Our Towns by James and Deborah Fallows

Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of AmericaOur Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of America by James M. Fallows
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The authors give an account of their three-year journey by small plane across America, telling us their impressions of the communities they visited. The focus is on one question: why here? The question applies both to the residents and to the businesses that provide the economic lifeblood. Since the book avoids the major metropolitan areas, one answer universal to all the locations in the book is the low cost of being there. Low cost of living and low cost of labor make a town attractive to families and employers alike. But since that applies to probably 90% of the geographic area of America, I was looking for more – for what makes a town unique – i.e. what makes a town thrive “in the sticks?”

The authors do give many interesting tidbits along those lines, and that made the book worth reading. I’ll mention a few in a bit, but since they tend to be spoilers, I want to save those until later. I was sorely disappointed in a couple of aspects of the book, however. First and foremost is the fact that the title is a bait-and-switch. The authors wrote very little about towns. The vast majority was about medium-sized cities. Of the 29 listed names in the Table of Contents, the median population was 47,000. Two of them were state capitals and others were major regional hubs. There were only three towns below population 3000 and anything below population 20,000 got very short shrift, mostly no more than two pages. The other disappointment was the repetition. Nearly every chapter focused on just a few aspects of these cities: civic boosterism, (re)vitalization of the downtown, K-12 education, libraries, brewpubs, and river walks. These things are important, to be sure, but differed very little in their specifics and didn’t tell us much we didn’t know since virtually every town does the same thing. I skimmed a lot through the second half of the book.

Now for some of the spoilers, but they’re reasons why you should read the book. On the plus side, one unexpected bonus was the description of what it’s like to tour the country by small plane. I learned a lot that I didn’t know or hadn’t thought about, such as what makes a small regional airport good (clean bathrooms, a good crew car, a good-sized runway). The best parts for me were the accounts of a local lifeblood enterprise. Most were major businesses but these also included military bases, universities, or unique geographical features. An obvious one that attracts employers is proximity to major road, rail, or water routes, but some are not so obvious: a windswept plain that attracts windmill manufacturers; a midwestern town where the residents speak clear, “unaccented” American English that’s perfect for call centers; an abandoned factory or closed military base that already has valuable infrastructure. Often the key was simply the value of being a hometown for someone who made it big. One lesson I learned was how much people have an affection for where they grew up, so inventors and entrepreneurs, even actors or sports stars, return there and set up shop, providing jobs.

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