Most Americans believe the country is going to hell. They’re wrong. What a three-year journey by single-engine plane reveals about reinvention and renewal and about how the Second Gilded Age might end.
When news broke late last year of a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, most people in the rest of the country, and even the state, probably had to search a map to figure out where the city was. I knew exactly, having grown up in the next-door town of Redlands (where the two killers lived) and having, by chance, spent a long period earlier in the year meeting and interviewing people in the unglamorous “Inland Empire” of Southern California as part of an ongoing project of reporting across America.
Some of what my wife, Deb, and I heard in San Bernardino before the shootings closely matched the picture that the nonstop news coverage presented afterward: San Bernardino as a poor, troubled town that sadly managed to combine nearly every destructive economic, political, and social trend of the country as a whole. San Bernardino went into bankruptcy in 2012 and was only beginning to emerge at the time of the shootings. Crime is high, household income is low, the downtown is nearly abandoned in the daytime and dangerous at night, and unemployment and welfare rates are persistently the worst in the state.
So if you wanted a symbol of what conservative politicians like Donald Trump or Ted Cruz mean when they talk about American decay, what liberal writers like George Packer or Robert Putnam mean when describing America’s unraveling, San Bernardino would serve—and it did, in most of the reports after the shooting.
But that was not the only thing, or even the most interesting thing, that we saw during our time there. If “news” is what you didn’t know before you went to look, the news of San Bernardino, from our perspective, was not the unraveling but the reverse. The familiar background was the long decline. The surprise was how wide a range of people, of different generations and races and political outlooks, believed that the city was on the upswing, and that their own efforts could help speed that trend.
For instance: Last spring we met a group of San Bernardinians in their 20s and early 30s who called themselves Generation Now—San Bernardino. They were white, black, and Latino. (The city is about 60 percent Latino, 20 percent white, the rest black or Asian.) Some had finished college, some were still studying, some had not gone to college. They worked as artists or accountants or in part-time jobs. But all were involved in what you could call a raveling-up of the town’s tattered social fabric.
“I was just pissed off,” an artist in his 20s named Michael Segura told us. “By the time I was old enough to vote, everything was in such terrible shape in San Bernardino. We just heard all the time that it’s a city of losers. We’d had enough.” In early 2013, just after the city declared bankruptcy and appeared to be at the depth of its hopelessness, he and a handful of friends began efforts to engage the city’s generally disaffected residents in improving their collective future.
Voter-turnout rates were among the lowest in the state, especially in poor and heavily Latino precincts; Generation Now members encouraged their neighbors to show up for civic sessions and register to vote. The numerous foreclosed homes and shuttered storefronts gave great stretches of San Bernardino a war-zone look; artists in the group covered some of the buildings with murals. Other members organized park-cleanup days, removing needles and trash, and replanting bushes and grass. Soon, neighborhood kids were following them around, cleaning up alongside them.
From the inside, the story includes rapidly progressing civic and individual reinvention. One illustration is a prosperous Air Force veteran turned aerospace engineer named Mike Gallo. Five years ago, he decided to run for the board in charge of the city’s chronically troubled, low-scoring schools. Why? “These kids deserve a better chance, and we can help them get it,” he told me. It sounds formulaic, but teachers, students, and politicians said that Gallo’s hard-charging, Teddy Roosevelt–style energy and effort had helped the schools begin a turnaround. He is now the board’s president.
Another illustration is his colleague Bill Clarke, who worked as a trainer and manager for General Dynamics and then had a career teaching manufacturing skills in local public schools. Five years ago, when he retired, he and Gallo set up a nonprofit technical school for unskilled locals, and intensified training programs in the public schools, whose students are mainly from poor households. In these programs, the students learn to use and repair the machinery that defines the advanced-manufacturing age: 3-D printers, robots, and enormous CNC (computer numerically controlled) machine-tool systems. “We’re training them on real machines, with real national-level certification, for good real-world jobs that really exist,” Clarke told me in the machine shop at his nonprofit school, beneath a banner saying WE ARE MAKING AMERICA GREAT in manufacturing again. Since 2010, he said, more than 400 students had passed through the school “right into the high-tech manufacturing world.” This was going on in the same city that was blanketed by reporters from around the world for several weeks. They did a thorough job on one particular story in San Bernardino, but more was happening.
As a whole, the country may seem to be going to hell. That jeremiad view is a great constant through American history. The sentiment is predictably and particularly strong in a presidential-election year like this one, when the “out” party always has a reason to argue that things are bad and getting worse. And plenty of objective indicators of trouble, from stagnant median wages to drug epidemics in rural America to gun deaths inflicted by law-enforcement officers and civilians, support the dystopian case.
But here is what I now know about America that I didn’t know when we started these travels, and that I think almost no one would infer from the normal diet of news coverage and political discourse. The discouraging parts of the San Bernardino story are exceptional—only five other U.S. cities are officially bankrupt—but the encouraging parts have resonance almost anywhere else you look. Mike Gallo and Bill Clarke are politically conservative and, as I heard from Clarke in particular, they share the current GOP pessimism about trends for the country as a whole. But they both feel encouraged about the collaborative efforts on education reform under way right now in their own town. What is true for this very hard-luck city prevails more generally: Many people are discouraged by what they hear and read about America, but the closer they are to the action at home, the better they like what they see.
What Americans have heard and read about the country since Deb and I started our travels is the familiar chronicle of stagnation and strain. The kinds of things we have seen make us believe that the real news includes a process of revival and reinvention that has largely if understandably been overlooked in the political and media concentration on the strains of this Second Gilded Age.
“In scores of ways, Americans are figuring out how to take advantage of the opportunities of this era, often through bypassing or ignoring the dismal national conversation,” Phillip Zelikow, a professor at the University of Virginia and a director of a recent Markle Foundation initiative called “Rework America,” told me. “There are a lot of more positive narratives out there—but they’re lonely, and disconnected. It would make a difference to join them together, as a chorus that has a melody.” This is the alternative melody we would like to introduce.
In early 2013, I placed a short item on The Atlantic’s Web site asking for advice from readers about cities of a certain type. We wanted to hear about cities whose recent dramas might reveal something about the economic and cultural resilience of the United States. I asked about cities that had suffered some kind of economic, political, environmental, or other hardship during the financial crash or earlier, and whose response was instructive in either good or bad ways. I said we were looking for “smaller” cities, by which I really meant anything less famous than the big stylish centers of the East and West Coasts. I also said that we definitely were not looking for the merely “quaint,” the kitschy touches of Americana such as the little town showcasing the world’s largest ball of twine. Nor were we looking for “undiscovered gems” or entries on a list of ideal low-budget retirement sites. Rather we hoped to treat seriously parts of flyover territory that usually made the news only after a natural or man-made disaster, or as primary-campaign or swing-state locations during presidential-election years.
In the end we got more than 1,000 responses—nearly 700 within a few days!—including several hundred making an extended case for the significance of what had happened in the writer’s town. Suggestions have kept coming in. The knowledge that I cannot possibly ever see most of the places I’ve now read about makes me surprisingly sad. But we’ve been steadily visiting as many as we can. So far we have had extended, repeat-visit exposure (usually totaling 10 days to two weeks) to two dozen cities and towns all around the country, and shorter sessions in two dozen more.
There is a high-toned tradition of road trips as a means of “discovering” America, from Lewis and Clark and Tocqueville through John Dos Passos, John Steinbeck, and William Least Heat Moon (whose Blue Highways made its debut in these pages). Apart from other obvious points of contrast, our project was different in that rather than going by car (or wagon, or pirogue), we’ve gone from city to city in our family’s small single-engine propeller airplane, a Cirrus SR22. This was a decision made for convenience, for beauty, and for edification.
The convenience comes from the simple fact that almost any settlement in America is within close range of a place where a small airplane can land. Some 5,000 public airports, many of them built for military purposes during and after World War II, are scattered about the U.S., making many remote hamlets more easily reachable by air than by other means.
The beauty comes from the privilege and unending fascination of watching the American landscape unfurl below as you travel at low altitude. At the dawn of powered flight, a century ago, it was assumed that writers and painters would want to become aviators, and vice versa—Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, and Ernest K. Gann were fliers who wrote; Beryl Markham, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and Anne Morrow Lindbergh were writers who flew—because of the unique perspective on civilization and nature offered by the aerial view. The late novelist James Salter, who was a Korean War fighter pilot and retained his passion for flight, was a mid-century example; William Langewiesche, a longtime Atlantic writer (and the son of Wolfgang Langewiesche, whose Stick and Rudderis the flying world’s equivalent of The Elements of Style) is a current one.
A coast-to-coast drive across America has its tedious stretches, and the teeming interstate corridors, from I-95 in the east to I-5 in the west, can lead to the despairing conclusion that the country is made of gas stations, burger stands, and big-box malls. From only 2,500 feet higher up, the interstates look like ribbons that trace narrow paths across landscape that is mostly far beyond the reach of any road. From ground level, America is mainly road—after all, that’s where cars can take you. From the sky, America is mainly forest in the eastern third, farmland in the middle, then mountain and desert in the west, before the strip of intense development along the California coast. It’s also full of features obvious from the sky that are much harder to notice from the ground (and difficult to pick out from six miles up in an airliner): quarries at the edge of most towns, to provide gravel for roads and construction sites; prisons, instantly identifiable by their fencing (though some mega high schools can look similar), usually miles from the nearest town or tucked in locations where normal traffic won’t pass by. I never tire of the view from this height, as different from the normal, grim airliner perspective as scuba diving is from traveling on a container ship.
The edification comes from lessons in history, geography, urban planning, and environmental protection and despoliation that are inescapably obvious from above. Why is St. Louis where it is? Ah, of course! It’s where the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers come together. Why were mill towns built along the fall line of the Appalachians? Because of the long north-to-south series of waterfalls. As you cross South Dakota from east to west, from the big city of Sioux Falls at the Iowa and Minnesota borders toward Rapid City and the Black Hills and beyond, you can see the terrain change sharply. In the East River portion of the state, between Sioux Falls and the Missouri, you see flat, well-watered farmlands and small farming towns. Then past Pierre you reach West River, with rough, dry badlands, some grazing cattle, and very few structures. Everyone who has looked at a map “knows” about the effect of topography and rainfall, but it means something different as it unfolds below you, like a real-world Google Earth.
You can also see the history of transportation in the way towns are settled. Even in South Dakota’s fertile East River, you can easily trace from low altitude what the railroads ushered in 150 years ago, and how their impact has ebbed. As we flew along one of the east-west lines that brought settlers into these territories and carried crops out to markets, we would see little settlements every few minutes. In the 1800s they were set up at roughly 10-mile intervals, an efficient distance when farmers were delivering their harvests by wagon. Now it seems that four out of five of those towns are withering, as farms are run with giant combines and crops are hauled by truck.
I would love for more people to know how this country looks from above. I would love for America’s sense of itself to include more of what we’ve seen on the ground.
DESPITE THE “BIG SORT,”TALENT DISPERSAL IS UNDER WAY
America is egalitarian, and snobbish. The city looks down on the countryside, the north on the south, the coastal meccas on the flyover interior—and of course each object of disdain looks back with its own reverse snobbery. A version of today’s hierarchical awareness is the concept of the “big sort.” This is the idea that if you have first-rate abilities and more than middling ambitions, you’ll need to end up in one of a handful of talent destinations. New York for finance; the San Francisco Bay Area or Seattle for tech; Washington, D.C., for politics and foreign policy. If you can make it there …
This sorting is real. Through my working life, as a California patriot I have waited for the time when the news-media base would shift to the West Coast. I am waiting still. But nearly everywhere we went we were surprised by evidence of a different flow: of people with first-rate talents and ambitions who decided that someplace other than the biggest cities offered the best overall opportunities. We saw and documented examples in South Carolina, and South Dakota, and Vermont, and the central valley of California, and central Oregon. I’ll talk now about northern Minnesota and inland Southern California.
Duluth, Minnesota, has become one of the country’s aerospace centers largely because the two brothers who founded Cirrus Design, Alan and Dale Klapmeier, decided that they wanted to spend their working lives amid the same Upper Midwest landscape and outdoors opportunities with which they had grown up. And now another generation of entrepreneurs is choosing Duluth. The Benson brothers, Dave and Greg, grew up in Minneapolis and went to college in the early 1990s at the University of Minnesota at Duluth. If you saw them in Southern California, you might think they were surfers—shaggy-haired, rangy, weathered. Their sports were instead the northern-plains variants: skiing, ice-skating, and skateboarding.
Soon after college, in 1997, they founded (with a friend, Tony Ciardelli) a company called TrueRide, which became a successful manufacturer of ramps, half-pipes, and other ingredients of outdoor skateboard parks. They started the company in Minneapolis but moved to Duluth because it was so much more affordable. They also liked Duluth’s livable scale, and what locals consider its year-round recreational opportunities. (Year-round if you enjoy the cold: When we visited the Bensons’ manufacturing plant, a week after Memorial Day in 2014, the last ice floe on Lake Superior had just melted. But, proving the locals’ loyalty, that same week residents were outvoting people from the likes of Asheville, North Carolina, and Provo, Utah, to win Outside magazine’s online poll to choose America’s “Best Town.”)
The skateboard parks that TrueRide sold were made of expensive plastic and composites. The Bensons didn’t like how much scrap was left over after they cut out the big sections for their skating ramps. They formed first a kitchenware company called Epicurean, then a furniture works called Loll, to make chairs, tables, cutting boards, and other products from the material they had been discarding.
On a wooded hillside outside Duluth, some of the company’s design and manufacturing offices are housed in a building that had once been a factory producing cement burial vaults and then was closed as a hazardous brownfield site. The city and state governments agreed to help clean up the site if the Bensons based their businesses there. As you approach from the back, you think, “This is what a Depression-era burial-vault factory would look like.” Once you step inside the door, you’re in an environment that the hippest firm in San Francisco or Brooklyn would envy: recycled timber, taken from the frigid depths of Lake Superior, for the walls, staircases, and beams; other structures made of the companies’ own sleek plastic; one whole wall of glass, looking out on the woods. From this building, Loll and Epicurean ship their products to customers in 61 countries. As Dave Benson showed us around, employees went off to jog on lunch breaks; in the winter they ski or skate. Racks just inside the front door hold their sporting equipment.
The Duluth area has new firms in aerospace, medical equipment, environmental tech, and other fields. “Ten years ago there weren’t many start-ups,” Dave Benson told us. “Now it’s buzzing.” If you saw this operation in San Francisco or Seattle, you would think: Of course! Where else could you combine the product-design talent that can appeal to a worldwide market, the emphasis on sustainability that has made the firm a leader in recycling techniques, and the production skills necessary to create a rapidly changing line of items? But you find it in Duluth—“because we just like the quality of life here,” Dave Benson said. And you find it in Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Greenville, South Carolina; Burlington, Vermont; Louisville, Kentucky; Bend, Oregon; and Davis, California. And in larger but noncoastal cities like Pittsburgh and Columbus, Ohio.
And in Redlands, neighbor of now-notorious San Bernardino. When I was growing up there, in the Baby Boom era, its economy rested on the orange-growing business, the neighboring Norton Air Force Base, and a medical community serving the nearby desert area. Now the orange groves are nearly gone, the Air Force base is closed, and the desert communities have their own doctors—but the city has been transformed by the presence of a tech firm that by all rights should be in some bigger, fancier place. This company, Esri, is a world leader in geographic information systems, or GIS. These are essentially the industrial-strength counterparts to Google Earth, which governments and companies around the world use for everything from tracking pothole repairs to monitoring climate change.
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