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Author James Fallows On How Small-Town America Is Reinventing Itself

James Fallows

James Fallows has been a national correspondent for The Atlantic for more than 35 years. He and his wife, Deborah Fallows — a linguist and writer — wanted to learn about what’s happening in towns across the country that are situated away from major cities. Their travels over a few years turned into the book “Our Towns: A 100,000 Mile Journey Into the Heart of America.”

I spoke with James Fallows about how he and Deborah started their project and about the book. You can listen to our conversation in the player above.

On how he and Deborah chose which cities to visit:

"It was partly 'science' and partly happenstance. Five years ago, back in early 2013, I had put an item on the Atlantic's website — I had worked for the Atlantic for a long time — saying 'tell us the story about your town.' We were looking for small...er towns. They could be sizable like Louisville or Columbus, Ohio, but ones that weren't in the daily media attention and towns that had some kind of challenge or turnaround, whether it was loss of an industry or a reconsideration of their development plans or whatever it was. And we got about a thousand nominees and real essays back from people explaining why towns all across the country really were representative of the U.S. right now."

On their visit to Louisville:

"I did spend time at the First Build Center. Which was, of course, a spin off in those days of General Electric appliances and now Haier. What was underway there seemed to be such a perfect encapsulation of things we'd seen in other parts of the country of a very innovative way to deal with the modern manufacturing challenge. And I think central value I found at First Build and tried to describe is how at a time when everybody knows that the large, huge scale factories of the 1950s and 1960s are on their way down historically all across the developed world, a different kind of manufacturing possibility is arising and First Build seemed to be the place where you could talk about that national trend in the most visible way."

On what he took away from visiting so many cities:

"I think the overriding theme would be the contrast in this moment in our national history between politics on the national level, where whatever your party loyalty you can't be very happy with the way the U.S. is conducting it's national level business now, and matching the enormous potential and challenges and resources our country has to the also enormous problems that we have. But by contrast, city by city by city in most parts of the country, even those dealing most seriously with the opioid disaster, even those that have had the most significant economic dislocation, we found people generally feeling that they were experimenting, finding successful paths forward and moving in the right direction rather than the wrong direction."

James and Deborah Fallows will be at the main library Tuesday at 7 p.m. to talk about their book, “Our Towns: A 100,000 Mile Journey Into the Heart of America.”

Bill Burton is the Morning Edition host for LPM. Email Bill at bburton@lpm.org.

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