Last December, when The Wall Street Journal asked former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and other well-known figures to discuss their favorite books of the year, Landrieu mentioned “Our Towns.” It’s written by the husband-and-wife team of James and Deborah Fallows, who traveled the country in a single-prop plane, finding local communities where leaders are solving problems without much of the partisan fuss that’s plaguing national and, to some degree, state governance.
“Our Towns” is getting renewed attention because it’s just come out in paperback. Its essential message is that once you get past the tweets and countertweets and cable news foodfights that pass for civil discourse in Washington, things are actually getting done in many parts of the heartland. The Fallowses’ hopeful premise even includes a shout-out to Louisiana. “Despite the economic crises of the preceding decade and the social tensions of which every American is aware,” Jim Fallows writes, “most parts of the United States that we visited have been doing better, in most ways, than most Americans realize. Because many people don’t know that, they’re inclined to view any local problems as symptoms of wider disasters, and to dismiss local successes as fortunate anomalies. They feel even angrier about the country’s challenges than they should, and more fatalistic about the prospects of dealing with them.”
Among other things, the authors discovered that whether a city was red or blue politically was less important than whether it had cultivated a thriving downtown. Liberal Burlintgton, Vermont and conservative Greenville, South Carolina are thriving because each community has nurtured its city center.
“Downtown ambitions of any sort are a positive sign, and occupied second- and third-floor apartments and condos over restaurants and stores suggest that the downtown has crossed a decisive threshold and will survive,” the Fallowses tell readers.
That conclusion promises to resonate in Baton Rouge, Lafayette and New Orleans, where leaders have done much in recent years to boost downtown development.
James and Deborah Fallows also found encouraging news when they visited Caddo Lake, which straddles Louisiana and Texas. “In the early 1900s, the oil-discovery boom in Texas and Louisiana spread to the Caddo area,” they tell readers. “What is thought to be the first-ever offshore rig was built in Caddo Lake in 1911, by the predecessor to Gulf Oil.”
Answering a number of environmental challenges to the lake, including the invasive giant salvinia plant, a community of activists, volunteers and researchers is working to preserve Caddo for future generations.
It’s evidence, the Fallowses suggest, that while civic progress might seem stalled in the nation’s capital, victories are being scored in local places. To the degree that “Our Towns” has found an audience, it’s no doubt because people are hungry for good news where they can find it.