Book Review: Our Towns by James and Deborah Fallows

 

Our Towns: A 100,000-mile Journey into the Heart of America
James and Deborah Fallows
Pantheon
413 pages, $28.95


Full Disclosure: I have exchanged emails with Jim Fallows, who is a big craft beer fan, and I am quoted in the book.

 

This is an unusual review, but I encourage you to stick with me. Our Towns is not a beer book. Jim Fallows is a writer for The Atlantic, and his wife is a PhD linguist who has written broadly From 2013 to 2016, they flew around the country in their little Cirrus SR-22 airplane and dropped into mid-sized towns like Bend, Oregon, Wichita, Kansas, and Greenville, South Carolina for a few weeks to report how life looks in towns this size. They called the project "American Futures," and put together hundreds of features on The Atlantic website. Our Towns contains some of that material along with the lessons they learned from the project.

The United States has long fascinated writers. It contains an essential paradox that has yet to resolve in nearly 250 years: the US is gigantic and apparently coherent--towns look much the same, with their McDonald's and Starbucks and freeways and ranch house, in New Jersey, Iowa, and California--yet is pockmarked with cultural fissures and contradictions. Famous journeys into this "heart of America" made Alexis de Tocqueville and William Least Heat-Moon household names. Both revealed that the more one digs into America, the least sense it makes.

The Fallows had a slightly different objective, one suited for the times. The American paradox in the first decades of the new century have inverted somewhat. Mass media and the internet have given it the appearance of shrinking to a knowable size and made it seem more torn culturally than at any time in living history. The Fallows wondered how much this view--broadly widespread and accepted--reflected the way people actually thought and lived. To their credit, the Fallows resisted over-interpreting (and often resisted interpreting altogether), choosing to simply report and reveal wherever possible.

Jim Fallows cut his teeth as Jimmy Carter's chief speech writer and has been a working journalist for the best part of 40 years, and yet he writes in a style that is perfectly suited for modern tastes. I hear in him--and you all know this is a compliment--the voice of a blogger. It makes him a natural to write the observational pieces in the book. An example from the Bend chapter:

During my walks along Wall Street from our hotel toward downtown, I would pass a small strip mall where one storefront had little signage but a leaf. After a while, it dawned on me that this was one of Bend's new, legal marijuana dispensaries.

One day, I stood outside debating with myself whether or not to enter. My inner dialogue went something like this: "I should go in." "What will I ask?" "It's reporting!" "Do I need some special language?" "I'm kind of afraid to go in." "I'll go in." So I did.

Once he does go in, Fallows discovers a whole new reporting opportunity and tells the story of Hunter Neubauer and the economics of legal cannabis. He's able to braid it easily with the story of life on the high desert and the transition from logging town to regional mecca. (He also visits Prineville and Redmond, which offer contrasting examples of life in central Oregon.)

 The Fallows' little airplane.

The Fallows' little airplane.

Individual chapters are interesting but not, on their own, entirely illuminating. It is the force of the stories of different towns told one after the other that produces a sense of understanding. The book starts, for example, with Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The Fallows observed that it seemed "over-retailed"; there were way too many stores and restaurants for the population. That's because people come into Sioux Falls to shop, go to the doctor, and so on; it has become the focal point for people living in a 200-mile radius. Thus we learn of the "fringe-city" advantage. That's interesting, but specific. One leaves thinking, "huh."

Holland, Michigan arrives two chapters later, and serves as a remarkable contrast. A city of industrialists, it is the home to the religious Hope College and the DeVos family (Betsy is the current Education Secretary). The anecdotes that emerge from Holland are strange and amazing, like the way in which one local, Edgar Prince, pumped hot water used to cool his factory underneath the sidewalks downtown to keep them snow-free in the winter. More interesting is the story about how the conservative white population decided to fund the local schools that served a majority of students who were poor and nonwhite. A similar story played out in Dodge City, Kansas.

Not all small cities are conservative (though most are--including most in this book). The authors spent time in Burlington, Vermont, one of the most liberal cities in the US (and where Bernie Sanders got his political start). In what I started to recognize as a pattern, Burlington has a relatively large population of immigrants, in this case refugees from all over the world who come via the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program. It became an emblem of a very hopeful trend that appeared throughout the book; while we hear about how balkanized and tribal America has become, on a local level there are many examples of people of disparate backgrounds coming together. I didn't get that from one chapter alone, but the accretion of stories in community after community.

The beer piece is a small one. The chapter on Duluth, Minnesota (where I'll be in three weeks giving a speech) describes the way the Bent Paddle brewery, which was established "in a long-abandoned steelworks on the less-prosperous west side of town" acted as an engine for redevelopment in the neighborhood. This is a topic I discussed as recently as Friday (and more completely here), so we can safely leave that aside now. It's relevant in exactly the way stories about other magnet businesses, schools, colleges, libraries, natural resources, and more have been harnessed by communities to improve a city's fortunes. As beer people know, Bent Paddle is standing in here for thousands of breweries around the country that have done the same the

I guess one key area where one could strap beer onto the Fallows' discoveries about America is this: like much of the activity in small-city USA, beer creates a space of common ground. The current narrative of the US is one of intractable division, but in the event, people of very different backgrounds do often come together for a common purpose.  It's not just beer--there are many domains that serve this purpose.

Reading their book, one experiences a series of small insights about what's working in the US, and they collect to offer a far happier vision of America. I have to say it's a real balm given what shows up in my daily news feed. The book isn't a pollyanna-ish happy story, either, but objective reporting on 29 different small cities across the country. 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. You'll understand it more deeply if you read this book.