The married team of journalists will speak about their book, "Our Towns," on Feb. 11 at Columbus Metropolitan Library.
Husband-and-wife journalist team James and Deborah Fallows traversed the U.S. from 2012 to 2017, flying together in a single-engine prop plane with James at the controls, to learn about the successes and challenges of towns and small cities. What they learned was initially documented in a series of articles on the website of The Atlantic, where James is a national correspondent. In 2014, several articles featured Columbus, where the Fallows explored, among other things, Cristo Rey High School and the nascent redevelopment of Franklinton.
In 2018, they published “Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America.” The book includes a chapter about Columbus—the largest city they visited but also, they write, “still an ‘out there in the real America’ city.” They learned about—and wrote about—the business community’s surprising support of a 2009 income-tax increase to help the city balance its budget in a time of recession, our wealth of food trucks, and Columbus’ culture of collaboration.
James and Deborah Fallows will speak at the Columbus Metropolitan Main Library at 7 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 11 as part of the Carnegie Authors Series, with a book signing to follow; register for free tickets here. In advance of their visit, they shared with us some thoughts on what they loved about Columbus—and whether the world will ever drop the Ohio after our city’s name.
You wrote in your book that Columbus “seems to think of itself as smaller than it is.” Is that why you included the 15th-largest city in the country in a book about, mostly, smaller towns?
James: We went to Columbus for a variety of reasons, ranging from Deb’s memory of school trips there as a small-town Ohio girl (she is from Vermilion, west of Cleveland, on the lake) to suggestions from a number of friends. But once we got there, in addition to finding it fascinating, we realized that its size and scale made it an important ‘proof-of-concept’ city.
That is: When we started the project, we said that we wanted to go to smaller places in America—which we defined not simply by population or economic activity but also by the kind of media attention they received. The biggest centers—from Boston to D.C. on the east coast, from Seattle to L.A. or San Diego on the west, with a few centers in between like Chicago and Dallas and Atlanta—got regular attention from the media and were presented in a lot of their 3-D complexity. But smaller cities, of the kind we were talking about, were featured in the national news mainly when something went wrong—a flood, a fire, a plane crash, a drug crisis, all too often a shooting—or when it was time to do some political reporting in the “real” America.
At least when we began our travels, we thought Columbus might be an example of the biggest-possible “smaller” city. (Another candidate might be San Antonio.) That is, a concentration of business and educational and civic energy which put it in the top tier of U.S. cities—but still national-media treatment that classified it as a ‘regional’ center, due for attention only in the unusual circumstances mentioned above.
Columbus was itself by far the biggest city where we went. On the other extreme were places like Eastport, Maine, with fewer than 2,000 people, and Ajo, Arizona, which is in the same league. But it may be interesting to Columbus-area residents to know that the three adjoining cities of the “Inland Empire” in southern California, where we spent a lot of time—San Bernardino, Riverside and my own hometown of Redlands—are, as a regional conurbation, even bigger than Columbus (though obviously not a state capital or a comparable business center). But they, too, were smaller places by our reckoning, since they didn’t usually show up in the national press.
When your articles about Columbus first started appearing in The Atlantic, people here (myself included) shared them on social media with a sort of surprised glee: Look what these national journalists found to love in Columbus! Has working on this project often given you the chance to introduce a place to itself?
James: I think everyone is interested to know, “What are other people saying about us, behind our backs?” Our web posts and articles weren’t exactly behind anyone’s back, but they had a similar function of giving people in a town a sense of what outsiders noticed when they visited.
We recognize the perils of temporary-visitor journalism. I mention in our book how shocking it was when the young Joan Didion visited my own hometown in the 1960s and portrayed it as a kind of trailer-trash mecca. And everyone has read accounts from national reporters who drop into a diner—always a diner—and ask people how they feel about whoever is the polarizing national figure of the day.
We wanted to try to report on how people felt, locally, about the goods and the bads, the achievements and the setbacks, the identities and the confusions of their own town and region. For the most part, the reaction we’ve gotten is: Yes, we recognize this picture (though of course people are generous with suggestions, to put it mildly, about other details that the full portrait should include.)
Some years later and after lots more publications “discovering” Columbus, residents are getting used to the attention, even irritated: Why do people think it’s so surprising that Columbus is cool? What does that shift in attitude tell you about us?
James: I hadn’t known that! Very interesting. If a national media conception of “larger” American cities is expanding toward natural inclusion of Columbus, that’s a good thing.
On a different topic: It is going to be a while before the Buckeye Dream of just saying Columbus—as you would Seattle or Boston or Detroit, with no state name—will become a reality. There are just too many others of them on the map. (I could be proven wrong, but there are people in Georgia and Indiana and Mississippi and elsewhere who stand in your way.)
Since you were here in 2014, Columbus has seen continued growth in the form of Downtown development, population growth and small business growth. Franklinton, which you gave special attention, continues to grow and change. Yet we still have a painful lack of affordable housing, issues with access to transportation, and our city’s public schools are struggling. Do you have advice for Columbus, based on successes you have seen elsewhere?
James: There are different kinds of problems that different cities have. San Bernardino, Erie and Reading PA, Charleston WV, of course Detroit—these and a lot of other places like them have the serious problem of not enough demand for housing or downtown business space. There’s a different category of problem that comes with growth: affordability, all the meanings of gentrification, and a kind of homelessness that is driven by a rapid rise in property values for homes and businesses. Seattle, San Francisco, San Jose, Brooklyn—places like these exemplify those problems born of economic success.
In principle, these problems of growth and success are ‘better’ problems to have, than those of decline and stagnation. But they’re still real, and painful. We’ve seen some illustrations of the ways cities are trying to cope with them, and we’ll talk about some of those when we visit.
Among all the places you visited while researching your book, was there one that stood out in such a way that you considered moving there?
Deb: That is a tough question. It’s like asking, “Which of your children do you like best?” Of course we love all our children equally.
After we had spent time in three or four towns, we started commenting to each other, “Why don’t we live here?” Really! It became kind of a joke between us, as we began to say the same thing about so many of the towns.
A number stand out as appealing for a number of reasons. We loved Ajo, Arizona, and Eastport, Maine, two very small towns of just a few thousand people each and at opposite ends of the country. Ajo is in the remote Sonoran Desert, and Eastport is way DownEast on the Bay of Fundy. But in both towns, the citizenry is wholly engaged. It takes all hands on deck to keep the town moving forward, in their economic development (one its seaport and the other its destination-tourist industry), their main street renovations (one is remaking the former copper mining school buildings; the other its sardine canning factory), making, sharing, and marketing their art as serious passions or professions (both attract artists to settle), and a creative, positive mentality that urges them to say, “Yes!” to just about every opportunity that comes along.
We also admired Greenville, South Carolina, for the downtown development from a place you wouldn’t dare go at night to a thriving, bustling commercial and social center. And Dodge City for straddling its culture of the Gunsmoke era to a majority-minority small town that embraces its new Hispanic residents. I could go on and on.
What are a few places in Columbus you hope to return to next week when you’re here, time permitting?
Deb: We’re fortunate that we’re speaking at the main Columbus Metropolitan Library. We spent a lot of time at the library but have not returned since the renovations. That will be a special treat. We would love to see the changes in Franklinton and also check in on the Short North to see what has come, gone or changed. German Village was a favorite. Are there still so many food trucks? There were a few places where we would hope to spend more time, starting with The Ohio State University.
Will you be coming in on your own plane next week, or flying commercial?
Deb: Ah, sadly, we will be flying commercial. Given the unpredictable weather and our fast-moving schedule right now, we need to rely on the airlines. As soon as the warm weather returns, we look forward to climbing back into our little plane and taking off for more new places.
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