A journey into the heart of America
Over the last few months, with the stay-at-home orders, I have finally started to make a dent in my “to-read” stack of books, a combination of books lent to me by my fellow book-loving family and friends and books I’ve eagerly picked up over the years. A stack that fellow bookworms will know tends to grow more quickly than one can read.
One of those books has been “Our Towns: A 100,000 Mile Journey into the Heart of America,” a book given to me by my father after hearing the two authors, husband-and-wife-journalist-duo Deborah and James Fallows, speak at a conference. T
raveling in their single-engine prop airplane, the Fallows wrote about their travels across the country, visiting dozens of towns and cities. From 2013 to 2018, they stopped at “places that show up in the news usually only as backdrops for national-politics coverage,” or only when some “human or natural disaster has struck.” The intent of their voyage was to report, how are these places doing? What is happening in America on a local level? As the back cover of the book describes, it is “the story of their journey– and an account of a country busy remaking itself.”
Over five years, the authors visited a range of small towns and big cities, from “big towns that feel small,” like Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to the outdoorsy, progressive enclave of Burlington, Vermont. Touristy towns shaped by prominent families like Holland, Michigan, to previous industrial hubs like Allentown, Pennsylvania.
They got to know each place through its people, meeting with community college presidents, mayors, CEOs, owners of local breweries, artists who run galleries, high school students, and recent transplants, each sharing how they are moving their community forward. Many of the places they visited have dealt with recent economic upheavals, such as major employers or manufacturing leaving the area. Many still have a lot of work to do. But all of them, in various ways, are being revitalized through the work of citizens, local governments, nonprofit organizations, and private businesses.
While each place’s problems and solutions look different, there were common themes, recurring patterns and signs that things were “working” within a community: public-private partnerships, the presence of a community college and a downtown, acceptance of new people and cultures, and a shared vision of what the community could be — and that vision not just being dreamed about or spoken about, but being worked toward by everyday citizens and leaders.
Being in quarantine and having no reasonable prospects of traveling in the near future, I was engrossed by the stories of the places the Fallows visited, taking my own literary cross-country voyage. I was inspired by the stories of individuals, organizations, and businesses working together to reinvent the places they live.
What would the authors write about Alpena if they came to visit?
At the end of the book is a note from a young man who had recently moved from a large, coastal city to a town in North Texas: “If you want to consume a fabulous community, you could move to some place like Brooklyn, San Franscico, or Seattle, or Paris, or Amsterdam… if you want to create a great community, you move someplace that needs your help.”
The authors add: “Creating in this sense means taking responsibility for the invention and sustenance of the community in which you’d like to live. The idea of engagement, then, boils down to sharing responsibility for the world outside one’s individual household.”
Civic creation, not just consumption.
Citizens launching a fundraising campaign to help small businesses. Nonprofits working to increase access to education, resources, and the arts. Private businesses filling food trucks to feed the need. Citizens organizing peaceful protests and marches.
Great communities are fueled by a sense of responsibility — that we as citizens are responsible for creating the community in which we want to live. Inventing it, sustaining it, working to create it.
If we don’t, who will?
Anne Gentry graduated from Brown University with a degree in comparative literature and has studied in Italy and South Australia. She is currently executive director of the Alpena Downtown Development Authority.