Atlantic Cities

The Best of 'What Is Special About My Town'

Earlier this month, Atlantic national correspondent James Fallows began a trip across the United States. He and his wife, author and linguist Deborah Fallows, have been flying themselves to smaller cities and towns with a particular mission. As he explains:

A little over a week ago, readers began suggesting smaller cities with interesting stories worth chronicling for a ground-up sense of emerging American realities. Some of the responses that came in were simply city names and leads for further contacts. But hundreds upon hundreds involved little (or big) essays on why a particular city represented important aspects of the national condition.

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Below, we've put together a collection of some of our favorite stories from the series, submitted by residents eager to explain what, exactly, makes their town or city special. 

Butte is an ugly small town nestled in some of the most beautiful mountains you will ever see. It has an amazing history, starting with the wars of the Copper Kings, which the rest of the state of Montana refuses to forget. It has an open pit filled with acidic mine waste and it is the reason for the largest Superfund Site in the country, It has suffered from economic devastation with the closure of the mines in the early 80's and from very bad corporate decisions that destroyed a blue-chip company (Montana Power). Butte, Montana should have died and disappeared.

Yet, for all that, Butte still exists, mainly because the old ethnic families refused to leave, even though their old neighborhoods were swallowed up by mining, even though they lost their jobs, even though their children had to leave to find employment. Even though Butte is outwardly ugly, there is such beauty and grit in its people, that if you've ever visit there, you will never forget this little town.

You can map the devastation that mining did to the environment from the air; you can map how the economic disasters changed the town from the air; and you can actually follow the Superfund Site from the air. Butte also has a vast collection of maps and photographs from the past for comparison, so Butte will be satisfying for you on many levels.

You can't get much more "middle America" then Kansas, and Lawrence is the microcosm of the various contradictions in the region. It is a blue city in a very red state, a state that has been leading the way, for better or worse, as a conservative-policy experimentation zone, yet at the same time, featuring an old progressive tradition that hasn't entirely gone away. Lawrence itself is a relatively well-off college town that has survived, with difficulty, the great recession and is starting to rebound. Many of the big debates in the town are over the same issues that animate national discussion, writ small, such as the role of government in promoting economic growth, how to attract more high-tech industry to the town, and even broadband-internet policy. 


McAllen, Texas. Photo by Flickr user Anthony Acosta.

McAllen is THE border boomtown. Long the poorest region in Texas, McAllen is today the fastest growing area in the state. Thanks to NAFTA and other factors, a boom in retail, health care and other services has transformed the city since the mid-1990s. Its proximity to Mexico and relative isolation from other Texas cities lend McAllen a unique 'Valley' culture that has persisted.

Watsonville is a town of about 50,000 that is nestled between Santa Cruz and Monterey. It's an easy-to-miss farm town, but to those who know, it's the center of the American berry culture. Generations of families have worked the fertile land. The quiet town has steadily grown, and now Watsonville is what I would call a New American Farm Town -- a predominantly ethnic Latino community of culturally American citizens. As a newer resident of Watsonville, I'm continually struck by the dedication and commitment that the people of this community have for their town; the people of Watsonville take pride in and love Watsonville. It's the underdog story: people want Watsonville to succeed and thrive.


Bend, Orgeon. Image courtesy of Flickr user John Abernathy.

Bend lies in Deschutes county, which was one of the counties most affected by the implosion in real estate values during the recession. (In May 2010 the Federal Housing and Finance Agency released a report in which Bend had the largest price drop in the country, 23 percent, from first quarter of 2009 to the first quarter of 2010--Wikipedia) In the county, you will encounter several different narratives within a small distance of each other:

Bend, a former mill city transformed into an economy highly dependent on the numerous resorts scattered around the region, is filled with a population bifurcated between older, retired folks and young individuals with associates degrees/high school diplomas, who mainly work in retail/service jobs or low-level health care. The "middle class" consisting of bachelor's degree or higher is quite tiny compared to other metro areas. The city is a major collision between coastal liberal cultures and heartland conservatives, based on the citizens' backgrounds as farmers or more specialized workers. If any sort of moderate Republicanism is to be found (i.e. one that treats same-sex relations and environmental protection with respect, has a strong pride in small business and a wariness of massive centralized power, and generally dislikes authoritarian policies) it will be here. The largest corporation it is home to, Les Schwab Tires, is a company with a good reputation. (Although its distribution center is in nearby Prineville.)

In some ways it typical of small cities. We've just opened our third Wal-Mart and of course, like many smaller cities, our local retailers are becoming an endangered species. Our residents seem enthusiastic whenever some well known national chain deems us worthy of a restaurant or a store, meanwhile, all but the most popular local restaurants seem to close as fast as they open.

Traditionally we've relied on agriculture, the second largest university in New Mexico and the federal government via White Sands Missile Range for jobs. The past ten years have been a boon for local contractors as the military-industrial complex has exploded. However, with furloughed civilians, that looks less certain in the future. Agriculture, including the popular New Mexico green chile and some of the largest pecan suppliers in the country, faces a very uncertain future as fees for irrigation keep rising while water allotments keep dropping because of draught conditions not seen in centuries.

Our population looks a lot like America's future with demographics that include over 50% Hispanic and growing numbers of Asians filling graduate positions at the university.

In many ways Las Cruces is betting its future on its attractiveness as a retirement location of choice (which contributes to it being one of the fastest growing cites in the state) and the private space industry. The first is already here as it seems a new bank, healthcare facility and Walgreens open daily. The second, which is tied to the Spaceport America, may prove to be a Richard Branson Virgin Galactic boondoggle, or the best investment we've ever made. The jury is still out on that.

It's an exciting time as Las Cruces seems destined to either become the next Phoenix or remain the overlooked interstate stop off in a low income county in one of the poorest states that it currently is.


Durango, Colorado. Photo by Flickr user Frederiqo Henrique.

Durango epitomizes the new west -- the places being chosen as locations for professionals who are trying to find the right balance between lifestyle and career.

Durango is adjacent to the most impressive mountains in Colorado, but it's not close enough to any big-name ski mountains to attract movie stars. It's not Aspen, Vail, or Jackson Hole. It represents, I believe, an under-reported story of relatively successful people who move here for the amenities. And it truly is a proactive choice for many people, because we're not close to any interstates, nor to any big cities. Denver is about a 6-7 hour drive, or a short (but often delayed) flight. Albuquerque is slightly closer, but it's unclear whether it is a big enough city to count. Phoenix is 7.5 hours away. It seems to me that of the other towns that are mentioned as filled with lifestyle amenities but far from cities, many of them are much less remote.

Housing prices aren't so high that you get people who sold their tech start-ups and moved here, but they are high enough that many of the people moving here bring with them a successful career that allows them to work remotely. If the trend to remote working and telecommuting continues, it will be both be driven by the desire that many people have to live in a town like Durango, and in turn it will further drive the desirability of such locations (while also bringing some growth-related issues).

Durango also represents demographic and political changes that are shifting Colorado from a red state to a purple of blue state. The expectation that Denver and the Front Range hold all the Democrats, and all rural areas are dominated by Republicans, is changing due to towns like Durango. That change has propelled Colorado to be at or near the tipping point state in presidential elections. Durango has a large influence on the county; this and other western counties have a changing effect on the politics of the state...which is among the most interesting of any state.


Bartlesvillle, Oklahoma. Photo by Flickr user John Strickland.

In many ways Bartlesville is a microcosm of America. It is small town and big corporate (Conocophillips). It is post-segregation and still segregated. It has a fractured identity often living in its glory days thirty years ago while struggling to confront its declining economy. It is the headquarters of dozens of Indian tribes, but it is among the whitest places you'll ever see. Bartlesville is oil execs in Lamborghinis and cowboys in F150s. It is Jesus and meth, churches and casinos.

What is perhaps most peculiar is that it is all these things (and more) packed into such a small space, just 21 square miles with only 36 thousand people.

My vote for American Futures goes to Columbus, Indiana. Not my home town -- but I've passed through a few times and find the city fascinating. Home of Cummins Engines, Mike Pence, and Lee Hamilton. Local industrialist J. Irwin Miller selected the architects and paid fees for most of the municipal buildings. As a result, the 45k pop. town has 7 National Historic Landmarks. Banks, firehouses and churches by the Saarinens, I.M. Pei, etc. Continued economic growth, strong local infrastructure, civic pride, and an out-sized influence on Indiana politics. I've never visited without someone mentioning it's nickname, ironically or not ("Athens of the Prairie").

Harrisonburg has been transformed by immigration and urbanization (rather than sprawl) over the past 20 years. I'm astonished to say it's starting to look to me like a city of the future.

A small city in the Shenandoah Valley, it has more than doubled in size since 1980, and has grown 20 percent since 2000. When I lived there in the 80's, the economy was dominated by agriculture and some manufacturing (and somewhat by James Madison University). The population was mostly white, with a small percentage of African Americans. Few people lived downtown (partly because the city had bulldozed a black neighborhood in the 50's under the guise of "urban renewal"), and most businesses had deserted the city center in favor of a new shopping mall on the outskirts of town. Indeed, the only notable development I can remember was the installation of a large grain elevator right on Main Street.

Starting in the early 90's, a great deal of Hispanic immigration has occurred, initiated by Mennonite missionaries to South America. Alongside this demographic shift, downtown has been revitalized--people live, shop, and eat there--and now even supports a modest art scene. JMU, which in my time was mostly a separate entity apart from the city, has grown and now shows its influence through the presence of younger adults--students, professionals, artists, etc. Rosetta Stone is now a major employer in town.

Politically, the changes have been radical. The city is now a blue(ish) dot in an extremely conservative and religious, bright-red county and region. No doubt as the city has changed, and more and more Hispanics have moved in, some white families have left town for the county and "suburbs." There is some sprawl. As of yet, however, there are no signs that this is hollowing out the city, or destroying the tax base.

In short, it's a much more interesting and energetic place than when I left, and I don't think its experience is unique.

When I started college in New England, the typical ice breakers were common place. When asked where I was from, I got the many follow-up questions running the gamut from "is that in Westchester?" to "do you go to the city often?"

For too long, Rochester, and western NY, have gone unnoticed beneath the shadows of Manhattan. And while my college friends from the boroughs to Duchess County claim to be "real New Yorkers," I beg to differ.

Rochester and the surrounding region to the west of the city and alongside Lake Ontario boast many attractions. A prominent wine region along the picturesque Finger Lakes is idyllic for any end-of-summer or autumnal trip. Rolling hills of colorful foliage are reminiscent of New England, with the quaint towns to accompany it.

And Rochester is the capital of the region (said with only some bias). While Buffalo and Syracuse have been largely reduced to large mall fronts and strips of sprawl inundated with the usual chains, Rochester retains an urban feel. Quaint neighborhoods range from Park Avenue to the South Wedge, offering restaurants and shops. The city is young, and crawling with affiliates of the various colleges and universities in the metro area.

The greatest thing about Rochester, however, is the history and loyalty of its population. As the birthplace of women’s rights and film, Rochester retains time tested pride. Such pride is shared by residents who are composed of loyal born-and-raised “Rochesterians,” some who have been here all of their lives; others who have left and could not resist returning. In today’s age where young people are fleeing east to Manhattan (a city that Patti Smith was quoted in a previous Atlantic article saying, “doesn’t want you [young people]), fighting for a five by ten jail cell in the West Village, Rochester scoffs. Along East Avenue lines a historic row of beautiful mansions which have been renovated into apartment buildings. Amongst these mansions is George Eastman’s former home. These mansions offer spacious and unique apartments for an affordable rent.

I could go on and on, for I am sick and tired of the raised eyebrows I receive when I inform my peers that I am six hours west of New York City. I am sick of the ignorant condescension that I receive from those who pity me for not living near a major metropolitan area. I am “Rust Belt chic” and I think it is high time our neighbors to the east, as well as the world around, recognized the cultural and historical density beyond the Big Apple.

Simultaneously the beneficiary of big-brand global Walmart and Tyson, while also being the DIY antithesis of them. You'll find people making all kinds of things using traditional crafts, and just about everyone, it seems, makes art or music. There's a conflict between liberal natives and conservative migrants there. I asked a native why people there are so nice and she told me it was because life was so easy there. And, of course, Arkansas generally is proud of the Clintons while voting red all the way.

Keywords: Travel, Small Towns

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