TOPICS > Nation > The Atlantic

Not all forgotten American cities are struggling

March 8, 2016 at 8:27 PM EDT
It’s called flyover country -- low-profile parts of the U.S. the news media often forgets. But to husband-and-wife journalists James and Deborah Fallows, these areas are home to ‘cities that work,’ thriving communities that buck this election’s narrative of national pessimism. As part of a collaboration between The Atlantic and the PBS NewsHour, Judy Woodruff joins the couple to learn more.
LISTENSEE PODCASTS

JUDY WOODRUFF: With all the noise on the campaign trail this year about what’s wrong with America, it caught our eye when journalist James and Deborah Fallows filed a report on places that seem to be getting things right, even across partisan divides.

To find out more, I caught up with the Fallows in Greenville, South Carolina. This story is part of our collaboration with “The Atlantic” magazine.

For the past three years, husband and wife journalists James and Deborah Fallows have been exploring parts of America sometimes referred to as flyover country, places often ignored by the East and West Coast news media.

But instead of just flying over, the Fallows have been landing over and over again.

DEBORAH FALLOWS, The Atlantic: When we touched down in some of these small communities, you would think, how can all this be going on here, and we never knew about any of it?

JAMES FALLOWS, The Atlantic: The country is full of people doing things, which you wouldn’t necessarily assume from the tone of political discourse or news coverage.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In a search for places that have grappled with challenges, economic or political, the Fallows have made extended visits to about 25 cities for the project, including Greenville, South Carolina; Burlington, Vermont; Allentown, Pennsylvania; Duluth, Minnesota; Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Redlands, California, and so many more.

You found that there were a number of things that these cities have in common that make things work.

JAMES FALLOWS: You see across the country, there’s a surprising amount of the good bones of downtown that are still left that people are trying to use.

You see, very crucially, the fact that national politics, which are so divisive and so poisonous now, just don’t come into the local discourse.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why is having a downtown important?

JAMES FALLOWS: To a surprising degree, just the identity of this is a place where there’s a there there depends on having a downtown with restaurants and with not just a shopping mall. It was amazing to go see how many parts of the country are attracting really ambitious, really well-educated, really first-rate people who think that the best arena for their ambitions and their whole life prospect is someplace where they can do work of the very first tier, but also have some effect on the local community.

The falls are a really nice way to link the past and the present.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A prime example, Greenville, South Carolina. Once known for the textile industry, its mills lined the Reedy River in the heart of the city. Now the mills are long gone or repurposed, but the river remains at the center of the community, lined by hotels and restaurants, as it flows through a stunning urban park that’s a magnet for tourists and locals alike.

The evolution was no accident.

MAYOR KNOX WHITE, Greenville, South Carolina: We reinvented the downtown, just as we reinvented the local economy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Knox White, mayor of Greenville for more than 20 years, and a chief architect of the city’s redevelopment, says city fathers set out decades ago to plan for the future.

KNOX WHITE: In the 1970s, when textiles were still very viable, the leadership in Greenville very intentionally decided that we needed to diversify. They brought in and recruited companies like General Electric, and today GE is a major presence here. And that put us in a really good stead, because, later, the textile industry would collapse.

DEBORAH FALLOWS: I think they’re very self-conscious about what they’re doing in Greenville and also aware that these things aren’t going to be decreed from on high.

NANCY WHITWORTH, City of Greenville: It’s just in part of our DNA of how we operate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Remaking Greenville took government and business working together, says Nancy Whitworth, Greenville’s director of economic development.

NANCY WHITWORTH: The public-private partnership of working together, the city and the county, you see that every day in sort of how we approach dealing with companies that we try to bring into Greenville.

JUDY WOODRUFF: An active local government pushing incentives like tax breaks and favorable zoning have made so-called public-private partnerships possible, both in developing the downtown, and in luring major manufacturers to the area, like BMW and Michelin.

These companies provide tens of thousands of jobs, and bring an international influence to this small Southern city.

DANIELLE VINSON, Furman University: It is definitely conservative, by and large.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Danielle Vinson teaches political science at nearby Furman University.

DANIELLE VINSON: We have pockets of Democrats in the city limits particularly. But everywhere else is very Republican. And so our senators are Republican. Our — all of our congressional delegation up here is Republican.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Vinson says the government’s partnership with business may seem inconsistent with Republican philosophy, but it’s a way to make things work.

DANIELLE VINSON: When you start talking about ideology, it’s good in theory, and you can argue about it at the national level. But when you get to the local city and county level, you have got tangible issues that have to be addressed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There’s no question Greenville’s economy is booming. Half-a-dozen cranes dot the skyline, as new hotels, condos and office buildings multiply.

But some are asking if the benefits have reached all of Greenville’s residents, about 15 percent of whom are poor.

How fast is gentrification happening here?

CHANDRA DILLARD (D), South Carolina State Representative: It’s happening very rapidly, even in my neighborhood.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Chandra Dillard is a Democratic state representative from Greenville.

CHANDRA DILLARD: I have received letters at my home saying, do you want to sell? There is pressure against the neighborhood.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So how is the community dealing with that?

CHANDRA DILLARD: Well, I think you must be intentional, Judy. We must be intentional about making sure that people are trained, that they’re ready, that there is policy to protect people who currently live in these neighborhoods, so that they will be able to stay there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How would you describe today the racial relationships in this community, in the context of the history of this part of the state?

CHANDRA DILLARD: I think there is racial harmony in our city. Again, I believe the challenge now is economic disparity that separates us, and not the races.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The congregation at Greenville’s Redemption Church would seem to confirm that. Sixty percent of its 20,000 members are African-American, the rest mainly white. Most of the whites are Republicans, most of the blacks Democrats. On politics, they disagree fiercely. But each Sunday, they worship as one.

The reverend Ron Carpenter is their pastor.

REV. RON CARPENTER, Redemption Church: In our world, we call it a culture of honor. There is such a culture of disrespect that prevails in society, I think, through media, through government, through politics, that I tell people that, no matter if you disagree with this person’s politics, whether or not you agree with their position, honor the person.

JAMES FALLOWS: It’s easier to treat that person as somebody who has good parts and bad parts, and you disagree on some things, and you will try to contain those, where you can come to kind of practical solutions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: One such solution addresses the education gap that keeps many African-Americans from sharing in the wealth of high-tech jobs in and around Greenville.

At the Whittenberg Elementary School of Engineering — you heard that right, elementary school — these kids get a head start on math and science.

DEBORAH FALLOWS: These were the tiniest little engineers from pre-K through grade five. And they were starting off in technology and engineering infused into their baby curriculum.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities, a public boarding school, gives high school students from across the state an opportunity to pursue excellence.

Still, much work remains to spread the new opportunities and benefits among all of Greenville’s residents. And much of that work falls to the church.

REV. RON CARPENTER: What I do is, I usually try to bring businesses and bring our government officials to the table and say, I can’t take care of all of them, but I can help with this child care issue if we can get the Greenville transit system operating in this community, too.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In Greenville and in so many other cities the Fallows visited, they found pockets of genuine optimism in a nation that often seems filled with fear and loathing.

JAMES FALLOWS: They have a shared story about the way that the city government works to bring in some international corporations, works with local start-ups, works with the diversity of the community there, works with religious organizations, and having some collective sense that it matters to us to make this city attractive, make it inclusive, make it growing, make it strong.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And did you see anything that could be transplanted to Washington?

JAMES FALLOWS: In contrast to the apparent hopelessness of the national perspective, there is some attempt to grapple with these things locally.

I guess we came across almost nothing you could directly say, OK, the Greenville City Council works this way. Why doesn’t the U.S. Senate work this way too? But, in the meantime, people in Greenville and Fresno and Dayton and Duluth and Allentown and Central Oregon and all the rest can learn from what each other are doing, and get greater strength from that sense of network.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And so James and Deborah Fallows continue their journey, in the belief that these places and others like them are the real story of America today, even more than what’s going on in Washington.

SHARE VIA TEXT