The Atlantic’s ‘Our Towns’ project is back for a second round

April 25, 2019
Category: Business & Work

In 2013, Jim and Debbie Fallows set out in their single-engine plane for what turned into a four-year cross-country odyssey looking for pockets of local civic vitality.

They wrote a book about it over the course of 2017, published “Our Towns” last year (to good reviews and good sales), and have been on the book promotion and lecture circuit since.

The Fallowses and The Atlantic, sponsored by a Google community-building initiative, have decided it’s a good time for more of the same. The couple this week started round two by visiting and reporting in four small cities in Indiana, beginning with Angola.

South Bend is not on the itinerary. But there is no ignoring the symmetry of the Fallows’ thesis — lots is going right in America’s smaller cities — with the improbable, wildfire presidential campaign of South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

As The Atlantic’s longtime national correspondent, Jim Fallows told me, he “takes no views” at this early stage on the likelihood of Buttigieg’s momentum continuing and his capturing the nomination.

The couple found surprising hope and progress in localities, in sharp contrast to the sour national mood.  “We have been saying this would eventually percolate up to the national level,” Jim Fallows said.

The Atlantic effort begins Thursday with a launch of a site within the magazine’s site, theatlantic.com/our-towns, to which the Fallowses will post weekly, at least through the end of the year.

They have a second side project in the works — an HBO documentary based on the book. It’s due to be completed and aired by the middle of 2020, and so may well serve as indirect commentary on the presidential race, whoever the candidates are.

Presidential politics had a role too in getting them started.

“We were following a Romney buscapade,” Fallows said, “and it occurred to us that the cities were much more interesting” than the ritual meet-and-greets and the candidate’s stump speech.”

Still, it might seem improbable that a couple would have had the foresight in 2013 to design such a project — but not if you know Jim and Debbie, as I have since college. They moved with their two young sons to Japan for several years in the late 1980s and again to China in the 2000s. Jim also developed an enthusiasm for light airplanes and became a pilot.

The division of labor on visits to the 30 towns chronicled was that Jim focused on politics and economics, especially the path to rebuilding if a big factory had closed. Deb focused on the softer side of culture, education and the arts. A linguist, she also savored regionalisms and neologisms, such as the entrepreneur in a shared workspace in Columbus, Ohio, who used “collab” as a verb.

The resentments that fueled Trump’s rise were in plain view, Jim said, “but we did not find hellscapes.” They had chosen places in trouble -— no Seattles or Simi Valleys. But once there, they found local enthusiasts and regions “that play apart (from the divisiveness of Washington) and are finding a way to do constructive things.”

They identified a number of common “signs of civic success” in the flourishing towns, including a welcoming attitude toward immigrants and a downtown with some life — and another half an indicator: one or several craft breweries.

Google’s connection has been to sign on as sole underwriter of the Our Towns site as part of a package including other sponsored-content ad placements on the digital version of The Atlantic.

The company is promoting Grow with Google, a relatively new initiative of direct aid to communities. Among other overlaps, like the Fallowses, Grow with Google has a particular affinity for the increasing role of public libraries as community hubs.

I asked Jim if some stuck-in-their-ways, growth-averse towns flunked the test for inclusion in the project. Yes and no. They had asked on The Atlantic site for nominations and set out in expectation of finding good things.

But more recently, he said, they have started to pay attention to groups of cities with contrasting trajectories. Why are California’s Riverside and Redlands (Jim’s hometown) doing well and San Bernardino less so? Why did Greenville, South Carolina, take off as a new manufacturing center while twin city Spartanburg stagnated?

It seemed to me that the role of local journalism and the consequences of financial pressure on shrinking newspaper newsrooms received relatively light attention in the book.

Jim observes at the end of an afterword to the paperback edition that “the strain on local media” allows a national narrative of bitter division to dominate. He urges philanthropists to consider news outlets as a crucial part of local public infrastructure and support them as Andrew Carnegie did libraries.

The two intend “to spend a lot more time” on local journalism in the coming reboot, he said, and explore how “essential it is (for communities) to find a public voice.” Like the rest of us, Fallows has no ready answer.

“Our Towns” begins with Deb’s description of a cross-country trip west spanning several days. She dwells on all you can see from the air at a low altitude. An irony in this, I asked, given the familiar memes of “flyover country” and “parachute journalism.”

They spent a minimum of two weeks per town and often returned another time or two, he said. Definitely not the default move of East Coast elite journalists looking to understand the middle of the country by “going to a diner and talking to a couple of guys wearing MAGA hats.”

A partly critical review of “Our Towns” in the Wall Street Journal wondered whether the Fallows’ view might have been skewed by talking to so many people trying to advertise the best in their towns while papering over problems.

Maybe to an extent, but I think that the couple found and told an undercovered story that merits notice and that an extension of the project will do the same.