Listen to “James & Deborah Fallows on ‘Our Towns’: a Craftsmanship Artisan Interview”
Narrated by Todd Oppenheimer
This husband-and-wife journalism team spent four years crisscrossing the United States in a small plane, visiting dozens of small towns. The stories they found were surprising—and entirely contrary to the narrative we’ve all read about in the news. They saw communities engaged in a vigorous process of economic renewal—a stunning portrait, in sum, of an America reinventing itself, literally from the ground up. They published their findings in “Our Towns: a 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America,” (Penguin Random House, 2018) and produced an HBO documentary of the same name in 2021. They also founded Our Towns Civic Foundation, a nonprofit initiative that continues their work.
Because their story overlaps so forcefully with the theme of our Winter 2022 issue, “Reviving Our Abandoned Small Towns”, we snagged Jim and Deb for a sit-down interview with Todd Oppenheimer, founder and executive director of The Craftsmanship Initiative.
This episode is part of our series of “Artisan Interviews,” in which we bring you conversations with the artisans behind the stories, and with those who write about them.
Chris: For this edition of our series, artisan interviews, we're privileged to have two highly esteemed journalists, the husband and wife team of James and Deborah Fallows. Jim Fallows, the author of numerous groundbreaking books on both national and international affairs, and the winner of some of journalism's highest awards spent, decades as the lead writer for the Atlantic. He's also a longtime friend of The Craftsmanship Initiative, and serves as an editorial advisor to our multimedia magazine: Craftsmanship Quarterly.
Deb Fallows has written extensively on topics such as education, families, and work for a variety of national publications. And she's been a fellow at both the Pew Research Center and the Washington DC based think tank New America.
Deb and Jim recently spent four years crisscrossing the United States in a small plane visiting dozens of small towns. The story they saw over and over was both surprising and entirely contrary to the narrative we all read about in the news.
Almost everywhere they stopped, they found communities engaged in a vigorous process of economic reformation. A stunning portrait of an America reinventing itself, literally from the ground up.
The Fallows' is have now given us a distillation of their findings. First, in a 2018 book entitled Our Towns: a 100,000 Mile Journey Into the Heart of America. And then, in 2021, in an HBO documentary of the same name. Because their story overlaps so forcefully with the theme of our Winter 2022 issue Reviving Our Abandoned Small Towns, we snagged Jim and Deb for a sit-down interview, to see if they could answer the questions we're struggling with. How can the miles of boarded up towns in rural America use the abundant natural resources that surround them to rebuild local economies? If local businesses are rebuilt, how can they compete with Amazon and Walmart, and their ever-growing presence? What mistakes did they see in some local revival efforts that other towns should avoid? And, first, before even diving into these tricky questions, how to local leaders who want to go down this road even begin?
The craftsmanship initiative's Executive Director Todd Oppenheimer sat down with Jim and Deborah to dig into these questions and more.
Todd: One of the things that occurred to me is... well, I had two sort of main questions. The first is at a certain point does someone in town... you talk a lot about how you need a local driver, a, you know, local hero,someone who's really got the guts. But at a certain point you have to sort of practice that "if you build it, they will come" kind of mentality.
James: So I think that it's, there is one advantage, small and remote communities may have in this process of just "making a big gamble and seeing what we can do," which is that they don't have the sort of bedroom community plate that many places do that. If people are living there, they're generally living "there." Their families may be from there, or they've chosen to come there or, or whatever. Deb wrote about a family in De Smet, South Dakota, that just moved there from Baltimore with their teenage and younger daughters to have a new life and in the Prairie. And I think that the sense of "we care about this particular place," by definition, you have more of those people in a smaller community than, than you might in suburban LA or suburban New York or whatever.
And I think the "if you build it, they will come" gamble is if you don't build it, you know, they will not come. So it's, you know, it's not symmetrical, you don't know they're going to come, but you know they're not if you don't build it. And so having that, saying, "we're going to take the necessary, but not sufficient step of doing what we can." And it's like anything else in life of political activities or starting a business or starting a family or anything else of that sort.
Deborah: And I think back to the, "do you need a local hero?" We've seen, maybe we've been more sensitive to lately of seeing a cluster of the local heroes working together, especially in these small towns where it seems like you need a critical mass of several dedicated people to get something going who will just kind of beat the drum and get a lot of other people on board. I think we used to think it was one person more than. We think that now. I tend to think that it's a little cluster of people, which is of course healthier.
James: I was seeing somebody in the wisdom of Twitter in the last day or two, just with an aphorism saying that "the aging process is less cruel if you think you've tried your best." And this, you know, these towns, you know, who knows what's going to happen to them, but if they're trying their best. You know, that somehow there may be disappointment that comes, but there is some engagement and involvement of just being in there and being in the fray. So I think that, that each example of people doing that and showing a path and what they've learned makes it easier for others. We've heard that in civil rights, you know, revolutions and democratization and all the rest. So that is my wisdom of Twitter.
Todd: George Bernard Shaw once put it this way, which animated me in my former career in the theater. He would say, "an artist wants to feel thoroughly used up by the time he's thrown on the scrap heap." And I think you could say, you know, more than artists want to feel that. You know, we as humans, we like to pit ourselves against the world and feel like we've given it our all.
Another couple of advantages for these small towns occurs to me — and I'm curious if you've seen data to support it — which is that they may have a better ability to bring people back who have left because there's a pride of place when you grow up in a small town that I don't think you quite get in the big cities. And, you know, what you've written about a lot, you know, there's that "Avis, we try harder" thing where, you know, "everybody laughs at us, we'll show them."
And then there's just the, you know, my grandmother was here, my great grandmother, my dad built the post office or whatever it is. And so if they can find a reason to go back if, when some local visionary starts to build, you know, the new brew pub or the community arts center, whatever... Do those locals who've left say, "Hey, wait a second. I've had enough of Boston. You know, that's a cool thing I'd like to be part of."
James: We could not possibly agree more strongly than we do with that. And I don't know any of the "big macro data," as they would call it, to support that. But certainly we keep seeing illustrations of this. We were in Macon, Georgia about a month ago for odd reasons. We were traveling by little plane. We got fogged in there for a couple of days. We went to the birthday party of some guy who was in his mid thirties I'd guess who sort of the head of historic Macon, and everybody around the table was somebody from that part of Georgia who'd been in Atlanta or LA or Chicago, and they thought something was happening and make it, and they were coming back there.
And one of them was now doing electric vehicle work for the Bluebird bus company, which makes school busses. And one of them had a restaurant, and one of them had some remote business. And so I think if I had to name one of the biggest surprises of our years on the road, it's how strong the sense of "from this" is. You know, we're all from the place we're from. And I think especially small towns. And as people are reconsidering with the pandemic, and as different kinds of work possibilities are making this possible, and you're thinking, "where would I like to raise my children? Where are my where's my family?" We see this all the time and I hope and expect that data will catch up about certainly that is what we see.
Deborah: Yeah. I think earlier, before the pandemic, we saw case by case by case of this happening. The kid from Erie, Pennsylvania, who went to San Diego, tried to get into the culinary world. It didn't work out. So she was going to come back to Erie, Pennsylvania, where they had taste like she had taste. But those stories took more of a story to make that happen. It took more bravery. It took more guts on her part to say, "I didn't fail. I just need, I just, this, this isn't right. And I'm going to go back to where I understand it."
Since the pandemic, I think it's a lot easier for people to do that. They don't need an excuse anymore. It's, it's something you can do without feeling embarrassed or awkward that you're going home. "Look, why should I stay in Brooklyn? I'm going back to South Dakota and just see what it's like there, at least for a little while." And then, then the waves of surprises. Like, "boy, it doesn't look anything like it looked when I left." Those stories. We've heard a lot.
I think there are actually data for this. Like I was talking to one woman who said, "I work in vehicle registration in Maine and boy, all you have to do is look at all the new vehicles that are registering from wherever they were to the small town in Maine where they had a second home or where they grew up or where they had some kind of connection." So vehicle registration, and also real estate. In South Dakota people are selling their houses without any place to go because they're getting such good offers from people from Silicon Valley, or Baltimore. This family who decided to go there. So I think, they're actually are data. We, we just haven't minded, but it it's funny places like that.
Todd: Two, two quick questions. One is, you made me think, Jim, when you said, you know, "where do I want to raise my kids?" Is it possible to make any generalizations about the quality of education in these small towns versus some of the bigger cities where there's so much going against the schools, and certainly equity and all those kinds of things.
James: It's hard for me to, to generalize because you know, the U S has what, 15,000 school districts, and they're also disparate in their funding and everything else. And I think there are places where the poison of national politics is famously seeping down to the local school board level, which is something really to be resisted. But I think that the young families that we've seen deciding to move back, either places they are from or places they would like their children to be from... whether they can have an educational and life richness for their children, which depends on the school districts, is a very important part of it.
So I would think that that that is if one were having, "how can we build it so people will come?" That's one of those crucial elements, again, along with broadband, along probably with healthcare. I think the schools are also just on that list.
Deborah: Yeah. So a little background in this. During the pandemic, I started joining the weekly zooms with an economic development group in South Dakota. And so I, I feel like I'm a native now because it was people from small towns gathering every week for two years, talking about their smell towns and what, what was going on and what they could do.
And they were getting big influxes of people. One of the main topics they talked about was, "oh, well we want these people to come. We've got to do better by our schools." But that was kind of right next door to, "the people are coming because their kids can get a saner, healthier, safer, richer, more diverse life in our community. But we got to pay attention to the schools because that's the expectation of the people who are coming, that they're going to want schools that might be better than what we've got already." So I think it's, it's a big element of, of a kind of more textured piece.
Todd: Yeah. I mean, I guess the same thing goes for teachers where they make decisions of where they're going to go. I have two, two other kind of critical questions. Maybe three if we have time. One is what have been some of the common mistakes you've seen with revival efforts? You know, if someone going to try to think big, what should they be careful of?
James: I think one of them is too short a time horizon. That it's not going to be an overnight success. You know, the pandemic changed a lot of things very suddenly, but most of the towns that have really rebuild themselves, it's a matter of thinking 10 years from now, what does this gonna look like? And even beyond that for, you know, the parks and the natural environment. So I guess here are the two main things I would see a shortfalls. One, again is a too short of a time horizon of thinking that if this hasn't worked in two or three years, then let's just give up because it is going to take longer than that for all sorts of reasons.
The other is thinking, "We can be the next X. We're going to be the next, you know, Eastport, Maine. We're going to be the next Ajo, Arizona. We're going to be the next El Dorado, Arkansas, whatever your small town is. The ambition, as with people, is to be the next better version of yourself, of itself. Which requires really knowing what it is about that town that would make people interested in coming there is that the natural setting, is it, there's a university nearby, is it, you know, a possibility for remote work? So I think those are the two main failures or mistakes don't you think?
Deborah: Yeah, I think another one is getting buy-in from the local citizenry. That if somebody comes up with what they think is a good idea and can say, "okay, here's how it's gonna work." That the resentment and the kind of infighting and the lack of enthusiasm by people in the town who felt that they weren't consulted, they didn't necessarily want to be part of this... it can make the whole thing kind of collapsed from the inside. And that, you know, you think like, "well, you've got a good idea. Let's just make this work. We'll just convince everyone. This is a great idea." But where it seems to be more successful is you can talk it through from the beginning and get the consensus at the very bottom that a town has some kind of values that are important to them. And this is how it feeds into it. Or, "yeah, they do want to do something for their kids. So should they build a splash pad? Well, we'd like a swimming pool, but we can't afford a swimming pool." So maybe these are these long conversations that go around a set of, of desires, but you need to really listen to so many people for it to commit, and stick with it, and make it work out.
James: Deb is distilling two years worth of South Dakota conversations in these past two minutes.
Todd: Yeah, I can imagine. Jim, your comment was interesting. It reminded me what you've discovered as a local version of what you wrote about internationally. When you wrote the book "More Like Us."
James: are nice to remember that. And you know, in my pitch to our American compatriots... so the back in the 1980s, of course, Japan was seeming all dominant and the idea was to become, you know, to, to beat Japan and, and learn from what Japan was doing. And of course you need to learn from everybody and that's part of our mission and your mission. But, for the U S it was a matter of being more, not more like them, but more like us. More open, more mobile, experimental, et cetera, et cetera. And for towns too, it's being more like a De Smet, or more like a Dodge City, Kansas, or more like a Winters, California, or more like Redlands. And I'll show you an artifact that I have in my wall after we're done, so you'll, which I'm thinking of when we're talking.
Deborah: Yeah. You know, there's, one other thing that fits into the success versus failure that we've heard a lot. And I think we first heard it in Eastport, Maine, is you don't want the outsiders to come in with their big idea on how to fix something.
It's gotta be somebody who's really dedicated to this ground and putting their money where their mouth is. You can't be a big factor in change in the town unless you live here, unless you really get it. Unless you're willing to do the dirty work yourself too. If you're in Maine, it can't be somebody from Boston, who's going to come in with a big fat checkbook and fix this town. They have to prove themselves if they're going to do that, but it's, it needs to really be part of the air they breathe in Eastport.
Todd: One of the other questions I had, and this may be more for you, Deb, is like everybody I've watched downtowns, if not die, go in decline. Even in San Francisco or the big prosperous cities, largely because of Amazon and Internet commerce. And it's painful to watch this slow, slow death when it's so obvious. You know, you go into a big fancy store and there's three people working there and there's one customer. If that. I really worry about downtowns as a vibrant place.
And I was brainstorming with some people about it. And one guy who is active in water conservation, he said, you know, where is it written that downtown, you know, a community center or the center of a community, has to be about commerce and buying. You know, we're going to have to move into something else. And with all your work on libraries as being community builders, I wonder what thoughts you have on that in terms of missed moments of progress, missed ways of thinking, places that have started to already think that way and have just said, "goodbye to our big box stores or whatever else, let's build a, you know, community..." Now in times of COVID, this has all been hurt, but you know what I'm saying?
Deborah: I think that the whole main street movements and community core movements are at a point where the business development is one piece, but it's just one piece of it. You hear in these conversations, "downtown beautification, building sidewalk structures so old people can walk downtown too, where are they going to meet? Well, we've got a few buildings that are empty. Who's going to make that into a community center or a senior center? And we want a piece of the history and an expression of who we are in that place. Like, we want signs that say, 'welcome to my hometown,' with murals next to them."
So, it's a necessary piece to have shop local, keep the little stores, have a reason for more people to be downtown so they can buy things and do things there. And those places will pay taxes and they'll give donations and you know, it's a whole cycle of building the community spirit. But I think it's even the economic development people realize that they are just a piece of the whole puzzle. you need all these other pieces to have a healthy downtown, a recreational downtown, something for the kids, something for the old people, something that's not judgemental and that lots of different people have reasons to be there, not just to go shopping or to have an office there.
Todd: This is interesting. So when it comes to local businesses, this is sort of the thought that got me thinking about this issue two years ago, when I first started. We actually went out to visit our mutual friend, Bill Whitworth, my wife and I, and had a great time. And during one of our free days, we drove to Helena, Arkansas, which is, you know, one of the birthplaces of the blues. And I don't know if you know much about that town, but it was once a very vibrant cultural place. The blues were extremely fertile there, and now it's just another boarded up town and many of the communities along the way are the same.
And it's super, super sad. And angering. And it's what made me think, "my Lord, we, we, as a culture have taken vast stretches of this country and just thrown them in the trash." And there are layers of reasons for that, you know, there's the automation, and the going overseas, and the, you know, lots of that stuff and, you know, factories closed because they got out competed and so on and so on.
And often in those communities, it's a one industry town where the big factory drove everything. And near Helena I think it was a tire factory. But what I kept thinking as I was driving around and I said, "I'm driving through this place with all of these resources. There's land. There's timber. There's minerals or rock under the land. And they're people who come from a culture of making things of knowing what to do with their hands, unlike in cities. And how, why can't we put that together for more local businesses that can out-compete the Walmart or dollar general that have driven those businesses out?"
James: I was doing a post a couple of months ago about a revival downtown in Toledo, Ohio. And they were saying that their resource is going to be fresh water. That, that, you know, they're not making more fresh water and the Great Lakes have them. So I, I think that there are some of these sort of historical emptying outs that do not correct themselves. You know, there were a century ago, there were a lot more small cities in the U S, or small towns, than there are now.
But somebody has written about one. By the time you get a settlement of 20 or 25,000 people, it doesn't ever go away. They find ways to kind of over time repurpose themselves. When they're smaller than that, some of them find ways to have a future. Some of them do not. And it's, it's sort of a harder calculation when you're in the single digit thousands. But I think that the pandemic may be the beginning of a kind of arbitrage or recalculation of the advantages of less expensive land, and fewer of the harassments of big city life, and more of the natural resources and all the rest. So I think that, again, the more people call attention to these possibilities as you are doing now, the greater the chance the possibilities will be realized.
Todd: Yeah, I keep thinking, like, what are these poor communities do about what I would call the Walmart problem? You know, the power and cheapness and convenience. Amazon's the same, you know, that just is squatting over all of these, these local possibilities.
James: You know, to me, if I were a small town planner now, the downtown future will have a smaller proportion of retail outlets than was the case 50 years ago, just because Amazon and Walmart have changed the landscape. And they'll have a larger proportion of civic institutions, as you're saying: libraries, and meeting places, and parks, and schools, and all that. They'll have more gathering places, whether it's brew pubs, or restaurants, or diners, or whatever. And more places of using that human desire to be together with a smaller retail component, because just change that, that part of history.
Deborah: And there are two other interesting models for what we've seen. One is a kind of agreement that two towns came to Dodge city, Kansas and Garden City, Kansas. And Garden City is the one that still has the big box stores. Dodge City doesn't have big box stores anymore. They have little mom and pop shops. And they don't look down on each other as much as they used to because it's, "okay, if I need some at a big box store, I'll go to Garden City. Okay, if I want something interesting or unique or a different kind of restaurant, I'm going to Dodge City. So they're only 10 or 12 miles apart, which is like throw a stone in Kansas and you can get from one to the other, but that kind of regional cooperation or collaboration, they're stuck in those themes. Garden City can't get rid of those box doors, but they've found a way to kind of make a bigger living shed with those two towns together. The other thing that I heard about-
Todd: And they did that, they did that in coordination with each other? That's a conscious thing?
James: I think in loose coordination, it originated in resent. Dodge City resented Garden City's big box stores. Garden City resented Dodge City having the Gun Smoke Long Branch Saloon and there. But now they work together.
Deborah: And in a lot of these small towns in once again, South Dakota, especially during the pandemic, these little mom and pop places couldn't do it. You know, the grocery store couldn't possibly compete. They couldn't get their orders in. Trucks only delivered once a week during the pandemic. Everything in the supply chain got caved in, so they decided to make their own cooperatives. So several small grocery would get together and do their orders together. So they were, know, small makes themselves big by cooperation, but they're still remaining small, but survival tactic. Restaurants, grocery stores, hardware stores, you name it stores from little communities that were near each other, found ways to work together.
Todd: That's very cool. That's really cool.
Chris: Today's guests were Jim and Deborah Fallows. They were interviewed by Craftsmanship Quarterly Executive Director, Todd Oppenheimer. This episode was produced by me, Chris Egusa. The Fallows' were so taken with the creativity they saw during their years of reporting on small communities, that they've created an ongoing enterprise called the Our Towns Civic Foundation, where their stories are collected. The foundation, which lives on a website called ourtownsfoundation.org, features their HBO film, excerpts from their book, and new stories that they, and their writers, continue to discover.
And, we're excited to announce a partnership with the Our Towns Civic Foundation. So you can expect to see more collaboration and joint projects in the future.
You can read and experience more stories about small town revivals and other topics at Craftsmanship Quarterly, a multimedia online magazine about artisans, innovators, and the architecture of excellence. More stories, videos, audio recordings, and resources on craftsmanship can be found at craftsmanship.net.