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What Makes American Towns Thrive

The title of James and Deborah Fallows’ new book, “Our Towns: A 100,000-mile Journey into the Heart of America,” recalls Thornton Wilder’s play “Our Town.” But where Wilder displays a feeling of despair lingering in America’s small towns, the Fallowses find a spirit of satisfaction, if not outright pride by their residents.

The Fallowses do not pretend to update Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America.” There is no search for how a community’s ethos sustains our democracy, rather they talk about the rebirth of towns in the face of declining jobs, vanishing businesses and shrinking populations.

Over the span of five years, they fly their single-engine prop airplane to dozens of cities. Although the towns range in size from East Port, Maine, with a population of 1,400, to Columbus, Ohio, 15th-largest American city, they mainly visit smaller and middle-size cities that are not satellites of larger metropolitan areas. Soon after their arrival, they would ask, “Who makes this town go?” As one might expect, often they end up talking to the civic leaders, most of whom are businessmen, wealthy benefactors and politicians. On occasion they speak to a worker, although never a union leader. In fact, the few times that unions are mentioned they are seen as obstructing efforts to improve their town.

In summarizing their observations at the end of the book, the Fallowses list a number of signs for civic success. Some are obvious, such as being next to a research facility, which attracts high-income-earning workers and a steady flow of government funding. The other standout indication is developing an attractive downtown that sustains small businesses and draws in regional shoppers.

One controversial sign they found was a reliance on public-private partnerships to attract new businesses, rebuild old downtowns and educate students who might otherwise be ignored. James Fallows admits that he was unfamiliar with the concept, thinking it was a euphemism for sweetheart deals between big government and big business.

He is mute on that relationship in the examples he cites, the one exception being the experience of Allentown, Pennsylvania, which didn’t end well for the half-dozen public officials who pleaded guilty, or their mayor who was indicted, for taking payoffs in exchange for construction contracts.

Apparently the voters didn’t mind some corruption if they experienced economic growth. More than $1 billion had been committed to their downtown over five years, after adopting a unique new tax scheme designating a multiblock downtown area, in which all state and city taxes generated by the new private development would go to retire bonds to cover construction costs. After being indicted, the mayor was re-elected to a fourth term. No word from Fallows if he was found guilty.

An unexpected sign, one with a liberal approach, is having an open and welcoming culture to all ethnic groups, particularly for immigrants and refugees. Cities as diverse as Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and Burlington, Vermont, have been resettlement cities for refugees for decades. The civic leaders in those two cities believed they benefited by the refugees. The Fallows found other cities shared that belief with regards to their dramatic increase in ethnic minorities, even at times outnumbering the host white population. A business manager in Dodge City, Kansas, whose school-age population is more than 70 percent nonwhite, said, “people here … recognize that we’re in this together. The immigrants are the engine that keeps this community alive.”

Overall, the Fallowses discovered that while national politics are divisive, successful communities ignore those divisions and focus on getting things done. They point to Michael Coleman in Columbus, Ohio, and Ashley Swerengin in Fresno, California, where a Democrat and Republican were elected and stayed in office, despite their respective communities being strongholds of the opposite party. They remained popular because they avoided rhetoric and focused on concrete solutions. Not a bad message to hear these days.

Nick Licata is author of Becoming A Citizen Activist, and has served 5 terms on the Seattle City Council, named progressive municipal official of the year by The Nation, and is founding board chair of Local Progress, a national network of 1,000 progressive municipal officials.

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