What's Tony Thinking

What Seattle Could Learn from “Our Towns”


I’ve reviewed Our Towns: A 100,000 Mile Into the Heart of America by James and Deborah Fallows for The Christian Century. Here, I’ll adapt a few themes with Seattle in mind.

Jim Fallows, a longtime editor at The Atlantic and for two years the chief speech writer for President Jimmy Carter, along with his wife, Deborah, a linguist and writer for Slate, NYT, and National Geographic, travelled the country for four years, 2013 through 2016, to learn from towns that had come back from decline.

Some were large, like Columbus, Ohio, population just over a million. Some tiny, like Ajo, Arizona, population 3,500. Most were somewhere in between. Traveling 100,000 miles in their own single-engine plane, the Fallows visited 42 towns and profiled 31 in detail.

The Fallows are arguably Washington, D. C. insiders. But they went elsewhere looking for hope and vitality, judging D.C. to be paralyzed by polarization and ideological fixation. And they found it — vitality — thriving towns across the nation that have come back from decline, even devastation, when the bottom fell out of their economy and they had to re-invent themselves.

The book concludes with “10 and 1/2 Signs of Civic Success.” I won’t spoil it for you by listing all 10 and 1/2, but two in particular seem to me salient for our town, Seattle.

Take-away Number 1: In thriving towns, “People work together on practical local possibilities, rather than allowing bitter disagreements about national politics to keep them apart.” Where things are working in America it is because people are a whole lot less concerned about ideological purity than they are about solving problems.

The Fallows sharpen the point with this observation: “The more often national politics came into local discussion, the worse shape the town was likely to be in.” Wow!

And Seattle? My sense is that we once had a strong tradition of localism and problem solving that didn’t pay a lot of attention to red or blue, Democrat or Republican, or to whatever might be going on in D.C. But these days, I’m not so sure. Some of the most visible members of the Seattle City Council seem to want to mimic the polarization and stridency of D.C. The problem-solvers get accused of being not correct enough.

Take Away Number 2: “People (in thriving towns) know their civic story.” They have a story. The big town that seems small because we care. The town that won’t give up. The place that welcomes people from the whole world.

Whatever the story may be it connects people to the town’s past and casts a vision of a hoped for future. It instills pride and confidence.

What is our civic story in Seattle? Do we — at this point — have one? Once it seemed to be a story of a hidden jewel tucked away in the far NW corner of the nation. Or it was a story of middle-class, even blue-collar, city where you didn’t have to be rich. Or a story of a big town that was still small enough that individuals could make a big difference.

I don’t know what the “Seattle story” is at this point. Do you?

But the Fallows point is that successful towns have a story. “For Sioux Falls, that it’s just the right size . . . For Bend or Duluth or Winters, that they are in uniquely attractive locations; for Pittsburgh, that it has set an example of successful turnaround.”

What’s our story? And who’s narrating it? I think Mayor Jenny Durkan has a big opportunity here, to tell a story that unites and connects the new Seattle of the 21st century.

The Fallows book is encouraging about civic life in a time when many of us need encouragement. It relies more on stories, interviews and profiles than data, graphs or chart, which some may regard as a weakness. But stories are compelling too and the Fallows tell a good one.

And the 1/2 of the “Ten and 1/2 Signs of Civic Success”? Craft breweries. Legislation signed in the administration of Jimmy Carter repealed Prohibition era regulations and made this whole thing possible (who knew?). Because beer-making requires space (lots of it), breweries have often located in the less desirable and cheaper parts of a town, but bringing with them a new gathering point and related businesses. We have these, in spades, in the Emerald City.


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