American Futures, a new take on small-city America

If you want a fresh look at what counts in the United States, particularly small-town and rural America, check out the American Futures project that The Atlantic and Marketplace have embarked on.

Atlantic national correspondent James Fallows and his wife, linguist Deborah Fallows, are flying around the country (he’s a pilot) to visit and report on some of the nation’s smaller cities and how they fit into and in some ways lead the nation. Marketplace’s Kai Ryssdal will regularly join the effort, reporting both for the radio and the Marketplace website.

The project launched a month ago seems to really be getting up to speed. Check out what they’ve been reporting this week out of Rapid City and Sioux Falls. Of course there are takes on national credit card companies and meatpacking, but Deborah Fallows also has a nice little riff on how two out of three people in this part of the country say, “Are you coming with?” instead of “Are you coming with us?” Apparently the rest of the country says the latter.

The effort promises to offer a compelling look at some of the nation’s big economic and political issues through a different lens than we usually use. For example, an early post examines how new immigrants have changed the small city of Holland, Michigan. Another looks at why it’s important for wealth to stay in a town.  And right now the writers are poking into the intersection of old industry, entrepreneurship and high tech in Sioux Falls. The reporting project bills itself as a modern-day road trip to explore reinvention and resilience.

To be sure, there’s a little bit of East-Coast-discovers-middle-America about it. I’m surprised that Fallows expresses surprise that immigration would be a big deal in rural America. And after calling Sioux Falls “one of the most interesting towns in America,” he wonders how he could not have known before how much is happening there. But my sense is that this is just blowing out the carburetor a little and that a great reporter like James Fallows and the talented people pitching in with him will get past that and tell some rich stories we all can learn from.

This is turf we love at Ground Level, which is why we just published our free, downloadable eBook project called “Fighting for an American Countryside,” a look at challenges and champions in small-town Minnesota. It will be interesting to see whether and how themes we found in our reporting over the past several years are reflected and refracted around the country.

The American Futures project feels like another piece of evidence of a shifting center of gravity in the country. I wrote last month about parallels between Ground Level findings and a new Brookings Institution book, “Metropolitan Revolution” on how the action is shifting from federal and state government to cities. This feels like a similar realization that sometimes what matters most is far from what we have long thought about as the centers of civilization.

It’s worth watching and listening to.