There’s optimism and can-do spirit outside Washington: ‘Our Towns’ documentary shows it
America, viewed through the prism of Washington and national politics, is a bitterly polarized country. That’s what columnists like me write all the time. I don’t doubt President Biden’s sincerity, but when politicians like Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) talk about finding consensus on issues like voting rights or taxes or health care, it’s a joke.
There is a different America, one that Deb and Jim Fallows discovered in four years flying, in their small plane, around the country. It’s one imbued with a sense of community, an appreciation for the quality of life, a willingness to change and innovate, and to directly confront real problems.
The Fallowses, journalistic national treasures, first wrote a book about these experiences. This week it premiered as an HBO documentary, “Our Towns,” on a half dozen communities: Redlands and San Bernardino, Calif., and Bend, Ore., on the West Coast — to Eastport, Maine, the eastern-most town in the country. In the middle are Sioux Falls, S.D., Charleston, W.Va., and Columbus, Miss.
Each of these towns faced hard times, economic dislocations, and found, or are finding, a way to reinvent themselves. Rather than the national political divide, these folks are into attracting development, improving education, celebrating culture, appreciating the richness of libraries and welcoming diversity.
The Fallowses didn’t just parachute in, visit a union hall, the local chamber and a diner; they spent weeks.
Drawing on Japanese culture from their time there, Deb Fallows says initially, most folks are “Tatemae,” saying what they think you want to hear — but after a while, they are “Honne,” telling you what they really think.
They have much to talk about: a billion-dollar computer mapping firm in Redlands, an artist community in Eastport, a Mississippi community college, the rich heritage in Sioux Falls, the renovation of Charleston’s West side (including a new barber shop, a West Virginia corn whisky distillery) or diverse activities in Bend, where if there’s new ski powder, it’s understood you’ll be late for work.
Jim Fallows notes a leading indicator: “The number of breweries indicates how well a town is doing.” Craft beer is flowing.
There is educational innovation. The once faltering Cajon High School in San Bernardino now has a 90 percent graduation rate and prepares students for college, community college, and vocational or service jobs right out of high school. One of America’s most important — too often under-appreciated — assets are community colleges, which prepare a workforce for the new economies, global challenges. “We lift up the community as a whole,” says Raj Shaunak of East Mississippi Community College.
Newspapers, an industry beset with financial difficulties, are vital for local communities. The Charleston Gazette-Mail exposed the way big pharmaceutical companies were dumping opioids into small West Virginia towns. Then there’s the Quoddy Tides in Eastport, Maine, which circulates twice a month in Eastport and small surrounding counties. It is robust, full of news.
“Without newspapers, Democracy will really suffer,” says Edward French, who — with his wife, Lora Whelan — runs the Quoddy Tides: “It’s important for newspapers not to keep cutting back because if you keep cutting there’s less and less reason for people to buy the paper.”
Every place has problems, some tragedies. These towns are working hard to meet them, often creatively.
In San Bernardino, they seek out the homeless to tell them about affordable housing opportunities. In Sioux Falls there’s a farmer’s stress hotline, cutting back on suicides. Angela Kennecke, a television reporter, has educated viewers on the drug crisis; her daughter died of heroin. In Charleston some police officers and teachers, with grants, are moving into homes in a troubled neighborhood, and one construction company only hires felons. Overwhelmingly white Bend is working on diversifying.
Communities that evolve are addressing the past. In Columbus the local high school deals — in depth — each year with Mississippi’s stain of segregation and slavery. Joe Max Higgins, who with Brenda Lathan recruits advanced technology firms to an industrial park, says, “Columbus has as a foot in ante-bellum and a foot in the future.” The latter foot is gaining traction.
Despite the controversies and mean rhetoric, immigrants are a life blood for towns like Sioux Falls: Mohamed Ahmed, who notes he’s a “four-fer” — a refugee, a Black, a Muslim and from Somalia — helps refugees settle in the community: “The reason America is a great country is because of people like me and you.”
These are mainly middle American towns.
There are, to be sure, other distressed places not brimming with this realistic can-do optimism. I’m sure from Maine to Mississippi to Oregon, these folks discuss and debate President Biden, China and, alas, Donald Trump — and, like everywhere, have been hit hard by the pandemic.
But “Our Towns” shows a vitality in these communities, a resiliency, a determination to sustain and improve a good quality of life. The Fallowses found they’re doing a good job.
It makes you feel good about America.
Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.
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