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A New and Misleading Story of Small Town Revival

Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America, James and Deborah Fallows, Pantheon, 432 pages.

For many people, the story of small towns outside the country’s major metropolitan areas is one of decline and disinvestment: businesses moving to more central or more populous locations, and factories and farms employing fewer people thanks to automation. As people move out, small businesses suffer from a reduced customer base—and now local retailers face even more competition from warehouse giants such as Amazon.

The causes of urban decline, especially among smaller cities, can seem obvious, but revival is less understood. But even the simple narrative of decline and revival can be misleading. For instance, the Rust Belt is regarded as a place in decline, where a lot of jobs have gone away, but a closer examination reveals that while many traditional industrial jobs have left cities, other sectors of the economy have become prominent, concentrating jobs in city centers while the employees live in more distant suburbs.

Revival is also more complicated. Take Columbus, Miss., a city recently profiled in a bestselling travelogue. A town of about 23,000 people in southeast Mississippi, its initial prosperity was based on labor-intensive manufacturing—there was a toilet seat factory, and mattress and textile plants, along with a U.S. Air Force base. Like in many other communities, the traditional factories closed, resulting in high unemployment and an empty downtown. But the state’s Congressional delegation was able to prevent the base’s closure, and the local community college worked with remaining employers to help residents get the skills demanded by today’s industries. Regionally, Columbus is located in the Golden Triangle, with Mississippi State University in nearby Starkville keeping young people in the area, along with the Mississippi University for Women (now coed).

By now Columbus is thriving, with multiple high-tech manufacturing concerns, including a helicopter factory, an unmanned aerial vehicle plant, and a Steel Dynamics mill. There are also hospitals and the universities themselves are important employers.

But there are signs that “revival” is not the best term for what’s happening in this part of the rural South. None of the major employers is “home-grown” and the factories are as much attracted by expensive infrastructure projects like work on the Golden Triangle Regional Airport and two Tennessee Valley Authority megasites. For readers of sites that promote fiscal sustainability, such as Strong Towns, this is the kind of thing that sets off alarm bells. How was the airport and megasite work paid for? Are they depending on growth and more factories coming in to sustain municipal budgets? Are they building places that generate a lot of tax revenue per square foot of property, or are they building miles of unneeded roads so WalMart can offer customers lots of free parking?

These are the sort of questions that are important for towns to ask themselves—and for journalists to be asking boosters. But too often the latter elite group of reporters ignores these key issues, making their work seem superficial. One recent prominent case of this missed opportunity is the multi-year journey of Atlantic writer James Fallows and his wife Deborah.

* * *

Between 2012 and 2017, the two Fallows crisscrossed the United States in a light aircraft, reporting on urban revival. These stories, expanded and repackaged into a coherent narrative, have now been published in book form: Our Towns: A 100,000 mile Journey into the Heart of America. The places they visited ranged in size from the 94 inhabitants of Uncertain, Tx., to the aforementioned small town of Columbus, Miss., to the over 800,000-strong metropolis of Columbus, Ohio.

According to the Fallows’s reporting, towns that appear to be in the midst of a revival certainly have some features in common. Our Towns emphasizes things like the presence of a research university or liberal arts college, openness to immigrants, a successful community college, a microbrewery, a local arts scene, and so on—until they sound like a parody of once celebrated theorizing about the “creative class.”

Yet if these features are common to successful towns, it does not seem like they necessarily generate new growth. For all the places that have been revived, there are just as many places in the nation’s forgotten corners that continue to be mired in high unemployment and blight. Some small cities defy all expectations: Lynn, Mass. is a post-industrial city less than ten miles northeast of Boston. It has a commuter-rail station, comparatively cheap real estate, and the sort of old brick mill buildings million-dollar tech startups love to repurpose for their incubation. Despite being so close to the heart of one of the most dynamic metropolitan economies in the United States—if not the world—Lynn’s economy persists in lagging behind. As far as most theorists of urban revival are concerned, Lynn ought to be full of entrepreneurs priced out of Cambridge’s Kendall Square or the Seaport Innovation District. Instead, in Lynn one can buy a three-bedroom condo on the water for less than $400,000—possibly the only place in all of Massachusetts where that’s possible.

The Northeast seems to be full of similar counterexamples. The whole Knowledge Corridor—as the stretch of Interstate 91 between Brattleboro, Vt. and New Haven, Conn. has been branded—contains a higher-ed cluster that includes the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Yale University, and the University of Hartford, with the University of Connecticut not too far away. These towns have microbreweries, community colleges, art scenes, and the whole nine yards. But they still have high unemployment, high levels of poverty, and the other signs of decline. One of the Knowledge Corridor cities, Springfield, Mass., even attracted a casino using Massachusetts’s expanded gaming law.

Perhaps the story of urban decline and revival is about more than statistics. Yes, residents and officials need to face their reality and stop pursuing economic development strategies around tax incentives and factories or big box retailers—and start supporting local entrepreneurs and adaptive reuse instead of demolition. But the most important thing seems to be loving the place. The real story of Our Towns is not one of economic incentives and kitschy art shops, of craft beer and land-grant universities, but of committing to a place and persevering to help overcome the obstacles.

As GK Chesterton wrote of a 19th-century workaday London district, “If men loved Pimlico as mothers love children, arbitrarily, because it is theirs, Pimlico in a year or two might be fairer than Florence.” As with Pimlico, so with Eastport, or Bend, or Lynn.

Matthew M. Robare is a freelance journalist based in Boston.

This article was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

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