Award winning journalist and national correspondent for Atlantic Magazine James Fallows, and his wife, Deborah, a writer/researcher with a Ph.D. in linguistics, shared stories from their 100,000 mile journey to nearly 50 small and mid-sized American cities over the past 6 years (chronicled in their book “Our Towns, A 100,000 mile Journey into the Heart of America”) to more than 125 guests at the Ebell of Los Angeles on Monday of this week.
The Fallows said they found, after spending almost six years and more than 500 hours in their small airplane flying across America, real people working collaboratively in their communities to solve problems and improve the lives of their neighbors, a sharp contrast to the national narrative depicting a nation in constant political conflict.
Compelled to share this different view of America, the Fallows drew upon their considerable journalistic experience of having lived all over the wold, and decided to apply that same approach to researching America.
In the Spring 2013, James Fallows posted on the Atlantic website that he was looking a certain kind of city that had faced a significant economic problem, such as a factory closing, mine closing, drought, etc. But, it had to be a city that unless something went wrong, it would not get regular news coverage. He got more than 1,000 responses from people who submitted long essays about why their town fit that description.
So and Deborah began to travel, and continued until 2017, when they decided it was time to write up their findings. They posted stories along the journey describing what they found and how it changed their view of America.
James Fallows described what he saw as a “profound tension between two dominate narratives” of what America is today.
The first is the challenge of national-level governance, which is played out hourly on the cable news channels, detailing national dysfunction that Fallows asserted is not the worst in our nation’s history, but perhaps the second worst after the period of the 1860s. And, the other narrative, which he contends is equally significant and happening at the same time, is the sense “that region by region, city by city, people are finding practical solutions to problems,” said Fallows.
“This other United States actually exists and is happening under the radar of the news media,” said Fallows.
As proof, the Fallows’s book documents their fact-finding process in each town, spending several weeks getting to know the people in the town and talking about the challenges they were facing, and most importantly, never asking about national politics.
Deborah Fallows would visit libraries and schools. James would visit local newspapers. They always stayed in the downtown, if possible. And, if available, they visited the local brew pubs to spend time getting to know people in social settings.
They described interesting people facing challenges and finding solutions.
“Most people like to talk about themselves,” James Fallows told the audience. “And, most people have nuanced thought about where they live and the arc of their own lives. People talked about their towns with depth and complication and we tried to report that.”
“The main point we found ourselves conveying was this gulf between the darkness in terms of hopefulness on the national level, no matter what your political affiliation,” said Fallows. “And no matter what your political affiliation, you can’t help feel as if that national system is the US connecting our enormous resources as a country with our enormous problems as a country.”
But the Fallowses observed a decidedly more hopeful America, where most people, in most places, felt positive about the direction of their local communities. Schools were figuring out their problems and creating innovative solutions to helping educate the next generation. Yes, the opioid crisis was a terrible scourge on many communities, but they were developing solutions that the Fallowses could see. An, job displacements were occurring, but towns and local leaders were finding ways to reposition themselves. And he found similar results on a long list of issues.
The Fallowses want to broadly share their findings that so that people know about this different American experience; and know that an America working together to solve problems really exists. As an example of how people could find a lot of practicality and common ground, they spoke of connecting the Mayor of Greenville, South Carolina, with the Mayor of Burlington, Vermont, who realized that in practice, they both ran their towns the same way.
We had the opportunity to ask both James and Deborah Fallows if there were any lessons from their journey that could apply to large cities like Los Angeles, struggling with holding onto a sense of community.
The Fallowses said they found that modest densification of cities with revitalized downtowns that are walkable were among the most successful cities.
The main street movement, which revitalizes classic, older building,s is an easy win for most cities, added Deborah Fallows, noting there wasn’t a lot of objection. But, she added, when it grows taller or pushes out farther is when it becomes a problem.
“Los Angeles faces a choice of some kind of densification or more sprawl,” said James. “This is the challenge that comes with success and growth in cities like Los Angeles. Most cities have found success when they find a way to make livable compactness.”
Deborah Fallows cited the efforts of Allentown, Pennsylvania, struggling with how to revitalize and expand its downtown without encroaching on a long established Hispanic community that could be displaced. James Fallows pointed to a recent article in DCist that pointed out that Washington, D.C. has the highest percentage of gentrifying neighborhoods in the country.
Whatever the issue, both agreed that local engagement is the best way – in fact, the only way – to find solutions to these challenges, and their book is filled with evidence of their confidence in ordinary Americans to solve the major problems facing our communities.