Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a new email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.
Since 2013, Deborah and James Fallows have been traveling the nation asking for stories. They look for local economic histories, tales of entrepreneurship, vignettes of town identities.
According to the Fallows, America’s response has been eager. In 2017, they published a book: Our Towns: A 100,000 Mile Journey into the Heart of America. Since then, this husband and wife duo has continued on their quest to expose a side of America rarely featured on cable news. The “Our Towns” section of The Atlantic, where James is a longtime staff writer, features updated reporting from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, to New York, New York.
HBO’s rendition of the project, premiering Tuesday, April 13 at 9 p.m. E.T., was filmed in eight towns throughout the country. One segment focuses on the work of an agency in Sioux Falls, South Dakota responsible for helping its refugee population access language classes, housing, and job placements.
In another location, the film profiles one 17-year-old Eastport, Maine resident, Elijah Brice, who’s a senior at the local high school, a dual-credit student in the UMaine system, a summertime lobsterman, and a habitué of the local arts district.
Eastport’s population was literally decimated by the decline of the sardine fishing industry—it’s now home to about 1,300 people.
“You have to love living here. If you don’t love living here, you wouldn’t put the work in that it requires,” said another Eastport resident, Chris Gardner, who—at the time of filming—served as the Executive Director of the town’s Port Authority, in a few different local government roles, and flipped houses with his wife on the side.
Lately, I’ve been reporting on the $130 billion dollars in direct federal aid to counties and municipalities in the American Rescue Plan (download funding estimates for your county and town at the bottom of this page on the House Committee’s website). This money, which for many counties and towns constitutes an unprecedented cash infusion, can be used for broadband or sewage projects, transferred to small businesses and community non-profits, or granted to essential workers, among other things.
Following this story, one question has dogged me: who’s gonna decide where the money goes? Who’s paying attention?
At least in the eight towns covered in the film, I’m not concerned. Clearly, it’s the people already putting in the work.
Enjoy my conversation with the film’s award-winning producers, Jeanne Jordan and Steven Ascher, below.
Olivia Weeks, The Daily Yonder: What brought you both to this project? Are either of you from a particularly downtrodden place?
Jeanne Jordan and Steven Ascher: Lisa Heller and Nancy Abraham at HBO asked if we’d be interested in making a film based on the Fallows’ book. We’re long-time admirers of their writing and were drawn to the challenge of translating Our Towns to film. Then we met Jim and Deb [Fallows], who are wonderful people. We had a remarkable, fascinating collaboration and they’re a pleasure to work and be with.
Steve’s from outside New York, and Jeannie grew up on a farm near Rolfe, Iowa, a very small town. As seen in our film Troublesome Creek, Rolfe was thriving when she lived there and has gotten a lot smaller, like many farm towns. But we don’t see Our Towns as about downtrodden places. Most towns and cities have had up times and down times and the forces pulling in both directions never stop. The film is about that tension, and how towns cope with both.
DY: How did you choose the pieces of the book you wanted to represent in the film? The Fallows’ travels were so extensive, I imagine it was difficult to pare down. Were you thinking in terms of categories of places you wanted to feature? If so, what were the categories?
JJ & SA: The four of us created a list of places that were spread out geographically, with different sizes, issues and trajectories. We wanted to include Jim and Deb’s hometowns (one in film, the other stills). In some places we were investigating particular themes, like how a town addresses its racial history (Columbus, MS) or what happens when an area that was once depressed becomes successful (Bend, OR). The Fallows originally went to 50 towns and wrote about 25. We filmed in 8 cities and towns, some of which Deb and Jim had spent a lot of time in, others they saw only briefly. Many of the stories in the film are not in the book, because we needed to film things going on now. We shot for 100 days and captured far more than we could show in a feature-length film.
DY: In the book, James Fallows writes that most parts of the U.S. he and his wife visited are doing better than Americans realize. “Because many people don’t know that,” he writes, “they’re inclined to view any local problems as symptoms of wider disasters, and to dismiss local successes as fortunate anomalies.” Where did the two of you fall in terms of assumptions before beginning work on this film? Were you persuaded by the optimism of the Fallows?
JJ & SA: Our aim was to make a truthful film, not one that necessarily led with optimism. We feel it’s important to show the darkness and challenges Americans are dealing with, so the ways they’re responding make sense and feel vivid. We have tremendous faith in the Fallows’ reporting and knew that their take was based on careful observation and a lot of thought. The four of us have a basic belief in the importance of letting people tell their own story, and not imposing an outsider’s perspective. We particularly wanted to avoid the cliches often thrown around in the media about polarization, partisan politics, red vs. blue, etc. What we saw on the journey were a lot of truly resourceful people who care deeply about their towns. That spirit, hard won, does give you optimism about the country, and a feeling that we have a lot more in common than cable TV would have you believe.
DY: Which programs, people, and innovations were you most inspired by? Which stories from the film do you think have the most potential for replication?
JJ & SA: We were inspired everywhere by the energy people have to make a difference in the lives of their neighbors. It’s easy these days to feel cut off from community – especially in the pandemic! Throughout the film you see lots of great ideas to turn around a bad situation, or at least make a dent in it. One standout is West Invest in Charleston, WV which gives grants to teachers and cops to move into challenged neighborhoods and fix up a house. By living in the community, the police and teachers do their job better. The neighborhoods benefit from their presence and the improved housing stock. And the construction work is done by people with felony convictions who earn a salary and start their re-entry into society. Talk about a win-win-win!
DY: Mr. Fallows also says, in the documentary, that there’s a direct relationship between the health of a town and its number of breweries. I’m tempted to read that view of community as overly commercialized. What do you think people who scoff at micro-breweries and Instagrammable public art are missing?
JJ & SA: A community can’t survive or thrive without an active economy – so it’s not one versus the other. Jim tracks microbreweries first because he loves craft beer, but more seriously because it’s an indicator of a kind of community energy and liveliness. It means there’s a social energy, a neighborhood feeling, and also the ability to draw younger people, without which a town can’t grow. As for public art, we didn’t really understand until we did this project how important it is to a community’s sense of itself and for creating a feeling of pride and vitality. The pandemic is reorienting how people think about the vast majority of the country that isn’t a major city. Suddenly you can live anywhere and do a job that’s located far away. People are finding they can reap the benefits and pleasures of living where they want while carrying on work that used to require living elsewhere.
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This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a new email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.