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A flagpole outside of the Fort Lawn Community Center where a 9/11 Memorial features an artwork created from a World Trade Center steel beam. Photo by Michelle Ellia.

Why seeing more of America matters.

It had been some 20 years since I last visited South Carolina. That was to Myrtle Beach for a high school marching band competition. 

I was a teenager then, and had not yet become as familiar as I am today with the long history of road-trip-as-discovery in telling the story of America to Americans, from influential writers as august as Alexis de Tocqueville and as renegade as Hunter S. Thompson. 

The origin of the Our Towns project was to share what you learn about the country by showing up, and Jim Fallows has just given an introduction to what he and Deb have learned by showing up in small-town Ohio

On a recent trip through North Carolina to South Carolina, showing up meant climbing rusty stairs and a ladder in a guard tower in a decommissioned prison; reporting while kayaking to see things not just at the street level but the river level; exploring a bank vault that’s now a teen reading lounge; eating fried squash for the first time at a local landmark restaurant now run by Greek immigrants; and a lot more. 

For now, here is the introduction and overview to what we saw and learned by showing up. It is different from what we expected when we began the trip, and a lot different from what you would expect if your only window in North Carolina and South Carolina is the national news:

“One goes not so much to see but to tell afterward.” John Steinbeck wrote that line in “Travels with Charley: In Search of America” about what he saw as “the American tendency in travel” at the time. 

That time, of course, was the early 1960s. And that observation, of course, came from a famed American novelist who, toward the twilight of his accomplished career, set out to see his country anew, firsthand. 

I am both a fan of Steinbeck’s writing in general, and specifically of this book. On the latter, perhaps it is because I am both driven by a perpetual curiosity to go see our country firsthand, and that my Our Towns colleague and fiancée, Michelle Ellia, and I, too, travel with our dog, Remi. 

Here, the purpose of this post is to tell about a part of America that Michelle and Remi and I recently visited that was once foreign to us but now familiar through our reporting. This will be the first crack of a window into what we saw.

Looking at the country from afar, we hear and read of the Divided States of America, that its Red States versus Blue States, that the country is on the precipice of an uncivil civil war. While we were on the road, a senator from the state we visited said on cable news that riots would erupt in the streets if a former president were to be indicted. When we were there, not a single person we met mentioned their senator, nor did we see more presidential yard signs, bumper stickers, banners, or flags for either political party than we could count on just one hand.

The state of the country obviously matters. 

What also matters is the contrasting narrative at the local level – that people are hopeful about their towns, working, to varying degrees of successes and shortcomings, together towards their future more so than idolizing their past. This, too, is America. And this, too, should be seen, and should be told, and here we witnessed it in rural North Carolina and rural South Carolina.

What we saw, and what we plan to tell more about. 

On our way to three small rural towns in South Carolina, we stopped in Laurinburg, North Carolina. There, we met with Ashoka Fellow Noran Sanford, director of the nonprofit Growing Change. Sanford’s “Flip the Prison” model is at work in Scotland County, where he and cohorts of young people more traditionally labeled “at-risk youth” have been converting the shuttered penitentiary to a multi-use farm. 

It would be easy, and lazy, to look around at the buildings – which are in various stages of repair but all still early in the process – and see a ready-to-be-photographed montage of “ruin porn.” We saw impact at the local level, and a model with the potential to be scaled up nationally. 

This was the first example of a theme we also saw in South Carolina: New ideas in old spaces. In Fort Lawn, the Community Center – which is in nearly every sense of the phrase, the center of the community – is in a former school building. Residents in Great Falls are envisioning how the repurposing of old company buildings to become interpretive and educational centers will breathe in new life through an eco-tourism initiative there to reroute a dammed river to create a two-and-a-half-mile stretch of white water rafting next to a new state park. Along the town of Kershaw’s main street, two former bank buildings have been repurposed. One houses the town’s community library; a pre-K will launch soon on the first floor in another as development continues in its second story. 

Another theme we saw was how each town is addressing the environment and sustainability. In Great Falls, it’s the white water rafting initiative. In Kershaw, we toured Stevens Park, an impressive community park on the edge of the town, replete with an outdoor amphitheater, skate park, walking trails, and more. The Fort Lawn community is working with the Catawba Riverkeeper to develop a walking trail, where we saw osprey nests and other wildlife thriving, and outdoor educational center.  

We also saw the impact of nonprofits – from centers in each town delivering a range of services to residents, including legal help, help paying bills, food pantries, thrift stores, and more, to the area’s community foundation, the Arras Foundation.  

The foundation’s leadership played a critical role in bringing Community Heart & Soul® to these towns. Fort Lawn and Kershaw began this resident-driven community-development process in 2017, and Great Falls is just getting underway. (CH&S is a partner and supporter of Our Towns reports). 

We have reported on similar levels of foundations’ engagement in the H&S process in Iowa here, and Pennsylvania here, and Deb and Jim will have more reporting on the Findlay-Hancock County Community Foundation in Ohio, which Jim introduced here. There is more to say about the impact this foundation is having in this region. 

There is an entrepreneurial spirit in the towns, like how a young couple is running a boutique ice cream and coffee shop on Kershaw’s main street – where nearly all storefronts occupied – that serves as a gathering space for the town (upon extensive research, I recommend all the flavors served but recommend the banana pudding the most). There’s a pride in those from the area, and an even greater pride of how they remain connected after they’ve left, like a new basketball court in Great Falls thanks to someone who grew up in the area and now plays in the NBA. 

There’s an embracing of words like “scrappy” and “plucky” to describe residents’ attitude toward their towns. As they showed us around their towns, I asked the people we met what words they’d use to describe their part of this country they call home. Others included: Friendly. Welcoming. Proud. Forward-thinking. Resilient. We also heard: Small-town, big heart verbatim from separate people from separate towns.

I’d add: Small towns; big ideas.

What we didn’t hear: Divided.

We didn’t discuss national politics. The people there were focused on their towns, and we were, too. One local leader told us “Change is coming to our town. It’s up to us if we’re ready for it – and we want to be.” Another in another town rhetorically asked: “If we don’t do it – work to make the town better – who will?” And another told something we’ve heard before elsewhere: “If it can happen here, it can happen anywhere.”

There is, of course, more to the story of South Carolina than we see on cable TV, or read in newspapers. The more is what is happening in places like Fort Lawn, Great Falls, and Kershaw, towns that don’t often make the national news but are an important part of our national narrative.