An important look at small towns
Book review: 'Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America,' by James and Deborah Fallows
At least four communities in the Adirondack North Country region — Plattsburgh, Saranac Lake, Glens Falls and Watertown — are currently working to implement strategies based on $10 million grants given by Gov. Cuomo and New York state for redevelopment of downtowns. Though no one opposes the presence of such largesse, the local processes have been ones of excitement, criticism and controversy.
Both interested members of the public and community leaders would do well to read “Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America,” by Atlantic Magazine editor James Fallows and his wife Deborah. The couple toured the country over a four-year period, primarily to see how the heavily partisan national political scene was playing out locally. They also sought to see how more vibrant communities had engineered their success.
In places as small as Eastport, Maine, as large as Columbus, Ohio, as far south as Ajo, Arizona, and north to Duluth, Minnesota, west to Bend, Oregon, and east to Burlington, Vermont, they reported a string of impressive results. Over the course of their research, they were not seeking to create a prototype that would work. But they did notice points of similarity across the places that were proving upwardly mobile.
Interestingly, one characteristic that never showed up was initial stimulus from a government grant. However, creative tax incentives and unique public-private partnerships were often found. Furthermore, even some cash-strapped communities approved new taxes for specific developmental and community goals.
Many commonalities can be found in some of our own region’s cities. Among these are a vibrant arts community and strong partnerships with community colleges. Not surprisingly, the Fallows found that vital and cohesive downtowns were also key components to cities who were succeeding. Burlington was cited as an excellent example.
Some very exciting public school programs were described, with lively incentives making them attractive for students. Some involve specific orientation toward those interested in sciences or the arts, but most aim more broadly. One sought to ensure all students learned some engineering concepts, to the point each became fully trained to do home environmental and energy assessments.
I’m omitting a lot, like the generally positive impact of immigration on thriving cities, and the growing potential of libraries. Importance of civic engagement also was discussed often.
The authors occasionally compared a success story in one community to another nearby place that hadn’t fared as well, for example, the optimistic view of Greenville, South Carolina, compared to its less successful neighbor, Spartansburg. Unfortunately, they made a similar statement about the vibrancy of Burlington vis a vis the city across the lake, Plattsburgh.
I found the book quite readable. The authors did their traveling via personal private jet; perhaps too much space was devoted to the logistics involved. An occasional chapter (one about Eagles’ singer Don Henley comes to mind) somehow didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the theme. A lot of names and places get mentioned along the way; an index would have better enabled me to keep everyone straight.
A caveat: This book was researched during the years 2013-2016, then published in 2018. A lot has transpired since their research, including a contentious election and now a pandemic. Did the coronavirus upset some of these stories? Or were many of these communities especially nimble in adapting to the current disruption?
The book gave me new insights into opportunities for community invigoration and made me excited about making my own contributions to the process. Combining this with another book that I’ve reviewed in the past, “What I Found in a Thousand Towns: A Traveling Musician’s Guide to Rebuilding America’s Communities” by Dar Williams, one builds a sense of optimism for what we in the North Country might do to improve our own futures.