We hear a lot of stories about the challenges people in distressed communities are facing, but we also want to hear stories about what communities are doing to come back. On this episode of Grapple, we discuss these ideas with longtime Atlantic magazine writers Deborah and James Fallows. The couple has been traveling around the Unites States for the last three years on a single-engine propeller plane to find out how American cities and towns have been putting themselves back together. Their project is called American Futures.
Listen to the episode
How American towns and cities see themselves
James: The one thing which we didn’t talk about in that article, but has come more and more to impress us is the debilitating or the empowering idea of negative self-image. A lot of the places where we’ve been think poorly of themselves and then sort of use that as a motivating factor. But in some other cases that has been a sea anchor around their necks.
Deborah: What we usually found in these towns is that the older part of the population are the ones who kind of grab onto this. Whereas the younger people are pretty quickly getting fed up with it and say, ‘I don’t want to talk that way about my town any more. We’ve got a lot going on here and if we keep whining in that fashion we’re never going to get anywhere.’ So, you do get this kind of demographic split.
Creating open communities
James: The places we’ve seen that feel as though they are moving in the right direction — one of these clear traits is they deliberately make themselves open in all senses of that term. Open to refugees. Open to people of different races. Making themselves open in political ways, too … a conscious openness was really a heartening American trait in many of these places.
If there is any gospel I wish I could go around the country and preach right now and in the weeks before the election — is the contrast between the national political tone about immigration and what you see community by community. It really struck us how impressively the process of incorporating immigrants and refugees was going on in so much of the country; and how the dread of this seems to be a theoretical fear about some threat … If you didn’t know the tone of national politics and you just were judging city by city, I think you would view this as another era in American history where talent is being absorbed and basically accepted and developed as part of the way communities revive themselves.
Pushing politics aside and finding common ground
Deborah: That is one of the keys of all the cities that are on the comeback. Collaboration is probably the word we hear most in the last three years as we’ve gone around to these towns. I think it is an essential ingredient to making things work — that you do get the cooperation among all the different parties…People care about each other, care enough to step up to just kind of build — I hate to use the word texture or the fabric — but that’s what it is.
Finding the leaders
James: One of the questions we ask when we go to a city is: who makes this place go? Who are the people we should talk with? And, there are a range of different things. For example, there are a number of cities where a strong mayor really is the center of what is going on there … There are other places where people don’t talk about the mayor. They talk about a certain business leader or a certain university president or whatever. For a city to work, there has to be some kind of leader and we see them in all sorts of forms — sometimes mayors, sometimes people with no official position at all.
Three years into their tour of the United States: Finding positive action on the ground
Deborah: When we embarked on this tour, we had an inkling that there was a lot more positive action going on then we heard. Even in the hardest-pressed places…you find these positive, hopeful, heartfelt, energetic clusters of people. You think this is going to work or at least it’s going to get better. There is some element of the traditional American spirit that started this country the way it was, that is still very strong and evident in people…We feel more confident in saying this now then we did three years ago. It’s gone from an inkling to an absolute statement.
James: I think we are positive as opposed to pollyanna-ish. At every stage in the U.S. history, it’s had serious problems. We’ve had a Civil War. We’ve always had poverty. We’ve always had injustice and we have all of those things now. But there is a sense of people feeling as if it’s in there capacity to move things in the right direction rather than in the wrong direction.
Music: Tony Trov and Mike Vivas
Executive Producer: Stephanie Marudas
Host, Editor: Naomi Starobin