Economic salvation is local

Aerial Lift Bridge at Sunset in Duluth Minnesota, Canal Park

Aerial Lift Bridge at Sunset in Duluth Minnesota, Canal Park

Duluth, Minnesota, is among several cities featured in a James Fallows story in the March 2016 edition of “The Atlantic,” entitled “How America is putting itself back together.” The Duluth angle is what got my attention, but the rest of the story is what I’d like to talk about today.

Fallows lists Duluth alongside his story’s poster city — San Bernadino, California — as examples of cities that are defying economic trends, generating community action and entrepreneurship, and attracting new residents to places people might not have previously considered. He traveled the nation in developing this theory.

Fallows writes:

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.

In other words, if you sit at home and watch about mass shootings, police brutality and protests, the daily outrage, global unrest and the constant tick-tock of economic factors that can be interpreted to anyone’s liking, you probably think we’re screwed. Vote for Trump. Vote for no one. Who cares? We’re all going to die.

And it’s really hard to change this perspective on the national level. Any attempt to say “everything is OK” is swiftly met by some bad news somewhere, and yet another fresh outrage that pits one demographic against another. People believe what they see.

But that’s also why on the local level we find success stories that stick. When localities are doing well, people believe it — even more than what they see on TV. Moreover, replicating success at the local level is easier than trying to steer the hurtling asteroid of the nation’s trajectory.

Duluth is successful not because it’s fixed all its problems (it still has many), but because people are excited for the culture, the development, and prospects for finding work there. This success breeds more success, and more ability to solve problems, than stagnation ever would have allowed.

One factor in all this is the way in which people are settling, often in open defiance of what was once predicted. Fallows writes about “The Big Sort,” the prevailing theory that people of specialized talent must organize within particular cities to be truly successful. But he observes a counterbalancing force in the country, evidenced in part by Duluth.

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.

Indeed, this is what I’ve written about for more than a decade. People can choose to make their city, town or region special through simple action, and in doing so find fulfillment — perhaps even more fulfillment than if they joined the rat race of the predictable path.

(And believe me, I am well aware that my biases toward liking this idea come from the fact that I’ve already wagered my life and career on it by staying on the Iron Range).

In coming weeks I’ll be working on some ideas for Northern Minnesota’s Iron Range region. Nothing that will fix everything, or please everyone, but some concrete ideas that could create visual momentum for economic diversification and progress.

Meanwhile, read Fallows’s article for some inspiration.


  1. Let’s do this!!

  2. San Bernardino??? The area has many good points, beautiful places, but also a large number of drawbacks, including lots of poverty, dirt, and pollution. I’ve lived in that county, the largest in the US. I wouldn’t recommend it.

  3. James Fallows and his wife Deborah have just published a book entitled “Our Towns. A 100,000-mile Journey Into the Heart of America.” It is a collection of essays about the cities of this country, including a 14-page chapter on Duluth (where Deborah had spent her early childhood, and where the two of them have visited maybe 15 times).

    It’s a very positive article. Your readers will like it. I’m sure you can find it in your local library; it was in ours.

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