Between 2013 and 2017, Atlantic national correspondent James Fallows and his wife, Deborah Fallows traveled nearly 100,000 miles in their small plane, making two-week stops in 25 cities and shorter visits to another 24. They visited libraries and bars, schools and businesses; talked to politicians, civic leaders, newly arrived refugees, students, social service workers, and others to get a sense of “the backbone and character of the region” and, by extension, of the whole country.
It is worth a read and serves as a good starting point in a larger necessary discussion.
They stopped at places large (Pittsburgh, Louisville, Fresno ) and small (Eastport, Maine; Ajo, Arizona; Chester, Montana).
His writings came from a perspective of experience in public policy and politics in Washington and beyond. She, trained as a linguist, had an eye at communities through their cultures. Together it is an interesting mix leaving you asking for more stops
I will leave their description of their stops and what they found for you. As an incentive to read the book and talk about it with me. For now I share with you some reviews, some quotes and a few of my own thoughts, and leave you with some intriguing reviews and quotes.
“….There is a feeling that can set in after a long road trip, and I speak here from recent experience, that America is one vast expanse of fast-food restaurants, car dealerships and water parks. One does not leave jet travel, squeezed into 41A next to a sweaty man in cargo shorts, all that inspired with this land of ours either. But what James and Deborah Fallows manage to show us, as if we were riding along with them on their craft, which is known in the skies as November 435 Sierra Romeo, is that much of America’s vibrancy is off the beaten path…..”
"The story we read daily is one of national dysfunction--catastrophic, once-in-a-century dysfunction. It's an accurate one, too--but incomplete. A parallel story, and one you can read about in Our Towns, is that in many small cities, people are coming together to solve problems and improve their communities. The paradox of America lives on, as always, but it has transformed and become something new. We may have an impression of national toxicity by reading the news, but the story is different at the local level".
The Fallows themselves wrote of their journey , “the further we went on the journey, the more impressed we became with the importance of stories people tell themselves about their city’s or region’s success”.
They described those telling such stories and using them to improve their communities as “local patriots”. People creating those types of narratives came to think of themselves as of coming from a distinct place and culture with their own strengths and traits (Fresno). They did not compare themselves to any other city but rather had discovered the authentic niche of what mad them (i.e. Duluth) for what on its own it could be.
Though their travels occurred mostly before the Presidential election of 2016 and America has been changed in the aftermath of that event, these changes , to a certain extent, were already in play in the early stages of their trip. They mention a conversation they had early on with Philip Zelikow, a professor at the University of Virginia who told them:
”In scores of ways, Americans are fighting out to take advantage f the opportunities of this era, often bypassing or ignoring the dismal national conversation. There are a lot more positive narratives out there – but they’re lonely and disconnected. It would make a difference to join them together, as a chorus that has a melody”.
We would like to think that our Journeys Into smart community narratives might serve as such a chorus.
Fallows’ work serves as a reminder that these local patriots singing this melody are needed more today than ever.