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The Journal Gazette

  • James and Deborah Fallows

Monday, March 11, 2019 1:00 am

Five Questions with James, Deborah Fallows

Meet the authors

James and Deborah Fallows, authors of “Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America,” will discuss the travel and research that led to their book at 6:30 p.m. March 20 at the Snyder Academic Center at Indiana Tech. Fort Wayne native Ashley C. Ford, host of the online show “Profile by BuzzFeed News,” will moderate. 

A book signing will follow their talk, part of a four-city state tour sponsored by Indiana Humanities.

The session is free and open to the public, but advance registration is requested at

 The Fallowses are authors of “Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America,” which focuses on communities and renewal.

1 What was your biggest surprise in the research?

It's a very long list, but I think it would begin with how much there is there*, in terms of reinvention and engagement and serious efforts to address local problems, in communities across the country. [*i.e., it's the opposite of Gertrude Stein's famous line about her home city of Oakland, that “there was no there there.”] Of course there are huge imbalances across the country – coasts versus interior, big cities versus small cities, historic manufacturing zones versus new tech centers, and all the rest. But it would be easy to assume, from most press accounts and political discussion, that you fall off a cliff of opportunity, modernization, and energy-for-renewal once you leave the biggest cities. I think the main thing we've tried to convey is how widespread and diverse is the local-level American effort for renewal right now.

There were lots of more specific surprises, from the revitalized role of libraries to the widespread resurgence of classic downtowns. But the big news was the local-level positive momentum.


2 Is accepting change a core value of successful communities? How does a city or town welcome the new while preserving the old?

Nothing stays still – for individuals, for families, for business operations, or for communities. The story of American development in just about every decade has been of the constant rise of new industries and pressure on older ones, the constant shift of children to different pursuits than their parents had, the constant evolution of communities to include different people and different businesses.

But your point is a crucial one: for communities, as for individuals and for business brands, the challenge is to adapt to new realities, while still remembering who you are. This is why we put so much stress, in our reporting and the “101/2 signs of civic success” at the end of the book, on communities “knowing the civic story.” That is, if a community has an idea of its history, its ambitions, and the values that are the same even as specific buildings and businesses and landmarks change, then it has a better chance of continuing to improve in ways that are based on its specific assets, traits, and history. Both Boston and Pittsburgh are seen as economic and cultural success stories now, compared to their situation in the 1970s. But they didn't do that by trying to turn themselves into Dallas or Atlanta. They recognized what made them distinctive, and built on that.


3 Where do such areas as crime prevention, public health care and social services fit into a city's revitalization story?

They're all very important – not simply in making a fairer and more decent city, but also in making any given city a place where people want to live.


4 Do you have a personal favorite of all the places you researched? Why?

Back in the 1980s, when we were living in Asia, we traveled through China with our two elementary-school-aged sons. Out in the countryside, people would sometimes ask us: “Which boy is your favorite? Which one do you prefer?” That's sort of how we feel about the places where we have traveled. There are at least a dozen places where we asked ourselves, after a week or two, “Why don't we live here? There's so much going on, and our real estate money would go so far, and ...” I don't remember any place where we had a bad time – except, maybe, once when we had (yet another) airplane equipment failure, and we ended up having to stay overnight in a mid-South city we hadn't expected to be visiting. The only restaurant we found open that night was a Hooters. Deb was not amused. That place was not a favorite, but a lot of others tied for the lead.


5 How does traveling from town to town in a small plane affect your views of America? Should we read anything into the fact that your 10 ½ points for civic success don't include having a good airport?

I should probably point out that of all the years we spent on this project, 99 percent of the time was on the ground, in one city or another, and about 1 percent was in the little plane, going from place to place. But that 1 percent had an impact because we traveled at low altitude and got not only an appreciation for the phenomenal beauty of the American landscape but also for the underlying logic of American settlement. You could see why most cities are where they are (on a river, or in a valley, or by a set of waterfalls), what physical shape their development had taken, and what aspects of the town they were trying to feature or conceal – for instance, quarries and junked-car lots and prisons, which all tend to be on the outskirts where most people won't see them. It's an endlessly fascinating way to see the landscape.

And, good catch about airports! Maybe the reason we didn't mention it is that there are still so many small airports across America: It's the starting point for what a community needs. And of course cities that have invested in modernizing their airports moved up higher in our esteem.

 See you soon in Indiana!