Cover image for Our towns : a 100,000-mile journey into the heart of America / James Fallows and Deborah Fallows.
Our towns : a 100,000-mile journey into the heart of America / James Fallows and Deborah Fallows.
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Pantheon Books, [2018]
Physical Description:
x, 413 pages ; 25 cm
General Note:
Includes map on inside front cover and illustration on inside back cover.
Introduction: 2017: A last trip west -- 2013. Sioux Falls, South Dakota ; Rapid City, South Dakota ; Holland, Michigan ; Burlington, Vermont ; Eastport, Main -- 2014. Greenville, South Carolina ; St Marys, Georgia ; Columbus, Mississippi ; Caddo Lake, Louisiana-Texas ; In the air ; Columbus, Ohio ; Louisville, Kentucky ; Allentown, Pennsylvania ; In the air ; Duluth, Minnesota ; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania ; Charleston, West Virginia -- 2015. In the air ; Guymon, Oklahoma ; Ajo, Arizona ; San Bernardina, California ; Riverside, California ; Redlands, California ; Fresno, California ; Winters, California ; Bend, Oregon ; Redmond and Prineville, Oregon ; Chester, Montana ; The American Prairie Reserve, Montana -- 2016. Dodge City, Kansas ; Garden City and Spearville, Kansas ; Erie, Pennsylvania -- What we saw and what we learned -- 10 1/2 signs of civic success.
"A unique, revelatory portrait of small-town America: the activities, changes, and events that shape this mostly unseen part of our national landscape, and the issues and concerns that matter to the ordinary Americans who make these towns their home. For the last five years, James and Deborah Fallows have been traveling across America in a single-prop airplane, visiting small cities and meeting civic leaders, factory workers, recent immigrants, and young entrepreneurs, seeking to take the pulse and discern the outlook of an America that is unreported and unobserved by the national media. Attending town meetings, breakfasts at local coffee shops, and events at local libraries, they have listened to the challenges and problems that define American lives today. Our Towns is the story of their journey--an account of their visits to twenty-one cities and towns: the individuals they met, the stories they heard, and their portrait of the many different faces of the American future"-- Provided by publisher.
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Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
307.760973 FAL Book Adult General Collection

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For the last five years, James and Deborah Fallows have been traveling across America in a single-prop airplane, visiting small cities and meeting civic leaders, factory workers, recent immigrants, and young entrepreneurs, seeking to take the pulse and discern the outlook of an America that is unreported and unobserved by the national media. Attending town meetings, breakfasts at local coffee shops, and events at local libraries, they have listened to the challenges and problems that define American lives today. Our Towns is the story of their journey-an account of their visits to twenty-one cities and towns- the individuals they met, the stories they heard, and their portrait of the many different faces of the American future.

Author Notes

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic magazine, since the late 1970s and is based in Washington. He was raised in Redlands, California. He is a graduate of Harvard University with a degree in American history and literature, and a graduate of Oxford University with a degree in economics. His career also includes two years as chief speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as editor of US News & World Report. He won the National Magazine Award for his story, Iraq: The Fifty-First State? (2002), the National Book Award for nonfiction for his book, National Defense, and a N. Y. Emmy for the documentary series Doing Business in China. His books include Blind Into Baghdad, Postcards from Tomorrow Square, China Airbourne, and Our Towns.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

Creativity, know-how, diversity, and public-spiritedness are the perhaps surprising national trends unearthed in this exuberant exploration of economic development in Middle America. In researching the book, husband-and-wife journalists James Fallows (China Airborne) and Deborah Fallows (Dreaming in Chinese) flew around the country in their prop plane surveying unsung renaissances of cities and small towns. They find commonplaces-like the ubiquitous downtown-revitalization quartet of tech-startup incubator, waterfront bike path, arts festival, and microbrewery-as well as idiosyncrasies: Bend, Ore.'s marijuana shop; Duluth, Minn.'s growing aviation sector; new factories and vocational training in Columbus, Miss., and cutting-edge fashion design in Columbus, Ohio. Unlike the usual community-activism narratives, the authors spotlight a civic establishment of urban planners, development officials, strong mayors, and business boosters; they also cite as keys to prosperity brainy innovators at universities, hard-working immigrants, and citizens willing to raise taxes for needed government services. The Fallowses' reportage from fly-over territory occasionally feels schmaltzy-"[i]n the Best Western breakfast room, Miss Nettie was making grits and biscuits"-and they skirt troubling features of development strategies, like the antiunion animus of Southern states. Still theirs is an eye-opening, keenly optimistic reminder of the strength of America's vital center. (May) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

New York Review of Books Review

There is no right way to get to know America. I've seen patches of it over the years by car, by bicycle, by train, by bus and by foot. All of those modes of transportation have their pluses and minuses. These days, it's by air that I usually get around, which generally means leaving one metropolis and then arriving in another. One sizable drawback of this approach, of course, is too much interesting countryside is flown over at high altitude, and thus ignored. James and Deborah Fallows came up with a reasonably efficient way of delving into the country's guts. They splurged for a small propeller airplane, which they then piloted hither and yon, not to the major transit hubs we all come and go from in Los Angeles, New York, Atlanta and Chicago but to small landing strips in and around places like Holland, Mich.; St. Marys, Ga.; Allentown, Pa.; Charleston, W.Va.; Guymon, Okla.; and Chester, Mont. I give them credit for their off-the-beaten-path approach to exploration. Their single-engine Cirrus SR-22, which was manufactured in Duluth, Minn., another stop in this multiyear, multitown tour, enabled them to see communities well off the interstates in order to understand what makes them tick. It gave the Fallowses range, from their base in Washington, D.C. Not enough authors mull the streets of Eastport, Me., or Columbus, Miss., for deep meaning. Their travels began in 2012, just before Obama's re-election, and continued until early 2017, when "Make America Great Again" had caught on in at least parts of the country. The most surprising aspect of their exploration, which they first chronicled in The Atlantic, where James Fallows is a longtime national correspondent, is how seldom they got a chance to talk about the issues we think of as being at the top of the national agenda. The more bustling a town, the less likely that national politics came up in conversation. That seems quaint, given the bitter partisanship that seems to have cleaved the country in 2018, big city and small town alike. What did come up were local challenges, as described by the entrepreneurs, factory workers, refugees and civic leaders they met. By focusing on the local, and not shading everyplace they went in bright hues of red and blue, James and Deborah (who alternate writing chapters) help us see similarities between places like Burlington, Vt., a liberal enclave, and Greenville, S.C., solidly Republican. Each has a waterfront that anchors a lively downtown. Downtowns, it turns out, are one of the indicators as to whether a once-struggling place is coming back to life. "Downtown ambitions of any sort are a positive sign, and occupied second- and third-floor apartments and condos over restaurants and stores suggest that the downtown has crossed a decisive threshold and will survive," they write. Public-private partnerships - which they discuss excitedly in town after town - are another thing that helps communities get into a groove. There is an unpredictability to flying, they show, even if one is not leaving the piloting to United or JetBlue. During their travels, their radio crackled with reports of crop dusters, dangerous flocks of birds, sky divers, drones and even Air Force One carrying the previous president. But once they landed, they explored with such a deliberate approach - hitting the same local institutions no matter where they went - that one can't help wondering whether there were fascinations, and insights, that escaped them. The first stop was invariably the local newspaper, where they debriefed the editor on people to meet. Who am I, a newspaper editor, to quibble with that approach? But they spent considerable time chatting up the economic development czars, meaning they were spun on the grandness of wherever they happened to be, sometimes with cheesy mottoes like the one they came across in Fresno: "It's Fresyes!" In another California town, an almondgrowing enclave known as Winters, the authors hear more than once: "If you fall in love with someone from Winters, be forewarned that you'll probably end up settling in Winters." It's easy to spot the locals there. Listen to how they pronounce the word "almond," the Fallowses say. If it's "amun," rhyming with famine, they are from Winters. At each stop, Deborah visited libraries and Y.M.C.A.S in search of insights. The couple also stopped at schools, particularly experimental ones, and brewpubs, which explains why beer comes up as often as it does. Were you aware that much of the Sam Adams beer Americans consume is brewed just west of Allentown? 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. ? MARC LACEY is the national editor of The Times.

Library Journal Review

In 2013, National Book Award winner James Fallows (National Defense) and wife Deborah Fallows (Dreaming in Chinese) set out on a four-year journey via a single-engine propeller airplane to create a picture of the heart and soul of small to midsize towns across America. Their purpose was to compose a narrative about the backbone of various regions to help explain the character of the country. To accomplish this, they spent time being locals-frequenting libraries, schools, restaurants, and civic meetings-in towns known for factories, mining, and mill work for weeks at a time; from Burlington, VT, to Riverside, CA, and 27 additional towns in between. Cases of disappointment mixed with success lead to their conclusion that assumptions of truth about the state of the country as a whole and many of its people are misleading. They explore ten themes they found prevalent in thriving towns, including a focus on regional concerns instead of national politics, a town's downtown area, a reverence for secondary education, and a welcoming mind-set. VERDICT 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, Farmville P.L., NC © Copyright 2018. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



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." Excerpted from Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America by James Fallows, Deborah Fallows All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Authors' Notep. ix
Introduction: 2017: A Last Trip Westp. 3
Sioux Falls, South Dakotap. 21
Rapid City, South Dakotap. 37
Holland, Michiganp. 41
Burlington, Vermontp. 50
Eastport, Mainep. 61
Greenville, South Carolinap. 81
St. Marys, Georgiap. 101
Columbus, Mississippip. 110
Caddo Lake, Louisiana-Texasp. 132
In the Airp. 140
Columbus, Ohiop. 144
Louisville, Kentuckyp. 169
Allentown, Pennsylvaniap. 176
In the Airp. 193
Duluth, Minnesotap. 200
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvaniap. 214
Charleston, West Virginiap. 218
In the Airp. 225
Guymon, Oklahomap. 230
Ajo, Arizonap. 233
San Bernardino, Californiap. 248
Riverside, Californiap. 265
Redlands, Californiap. 274
Fresno, Californiap. 286
Winters, Californiap. 305
Bend, Oregonp. 315
Redmond and Prineville, Oregonp. 333
Chester, Montanap. 338
The American Ptairie Reserve, Montanap. 343
Dodge City, Kansasp. 351
Garden City and Spearville, Kansasp. 371
Erie, Pennsylvaniap. 376
What We Saw and What We Learnedp. 395
101/2 Signs of Civic Success

p. 401

Acknowledgmentsp. 411