The Future of Cities: How Communities Rebound

A Conversation with James Fallows, National Correspondent for The Atlantic and Co-Author of Our Towns

During a journey across America with his wife, Deborah Fallows, The Atlantic's James Fallows observed a myriad of cities and towns. Which towns recovered most effectively from challenges?  Fallows discovered that the answer lies less in national policy but in the local people who cares deeply about their home town.

For the best-selling Our Towns, James Fallows and Deborah Fallows visited American cities facing challenges.

James and Deborah Fallows set out in 2013 to better understand the forces transforming American communities. They piloted their single-engine plane across the country, resulting in a series of essays for The Atlantic, where James Fallows has been a writer since 1979, including as national correspondent. The pair captured their observations and reporting in the new book, Our Towns. In this email exchange with Catalyst Editor William McKenzie, Mr. Fallows discusses the characteristics of rebounding communities; the role that leadership, immigration, and culture play in revitalizing a place; and how a strong civic narrative is essential to a town’s rebirth. 

You and your wife just spent four years reporting on communities that are reshaping America, looking at places like Eastport, Maine and San Bernardino, California. What are some of the characteristics that these rebounding communities have in common? Or did they have characteristics in common?

When we began thinking about communities to visit, back in 2013, we were less aware of answers we might find than questions we wanted to ask. I initially put a post up on the Atlantic's website saying that we were looking for places to visit that had several traits in common.

One is that they were "smaller" in some way – mainly, that they were outside the media spotlight that relentlessly shines on places like New York, Washington, San Francisco, or L.A. Another is that they had had a challenge of some sort. An economic blow (like the loss of a factory), some external challenge like a drought or flood, or even just a significant demographic or cultural change. Finally, we were looking for cities whose residents felt that the process of responding to the shock or change illustrated something interesting or significant about the modern situation of the country. 

I'd stress two things about this process. One is that we were explicitly not asking people their views on national politics  "How do people in the Midwest feel about Obama [or later Trump or Hillary Clinton]?" The other is the flood of responses we received. We got essays nominating about 1,000 cities, in nearly every part of the country. We ended up thinking that learning about them could be the project of many generations. 

As for the traits they shared, along the way we published "lessons learned" or "patterns observed" in the Atlantic, and we go into them in the book. But one way or another they revolve around themes of engagement  the properties that make people feel responsible for and connected to the future of the city, rather than just happening to live there and enjoy its services, like tourists.

One of your articles said that rebounding towns usually have a local patriot, and people quickly point them out. Were these mostly people in the private sector? Public sector? Or both? And what leadership skill made them stand out?

The more we traveled, the more we were struck by a contradictory pattern among the cities that seemed to be finding a way forward  forward in economic development, in matching public- and private-sector efforts to residents' needs, and generally in giving the impression that "things are getting better in our town."

The contradiction is that, on the one hand, the details of local leadership varied tremendously from place to place. Wherever we went, our initial round of questions involved some variant on, "Who makes this city run?"

The answers covered a tremendous range. Perhaps in one-third of the cases, the answers started with the mayor. This was especially so, of course, in cities with "strong mayor" governing systems – and, interesting, without term limits, so that a given leader could serve as long as he or she was satisfying public wishes. 

But in other places there was no predicting the answer. I can think of three places where the influential local leaders were library managers or business people or even musicians. One where it was a university president  and another where it was an influential professor.  And  one more!  in another case it was young couples with innovative ideas about locavore food and drink.

This brings us to the other half of the contradiction. Despite this range of specifics, the prevailing pattern was people who had decided that the welfare of a place mattered to them, and had made themselves into what we called "local patriots." The surprise, for people who have read about "flyover country" mainly as the scene of natural or man-made disasters, or as backdrop for political campaigns, is how much of this local engagement and patriotism was easy to find, and underway. 

…the prevailing pattern was people who had decided that the welfare of a place mattered to them, and had made themselves into what we called "local patriots."
San Bernardino residents at Creative Community Day, an event created by civic activists called "Generation Now." (via Facebook @SBgenerationNOW)

You mentioned a commitment to the welfare of a place. What role did the arts and culture play in creating a renaissance? And how can struggling communities develop them if they are already short on investment dollars?

One of the biggest surprises for me in our travels probably shouldn't have come as a surprise, but it did. That is the role of arts and culture in today's civic renaissance, both in intensifying the intangible sense of place-ness and in the practical work of economic development. In my decades of reporting in the United States and around the world, I've usually concentrated on "hard" development airports, factories, tech start-up zones  and had not paid as much attention to the role of the arts as I should. 

But place after place, we were struck by the role of public art, of cultural events, and what is now called "place making." To give just a few examples, of a list that could be very long:

  • In the very hard-pressed California city of San Bernardino, a group of young artists and civic activists who call themselves "Generation Now" have tried to rebuild the city's sense of itself through painting murals on the sides of abandoned buildings, in park clean-up projects, in music festivals, and in other efforts ultimately aimed at making people feel connected rather than isolated and marginalized.
  • One of the elements of recovery for Duluth, Minnesota, which had suffered a long decline as the mining and other heavy industries around it deteriorated, has been its new identity as a center of outdoor beauty and recreational possibilities.
  • A generation ago, Bend, Oregon, had the highest unemployment rate in the country, as the logging-based economy of central Oregon collapsed. Its current rebound is based on a wide variety of businesses, including tech startups and health-care centers, but it also has been fostered by public-arts and cultural projects that have made Bend attractive and hip.
  • In the 1980s, Ajo, Arizona, lost what had been its sole source of support, when a giant copper mine closed. Now it is re-creating itself as an arts center.

And in Pittsburgh, or Fresno, California ... I could go on!

The main point is, to a degree rarely suggested in national news coverage about "interior" America, arts and culture are providing the base for civic identity, and in turn for re-investment in that town and attracting new, young residents.

...arts and culture are providing the base for civic identity, and in turn for re-investment in that town and attracting new, young residents.

How did the downtowns you all reported on revive? Was that making them more pedestrian friendly and livable? Public investments? Private capital?

One of the patterns we began noticing was that the cliché, "public-private partnership," which I had always discounted as political jargon, meant something real and tangible in many of the cities we visited. People could point to a certain school, or bridge, or worker-training program and say: Yes, this is a public-private partnership, and here are the companies (and the public officials) who put it together.

Nowhere was this truer than with downtown revivals. There's one part of this formula that is essentially beyond a city's ability to control: that is how much of the "good bones" of a downtown still survive, after the aluminum-siding blight of the early post-World War II era and then the much greater devastation of the mall-sprawl decades of the 1950s through the 1980s. 

But to a degree that would surprise many Americans, the country's small towns still generally have an adequate share of the classic downtown structures that are caricatured as Disneyland Main Street, and that were built across the continent between the Civil War era and World War II. Also to a surprising degree, they are being revived, through the virtuous cycle of: businesses and companies moving their headquarters back downtown; people deciding to live downtown; and retail and entertainment following the movement of residents and visitors back downtown.

Different elements are involved in each part of the equation. Two generations  boomer-era couples or individuals who decide to move back from the suburbs where they raised their families, and millennial-era individuals or couples who prefer not to live in suburbs at all  are driving the residential boom. The dining, entertainment, and craft-brew movement (which is, again, surprisingly important in civic revival) have focused on downtown locations as well.

A group of young cyclists in downtown Allentown, Penn. (Shutterstock)

These factors have convinced businesses that downtown locations will help them attract young talent  for instance, tech entrepreneurs in both Erie and Allentown, Pennsylvania, are moving their headquarters downtown explicitly because young employees prefer that. 

In all the cases we looked at, many hands led to a positive result: Business leaders, who decided to invest where they thought the city's future should be. Mayors, regulators, and other public officials who changed rules and made investments to favor the downtown and discourage sprawl. (I am thinking now of a dozen cities to illustrate this point, from Greenville, South Carolina to Fresno, California.) Arts groups who helped revive struggling parts of a town and draw new interest and life there. Foundations and charities, on the local and national scale  including the National Endowment for the Arts. And state and federal grants.

The old homily about victory having a thousand fathers seems to apply here  but in a legitimate way. When downtowns are coming back, it's because so many people are working to help them do so. 

When downtowns are coming back, it's because so many people are working to help them do so.

Are civic organizations and mediating institutions like the Rotary, PTA, and even neighborhood associations still vital to forming the social capital you say is essential to a healthy community? Or are we onto a new era of civic institutions?

By chance, or maybe predictably, my wife Deb and I were reading Democracy in America off and on during our journeys. And of course one of the main themes Tocqueville stressed was the "associative" characteristic of Americans of the early 1800s  their propensity to form groups at the local level and deal with civic problems through that means. 

We're aware of all the arguments and evidence about the loss of that civic fabric in today's America. But time and again, we saw signs of the resiliency and re-creation of "associative" bonds within communities, of both old and new forms.

There are cities where the same organizations you would have identified many decades ago, from the Rotary to the PTA, were the most important forces of civic connection. In some other places, the most important institutions had been created only a few years ago  a local-food organization in one area, a sports league in another, a refugee-resettlement alliance in a third.

Again, the specifics of civic engagement varied significantly from place to place. The main constant was its importance  and the marker, for successful (versus struggling) cities of having identifiable civic-connection groups. 

The specifics of civic engagement varied significantly from place to place. The main constant was its importance  and the marker, for successful (versus struggling) cities of having identifiable civic-connection groups.

You write how immigrants are reshaping communities like Erie, Pennsylvania. What can larger U.S. cities learn from the way Erie has absorbed immigrants? For example, how do they manage the tension that arises when longtime residents feel like they are losing their sense of place?

My understanding of the long saga of American immigration is that two strong patterns have almost always prevailed. 

One of those is that immigration has always been disruptive  to some degree. Consider the long list; the Germans arriving before the Civil War, or the Irish after it, or the successive waves of northern and eastern Europeans at the turn of the 20th century, and Vietnamese and Laotians in the 1970s, and Iranians in the 1980s, and Chinese and Japanese in many eras, and Mexicans throughout, and people from Africa and every other region. To read the history of any of these movements is to know that ethnic, economic, and cultural change is always and by definition disruptive.

The other great truth is that the United States has differed from many other countries in usually surmounting the dislocation, and recognizing the constantly renewing force of immigration as one of its long-term strategic advantages, as well as a crucial part of its "nation of immigrants" identity.

Immigration is an advantage in measurable ways  for instance, the huge proportion of successful companies founded by immigrants or their children  but also in this intangible way: With only 5 percent of the world's population, the U.S. can draw on a much larger proportion of the world's ambitious and creative talent, because people from other countries believe they can realize their dreams or ambitions here. 

Immigration is an advantage in measurable ways  for instance, the huge proportion of successful companies founded by immigrants or their children  but also in this intangible way: With only 5 percent of the world's population, the U.S. can draw on a much larger proportion of the world's ambitious and creative talent, because people from other countries believe they can realize their dreams or ambitions here.

Still, city by city and year by year, there can be dislocation and tension. One of the main lessons of our travel is backed up by Pew and Gallup polls, and also corresponds to the pattern of the Brexit vote. That is: the parts of the country where fears of immigration are greatest, and where "Build a Wall" passions run highest, are generally those where few immigrants have come. The places where immigrants and refugees have arrived to raise families and start businesses are, on the whole, much more relaxed about the ongoing cultural shift and economic growth than places where "the other" is a theoretical menace. 

I think of an Anglo entrepreneur in Dodge City, Kansas, who had himself grown up on a farm in Nebraska. He talked about the shift of the public school population to a majority-Latino status, as mainly Mexican families arrived to work in meatpacking plants and agriculture. This man told us that at the latest Christmas celebration, his elementary school son "was the only one in the family who knew all the verses to Feliz Navidad in Spanish. We thought that was pretty cool." 

When I asked this man, who is a conservative Republican, whether he was worried about the changing ethnic identity of the town, he almost scoffed. "Come on," he said. "We all started out somewhere else."

Familes enjoy a historical demonstration in Dodge City, Kansas. (via Facebook @DodgeCityCVB)

So, yes, cultural change brings some resistance, and always has. Dealing with it sympathetically is important  but so is recognizing the long saga of which this is part.

So, yes, cultural change brings some resistance, and always has. Dealing with it sympathetically is important  but so is recognizing the long saga of which this is part.

I was most struck by your finding that the communities you all observed had a strong narrative. That’s not what you naturally think of when it comes to urban renewal. What does that mean? And what sparks it in a community?

We began thinking about this phenomenon, which we termed "knowing the civic story," about a year into our travels. We'd noticed something similar about a variety of places that otherwise had great differences: a southern former mill town like Greenville S.C., a far northeastern former fish-canning town like Eastport, Maine, a capital of the prairie, like Sioux Falls S.D., and a classic upper-Midwest manufacturing town like Holland, Michigan. 

In all of these places, something had happened to disrupt the economic or cultural fabric  in most cases, an economic or technological shift that had pulled away a foundation of local businesses. So people in the town needed to figure out how to respond. And while for some of them that meant moving away, and for others it was the beginning of a decline from which they never fully recovered, for the towns that were finding a new way ahead, a shared sense of where they were going, and why was a surprisingly important organizing and motivating tool.

…for the towns that were finding a new way ahead, a shared sense of where they were going, and why was a surprisingly important organizing and motivating tool.

At the national level, great American political leaders have had this story-telling ability, to help the public understand how the successes and challenges of the moment are tied to the arc of America's past  and where the right sacrifices or investments might lead the country as a whole.

This sense of national narrative is of course most urgently necessary in times of war or emergency  the greatest speeches by the two greatest presidential orators, Lincoln and FDR, amount to helping the country understand where it is, but also where it might go. "Better angels of our nature," "nothing to fear but fear itself" – these and countless less-celebrated terms are ways in which a leader can help his or her public understand the link between today's realities and tomorrow's possibilities. 

The Dallas Arts District has been credited with helping to revive the city's central district and downtown. (Shutterstock)

Although the comparison might seem a stretch, something like that can be significant on the civic level as well. Fostering new businesses and revitalizing old downtowns, in their less dramatic way, are the local counterparts of the national struggles for justice and survival.

Fostering new businesses and revitalizing old downtowns, in their less dramatic way, are the local counterparts of the national struggles for justice and survival.

And since they involve patience in even the best of circumstances, and a stomach for setbacks and extra burdens in many cases, a shared sense of why such efforts are worthwhile, and where they can lead, can make an enormous difference.

The details of the civic story vary widely  as they should, since the particular history of a town in Mississippi differs from one in Oregon or Vermont. What matters is that there is a story, which gives citizens and leaders a sense of where their efforts might lead.

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