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When news broke late last year of a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, most people in the rest of the country, and even the state, probably had to search a map to figure out where the city was. I knew exactly, having grown up in the next-door town of Redlands (where the two killers lived) and having, by chance, spent a long period earlier in the year meeting and interviewing people in the unglamorous “Inland Empire” of Southern California as part of an ongoing project of reporting across America.

Some of what my wife, Deb, and I heard in San Bernardino before the shootings closely matched the picture that the nonstop news coverage presented afterward: San Bernardino as a poor, troubled town that sadly managed to combine nearly every destructive economic, political, and social trend of the country as a whole. San Bernardino went into bankruptcy in 2012 and was only beginning to emerge at the time of the shootings. Crime is high, household income is low, the downtown is nearly abandoned in the daytime and dangerous at night, and unemployment and welfare rates are persistently the worst in the state.

So if you wanted a symbol of what conservative politicians like Donald Trump or Ted Cruz mean when they talk about American decay, what liberal writers like George Packer or Robert Putnam mean when describing America’s unraveling, San Bernardino would serve—and it did, in most of the reports after the shooting.

But that was not the only thing, or even the most interesting thing, that we saw during our time there. If “news” is what you didn’t know before you went to look, the news of San Bernardino, from our perspective, was not the unraveling but the reverse. The familiar background was the long decline. The surprise was how wide a range of people, of different generations and races and political outlooks, believed that the city was on the upswing, and that their own efforts could help speed that trend.

For instance: Last spring we met a group of San Bernardinians in their 20s and early 30s who called themselves Generation Now—San Bernardino. They were white, black, and Latino. (The city is about 60 percent Latino, 20 percent white, the rest black or Asian.) Some had finished college, some were still studying, some had not gone to college. They worked as artists or accountants or in part-time jobs. But all were involved in what you could call a raveling-up of the town’s tattered social fabric.

“I was just pissed off,” an artist in his 20s named Michael Segura told us. “By the time I was old enough to vote, everything was in such terrible shape in San Bernardino. We just heard all the time that it’s a city of losers. We’d had enough.” In early 2013, just after the city declared bankruptcy and appeared to be at the depth of its hopelessness, he and a handful of friends began efforts to engage the city’s generally disaffected residents in improving their collective future.

Voter-turnout rates were among the lowest in the state, especially in poor and heavily Latino precincts; Generation Now members encouraged their neighbors to show up for civic sessions and register to vote. The numerous foreclosed homes and shuttered storefronts gave great stretches of San Bernardino a war-zone look; artists in the group covered some of the buildings with murals. Other members organized park-cleanup days, removing needles and trash, and replanting bushes and grass. Soon, neighborhood kids were following them around, cleaning up alongside them.

Many people are discouraged about America. But the closer they are to the action at home, the better they like what they see.

From a distance, the San Bernardino story is of wall-to-wall failure. From the inside, the story includes rapidly progressing civic and individual reinvention. One illustration is a prosperous Air Force veteran turned aerospace engineer named Mike Gallo. Five years ago, he decided to run for the board in charge of the city’s chronically troubled, low-scoring schools. Why? “These kids deserve a better chance, and we can help them get it,” he told me. It sounds formulaic, but teachers, students, and politicians said that Gallo’s hard-charging, Teddy Roosevelt–style energy and effort had helped the schools begin a turnaround. He is now the board’s president.

Another illustration is his colleague Bill Clarke, who worked as a trainer and manager for General Dynamics and then had a career teaching manufacturing skills in local public schools. Five years ago, when he retired, he and Gallo set up a nonprofit technical school for unskilled locals, and intensified training programs in the public schools, whose students are mainly from poor households. In these programs, the students learn to use and repair the machinery that defines the advanced-manufacturing age: 3-D printers, robots, and enormous CNC (computer numerically controlled) machine-tool systems. “We’re training them on real machines, with real national-level certification, for good real-world jobs that really exist,” Clarke told me in the machine shop at his nonprofit school, beneath a banner saying we are making america great in manufacturing again. Since 2010, he said, more than 400 students had passed through the school “right into the high-tech manufacturing world.” This was going on in the same city that was blanketed by reporters from around the world for several weeks. They did a thorough job on one particular story in San Bernardino, but more was happening.

As a whole, the country may seem to be going to hell. That jeremiad view is a great constant through American history. The sentiment is predictably and particularly strong in a presidential-election year like this one, when the “out” party always has a reason to argue that things are bad and getting worse. And plenty of objective indicators of trouble, from stagnant median wages to drug epidemics in rural America to gun deaths inflicted by law-enforcement officers and civilians, support the dystopian case.

But here is what I now know about America that I didn’t know when we started these travels, and that I think almost no one would infer from the normal diet of news coverage and political discourse. The discouraging parts of the San Bernardino story are exceptional—only five other U.S. cities are officially bankrupt—but the encouraging parts have resonance almost anywhere else you look. Mike Gallo and Bill Clarke are politically conservative and, as I heard from Clarke in particular, they share the current GOP pessimism about trends for the country as a whole. But they both feel encouraged about the collaborative efforts on education reform under way right now in their own town. What is true for this very hard-luck city prevails more generally: Many people are discouraged by what they hear and read about America, but the closer they are to the action at home, the better they like what they see.

What Americans have heard and read about the country since Deb and I started our travels is the familiar chronicle of stagnation and strain. The kinds of things we have seen make us believe that the real news includes a process of revival and reinvention that has largely if understandably been overlooked in the political and media concentration on the strains of this Second Gilded Age.

“In scores of ways, Americans are figuring out how to take advantage of the opportunities of this era, often through bypassing or ignoring the dismal national conversation,” Phillip Zelikow, a professor at the University of Virginia and a director of a recent Markle Foundation initiative called “Rework America,” told me. “There are a lot of more positive narratives out there—but they’re lonely, and disconnected. It would make a difference to join them together, as a chorus that has a melody.” This is the alternative melody we would like to introduce.

Elizabeth Flores, of Generation Now, on one of the group’s murals

In early 2013, I placed a short item on The Atlantic’s Web site asking for advice from readers about cities of a certain type. We wanted to hear about cities whose recent dramas might reveal something about the economic and cultural resilience of the United States. I asked about cities that had suffered some kind of economic, political, environmental, or other hardship during the financial crash or earlier, and whose response was instructive in either good or bad ways. I said we were looking for “smaller” cities, by which I really meant anything less famous than the big stylish centers of the East and West Coasts. I also said that we definitely were not looking for the merely “quaint,” the kitschy touches of Americana such as the little town showcasing the world’s largest ball of twine. Nor were we looking for “undiscovered gems” or entries on a list of ideal low-budget retirement sites. Rather we hoped to treat seriously parts of flyover territory that usually made the news only after a natural or man-made disaster, or as primary-campaign or swing-state locations during presidential-election years.

In the end we got more than 1,000 responses—nearly 700 within a few days!—including several hundred making an extended case for the significance of what had happened in the writer’s town. Suggestions have kept coming in. The knowledge that I cannot possibly ever see most of the places I’ve now read about makes me surprisingly sad. But we’ve been steadily visiting as many as we can. So far we have had extended, repeat-visit exposure (usually totaling 10 days to two weeks) to two dozen cities and towns all around the country, and shorter sessions in two dozen more.

There is a high-toned tradition of road trips as a means of “discovering” America, from Lewis and Clark and Tocqueville through John Dos Passos, John Steinbeck, and William Least Heat Moon (whose Blue Highways made its debut in these pages). Apart from other obvious points of contrast, our project was different in that rather than going by car (or wagon, or pirogue), we’ve gone from city to city in our family’s small single-engine propeller airplane, a Cirrus SR22. This was a decision made for convenience, for beauty, and for edification.

The convenience comes from the simple fact that almost any settlement in America is within close range of a place where a small airplane can land. Some 5,000 public airports, many of them built for military purposes during and after World War II, are scattered about the U.S., making many remote hamlets more easily reachable by air than by other means.

The beauty comes from the privilege and unending fascination of watching the American landscape unfurl below as you travel at low altitude. At the dawn of powered flight, a century ago, it was assumed that writers and painters would want to become aviators, and vice versa—Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, and Ernest K. Gann were fliers who wrote; Beryl Markham, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and Anne Morrow Lindbergh were writers who flew—because of the unique perspective on civilization and nature offered by the aerial view. The late novelist James Salter, who was a Korean War fighter pilot and retained his passion for flight, was a mid-century example; William Langewiesche, a longtime Atlantic writer (and the son of Wolfgang Langewiesche, whose Stick and Rudder is the flying world’s equivalent of The Elements of Style) is a current one.

A coast-to-coast drive across America has its tedious stretches, and the teeming interstate corridors, from I-95 in the east to I-5 in the west, can lead to the despairing conclusion that the country is made of gas stations, burger stands, and big-box malls. From only 2,500 feet higher up, the interstates look like ribbons that trace narrow paths across landscape that is mostly far beyond the reach of any road. From ground level, America is mainly road—after all, that’s where cars can take you. From the sky, America is mainly forest in the eastern third, farmland in the middle, then mountain and desert in the west, before the strip of intense development along the California coast. It’s also full of features obvious from the sky that are much harder to notice from the ground (and difficult to pick out from six miles up in an airliner): quarries at the edge of most towns, to provide gravel for roads and construction sites; prisons, instantly identifiable by their fencing (though some mega high schools can look similar), usually miles from the nearest town or tucked in locations where normal traffic won’t pass by. I never tire of the view from this height, as different from the normal, grim airliner perspective as scuba diving is from traveling on a container ship.

The edification comes from lessons in history, geography, urban planning, and environmental protection and despoliation that are inescapably obvious from above. Why is St. Louis where it is? Ah, of course! It’s where the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers come together. Why were mill towns built along the fall line of the Appalachians? Because of the long north-to-south series of waterfalls. As you cross South Dakota from east to west, from the big city of Sioux Falls at the Iowa and Minnesota borders toward Rapid City and the Black Hills and beyond, you can see the terrain change sharply. In the East River portion of the state, between Sioux Falls and the Missouri, you see flat, well-watered farmlands and small farming towns. Then past Pierre you reach West River, with rough, dry badlands, some grazing cattle, and very few structures. Everyone who has looked at a map “knows” about the effect of topography and rainfall, but it means something different as it unfolds below you, like a real-world Google Earth.

You can also see the history of transportation in the way towns are settled. Even in South Dakota’s fertile East River, you can easily trace from low altitude what the railroads ushered in 150 years ago, and how their impact has ebbed. As we flew along one of the east-west lines that brought settlers into these territories and carried crops out to markets, we would see little settlements every few minutes. In the 1800s they were set up at roughly 10-mile intervals, an efficient distance when farmers were delivering their harvests by wagon. Now it seems that four out of five of those towns are withering, as farms are run with giant combines and crops are hauled by truck.

I would love for more people to know how this country looks from above. I would love for America’s sense of itself to include more of what we’ve seen on the ground.

map of USA
Starting with a flight to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, in 2013, through a trip to Mississippi last fall, James and Deborah Fallows made extended visits to two dozen cities, and shorter stops in another two dozen, covering a total of 54,000 miles in their single-engine propeller airplane. The longest swing was from November 2014, when they left Washington for the West Coast—with stops in West Virginia, Kentucky, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Arizona—until the following July, when they returned via Montana, Colorado, Nebraska, and Ohio.

Despite the “Big Sort,” Talent Dispersal Is Under Way

America is egalitarian, and snobbish. The city looks down on the countryside, the north on the south, the coastal meccas on the flyover interior—and of course each object of disdain looks back with its own reverse snobbery. A version of today’s hierarchical awareness is the concept of the “big sort.” This is the idea that if you have first-rate abilities and more than middling ambitions, you’ll need to end up in one of a handful of talent destinations. New York for finance; the San Francisco Bay Area or Seattle for tech; Washington, D.C., for politics and foreign policy. If you can make it there …

This sorting is real. Through my working life, as a California patriot I have waited for the time when the news-media base would shift to the West Coast. I am waiting still. But nearly everywhere we went we were surprised by evidence of a different flow: of people with first-rate talents and ambitions who decided that someplace other than the biggest cities offered the best overall opportunities. We saw and documented examples in South Carolina, and South Dakota, and Vermont, and the central valley of California, and central Oregon. I’ll talk now about northern Minnesota and inland Southern California.

Duluth, Minnesota, has become one of the country’s aerospace centers largely because the two brothers who founded Cirrus Design, Alan and Dale Klapmeier, decided that they wanted to spend their working lives amid the same Upper Midwest landscape and outdoors opportunities with which they had grown up. And now another generation of entrepreneurs is choosing Duluth. The Benson brothers, Dave and Greg, grew up in Minneapolis and went to college in the early 1990s at the University of Minnesota at Duluth. If you saw them in Southern California, you might think they were surfers—shaggy-haired, rangy, weathered. Their sports were instead the northern-plains variants: skiing, ice-skating, and skateboarding.

Soon after college, in 1997, they founded (with a friend, Tony Ciardelli) a company called TrueRide, which became a successful manufacturer of ramps, half-pipes, and other ingredients of outdoor skateboard parks. They started the company in Minneapolis but moved to Duluth because it was so much more affordable. They also liked Duluth’s livable scale, and what locals consider its year-round recreational opportunities. (Year-round if you enjoy the cold: When we visited the Bensons’ manufacturing plant, a week after Memorial Day in 2014, the last ice floe on Lake Superior had just melted. But, proving the locals’ loyalty, that same week residents were outvoting people from the likes of Asheville, North Carolina, and Provo, Utah, to win Outside magazine’s online poll to choose America’s “Best Town.”)

The skateboard parks that TrueRide sold were made of expensive plastic and composites. The Bensons didn’t like how much scrap was left over after they cut out the big sections for their skating ramps. They formed first a kitchenware company called Epicurean, then a furniture works called Loll, to make chairs, tables, cutting boards, and other products from the material they had been discarding.

On a wooded hillside outside Duluth, some of the company’s design and manufacturing offices are housed in a building that had once been a factory producing cement burial vaults and then was closed as a hazardous brownfield site. The city and state governments agreed to help clean up the site if the Bensons based their businesses there. As you approach from the back, you think, “This is what a Depression-era burial-vault factory would look like.” Once you step inside the door, you’re in an environment that the hippest firm in San Francisco or Brooklyn would envy: recycled timber, taken from the frigid depths of Lake Superior, for the walls, staircases, and beams; other structures made of the companies’ own sleek plastic; one whole wall of glass, looking out on the woods. From this building, Loll and Epicurean ship their products to customers in 61 countries. As Dave Benson showed us around, employees went off to jog on lunch breaks; in the winter they ski or skate. Racks just inside the front door hold their sporting equipment.

The Duluth area has new firms in aerospace, medical equipment, environmental tech, and other fields. “Ten years ago there weren’t many start-ups,” Dave Benson told us. “Now it’s buzzing.” If you saw this operation in San Francisco or Seattle, you would think: Of course! Where else could you combine the product-design talent that can appeal to a worldwide market, the emphasis on sustainability that has made the firm a leader in recycling techniques, and the production skills necessary to create a rapidly changing line of items? But you find it in Duluth—“because we just like the quality of life here,” Dave Benson said. And you find it in Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Greenville, South Carolina; Burlington, Vermont; Louisville, Kentucky; Bend, Oregon; and Davis, California. And in larger but noncoastal cities like Pittsburgh and Columbus, Ohio.

And in Redlands, neighbor of now-notorious San Bernardino. When I was growing up there, in the Baby Boom era, its economy rested on the orange-growing business, the neighboring Norton Air Force Base, and a medical community serving the nearby desert area. Now the orange groves are nearly gone, the Air Force base is closed, and the desert communities have their own doctors—but the city has been transformed by the presence of a tech firm that by all rights should be in some bigger, fancier place. This company, Esri, is a world leader in geographic information systems, or GIS. These are essentially the industrial-strength counterparts to Google Earth, which governments and companies around the world use for everything from tracking pothole repairs to monitoring climate change.

Esri, which now has more than 10,000 employees worldwide and 2,500 in Redlands, “should have” been based somewhere near Harvard; that is where its founder, Jack Dangermond, did his original work in GIS in the late 1960s. But he and his wife, Laura, had grown up in Redlands (where I knew them), and preferred it. “We fundamentally felt more comfortable starting out, living, working, and operating our business in a place that was sort of off the grid, where we could actually get things done,” he wrote in an e-mail. Instead of going to where the tech talent pool already was, they chose where they wanted to be and recruited talent to join them there. Not every computer programmer wants to live in a less expensive, family-friendly city rather than in the Bay Area, but enough do to make the company a success. The Dangermonds still own the company, which is valued in the billions, and have taken on a role as smaller-town counterparts to Warren Buffett: personally unflashy, doing internationally successful work from an out-of-the-way location, and behind the scenes supporting the town’s philanthropies, especially conservation efforts. (Jack Dangermond’s parents, Dutch immigrants, ran a nursery in town, and his original training was in landscape architecture.) The Esri campus in Redlands, like Loll and Epicurean’s in Duluth, is just what you’d expect to find in a famous tech center, exactly where you wouldn’t expect to find it.

Where you wouldn’t expect, that is, except we have seen so much of this nearly every place we’ve gone.

America thinks of itself as having a few distinct islands of tech creativity; I now see it as an archipelago of start-ups and reinventions.

John Dearie, a co-author (with Courtney Geduldig) of Where the Jobs Are, argues that new-business formation is the single most important guide to future employment trends. This is because of the unlikely-sounding but true economic observation that, over the decades, all the net new job growth within the U.S. economy has come from firms in their first five years of existence (and mainly from fast-growing ones in their very first year). Big, established firms—Walmart, McDonald’s—employ a lot of people. But the increase in jobs, overall, statistically comes from new firms, as they go from no employees to the first dozens or hundreds. The Kauffman Foundation annually ranks the “start-up density” of metro areas: the number of new firms divided by population size. It covers larger metro areas than most we visited, but San Francisco is not even in the top 10 of the 2015 ranking (it’s No. 12). Miami, New York City, and Orlando are the top three, followed by Austin, Denver, and Tampa. Columbus, Ohio, showed the greatest increase in start-ups from the preceding year. In 2015 both New York State and Florida made the list of top 10 states in start-up density, at Nos. 4 and 5, respectively. The rest were flyover states—North Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Utah, South Dakota, Colorado, Vermont, and Nevada. North Dakota and Wyoming might be downplayed as energy-boom outliers, but the rest reflected “normal” business growth.

A great, underappreciated advantage of “everywhere else” in America: The real estate is cheap. In New York, in San Francisco, in half a dozen other cities, everything about life is slave to hyper-expensive real estate. In Sioux Falls, South Dakota; in Allentown, Pennsylvania; in inland California; across the south, costs are comparatively low. This has an effect—on how much you have to work, on what you think you need, on the risks you can take. Every calculation—the cash flow you must maintain, the life balance you can work toward—is different when a very nice family house costs a few hundred thousand dollars rather than a few million.

In photos: Redlands Renewal

“Hopeless” Places Are Busily Reinventing Themselves

Apart from San Bernardino, the hardest-pressed place we visited was the area of northeastern Mississippi, close to the Alabama border, that has rebranded itself as the “Golden Triangle.” This is rolling, wooded country rather than the bottomland of the delta, but it is nearly as poor. The cities that make up the triangle are Columbus, Starkville, and West Point. During the slaveholding era and afterward this was a cotton center; Columbus still has a rich endowment of antebellum homes. In modern times the region has had an economic base consisting of the campus of Mississippi State University, in Starkville; an Air Force pilot-training base outside Columbus; some catfish farms; and low-wage, low-tech factories. Nonetheless, the long-term trend was downward. A quarry and workshop in Columbus that supplied marble headstones for the military and that thrived during the Vietnam War closed. The low-wage, low-tech factories that had come to the area after World War II—a toilet-seat plant, cut-and-sew garment workshops, a meatpacking plant owned by Sara Lee that once employed 1,000 people—closed one by one. A little more than half of the 120,000 or so residents of the Golden Triangle are white; most of the rest are black. The median household income last year was about $35,000, versus about $54,000 for the country as a whole.

If you wanted a vista of American hopelessness, you might think to start in Mississippi. But here again we heard that though the country as a whole was in trouble, things at home were moving in the right direction.

The main economic turnaround of the region is generally traced to an organization called Golden Triangle Development Link and its leaders, a white man from Arkansas named Joe Max Higgins and a black woman from Mississippi named Brenda Lathan. Over the past decade they have negotiated, cajoled, and otherwise persuaded a series of international manufacturing firms to build new factories in an industrial zone surrounding the new Golden Triangle airport, equidistant from the three cities. What is remarkable is less the details of the negotiations than the sense and pace of progress, in yet another corner of America where you’d hardly expect it.

When we first visited early last year, Joe Max Higgins took us to the most modern “mini-mill” for producing steel in North America, in the Golden Triangle industrial zone. This “mini” structure is what most lay observers would consider to be unimaginably vast. Ladles that appeared to be the size of 747s transported burbling loads of molten metal. The cooling line for the endless stream of new sheet metal stretched thousands of feet, under one roof. Mountains of scrap metal, from recycling shops and auto junkyards, sat outside the mill, raw material for the new steel to be made inside. This was the closest I have come in the United States to the experience of major factory life in China—and it was in rural Mississippi, where a racially mixed workforce of almost 700 earned a median wage of more than $80,000. A Russian-owned company invested more than $1.5 billion to build this plant starting in 2005. Steel Dynamics, based in Indiana, bought it two years ago and is expanding production. Now it is only one of several major high-wage manufacturers in the area.

Several times over the past three years, Deb and I have flown, low, over the factories of the Golden Triangle. They look as if they were laid out in an instructive diorama. Near the older, smaller Lowndes County airport in Columbus are the all-but-abandoned toilet-seat works, the shut-down garment factories, the headstone works, and other sad-looking remnants of an old economy. Ten miles west, a few minutes’ flight, is the large, modern runway of the Golden Triangle commercial airport, with the sprawling steelworks on one side, and helicopter and truck-engine plants nearby. A few minutes to the north, just past some catfish farms and cattle-grazing land, is a scene of industrial ruin: the derelict Sara Lee meatpacking plant in West Point, which was being picked apart by wreckers on our first visit early last year. When we flew over the same area again three months ago, a $300 million Yokohama Tires factory had just opened, with the company’s most modern production facilities in the world.

The Assimilation Engine Moves Ever Forward

Almost every place we went, the changes in America’s ethnic makeup were obvious. Almost no place did this come up as an economic, cultural, or political emergency, or even as the most pressing local issue. Based on everything we could see, the problems of immigration that presidential candidates have seized on for political advantage were largely another “rest of America” problem. That is, people generally saw things as manageable or improving locally, but believed they were falling apart everyplace else.

In 2014, a nationwide Gallup poll found that immigration had “modestly below-average importance to registered voters”; on a list of 15 challenges facing the nation, it came in at No. 9. In 2015, Gallup found that 65 percent of Americans thought levels of immigration should stay the same—or go up. In California, the state most dramatically affected by immigration, a 2015 poll reported that 59 percent of voters viewed immigration as a “positive force.” If you hadn’t heard the speeches and read the stories about an immigration-driven crisis in America, you might conclude city by city that the American assimilation machine was still functioning.

America thinks of itself as having a few islands of tech creativity; I now see it as an archipelago of start-ups.

We saw this shift all around the country: older people whiter, younger people darker. One version of what happens next is familiar to anyone who’s ever read a newspaper. Richer, whiter people think that public schools, public places, center cities are no longer for “people like us” and withdraw themselves, their children, and their tax support to the suburbs or private schools. We did see cases of that. But we also saw the opposite.

One example: The little town of Holland, Michigan, got its name because so many Dutch people congregated there. A generation ago, its population was overwhelmingly white, mainly Dutch, and generally affiliated with sects of the conservative Dutch Reformed Church. In high-school graduation photos from the 1970s, nearly all the faces are of blue-eyed blondes.

Since then, Michigan’s surprisingly important agricultural industry, including a large Heinz pickle factory right in downtown Holland, has drawn a substantial Latin American population, and strong Holland-area manufacturing and design companies have drawn immigrants from around the world. By 2005 the public-school population in this famously white town was mainly nonwhite.

In 2010 the superintendent of Holland’s public schools, Brian Davis, who grew up in a white farming family in Michigan, began a campaign to get major new bond funding for the schools. This was in the depth of the financial collapse, in a hard-hit state, in the same election cycle in which the Tea Party made its debut—and Davis was asking a mainly white electorate, most of whom did not have children in the public schools, to refinance the schools. And they did. The new programs and facilities paid for by the bond, according to Davis, helped reverse a decline in public confidence in the schools. “We have children who come from homes with $1 million–plus annual income, and ones who come from homes with incomes under $20,000,” Davis told me in 2013. “Just under 10 percent of them are considered homeless.” He reeled off some of the 20 native languages of his students. “Of course Spanish, but then Japanese, Russian, Tagalog, Korean. We’ve got more Garcias than Vans”—Van being the shorthand for standard Dutch names. “We’re what the future of public education looks like.” This is the reality as we heard it in many other cities.

Another example: Sioux Falls, South Dakota. It would be easy to take this city as an example of the ways in which American ethnicity is not changing. Sioux Falls is nearly 90 percent white.

But a very noticeable part of the Sioux Falls street scene are people who obviously did not come from Spearfish, or Bismarck, or the other farming towns of the Great Plains. Some are American Indians from Pine Ridge or other reservations; some are Latino or Asian migrants as in any other city; but a substantial number are Somalis, Sudanese, or people from Nepal or Burma or other sites of recent turmoil. The U.S. State Department manages the resettlement of refugees across the country, working mainly with religious groups.

Sioux Falls, despite being relatively “nondiverse” and remote, is a city with one of the best records of absorbing refugees (Burlington, Vermont, is another).

The civic and business leaders of Sioux Falls we spoke with, most of them white, seemed proud rather than beleaguered about their city’s new role as a melting pot. As always, there were problems and challenges. Refugees from Sudan and Somalia had to be instructed not to offer bribes if stopped by the police—and the police had to be told not to throw the book at the refugees. A boy from Africa had never used an indoor toilet and had to be shown how. Sioux Falls is reviving its downtown district, but most of the area is laid out in typical freeway-era American sprawl. Many refugees don’t have cars (or can’t drive), and they can’t rely on the shaky public-bus system. So on hot days in the summer and very cold winter nights, you can see groups of Somalis or Sudanese trudging along the roadways to and from their jobs at factories or shopping malls.

The most dramatic display of this era’s assimilation process is at a huge pig slaughterhouse, one of the dominant features of downtown Sioux Falls’ cityscape. The plant was set up in the early 1900s by the John Morrell company; for many years it was the city’s largest employer, and it still employs more than 3,000 people; eventually it was sold to Smithfield and in 2013 to the Chinese firm Shuanghui (which hoped that American-raised and -processed meat would be popular among Chinese customers wary of tainted-food scandals). Through the 20th century, the Morrell plant was a site of representative struggles in American society: the violent efforts to unionize the workforce in the 1930s and the corporate efforts to de-unionize it in the 1980s, as wave after wave of newcomers arrived from overseas or farm towns to work “at Morrell’s” as their entrée to urban life. University professors, bankers, newspaper reporters, and tech workers in Sioux Falls told me that their families had first moved to the city to work at the plant.

The workers at the slaughterhouse are now largely immigrants and refugees. The safety and work-rules instructions are posted in 30 languages. The workers on the line, cutting up pig carcasses, include Muslim women from Sudan or Somalia, saving money to send their children to college. Deb met two young sisters from Darfur, one of whom was in high school and had joined ROTC there. Her main regret was that she was not allowed to wear her ROTC uniform to school on dress days, because ROTC rules forbade wearing the uniform with a head scarf. (Yarmulkes were acceptable, since they fit under the uniform cap.)

We heard a few months later that the rule had been waived. The young woman wore her ROTC uniform, with her head scarf, to school.

In photos: Georgia Education Innovation

An Arts Revolution Is Transforming Small Cities

I am a philistine, who has not really cared about the state of the arts. Give me research centers and “makerspaces” with 3‑D printers, plus a factory or two, and I’ll tell you how I feel about a town. Perhaps the topic on which I’ve most changed my mind through our travels concerns the civic importance of local arts, and the energy being devoted to them across the country.

Almost every place we visited offers an example: Bend, Oregon, whose Art in Public Places project has installed large sculptures at 20 traffic roundabouts; Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, which has converted the ruins of a Bethlehem Steel plant into a concert center and arts space; Riverside, California, with life-size sculptures of prominent leaders of all ethnicities throughout its new downtown mall; Rapid City, South Dakota (the closest city to Mount Rushmore), with its life-size sculptures of all the American presidents spaced throughout its downtown; Winters, California, with its springtime Plein Air Festival, for which it invites artists to visit and portray the area in paintings, sculpture, or photographs. Three examples of what is happening elsewhere are in the largish city of Pittsburgh; the smallish city of Fresno, California; and the tiny town of Ajo, Arizona.

Pittsburgh’s late-20th-century transformation from dirty, dying steel center to chic tech hub is probably the best-known American turnaround story. Parts of it are instructive for cities elsewhere, notably the emphasis on universities as centers of new-tech growth. Parts are unique. “Pittsburgh feels as vibrant as it does—museums, opera, restaurants, but not much traffic—because we’re living in an infrastructure built for twice as many people as live here now,” Dutch MacDonald, the CEO of the design firm Maya, told me. That is exactly the formula that led to devastation in Detroit: lots of space and buildings, not enough people. In Pittsburgh, by all accounts, the difference is the extraordinary density of rich, locally rooted philanthropies set up by the titans of the robber-baron era and still committed to the city’s development. The Mellon, Heinz, Carnegie, Frick, and other charities support Pittsburgh institutions in a way any city would envy but few can imitate.

Doug Wagner, an architectural designer, at his studio in Bend, Oregon, one of many cities with an ambitious public-arts program (Mark Peterman)

The arts initiative that struck us in Pittsburgh was bottom-up and frugally operated, rather than a big foundation project. It is known as the City of Asylum project, and its goal is to revive a run-down area of Pittsburgh and make it a haven for persecuted writers from the rest of the world. In the 1990s Henry Reese, the founder of local telemarketing and coupon-book firms, and his wife, an artist named Diane Samuels, became interested in the cause of oppressed novelists, poets, and journalists. By 2004, they had organized and opened the only independently funded U.S. branch of the City of Asylum movement, which was already strong in Europe. (There are two other such cities in the United States, but they are run by universities; Pittsburgh’s is on its own.) They put up some of their own money, and ran fund-raisers and recruited donors for more, so they could buy a series of rowhouses in the once-seedy Mexican War Streets district of Pittsburgh (the streets are named for battles and generals from that war) for their writers and artists to stay for periods of months or years.

One of the first was a long-imprisoned dissident poet from China. He decided to turn his house into public art, covering it with poems in large Chinese characters. A Burmese writer and her family came, and painted the exterior of their house with landscapes and “dreamscapes.” Strolling down the streets is like being in a graffiti-covered part of town, but one where the style, palette, and theme vary building by building, and the decorations have been done carefully and proudly rather than on the fly. The program has steadily expanded, still locally funded; in the past decade more than 250 poets, writers, musicians, and artists from around the world have put on public performances in Pittsburgh. They have, through the arts, enhanced the city’s international reputation and, more important, given it an expanded conception of itself. Plus, the Mexican War Streets district has become a tourist draw.

In Fresno, Heather Parish, the publicity director of a successful arts festival called the Rogue, said that cheap real estate would be the basis for the city’s artistic future. “Fresno is the bohemia of California,” she told us when we visited. “That’s because you can afford to live here! And the pace of life is such that you can have a full-time job if you need to, but not be so stressed out or have the 90-minute commutes of L.A. You can afford the garage as your studio, if you need it, which you can’t do in San Jose anymore.” Of all the cities we visited, my mind changed most about Fresno—in part because I’d heard about it all my life as one of California’s least hip cities, and in part because of the spark that the Rogue festival brought to the businesses in the artsy Tower District. Last February, on the opening evening of the 2015 Rogue, the capacity crowd filing into the restored Tower Theater passed belly dancers, men on stilts, fire-breathers, mimes, and acrobats; inside they saw strictly timed two-minute performances by more than two dozen dramatic, musical, and stand-up-comedy artists who would be part of the festival. Nothing about it said small-town talent show. Instead it said, “There is more going on, in more places, than you imagined.”

The tiny-town example is Ajo, far south of Phoenix. Ajo’s economic existence, like the Carnegie-era version of Pittsburgh’s, once depended on heavy industry. In the early 1900s, a mining company decided to exploit a major high-grade copper deposit in Ajo, where Spaniards, Mexicans, and American Indians had dug small mines for many years. From the opening of the company’s mine and an adjoining rail line just before World War I until a bitter labor dispute in 1985 that led to the mine’s closure, everything about the town depended on the copper business.

Nighttime in downtown Ajo, Arizona, a mining town reborn as an artists’ community (Mark Peterman)

The ugly remnants of those days are a vast crater, more than 1,000 feet deep and a mile across, and a mountain of mine tailings visible from 25 miles away. But the people running the mine had cultural and artistic ambitions, and they left a beautiful legacy as well. The manager, John Greenway, was a Yale graduate and a Rough Rider at San Juan Hill with Teddy Roosevelt. His wife, Isabella, was a lifelong friend of Eleanor Roosevelt. A century ago the Greenways laid out an elegant, expansive plaza that would be admired in any Spanish town, and a comparably stately school. They lived in a white-stucco-walled, red-tile-roofed house on the highest point in the town. From there you can look, and I did, down on the lovely formal architecture of the town center, with the white-stucco arcades, under red-tile roofs, of the plaza that the Greenways built. When I first saw the plaza last year and imagined the remoteness of Ajo when it was built, I thought of the grand opera house that rubber tycoons had built in the Brazilian jungle, in Manaus.

For years Ajo eked out an existence from what Gabrielle David, the editor of Ajo Copper News, called “blue-collar retirees,” who came in RVs or with tents to stretch pensions as far as they could go. Ajo is the closest town to the spectacular Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, which we decided was given that name only because another reserve was already called Saguaro National Park. The dominant plant in Organ Pipe is the towering, stately saguaro, with shorter, multibranch clumps of (aptly named) organ-pipe cacti in between. But most of the park was closed after drug gangs murdered a park ranger in 2002; it reopened, drawing visitors, only recently.

In 1992 a woman named Tracy Taft, who had once taught philosophy at Bryn Mawr College and had then been a community organizer in the Northeast, visited Ajo and was so struck by the austere beauty of the Sonoran desert that she bought a house that same day. She moved there to live in 2000, and in a collaborative process that resembles what we have seen elsewhere, she has raised money, enlisted allies, become part of nationwide city-improvement networks, and used her city’s potential as an arts center as the basis for its economic revitalization.

Taft is now the executive director of the International Sonoran Desert Alliance. It has collected government and foundation grants and investments to turn the “good bones” of Ajo’s architecture into an arts community and destination resort. First it renovated the stately Curley School, converting it into affordable-rent apartments for painters, sculptors, photographers, and others. Then the alliance remodeled the downtown plaza, which is a mixture of still-shuttered storefronts and occupied restaurants, shops, and public offices. Last year it opened the Sonoran Desert Conference Center in former schoolrooms redone in a hip style. This is designed to attract conference traffic and host “tri-national” events involving the United States, Mexico, and the nearby native Tohono O’odham Nation. “We saw artists revitalizing urban inner cities and wondered if we could make it happen intentionally in a small town,” Taft told us. The city’s vitality now comes from determined use of the arts.

Pittsburgh’s City of Asylum project, which aims to transform a run-down area into a haven for persecuted writers from around the world (City of Asylum Pittsburgh)

The End of the Second Gilded Age?

everywhere we went, Deb and I saw the imprint of the great national efforts of the past. An astonishing amount of the public architecture of 21st-century America was laid down in a few Depression-era years in the 1930s, by the millions of people employed by the Works Progress Administration. The small airports we landed at were the result of mid-century defense-and-transportation building projects, as were the interstates we flew above. The grid-pattern fields of the farmland Midwest had been laid out by the rules of settlement from the earliest days of the republic. The practices that made them the most productive farmland in the world were crucially spurred by land-grant universities and agricultural-research schools. The wildlands and ecosystems that have escaped development did so because of their protection as national parks or monuments.

To seize the opportunities, and cope with the failures, of this moment in American history, national efforts of the kind that more recently underlay the creation of the Internet, the GPS network, and DNA decoding might again be best. But for now, even if most parts of the complex American “system” work better than their counterparts in the rest of the world, our national politics works worse. Thus the United States has a harder time taking the steps that would make adjusting to this era less painful and more productive. As the technological and economic imperatives pushing toward a “gig economy” erode the protections of the corporate-employment model—more side income via Uber and Etsy, fewer guaranteed pensions or health benefits—national policy could respond, as it did more than a century ago when the industrial age eroded the protections of the family-farming era. Then, the response took the form of safety legislation, child-labor laws, union rights, and the minimum wage. Now it could take the form of extensions of health-care coverage and other safeguards harder to obtain without career-long jobs. Technology-friendly economists like Laura Tyson, of UC Berkeley, and Lenny Mendonca, of McKinsey, have laid out just such programs. As automation and world trade eliminate, or immiserate, some of today’s jobs, schools can help prepare students for other kinds—as happened a century ago with the creation of high schools and then again after World War II with the GI Bill.

But that won’t happen soon. Whichever party wins the presidency, the other will hold enough of the Congress to make comprehensive measures of any sort very hard to push through. That is why local resilience and adaptability of the kind we have witnessed deserve nationwide attention.

It’s now commonplace to observe that the United States is living through a Second Gilded Age. The distortions of that first age—the extremes of wealth and welfare, the sudden dislocations due to technology and trade and ethnic change, the dismay about corrupt and plutocratic politics, the shunting of populist concerns toward racist outbursts—all have their clear counterparts now. Sadly, history is not so mechanistic that we can say: Things turned out all right the last time around, so let’s wait for the reforms to happen again.

But when we think about the shift from the original Gilded Age, in the late 19th century, to what came after, three elements can show us what to anticipate and what to seize on right now.Sioux Falls, despite being “nondiverse,” is a city with one of the best records of absorbing refugees.

The first, unpredictable element is the national shock that galvanizes effort. For me the central document in American political psychology is William James’s 1910 essay “The Moral Equivalent of War.” America is capable of almost anything when threatened militarily, James argued; think what it could do if it could muster the same determination without the threat. The sin of commission for the United States after its greatest recent shock, the 9/11 attacks, was the invasion of Iraq, with the consequences it will entail through the decades. The sin of omission may have been worse, to miss the opportunity for real national improvement. Consider how Dwight Eisenhower used the then-terrifying “Sputnik shock” of the late 1950s: mainly as a spur to technological and educational investment.

The second element is one that Paul Starr, of Princeton University, stresses in a 2015 American Prospect essay called “How Gilded Ages End.” Democracy, he argues, finally depends on and is defined by the ability of political power to control strictly economic forces. Otherwise you’re talking about a nationwide corporation, not a country.

American history of the era that began with J. P. Morgan and ran through the New Deal was about political power reasserting its preeminence. “Behind the myriad of specific reforms” that constituted the early-20th-century Progressive movement, Starr writes, “was a common recognition—a collective revulsion against the privileges of great wealth allied with great power.” He argues that the country is due for such an adjustment again. Through the past generation-plus, this struggle has been cast as a Republican-versus-Democratic issue. From Nixon onward, the modern GOP has channeled resentment about intellectual and cultural elites, and racial minorities, into support for the business elite. Thus white voters in West Virginia or Kansas support tax policies that disproportionately benefit financiers in New York and San Francisco. Despite their obvious differences, the discontents propelling Donald Trump’s campaign and that of Bernie Sanders could signal a change.

And the third element that marked the end of the first Gilded Age was fertile experimentation with new approaches and possibilities. Louis Brandeis’s famous claim that the American states, rather than the central government, were the real “laboratories of democracy” came in a Supreme Court ruling in 1932. For several decades before that, states and cities across the country had experimented with new school systems, new tax and spending schemes, new ways of providing public services, new public-health programs, new regulatory approaches, all toward the goal of responding to the crises of that age. “In Cleveland, Toledo, across the Midwest and plains states, you saw these dedicated reformers,” Michael Kazin of Georgetown University, a historian of the Progressive era and a biographer of William Jennings Bryan, told me. “Some were Socialists, some Democrats, some Republicans—they were all trying something new.” One of Bryan’s goals, Kazin said, was to let the politically disparate but actively experimental reformers in one state know about parallel efforts elsewhere.

When the national mood after the first Gilded Age favored reform, possibilities that had been tested, refined, and made to work in various “laboratories of democracy” were at hand. After our current Gilded Age, the national mood will change again. When it does, a new set of ideas and plans will be at hand. We’ve seen them being tested in places we never would have suspected, by people who would never join forces in the national capital. But their projects, the progress they have made, and their goals are more congruent than even they would ever imagine. Until the country’s mood does change, the people who have been reweaving the national fabric will be more effective if they realize how many other people are working toward the same end.