Our Towns – Steinbeck Revisited At 10 000 Feet

My latest read has been Our Towns, a travelogue by James and Deborah Fallows. The 2019 book (a slightly updated version of the original which was released two years prior) owes a lot to a favorite of mine, Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck. It’s an obvious comparison and one the writers acknowledge early on. Both are essentially diaries of jaunts across the length and breadth of the U.S., stopping along the way to see interesting towns and talk to ordinary people. However, for all the obvious similarities, there are differences aplenty too, most obviously the 50+ years which passed between the two.

While Steinbeck famously traveled in his camper-back pickup truck with his faithful dog, James Fallows travels by air, piloting his own small plane, with his faithful wife and writing partner. That in itself leads to some big differences. For instance, while Steinbeck lamented how (even in the early-’60s) cities and landscapes were all becoming homogenized and similar from the road with lookalike fast food places and strip malls, the Fallows wonder at the differences of the landscape from the air. They simplify, for instance by noting that from a plane, the eastern third of the country is forest, the central part nothing but farm fields and the west all desert and mountain, save for a dense cluster of cities along the California coast. The mode of transport also affected how they encountered the land. Steinbeck, driving his own bed and breakfast could move around freely and quickly and often met memorable people at campsites or along the road; the Fallows usually stayed in hotels in their towns and spent a few days exploring, often on foot, talking to educators and business people as often as not.

The Fallows visit a range of cities and towns ranging from tiny – Eastport, Maine, for example, a fishing town and the easternmost point in the country and closer to Canadian cities like Fredericton than the nearest largish American one – to mid-sized ones like Riverside, California and Charleston, WV, and even a couple of large urban areas like Columbus, Ohio. For good measure they also visit a Prairie nature preserve in Montana and a lake in Texas being rehabilitated largely due to the work of rocker Don Henley. The one common thread is that all of the spots they stop at are areas on the move upward; areas which are getting better whether they were not bad to begin with or written off as almost dead and uninhabitable.

They strive to find the small stories of success in those places, and the reasons why. They find some fundamental similarities, but one isn’t political leanings. They note that they stopped in one of the most Liberal towns in America – Bernie Sanders’ home of Burlington, Vermont – and some in the heart of Republican red America, like Dodge City, Kansas. Surprisingly, the successes are similar, and one is an ability of local leaders to put aside national and partisan politics to work together for local good. Allentown, PA for instance, tends to be Republican but went against all “conservative” practises during the recession of the early-2000s and voted to increase local taxes, enabling continuation of the level of social services and policing as well as spend on redeveloping the downtown area. The counter-intuitive strategy worked.

The Fallows find some common threads in the cities doing well. Among them, a good community college training people in job skills that lead to good paying work in the area, a good public library system, public schools which adapt to local situations (whether it’s having expanded ESL classes in areas with high populations of refugees and immigrants or having local high-tech industries bring in people to help work with the kids on real world projects involving science and technology) , and a dedication to reinvigorating the downtowns , which usually leads to a number of cafes, boutiques and art galleries. Art too, is a common denominator, they find, although they admit neither of them were especially artistic types. Cities which thrive have a lively arts scene, from galleries and wall murals on old buildings to small theatre companies.

All that and beer . Yep, local microbreweries or taprooms were the last common feature they found in almost every city they visited; something that improved civic pride, usually resulted in a popular local gathering place and of course, some fine quaffs as well.

Cheers to that, I say, and cheers to the book which is interesting and makes me interested in seeing places I never would have imagined could be interesting, like Charleston and Dodge City. A book I recommend for anyone as entertainment, and to civic leaders for ideas.

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