Positive Things Happening in “Our Towns”

The 4th of July holiday arrives next week.

It’s a time to be with family, attend a parade, have a barbecue and enjoy some fireworks. Maybe take a vacation. I will be doing all that next week.

I have been reading Our Towns, by James and Deborah Fallows. James Fallows, a well-respected journalist, and his wife, document their travels to 29 cities over the past 4 years in their own private airplane, exploring how small communities and individuals have used ingenuity, resilience and self-sacrifice to re-develop these communities across the US.

Our Towns illustrates how these cities and towns have worked to reinvent theirdowntowns, overcome industrial decay and reinvigorated their communities.  It is also a great travelogue of communities in the US, many which would be great to visit.

This is a positive book. It does not include visits to towns which do not have success stories. So journalistically, it may not be wholly accurate or balanced. But balance was not their intention. The book provides examples of how civic and business leaders, educators, developers, and others can work together to make a difference and improve their regions.

In an Atlantic Magazine article, James Fallows wrote about Our Towns, he explained the process he and his wife used in their travels and encourages others to visit new places with their spirit of curiosity. “I suggest the following test…: Through the next year, go to half a dozen places that are new to you, and that are not usually covered by the press. When you get there, don’t ask people about national politics…if it’s on cable news, don’t ask about it. Instead, ask about what is happening right now in these places. The schools, the businesses, the downtowns, the kind of people moving out and the kind moving in, and how all of this compares with the situation 10 years ago. See where that leads you…..”

There are great examples and vivid stories in this book. It made me want to visit many of the towns and geographic areas they colorfully describe. Our Towns makes me want to re-visit Holland, Michigan, which I have been to several times. I was not aware that the city has 5 linear miles of sidewalks that are heated to melt snow in the winter. This was partially paid for by one industrialist and matched by the city.

While I may never visit Caddo Lake, Texas, which borders Texas and Louisiana, their description of the efforts made to save and rejuvenate the lake and surrounding area certainly makes a trip sound worthwhile.

This is not an investment book. But the narrative of Our Towns represents similarities to our philosophy of investing, as the towns featured are patient and focused on the long term. The community leaders and others profiled did not always listen to conventional wisdom, as they were focused on their goals and were resilient in their efforts.

One of the most interesting sections was how the Fallows’ noticed that each community has a way of asking “the Question.” This is the Question that gets asked when you meet new people, after you ask, “How are you?” or some version of this. The interesting part is the second question, the conversation opener, which they realized is very different for each region. In Greenville, SC, the question is “Where do you go to church?” In Chicago or Boston the question would be “What’s your parish?” In St. Louis, it’s “Where did you go to high school?” In the Detroit area, though not in the book, this would be the same question, especially in my parent’s generation. In some major cities, the Question would be “Where do you live?” or “What do you do?” as a status identifier.

This is not a political book.  Our Towns is about the “big plans” local leaders have strived to achieve and have accomplished, by working together as a community.

Our Towns describes the stories, challenges, manufacturing efforts and what makes each community go. They profile who helped to re-invigorate a city, how and why. Our Townsis a story of hope, of what can happen when communities work together, when leaders, business people, educators and others focus on renewal, resilience, take risks and make sacrifices for the communal good.

Before the 4th of July last year, I featured a very moving and wonderful book by historian and author David McCullough, The American Spirit, Who We Are and What We Stand For. McCullough selected 15 speeches from the hundreds he has given in all 50 states over the past 25 years for this collection. I would still highly recommend this book, if you have not read it.

We hope that you and your family have a safe and happy 4th of July holiday. We hope that you maintain a positive attitude about your community and our country!

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