April 15, 2021
Seeking the Heartbeat of Our Towns: Deb and James Fallows
You’ll find the award-winning writing of Deb and James Fallows in publications across the web, from The Atlantic to National Geographic and more. Together, they are the authors of the bestselling book, “Our Towns: A 100,000 Mile Journey Into the Heart of America,” now a documentary film on HBO. This week, Deb and James talk with Whitney about showing up and finding hope while telling the complex stories of America’s small towns.
The book and film document the complex stories of America’s small towns, the forces that have shaped them, and the people who keep them vibrant and hopeful. In this conversation, the Fallows’ offer reflections about where the heartbeat of towns truly reside and how a year of pandemic, awakenings around race and equity, and a new administration will shape us going forward.
Photos from the documentary based on the Fallow's book "Our Towns"
James Fallows: One of my mantras for the many decades I’ve spent as a reporter is that reporting is what you don’t know until you show up. And it’s this showing up and seeing the things that were surprising and that meet your expectations and don’t meet your expectations, again, are part of the three dimensionality.
Deb Fallows: You see it in person with your own eyes, and you see the context of what you’re hearing out on the streets and what people are actually doing, what it’s like when the sun comes up or the sun goes down, absorb that as an instinct.
Whitney Kimball Coe: That was James and Deb Fallows, this week’s guests on Everywhere Radio. Everywhere Radio is a production of the Rural Assembly. And I’m your host, Whitney Kimball Coe. Each episode, I spotlight the good, scrappy and joyful ways rural people and their allies are building a more inclusive nation. Deb and Jim Fallows are award-winning writers with individual by-lines across many publications, but in this episode, I spoke with them about their joint bestseller called Our Towns: A 100,000 Mile Journey into the Heart of America. The book was recently turned into an HBO documentary, which premiered on April 13th and is now available on demand and on HBOMax. The book and film document the complex stories of America’s small towns, the forces that have shaped them, and the people who keep them vibrant and hopeful. In this conversation, the Fallows’ offer reflections about where the heartbeat of towns truly reside and how a year of pandemic, awakenings around race and equity, and a new administration will shape us going forward.
Whitney Kimball Coe: I feel like I’ve been following your work for a long time and reading your pieces in the Atlantic and actually in National Geographic and the New York Times, I’ve seen you all everywhere. And then when your book, Our Towns, came out, I just devoured that. And I’m so excited to see that it’s a documentary coming out this month on HBO. Are you all excited?
Deb Fallows: We are really excited.
James Fallows: Yes.
Deb Fallows: Yes. We really had the great, good fortune to work with a tremendous filmmaker team, Steve Asher and Jeannie Jordan, who are a couple about our age. And we spent a hundred days of filming over the period of a couple of years with them around the country, and just an amazing experience to see how they work and how they were able to completely embrace the message of the book and then add a whole lot to it with their visual prowess.
Whitney Kimball Coe: Well, remind me, I mean, what was the message of the book and what is the message of this film?
James Fallows: So I think, the message of the book, essentially… So the backstory is back in 2013, when we’d been living in China, we come back to the U.S. And in China we’d spend most of our time outside Beijing and Shanghai. We were living out in the hinterland just on the other side of China. So we thought after about a year of resettling in DC, we wanted to do the same thing in the U.S. We’re both from smaller town America. And just finding some way to present things that are not New York, DC, Seattle, or San Francisco in three dimensional reality. And not as simply these sort of cardboard red state or blue state places that are the objects of forces elsewhere, but are as their own independent creative sources. And so as time went on, the book’s message was essentially, at a time of real strain and polarization in national politics, the source of resilience and hope and innovation and practicality and all that, is it a city by city level. And that part of America still exists. And I think that the timing of the film means that its message essentially is, as we are beginning to emerge from the genuine disaster, so the past four years or 18 months or whatever, with pandemic and economic collapse and racial justice issues, there are lots of examples of how people are trying to find another way. I think that’s essentially the message. But what was the real message, Deb?
Deb Fallows: No, that’s a great summary. Thank you.
James Fallows: Oh. You see. You see, I don’t know if you’re going to hear condescension over the airwaves, but-
Deb Fallows: Not at all. No.
James Fallows: You can’t-
Deb Fallows: Complete admiration, Jim.
James Fallows: Oh yes. You can’t hear, you can’t see eye rolls over the airways.
Whitney Kimball Coe: Well, that was a really concise and beautiful summary of my memory of reading the book. And I want to come back to the bit about where we are now, the realities of the pandemic and what’s going on in communities now. This leads to the question for me, what have you been doing this last year during the pandemic where you can’t be in these communities or proximate necessarily to these three-dimensional places?
Deb Fallows: Yes. For starters, we’ve been at home like everyone else, which was really novel for us because we’d mostly been on the move for the last 10 years or more it seems. So, that was a plus. The minus obviously was how do you do this when you’re at home and you’ve only got the internet and telephones to work with? So we tried our best to keep in touch with people we had met and known and seen off and on during these past seven or eight years. The most satisfying part of that for me was that I spent Zoom calls for an entire year with a group from the entire state of South Dakota, about 24 different people representing a couple dozen small towns. It was an economic development group, but the participants were people who did that for a living, but also farmers, some politicians, artists, housing people, just all educators, all kinds, journalists, people from all over the state. And I found that that was probably the second best substitute for being there in person was checking in with this group of people week after week after week for almost a year to just kind of keep in touch with what was on their minds. But finally, it just, we can’t wait to go there in person because there is just this missing sense of actually seeing it to the point where you see it in person with your own eyes, you see the context of what you’re hearing out on the streets and what people are actually doing, what it’s like when the sun comes up or the sun goes down, and trust that and just kind of absorb that in as an instinct that you just can‘t do over Zoom. So, that’s part of the answer.
James Fallows: Yeah. And you’re astute, predictably, to ask this question because I realized through my, one of my mantras for the many decades I’ve spent as a reporter is that reporting is what you don’t know until you show up. And it’s the showing up and see the things that were surprising and that meet your expectations and don’t meet your expectations, again, are part of the three dimensionality. And we’ve been busy in this last year, both enjoying each other’s company and producing this film. And we’re preparing a little NGO to try to connect people around the country doing this kind of work, but I’ve done less and less on-scene writing about these places because I’ve not been on scene. And it just is different to talk to somebody on the phone about even a real innovation that’s happening in Toledo, which I’ve written about, and things that are happening in Sacramento and Fresno. But the difference of actually seeing them, is a difference. And so that’s something we’re looking forward to doing soon. We’re both fully vaccinated, as they say, and ready to hit the road again soon.
Whitney Kimball Coe: I wanted to go back to something you said at the beginning about how you all grew up in small towns. And I wonder if that’s where your focus or your love of small towns comes from. That’s part one of the question. And part two, I’m wondering how do you walk that line of not being a drop-in visitor, but showing up with your whole self and being a participant, too?
James Fallows: You want to lead?
Deb Fallows: Yeah. So I grew up in a small town in Northern Ohio on Lake Erie, on the south shore of Lake Erie, it’s called Vermilion. It was about 10,000 people when I grew up, a farming town and a fishing town, and it’s still about 10,000 people. We lost the Ford plant on the east. We lost the GM plant on the west. We lost the steel mills in Lorraine on the east, and other things bits and pieces have filled in over time. I think the… How to even describe this. I mean, being from a small town like that is just in my blood and in my bones where you knew everyone in your school classes in your high school. You knew everyone in your high school. You knew every neighborhood family. My family moved there when I was in early elementary school. So I wasn’t one of the kids who grew up with many generations of people who were from that town. And I kind of felt that because in a way it was like, oh, you’re from away, even though I didn’t feel like I was from away. That’s where I was from. But being there for such a long time, I think we could go into any town and sense that, okay, this is a version of where I grew up. I kind of know what to look for. I kind of understand this. Even though we didn’t understand the particulars, we were comfortable in that situation.
James Fallows: And my version of that is I grew up in a town called Redlands, California, which unlike Deb’s hometown of Vermilion, it was about 25,000 when I was growing up. It’s probably 60 or 70,000 now. The closest bigger town is San Bernardino, which I say to signify that it’s not the California of Los Angeles or Santa Barbara or San Francisco, it’s inland California. The Redlands is a town that is prideful of its parks and its library and its universities and things. But it’s very much aware of being in the part of California that the Los Angeles people would look down on and that they would drive through on their way to Palm Springs. And so I can overdo the sort of log cabin aspect of this, but it did give me some sense of what it’s like to be in a place that other people are not fully… don’t take fully seriously.
Deb Fallows: We never got the sense that we were big-footing into a little town. It was easy to go into the towns, inconspicuously. It was just the two of us. We had our little reporters notebooks in our back pockets, and we just went around and talked to people. By contrast, when we had the amazing experience of going around with an HBO film crew to half a dozen of these same towns, it was really different because even though it was a small film crew, there were only maybe five of them and a couple of us, they had cameras. Instantly like, “Whoa! Who’s in town?” And, “Let me be in the back of the scene” and “what are they doing here and will they be here tomorrow?” It was just a completely different vibe, which I must say hats off to our film crew. Jeannie is also from a farming community in Iowa.
James Fallows: Jeannie Jordan was one of them.
Deb Fallows: Jeannie Jordan, who is one of the directors, the filmmakers. And so they handled this very easily, but nonetheless, just the fact of going in with a film crew made it a lot more conspicuous and a lot less anonymous and made people a little bit off guard until they managed to soften them up to be relaxed and be comfortable and talking. And I think when you have a chance to see the film, you’ll see that they absolutely did that. Yeah.
James Fallows: And to add one more practical point, usually the places we wrote about at some length, we’d be in for a total of about two weeks. Usually we’d go there for a week and sort of make an initial pass through things–we had a whole routine for doing that–go away for a little while and sort of digest and then come back for another week. So two weeks is not like 20 years, but it’s also not like one overnight trip to a diner, too.
Whitney Kimball Coe: No, it’s not a drop in, come and leave deal.
Whitney Kimball Coe: We’ll be right back after this from the Daily Yonder.
Hi, I’m Adam with the Daily Yonder, an online platform for rural news and information. If you’re looking for arts and entertainment, we have you covered with reviews, roundups, and recommendations for rural movies, music books, and more. To keep up with the latest on rural culture and life, visit us at dailyyonder.com.
Whitney Kimball Coe: You visited so many communities across the country. And one of the things we talk about a lot at the Rural Assembly is how diverse rural America is and small towns are, and that this monolithic picture that is painted of them across most media these days is not completely accurate. And I wondered if you could speak a little bit to the diversity that you encountered and what those changing demographics have meant for these communities?
James Fallows: So thanks for saying that. Again, part of just the three dimensionality, the 10 dimensionality of life that is usually just simplified as Kansas does this, those people in Mississippi are doing that. What’s so interesting as you well know, is that small town life in the Western Carolinas is the leftover of the furniture industry and the tobacco industry, and the way that smaller towns are sort of recovering from those industries going away. Smaller town life in Western Kansas is about largely agriculture and the beef packing industry, and the very changing demographics there. In South Dakota it’s about the way there’s been sort of a concentration in… A lot of the really small towns have not been able to survive in South Dakota. So concentration in some regional centers and the growth of some places like Sioux Falls, which is like the New York of the Prairie’s. In Southern Arizona it’s very different because, of course, of the native nations there and the way they’re part… you have sort of a tri-national alignment of Anglo life and Latino and Mexican life and native life, and in inland California. And so just is as diverse as New York is so, too, is smaller town America. And in Minnesota, Deb, you are a Midwest person.
Deb Fallows: Yeah. I think we also had this great privilege and advantage of going into the towns from above, from this little plane. So the plane moves kind of slowly. It’s not like a jet. So you had the sense of that you were entering a different realm of geography, whether it was the great Plains or the forests in Oregon or the Delta in Mississippi, that the world was changing below you, and you could kind of feel it. And then when we landed in a place, it was easy to carry over that sense of how the geography was a dominant element in how people lived there, whether it was the weather, or there was water like in my small town, or if it was the great adventures of the outdoor life in Bend, Oregon, or if it was the absolute remoteness and stark beauty of Eastport, Maine, which is way down East on the Gulf of… on the Bay of Fundy, where the winds and the tides come in and it’s a factor of your life every day. So just the uniqueness of each of the towns from their geography was a big factor.
And also the people, the migration. I think the increasing awareness, acknowledgement in towns that we weren’t the first people here, the way people are being creative and inventive of looking to their past and their history, whether it’s the racial issues in Mississippi, that kids in schools and teachers are trying to actively address their history and what the kids are learning every day and how hands-on they are with addressing these issues, or whether it’s the native American populations in South Dakota, or you name it where that is, everywhere, that it’s something that is certainly more, the hat is tipped to that kind of history that is very locational and proximate, as you say, in each town than it was when we were growing up, I think. I mean, I certainly had native Americans in my hometown before we were there, but it was one segment in fifth grade Ohio history. And that was about it. Sorry, teachers I’m sure I missed a lot of it, but…
Whitney Kimball Coe: Well, if you were to jump in your prop plane again now post pandemic, what do you think you would find in these communities that you once visited? And also, do you think the conversations they’re having about race or about the new economy or what’s next, would those conversations be different or more intense now?
James Fallows: I expect so, and that’s the kind of question we’re wanting to see what it’s like when we get there. I think that it is, we’ve stayed in touch with a lot of people around the country about how they’ve been trying to deal with the economic just entire dislocation in the past year and a half of the pandemic. And we want to go… I think it’s on sort of high policy grounds. It’s a really interesting time coming up with the tailwind of support from the national government, for a lot of things that matter to rural America, whether it’s broadband or community colleges or health centers or other things, we’re eager to see how that’s being applied. To us, some of the most interesting conversations we saw while we could travel, and some of them are captured in this film, were about racial diversity and justice in places you wouldn’t expect it.
I mean, for example, Sioux Falls and the ways that its population has diversified very much both with native people coming into the town, but a very significant immigrant and refugee population there. The same is true, although not in of the film, in Western Kansas, where we had a long, deep involvement in Dodge City, which we’re interested to go back to again, where you had essentially a white conservative, traditional leadership class there, reckoning in a largely positive way with their town becoming a majority Latino town and how they were just trying to recognize that as the future of their town. So the nature of these discussions is something that we’re eager to see again. And I think it’s a brighter time for rural America because of this sort of quasi next New Deal that seems to be coming at the national level.
Deb Fallows: I think your choice of the word intense is exactly what I would expect to find, and a bit of that I’ve heard from these… a lot of that I’ve heard from the South Dakota calls, is both recognizing that things changed and they are now changing again, and the need to pivot and shift during the pandemic for economic reasons or in other places over the last few years, because all of the refugee influx has dried up, but that’s now changing again too, and looking towards trying to capture some of the best parts of the changes that have come, like tourism to the rural areas and smaller towns, not even tourism, but people going there from Brooklyn or Silicon Valley. What do we do about this? And let’s figure out how this is going to be positive for us. There are a lot of stories that are evolving and people are aware and acting on them, as we’ve seen.
Whitney Kimball Coe: And who do you think are going to be the key players in the emergence that we see after COVID in rural areas? Is it local organizations or small businesses? Is it women? Is it the demographic shift that we’ve seen that will lead us forward?
Deb Fallows: I think it’s the same people who’ve been there, but there was one person, a librarian who said to me in the middle of the pandemic, when they were trying to figure out what do we do with the libraries right now, this is a time when you lean on your friends, when you go to your collaborative history of people in the town, excuse me, and build on that. So I think that making those collaborative and collegial connections stronger is a lot of what’s going to be happening, but then, okay, that seems to be a good model. Now we have maybe a little more leeway, let’s make more collaborations.
James Fallows: It may seem that I am, but I’m not actually old enough to have lived through the original New Deal. But I think there’s something in common from that era in the 1930s and now, which is when the national circumstances have changed in a way that’s going to empower a lot of people locally, people who have been doing things that maybe have escaped local notice over the previous decade, suddenly there’s going to be more opportunity for them. And the places we went, it was younger people and women and people of diverse backgrounds and some older people, too, helping out people of their children or grandchildren’s generation. I feel as if it’s time for an empowering of people who have been there waiting for this moment. In DC, we’re about to have the 17 year cicadas cycle here. So this is-
Whitney Kimball Coe: That’s here, too, in Tennessee. I keep waiting for the noise to start.
James Fallows: Yeah. And so there’s something, like there’s a beneficial version of that. There’s sort of people who for the last decade, for various reasons, have been innovating in their towns, in their regions and their farms and their communities. I think that there is this moment coming. And that’s what we hope is true.
Deb Fallows: One group I would call out in particular are the artists. There’s always a history of when things get rough, the artists are used to being uncomfortable is what one artist told me. And they said, so this pandemic and all this upheaval, that’s okay by us. This is what we do. We operate in this place of being uncomfortable. But when that starts to go away, you often see just an explosion of expression from people, that they’ve been harboring or haven’t had a chance to let loose on. And I kind of think, and have a sense that once we get a little farther down the road toward whatever we end up as being normal, that we’ll see a lot of really creative expression from all different kinds of artists and creative people that’s different.
Whitney Kimball Coe: The picture you’re painting feels very hopeful. And I sense more broadly that we all feel a little bit of hope that COVID is… we’re on the other side of COVID perhaps, or a pandemic. And we’re also getting this infusion of support from the federal government, and we’re going to emerge like the cicadas here soon, which is wonderful. I also am aware that there’s been so much tragedy and trauma and hurt during this time, not just because of the pandemic, of course. And I’m wondering, what can we learn from rural communities about how we tend to one another, how we tend to the trauma that we’ve all experienced?
James Fallows: That is an excellent question that’s been on our mind. Another of my boring meta theories is that the U.S. is always in crisis, and the story of the U.S. is how it’s coping with the crisis of the moment. And we’ve had a number of really painful ones over the past few years and past decade. And I think rural communities lead the way in the essential humanity.
Deb Fallows: That reliance on each other has always been there in small communities. That will be something that certainly exists, continues to exist, and I think maybe everybody else will learn from a bit, I hope. Yeah.
Whitney Kimball Coe: That sounds familiar to my own experience, to be honest. So, yeah. Reliance and knowing your community, like really knowing who’s there and having some history. So I’m wondering if you can tell me anything about the NGO that you’re going to start?
James Fallows: Yes. Thank you for asking. It’s called the Our Town Civic Foundation. It reflects both something we’ve learned over the last six or seven years of travel and something we hope to do in the next six or seven years, or however long we have to do things, which is, we’ve just learned that there are so many stories and examples and successes and failures, but complexities and parts of the American tale that are not present in the American mind. There is more there, there, to the extremity to… to all the length and breadth of America than most people who would know even by being well-informed. And I think what we’ve learned is there are so many people in organizations who are doing pioneer work, pioneering work, and trying to find out what’s successful in a former coal community, or what’s successful in a former manufacturing community or whatever it is, finding a new way. And we realized that that what we think we can do is to try to give more public presence to their stories and try to connect them more. So the work that you all have been doing in a very, very successful and important way, and others have been doing, we just will be one more part of the puzzle of the matrix and trying to apply new journalistic techniques with mapping and other things, new platforms for people to tell about their own communities. So we are trying to be one more part of the flotilla to help people learn from each other.
Whitney Kimball Coe: That’s awesome.
Deb Fallows: Yeah. And so, to be a megaphone, to broadcast these messages to, as Jim says, just give voice to things.
James Fallows: Try to magnify the message that you and your colleagues have been so excellently getting out over the year. We’re trying to be more members of the team.
Whitney Kimball Coe: That’s wonderful. The team just got real strong. Got even stronger. That’s awesome. I’m looking forward to seeing more of that and more from you all. Before I let you go, I wanted to close by asking, what are you reading right now? I see a big bookshelf behind you. If you had any recommendations, I’d love to have them.
James Fallows: So for the part of your audience that is interested in China, our dear friend, Orville Schell, has just written a book, who’s written a dozen non-fiction books about Chinese… He’s written a wonderful novel about China called My Old Home. And it’s about, it’s sort of a panoramic novel of China essentially through the post World War II era. And if you wanted a way to sort of understand both the aspirations and the tragedies of China these days, this is not on American rural life, but it sort of is. But it’s My Old Home by Orville Schell. I’m really glad to have read that.
Deb Fallows: Oh, you’re touching in a place where I can’t remember movie names, and it’s embarrassing as a writer that I can’t remember book names either. We just had the incredible experience after 18 months of getting on an airplane to go see our children and our grandchildren across the country, who are like twice as old as they were last time we saw them. And on the plane ride, I read something. I read Evan Osnos’ new book about Joe Biden. A lot of it was familiar, on the other hand, Evan had been following Biden around for a lot of years. So it was interesting to see his personal perspective of things you thought you knew about Biden and you wanted to look for about him again. So that was one-
James Fallows: Evan is a long time friend of ours.
Deb Fallows: Evan is a longtime friend. Right. And then I don’t know, I’ve just been catching up on a bunch of magazines, including the Atlantic, and my daughter-in-law just gave me a book about swimming, which is one of my passions. And of course, I can’t remember. It’s called Why We Swim. It’s a recent book. So I’m looking forward to getting back into that book and into a pool.
Whitney Kimball Coe: Well, I’m glad I got to talk to you. I’m glad I get to see you on Zoom, and that’s really delightful. And I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me and to be on Everywhere Radio.
Deb Fallows: It’s such a pleasure, Whitney. Thanks for asking us. And we look forward to the in-person visit. Thank you so much for your always thoughtful questions.
James Fallows: We’re really grateful. Thanks so much. We’ll see you on the road.
Whitney Kimball Coe: Yes. Or in the air.
Deb Fallows: Yeah.
Whitney Kimball Coe: Thanks for listening. We hope you’ll join us for the upcoming virtual festival, Rural Assembly Everywhere, on April 20th and 21st. Rural Assembly Everywhere is a virtual festival for the curious and critical, the listeners and the connectors, it’s geared toward rural allies, neighbors and admirers. Please register for free today at ruralassembly.org/everywhere. We’d like to thank our media partner the Daily Yonder. Everywhere Radio is a production of the Rural Assembly. Our senior producer is Joel Cohen. Our associate producer is Anya Slepyan. And we’re grateful for the love and support of the whole team at the Center for Rural Strategies. Love you, mean it. You can be anywhere. We’ll be everywhere. Thanks for listening.