In the summer of 2013, James and Deborah Fallows polled readers of the Atlantic, the magazine where James had worked as a correspondent and editor for over 40 years, for recommendations: why should they visit their town? The married couple, both journalists, were equipped with a single-engine Cirrus SR22 propeller plane, an open itinerary, and the backing of a major magazine project to explore local responses in small and mid-size towns across the US to the long shadow of the Great Recession.
It was a chance, as James Fallows, the former chief speechwriter for Jimmy Carter and journalist formerly based in Washington, Texas, and several countries in Asia, put it in the Atlantic in 2019, to visit places generally uncovered by the national media except during elections or times of crisis. The multimedia project would “report on how schools, businesses, families and civic life were faring ‘out there’”.
Over four years of criss-crossing the country, the experiment morphed from an investigation economic adaptation to a larger fascination with local endeavors, solutions and perseverance – a phenomenon, or at least a collection of observations and patterns, relayed in the couple’s 2018 book Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America, and an HBO documentary adaptation, Our Towns, released this week. “As things got going it was just so fascinating,” James Fallows told the Guardian, “and so dense with experience and surprise and creativity and humanity and drama that generally was missing from national level journalism, except when you go into a diner and say, ‘Who are you going to vote for in the next election?’”
The concept of “small town” in America is loose and fluid — a suburb of a mid-size city feels different from rural tourist destination or the sprawl of post-industrial communities, even if all have roughly the same population. Making selections for the book was thus a “feeling our way process”, said Fallows, based on places in “different stages on the recovery versus disaster scale”.
Fifty towns later, “we came to the sense that the right size town for doing this kind of reporting felt like something around 30,000 to 40,000”, Deborah Fallows told the Guardian, though some case studies were outliers – Columbus, Ohio is a major metropolitan area, whereas some towns had as few as 1,500 residents.
The film Our Towns, directed by Steve Ascher and Jeanne Jordan, focuses on six of the communities the Fallowses visited over the course of the 2010s, each representing a different adaptive trend, change, or constellation of challenges. The three towns which compose California’s Inland Empire – San Bernardino, James Fallows’s hometown of Redlands and Riverside – showcases the rapid economic shift to distribution (Amazon recently opened a warehouse complex in the 27,000-sq-mile region east of Los Angeles), with apolitical commentary on the immigrant labor supporting the region’s vast citrus farms. A segment on Sioux Falls, South Dakota, touches on local art movements, the opioid crisis that has acutely devastated towns across America, and the Native American cultural heritage movement. A visit to Columbus, Mississippi, briefly grapples with racial injustice through a high school class at the town’s archives on its history with slavery, as well as a bit on the vital role of community colleges in offering affordable, efficient preparation for higher-paying employment.
The coastal town of Eastport, Maine, imports the tenuous status of local journalism, while a segment on Charleston, West Virginia, finds an area formerly denigrated for its allegiance to a dying industry (coal) shifting to tech jobs and urban renewal. The final stop in Bend, Oregon, with its boom in craft breweries, pre-pandemic population of remote workers and skyrocketing housing prices, exemplifies the double-edged sword of growth-measured “success”.
The trap of so-called parachute journalism looms over each of these visits – the type of pop in-and-out, safari-style reporting that bedeviled national coverage of the 2016 election, in particular, and has contributed to the flattened, dismissive fallacy of “Trump country” versus “coastal” cities. The Fallowses maintain that they avoided the “voters in a diner” trope by spending at minimum two weeks in each place, sometimes more over the course of several visits. “Two weeks is not 20 years, but it’s also not one afternoon in a diner, and it means you can have things you’re looking for, and you can find things you didn’t know you should be looking for,” James Fallows said. “We would never pretend this is comprehensive about any of the places, but we had that cushion of being there for awhile.”
Additionally, the team “made a point of never asking the questions that immediately flatten all discussion down to the most simplistic level”, he added. Namely: mentions of then president Donald Trump, who one voted for, or what news channels they watched. “Our experience is the instant you do that, you stop learning anything,” Fallows said. “Whereas people are really sophisticated about what it will take to have young families come back to the town, and what different rainfall or climate patterns mean for their town, or what international trade means for farmers.”
Such discussion – of what climate change means for the lobster harvest in Maine, or the community formed around a black-owned barbecue business in Charleston, or the aims of the refugee settlement office in Sioux Falls – peppers the series, which never mentions the former president or any political party by name.
Still, the film is “about national politics in the enduring sense, which is the way the country on a national level and its component parts are able to find their way forward after the inevitable repeated setbacks”, according to Fallows, when asked if the team ever felt compelled to address the vortex of national discourse that certainly warped macro perceptions of climate change, systemic racism, or immigration throughout the decade. “The least interesting way you can view the extent of America is one of those election night maps putting everything as either as a big red or a big blue, which sandblasts everything down to the flattest possible level.”
“We felt like our job was to lay the table, not to tell you what to think about it,” co-director Ascher told the Guardian. “It’s not that we’re avoiding big national issues; we’re just not describing them in the terms that you’re usually getting them on television.”
The Fallowses, Ascher and Jordan were all “totally in sync in our commitment to trying to let people speak for themselves and not imposing an outsiders’ view on them, not falling into the cliches that cable TV often do”, Ascher said. Deborah Fallows and Jordan were both raised in small towns – Vermilion, Ohio and Rolfe, Iowa respectively – which informed their baseline assumption: the job was not to make the case for interest in each place, but to open up enough to find what was already there.
“Lots of times people lead with the idea that you’re not going to find much here but you’ll look,” said Jordan. But the group “never went into a situation thinking it might not be interesting”.
The focus thus hewed to local residents addressing issues in their proximity, a couple years before the pandemic placed undue burden on local health boards to coordinate patchwork responses, mask mandates and otherwise, amid mixed messages and disarray from the federal government. “The story of US is that it’s always in trouble, and it’s always getting out of trouble,” Fallows said. Our Towns showcases “how communities and individuals and the whole nation respond to crisis” – a theme as timely and, at best, revelatory and generative in 2021 as it was at the project’s outset.