1-101-87184-3
open close ABOUT THE BOOK
NATIONAL BEST SELLER

A vivid, surprising portrait of the civic and economic reinvention taking place in America, town by town and generally out of view of the national media. A realistically positive and provocative view of the country between its coasts. 

For the last five years, James and Deborah Fallows have been traveling across America in a single-engine prop airplane. Visiting dozens of towns, they have met hundreds of civic leaders, workers, immigrants, educators, environmentalists, artists, public servants, librarians, business people, city planners, students, and entrepreneurs to take the pulse and understand the prospects of places that usually draw notice only after a disaster or during a political campaign. 

The America they saw is acutely conscious of its problems—from economic dislocation to the opioid scourge—but itis also crafting solutions, with a practical-minded determination at dramatic odds with the bitter paralysis of national politics. At times of dysfunction on a national level, reform possibilities have often arisen from the local level. The Fallowses describe America in the middle of one of these creative waves. Their view of the country is as complex and contradictory as America itself, but it also reflects the energy, the generosity and compassion, the dreams, and the determination of many who are in the midst of making things better. Our Towns is the story of their journey—and an account of a country busy remaking itself.

"James and Deborah Fallows have always moved to where history is being made. . . . They have an excellent sense of where world-shaping events are taking place at any moment—and a fervent commitment to be there to see it happen. . . . In these cities, the Fallows argue, citizen participants are coping with declining industries, creating new civic cultures, assimilating waves of immigration, and collaborating across party-lines to revive everything from arts programs to tech seedbeds."—David Brooks, The New York Times

"A tonic of a book about the can-do America unready to succumb to rot."—Roger Cohen, The New York Times

"Reminiscent of Charles Kuralt's On The Road with Charles Kuralt, this unique look at the heart of America will bring hope and insight to readers. Highly recommended."—David Miller, Library Journal

“I’ve been waiting for this book for years....Buy this book....This country is more united than divided...and this book will prove it.”—Joe Scarborough, co-host of Morning Joe on MSNBC 

“Knowing the Fallows and their work, I assumed this new co-authored book of theirs would be typically savvy, sensitive, articulate and prescient. What I didn't expect was how a record of experiences of current middle American communities, through their lenses, would be such a page turner! I've guessed for many years that real change in this world would be effected by and within small communities--places where people feel connected and capable of impact on some larger scale. Our Towns is a monumental validation of that hypothesis—with real stories and real people, who are really getting things done. James & Deborah—thanks for your journey, your open and honest observations, and helping to shine light for us at the end of many tunnels.” —David Allen, author of Getting Things Done; the Art of Stress-Free Productivity

Our Towns will become a classic, joining the ranks of American odysseys from De Tocqueville to Dos Passos. The landscape unfurls beneath us; the language of different regions echoes in our ears. Most important, this book is a tonic for what ails us as a nation, a captivating story of energy and renewal across the land.” —Anne-Marie Slaughter, President & CEO, New America

“In the tradition of John Steinbeck and Studs Terkel, the Fallows have crisscrossed the country in search of the extraordinary strength and character of ordinary people and places. What they’ve found—in towns we know and others off the beaten path—should give us all great hope for the future.” —California Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr.

“An illuminating trip through ‘parts of the country generally missed by the media spotlight’….Writing with lively curiosity and open minds, the couple have created textured portraits of 29 American cities, from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to Allentown, Pennsylvania, and Eastport, Maine, to Redlands, California…. A well-reported, optimistic portrait of America’s future.” —Kirkus Reviews
 
“An eye-opening, keenly optimistic reminder of the strength of America’s vital center.” 
—Publishers Weekly
open close ABOUT THE AUTHOR
JAMES FALLOWS has been a national correspondent for The Atlantic for more than thirty-five years, reporting from China, Japan, Southeast Asia, Europe, and across the United States. He is the author of eleven previous books. His work has also appeared in many other magazines and as public-radio commentaries since the 1980s. He has won a National Book Award and a National Magazine Award. For two years he was President Jimmy Carter’s chief speechwriter.

DEBORAH FALLOWS is a linguist and writer who holds a PhD in theoretical linguistics and is the author of two previous books. She has written for The Atlantic, National Geographic, Slate, The New York Times, and The Washington Monthly, and has worked at the Pew Research Center, Oxygen Media, and Georgetown University. She and her husband have two sons and four grandchildren.
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Montgomery County traffic, Cirrus Four-three-five Sierra Romeo taking Runway one-four, VFR departure to the west. Montgomery.
 
 
Deborah Fallows
And with that, we were off, flying away from frigid Washington, D.C., and its political postelection turmoil, on a southerly route to California.

We had flown nearly one hundred thousand miles in nearly four years in our small plane, with Jim as pilot and me in the right seat. We began in my home territory of the Upper Midwest, then headed over to Maine and flew south through New England and the Mid-Atlantic states to Georgia and Florida. We swept farther through the Deep South, to Texas and the Southwest, up the Central Valley of California to Oregon and Washington, and closed the loop after leaving Montana. All the while we snaked in and out of the so-called flyover country, through Wyoming, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, West Virginia, and much more.

We have landed in dozens of towns and cities along the way, anticipating in each of them local stories that would organize themselves into some kind of composed narrative about the backbone and character of the region and maybe beyond that, to help explain the character of the country. We began by looking for towns with positive energy, with signs of rebound from some kind of shock or shift, like a mine or factory that had closed or waves of people who’d departed or newcomers who’d arrived. We ended up adding towns with down-and-out reputations where we truly feared for what we might find. Life upon landing was never quite what we’d planned.

We have stayed in towns for weeks at a time. We have often revisited them, following threads from one person, or one group or town institution or movement, to the next, settling into the local rhythm. We have gone to town plays and musicals, sat in on civic meetings, hung out at coffee shops and brewpubs, spent days at schools, libraries, and ball games, taken tours of downtowns, visited factories, start-ups, and community college classes, taken boat rides and bike rides, swum in local public pools and run on high school tracks, borrowed cars, and stayed in motels, private homes, and one-off eco-hotels. We remained long enough to begin to imagine how much we didn’t know, but also to appreciate the unusual opportunity we’ve had, in seeing a broader sampling of modern America’s realities than most of its citizens will ever have a chance to do. …
 
*

I’m not a pilot, which is often an uncomfortable admission. I don’t share the zealous passion for flying that I have seen in most pilots, and my eyesight has always been, well, wanting. If Jim says, “Do you see the runway?,” I’ll mumble something in return. But after a thousand hours of being in the right seat, I know a lot about flying the plane. I know its repertoire of gurgles and agitations as well as I knew those of our infant children. I am very familiar with the gauges, navigation, radio work with ATC, steering the plane, and I know how to pull the parachute, which deploys from the fuselage and settles the plane in a true emergency. The parachute of the Cirrus, now the best-selling small aircraft in the world, eliminates night-before-flight worries for me.
 
We stopped in Las Cruces in search of cheap fuel and a late-afternoon lunch. We never knew what kind of food we would find. Many times, vending-machine peanut butter crackers were the best we could do. I worried about this a lot in our early days. Our go-to provisions were a cool sack with dried fruit, nuts, granola bars, carrots, hummus, grapes, cheese, Vitaminwater—you get the picture. Over time, the list became leaner and leaner. By now, more than three years later, we’d actually become aficionados of jerky: beef, buffalo, reindeer, elk, spicy, lime- ginger, teriyaki. One Uber driver who drove us on an unscheduled stop in Wyoming went on for twenty minutes with stories about his homemade jerky from a personal drying machine. When lunch in Las Cruces didn’t work out, jerky it was.

We pressed on for another hour or so to Tucson. The mountains deflated into undulating brown hills. We flew over flatlands with occasional volcanic outcroppings and long stretches of almost surreal desert landscapes that looked like pointillist paintings…

As we flew over Palm Springs, the aerial road signs were becoming familiar: the mountains north and south, the desert settlements below, the wind farms, the Banning Pass through to the Los Angeles basin. We flew over Redlands, our destination, to San Bernardino and the long, wide runways that had once accommodated B-52s when this site was Norton Air Force Base. Jim guided our Cirrus in, hovering near touchdown in the wind gusts for the final few hundred feet.

*
 
Landed. What were we supposed to feel now, some twenty-five hundred miles and four days later? Or one hundred thousand miles and four years later? Maybe like Mark Twain, I thought, one of the writers whose account of an epic journey I had read. At the end of twenty days by stagecoach, the Washoe Zephyr, from Missouri to the territory of Nevada, Twain wrote, “It had been a fine pleasure trip; we had fed fat on wonders every day; we were now well accustomed to stage life, and very fond of it; so the idea of coming to a stand-still in a village was not agreeable, but on the contrary depressing.”

We, too, had indeed “fed fat on wonders every day.” Our ending didn’t feel as sad as Twain described his, but he was young then and didn’t understand yet that you can craft many adventures in a lifetime. I knew we would head on to many more adventures, and that this ending was, again, another beginning.
 

###  

Charleston, WV

James Fallows
Mountain Stage is the main national-media production coming out of West Virginia, and it has been a significant force in country music. It was carried by 150 stations nationwide at the time of our visit, and in the next two years it expanded to 200. The list of artists who had their first live-broadcast exposure to a national audience under host Larry Groce’s auspices is so long and impressive that at first I didn’t really believe it (but then I checked it out).

We got to see a live Mountain Stage performance at the Civic Center in downtown Charleston, before an enthusiastic and youngish full-house crowd.

A few days after the show, we went to see Groce and his family at their house, both to ask him about the program’s history but also because his name frequently came up when we asked people in Charleston, “Who makes this town go?”

West Virginia in general and the Kanawha Valley region around Charleston are, of course, places where not enough has gone right for quite a long time. The coal industry has inevitably shrunk and is shrinking further; the big processing works that once gave the area the name “Chemical Valley” are mainly gone.

So what was it like to run a recording career from here? And to produce a national radio show from a state usually the object of condescension from coastal big-city tastemakers? Two themes ran through what Groce told us.

One was about the possibilities and challenges of doing first-tier creative work in what the world considers second- or third-tier locations. This, obviously, was a major theme through all of our travels. Whether they come out and say it or not, many of the country’s most ambitious people assume that work of a certain level requires being in a certain place.

This idea of a vast national sorting system for talent has huge ramifications. They range from politics to the distortion of real estate prices in a handful of coastal big cities. But as we continued to find, in countless other places across the country, people don’t have to start out assuming that most of what they take home will immediately go out for the rent or mortgage. This is because they have calculated that—in Duluth and Greenville or any of dozens of other places, they can build their company, pursue their ambition, and realize their dream without crowding into the biggest cities.

As for Larry Groce, when he first got to West Virginia, he said he found it comfortable, because “the way people here looked, acted, and even sounded” reminded him of his grandparents’ and great-aunts’ generation in Texas. Which made sense, since many Texans of that era had migrated from Appalachia. As he stayed, he came to appreciate its practicality, its lack of pretension, and its person-to-person level of generosity.

Practicality: “It’s one of those places that has never had a boom, so booms and busts are relative. If you’re never up, you can’t be down.”

Lack of pretension: “Lots of people can make an album in the studio who can’t do it live.” (Mountain Stage is recorded before a live audience.) “That is very West Virginia, too: to deliver in person. We have hillbillies, but we’ll tell you what a hillbilly is—you [outsiders] don’t tell us.” This was two years before J. D. Vance’s book Hillbilly Elegy made the term a staple of political conversation. “A hillbilly isn’t an ignorant fool. He’s a straightforward, self-effacing, ‘what you see is what you get’ person. He relies on his friends because he doesn’t trust a lot of other things. He is not necessarily formally educated. But he is smart.”

Generosity: “If your car gets broken down, you want it to happen in West Virginia. This whole stuff about Deliverance, it’s just the opposite. If something happens, you want it to happen here. People will stop and help.”

Groce told the story of a national network correspondent who came to interview people nearby and found them unwilling to answer questions. So he put up the hood of his car as if he were having engine trouble, and people came over to help him out and talk with him.

Groce seemed content with and proud of his show and its cultural reach, but he was fully aware that “since it is a national show, we have felt stereotypes people have about West Virginia.”

He said, “One thing I’ve learned over the years, when you put ‘Mountain’ in the title of something, people think you’re the fiddle-and-banjo show. Which we’re not. Of course, if we were just an old-timey bluegrass country show, we’d probably get more national press, since we’d fit expectations.

“We see the expectations in the stories that are generated about this place. Have a mine disaster?
The reporters are all here. Have a chemical spill? All here. Have something where it shows that some percentage of the children are poor or obese? Yes. But if you have Gabriel Kahane and Kate Miller-Heidke on one show, and then James McMurtry, it doesn’t fit the categories, doesn’t make sense.”

If I am making Groce sound defensive in recounting this, I’m misrepresenting him. His tone was like that of a politician who understands, anthropologist-style, that the press simply can’t help concentrating on elections rather than governing but nonetheless realizes that his or her job comes down to governing.
 
And the second theme Larry Groce reminded us of, beyond his insistence on the potential for the first-rate from this locale? His sense that West Virginia and Charleston, for all their travails, were moving in the right, rather than the wrong, direction.

“Lots of people who are older are looking backward,” he said. “people can get stuck in ‘I remember when. . . .’ Coal is dying, but it’s like a dangerous animal that’s dying. It’s going to thrash.”

However, he said, younger people, as well as those from elsewhere, didn’t have that memory. They were starting new businesses and families and projects. “I think in the last ten years there has been a renaissance,” he said. “It’s easy to go to a place because the money is good. It’s different because you like being there. I am optimistic about this place.”
open close TABLE OF CONTENTS
 Authors’ Note ix

Introduction: 2017: A Last Trip West 3

2013
Sioux Falls, South Dakota 21
Rapid City, South Dakota 37
Holland, Michigan 41
Burlington, Vermont 50
Eastport, Maine 61

2014
Greenville, South Carolina 81
St. Marys, Georgia 101
Columbus, Mississippi 110
Caddo Lake, Louisiana-Texas 132
In the Air 140
Columbus, Ohio 144
Louisville, Kentucky 169
Allentown, Pennsylvania 176
In the Air 193
Duluth, Minnesota 200
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 214
Charleston, West Virginia 218

2015
In the Air 225
Guymon, Oklahoma 230
Ajo, Arizona 233
San Bernardino, California 248
Riverside, California 265
Redlands, California 274
Fresno, California 286
Winters, California 305
Bend, Oregon 315
Redmond and Prineville, Oregon 333
Chester, Montana 338
The American Prairie Reserve, Montana 343

2016
Dodge City, Kansas 351
Garden City and Spearville, Kansas 371
Erie, Pennsylvania 376

What We Saw and What We Learned 395
10½ Signs of Civic Success 401
 
Acknowledgments 411