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The Journal Gazette

  • Courtesy Deborah and James Fallows

Sunday, February 17, 2019 1:00 am

Couple want to talk about 'Our Towns'

Visit state for public sessions

LISA GREEN | The Journal Gazette

If you go

INconversation appearances with James and Deborah Fallows, authors of “Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America” are scheduled March 18-21 in Indiana.

Each event is from 6:30 to 8 p.m., followed by a book-signing reception with book sales. The events are free and open to the public, but advance registration is requested at www.indianahumanities.org/inseparable. Doors open 30 minutes prior to start time, and seats are available on a first-come, first-served basis.

Muncie: March 18, Ball State University Alumni Center. Moderator will be Geoffrey S. Mearns, president of Ball State. At his September 2017 installation, Mearns launched the “Better Together” initiative, demonstrating his commitment to advancing the university's relationship with the community. A highlight of this enhanced support for Muncie is the university's partnership with Muncie Community Schools.

Indianapolis: March 19, Indianapolis Central Library, Clowes Auditorium. Moderator will be Adam Wren, a voice in Indiana politics. His Importantville newsletter explores the intersection of Indiana politics and business in the Hoosier state. He also is a contributing editor for Indianapolis Monthly and writes for Politico magazine.

Fort Wayne: March 20, Multi-Flex Theater inside the Snyder Academic Center at Indiana Tech. Ashley C. Ford, a Fort Wayne native and Ball State graduate, will moderate. Ford lives in Brooklyn and hosts Profile by BuzzFeed News, an online show with the biggest names in news and entertainment. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, Elle, Slate, Teen Vogue, New York Magazine and many other outlets.

Angola: March 21, Brokaw Movie House. Moderator will be Adam Thies, a Fort Wayne native and urban planner. He worked on the redevelopment of Angola's downtown before moving to Indianapolis and serving as the city's director of metropolitan development under Mayor Greg Ballard. Thies is currently assistant vice president of capital and planning at Indiana University.

Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and Holland, Michigan, were part of the travel plan in 2013. So was Eastport, Maine.

In 2014, visits included Greenville, South Carolina, and Allentown, Pennsylvania. Communities such as Riverside and Fresno in California and Dodge City, Kansas, got attention in subsequent years.

Places with people willing to talk; James and Deborah Fallows called them “Our Towns” when they wrote a book about a five-year adventure, “A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America.”

The goal was to find out what makes communities tick and lessons others could learn.

Next month, the itinerary for the Fallowses includes four Indiana stops: Fort Wayne, Angola, Muncie and Indianapolis.

“We are excited to bring these authors together with Hoosiers to spark further discussion about what is possible and what is working in cities and towns across the state and nation,” said Keira Amstutz, president and CEO of Indiana Humanities, in a statement last week.

James Fallows has been a national correspondent for The Atlantic for more than 35 years. He has written 12 books and is the recipient of a National Book Award, a National Magazine Award and a documentary Emmy. Fallows studied American history and literature at Harvard, studied economics at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar and worked two years in the White House as President Jimmy Carter's chief speechwriter.

Deborah Fallows is a linguist and writer who has a Ph.D. in theoretical linguistics. She authored two previous books and has written for publications including The Atlantic, National Geographic, Slate, The New York Times and Washington Monthly. Most recently, she was a senior research fellow at Pew Research Center.

Indiana Humanities is bringing the Our Towns tour to the state to launch INseparable. The two-year initiative is designed to get Hoosiers evaluating how they relate to each other across real or imagined boundaries and to consider “what it will take to indeed be inseparable, in all the ways that matter,” a news release said.

Indiana Humanities is a nonpartisan nonprofit that supports programs that encourage people to think, read and talk.

The Indiana Our Towns tour, supported by Ruoff Home Mortgage, will pair the book's authors with local moderators to lead the discussion.

In Angola, the moderator will be Adam Thies, a Fort Wayne native who is assistant vice president for capital planning and facilities at Indiana University in Bloomington.

Thies is a member of the Indiana Humanities board of directors and from 2008 to 2012 was a consultant for Angola's downtown street and revitalization effort.

Having people who are resilient and not prone to give up easily helps make communities great, Thies said. So does dialogue about key issues.

He cited as an example Electric Works, the planned multimillion-dollar mixed-use redevelopment of the old General Electric campus near downtown Fort Wayne. Officials and community leaders elected and appointed to various boards last year debated funding proposals that will include taxpayer dollars before agreeing to financial support.

“'Real estate developer' is generally laced with a negative connotation,” Thies said; the concern is often that those professionals are simply profit-minded and may not have the community's interest at heart. But even if a house was built in 1880, a real estate developer was somehow involved.

“They're going to make millions because they're taking huge risks,” Thies said.

Debate helps educate people “on all sides. It's not a one-way street,” he said. And many times an issue is rarely as “black and white as communities make it out to be.”

“It's not just the debate,” said Thies, who is reading “Our Towns.” “It's the education that comes with the debate, and I think there's a tremendous amount of value in that.”

Fort Wayne native Ashley C. Ford, who will moderate the local session, did not respond to interview requests last week.

The Fallowses also were not available. Traveling in a single-engine airplane, they hit numerous communities, starting with planning trips in late 2012. The initial tour ended in early 2017.

Although some changes occurred with people and communities by the time the book was published, they generally left their “account faithful” to what they saw and heard. The book also says they made extensive notes each night they traveled and posted some reports on The Atlantic's website.

The website www.ourtownsbook.com says the Fallowses talked with teachers, business creators, mayors, religious leaders, students, artists and architects, librarians, and others involved in shaping their community's future.

The authors came up with 11 signs of civic success. They include communities where “divisive national politics seem a distant concern,” where you can pick out the “local patriots” – people who make the “town go,” and where public-private partnerships have meaning. Other components included being near a research university and having a downtown.

In an article on www.theatlantic.com, James Fallows wrote that most of the cities they visited were pouring “attention, resources, and creativity into their downtown.”

The last sign of success the article notes is having craft breweries.

A city “on the way back will have one or more craft breweries, and probably some small distilleries, too,” Fallows wrote. “A town that has craft breweries also has a certain kind of entrepreneur, and a critical mass of mainly young (except for me) customers. You may think I'm joking, but just try to find an exception.”

lisagreen@jg.net