James Fallows has roamed the country over the past few years to report on how cities outside the national media spotlight – places like Fresno – are striving to recover from the ravages of recession.
After repeated trips to Fresno, the noted author and national correspondent for The Atlantic magazine said Wednesday that he likes what he sees.
Fallows was the keynote speaker for the California Partnership for the San Joaquin Valley, an eight-county collaborative of local government, education and business institutions to promote the region’s economic welfare. The partnership, established in 2006 with the backing of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, celebrated its 10th anniversary with an “economic summit” attended by hundreds of the Valley’s business and community leaders at the Fresno Convention Center.
Fallows, who wrote speeches for President Jimmy Carter and is a former editor of U.S. News & World Report, talked about his “genuine excitement … about what you’re doing here” in Fresno and the surrounding region. The Valley’s efforts to dig out of the economic dregs, he said, offer him a “sense of a burgeoning national movement” of revitalization.
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“As we’ve gone around the country, we’ve seen places with genuine problems,” he said. “But in most places, people feel like you do about the San Joaquin Valley and Fresno: that you are moving in the right direction, that you’re finding some way to actually act on the challenges that have confronted you as opposed to being a passive victim.”
If you look at cities like Fresno or Duluth, Minn., or Allentown, Penn.
James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic
Fallows outlined a series of conclusions he’s drawn from his travels – a “checklist” of almost a dozen things that cities on the rise have in common. Foremost, he said, is “that phrases like collaboration and partnership and public-private alliance are real things and they actually matter” – that they are more than pleasant-sounding filler for political speeches, Fallows said. “When we look at places that work versus ones that don’t, you can see tangible evidence” of collaboration among different levels of local and regional government, of government with private businesses or with educational institutions.
“We’ve become at the national level so road-weary and cynical about whether anybody can cooperate for something other than his or her own immediate benefit,” he said. “But your collaboration and partnership is a leading example that the kind of thing you’re doing actually matters and the work it takes to keep it going counts.”
Fallows also described Fresno as an example of communities that show “a willingness to make long-term bets” to secure their future well-being, in contrast to a politically paralyzed national government.
“The United States is strong in many ways because people in previous generations were able to do that” in such endeavors as the interstate highway system and land grant universities, Fallows said. “At the moment it is very hard to do that in national politics. … If the payoff is 10 or 15 or 30 years from now, it’s really hard to say, ‘We should do this,’ even though that’s all the more reason to do it.”
Fallows said he was impressed that “in this region people are thinking about and making long-term bets” on such projects as high-speed rail, downtown Fresno reconstruction, or water infrastructure projects.
“You should view it as a good thing that you’re discussing plans that will affect your childrens’ lives here,” he added, “because that’s a sign of places that are working.”
His checklist concluded with a discussion of community self-image – something that been a sore spot for Fresnans.
“It is amazing across the country the gradient of self-image and perceived disdain,” Fallows said. “We’ve seen places around the the country where that negative self-image has been internalized in a kind of helplessness.”
But in “a lot of other places, the idea of being looked down on (by other cities) can become a very important motivating force,” he added. “To the extent the Fres-‘No’/Fres-‘Yes’ differential plays a part in the self-image of Fresno, that is a worthy thing to embrace; that negative self-image can be a powerful ‘I’m-going-to-show-you’ factor.”