Civic Life


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A weekend market in Ajo, Arizona, in 2015, back when people were encouraged to congregate.

Photo Courtesy James Fallows / The Atlantic

The theme in this “Our Towns” space has been, and remains, the sources of vitality, practicality, generosity, and renewal in local-level America, despite bitter polarization in national-level politics.

The series began almost seven years ago, when smaller communities across the United States were still trying to rebuild their economies after the financial collapse of 2008 and beyond.

Now, with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the very people and groups that led the way in local recovery—small businesses, innovative start-up organizations, locally oriented restaurants and bookshops and bars and civic spaces—are exposed to a sharper, more sudden, and potentially more devastating shock than the one they endured a dozen years ago.

National-level and international responses obviously will determine much of our collective public-health and economic future. But in the past two weeks, Americans have already seen governors and mayors, schools and hospitals, religious organizations and foundations and nonprofit groups taking the lead while the national government has faltered.

The upcoming theme in this space will be on-the-ground reports on the way the economic, civic, and medical dramas are playing out. Part of America’s future is being determined right now in the U.S. Senate, at the Centers for Disease Control, and in the White House. But what is happening in the rest of the country matters at least as much, and probably more.

Let me start with a reader’s note that directly addresses this point, and then a few resources from people who have been thinking about equalizing opportunity around the country, before the current cataclysm. The reader’s note is below.

An Atlantic reader who has moved from a major East Coast city to a medium-sized city in Greater Appalachia writes:

My apologies if this seems irrelevant given the size and scope of the current world situation. Given your past works, I thought this might provide some fodder for your overarching work regarding Our Towns.

I am a lifelong politics and government person in my mid-40s. I spent the better part of 15 years engaged in either civic associations, county-level citizen advisory groups, and local government advocacy. I experienced first hand how listening to a community’s concerns, and working directly with local officials, could make a material difference in a neighborhood’s quality of life.    

Against this backdrop, I avidly followed your dispatches from around the country during the research for Our Towns. As I was still an active private pilot at the time, it was a perfect mix of topics for me.

It also planted in me the idea that there were different ways of achieving a quality of life outside of the major metropolitan areas. It was a major reason my wife and I started to look outside of [an East Coast metropolis] for where our next chapter could take place.

We settled on [the medium-sized city], moving here in December of 2019. It was like your main thesis come to life. Besides the unlimited outdoor options, the easier pace of life, the strong local brewery scene, there is a palpable sense of local patriotism. Of locals seeing their success being tied to one another.  

And so it is heartbreaking to see and feel the very hard limitations of this optimistic world view run headlong into the current [coronavirus] situation.

I am saddened for lives that will be lost and economic hardship that we will endure. This is mixed with a nearly overwhelming anger … Even admitting that a President isn’t responsible for creating the underlying crisis of a pandemic(or oil market crash), they are responsible for having systems and institutions that have been nourished and prepared to react to them.

I know that over a long enough time period, we’ll recover and we will rebuild. But there will always be scar tissue. And part of that is a honest reckoning of how fragile the system is, and a dimming of optimism for what it can build. A small price compared to loss of a loved one, or the economic pain that will sure to be revisited upon our most vulnerable population.

Many groups and individuals we’ve reported on, over these past half-dozen years, are gearing up now to deal with the economic crises that are affecting everyone, in places large and small, but that could intensify existing regional differences.

Some of the reports and insights we have been following, and will report on, in coming days:

1) “A Vital Midwest: The Path to a New Prosperity,” from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Information about the report, by John Austin and Alexander Hitch, is here. The full report, in PDF, is here.

As the introduction by Richard C. Longworth of the Council, previously a long-time economics writer for the Chicago Tribune, puts it, the stereotype of the industrial Midwest that dominates political discussion is out of touch with real developments there:

Much of the world’s attention to the Midwest is an almost indecent fascination, born of the 2016 presidential election, with the postindustrial rust and ruin of the region’s old factory towns and rural hinterlands. With the nation’s gaze thus averted, the rest of the Midwest has been reinventing itself. The result, half completed, looks nothing like the silos and smokestacks of yore ….

Already we see a new Midwest, powered by different places, people, and industries … Most of the economic capitals of this new Midwest are not the old industrial cities. The new economic centers are places like Columbus, Ohio; Des Moines, Iowa; Indianapolis, Indiana; Madison, Wisconsin; and Minneapolis, Minnesota….  All have leaders who understand that the world has changed and their cities must change with it. And all know where they stand on the global supply chain. They are global cities now, earning their living from the global economy.

The report is worth reading in full, for midwesterners and anyone else considering the next stage in American economic recovery.

2) “Countering America’s regional economic disparities is going to take more than hope,” from Mark Muro and Robert Atkinson, via AEI. Information about the report is here, and the full PDF is here. This follows a longer and more detailed report, “The case for growth centers: How to spread tech innovation across America,” by the same two authors and Jacob Whiton, which came out late last year as a joint project by Brookings and the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. (Summary of Brookings-ITIF paper here; PDF here.)

The reports’ main argument is that despite the mounting costs and frictions of operating in super-star cities like San Francisco and Seattle, and despite the growth of “Rise of the Rest” centers across the country (a trend they dispute), the highest-value parts of the tech economy are still concentrating themselves in a handful of places. Left to its own incentives, the authors argue, the tech economy will not naturally spread itself more broadly across the country.

But, they say, it can be nudged, encouraged, and steered in that direction. To me the fascinating part of these analyses is their specificity about exactly where innovation-promoting policies might be effective—and their reminder that today’s richest regional economies themselves are success stories of place-conscious policies of the past.

As for past examples, the Brookings-ITIF report says:

From the 1920s to the 1940s, many believed that Boston would go the way of the rest of New England, with the city’s traditional manufacturing of textiles, shoes, and machines migrating to the low-cost South and stagnation setting in. But Boston took a different path toward becoming one the strongest innovation hubs in the world, in no small part due to federal support. World War II brought an influx of federal funding to the city, especially for the development of military electronics. As the Cold War began, that support was formalized and dramatically expanded …

The federal government was even more instrumental in the development of Silicon Valley …. In 1992, Santa Clara County (the heart of Silicon Valley) received more defense prime contract funding per capita than any county in the nation. As historian Leslie Berlin writes: “It’s not a stretch at all to say that Silicon Valley exists because of the federal government.”

The federal government also had a major hand in the development of North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park ….

None of this is to say that these federal investments created these places on their own or that they were designed to create these places … But they did help enable emerging growth centers to become self-sustaining.

As for current candidates, the report gives this map. The report gives details about these localities:

This past week, Muro, Whiton, and Robert Maxim, of Brookings, did a report on the metro areas where the pandemic shutdown was likely to be most destructive. For instance, this is part of their list of places where economies are most dependent on “high risk” industries like energy and tourism, and so where job losses could be worst:

For now the main point is: In the long, slow, uneven recovery from the past Great Recession, people around the country have thought and learned a lot about the process of recovery, and how it can be hastened and more broadly shared. We’ll try to share some of those findings in this space, and report on local responses to this new global crisis.

3) “How to Rescue Main Street From Coronavirus Before It’s Too Late,” by Adam Ozimek and John Lettieri for the Economic Innovation Group. (Report is here; PDF version is here.)

The title is self-explanatory, and the meat of this report is a detailed list of proposals for sustaining the small businesses that have been so crucial in community renewal around the country, and now are at unprecedented risk.

Thanks to these authors, innovators, and other civic patriots. More reports on their work in the days to come.