Beyond the Build

Community Service

Our Towns

Switch on the tv, and you’ll hear an almost endless stream of negativity. “Our nation has never been more divided,” they say.

I have never felt this way about most of the towns and cities where we build, as the changes I’ve seen have been mostly positive. It turns out that there’s whole movement of folks who have identified all the good that’s happening on a local level across the nation, acutely aware of their challenges, but choosing to face head.

This week, I had the chance to visit with Jim Fallows and later to hear his talk about the journey he and his wife, Deborah, took over several years as they crisscrossed the country in their small plane, visiting many towns and cities in our heartland. Instead of asking about politics, they asked about business, schools and issues that impact at a local level. They were so impressed with the ingenuity, cooperation and long-term planning that Fallows, a long-time journalist for the Atlantic, said he thinks might be entering the next Guilded Age. A few trends he identified:

  • “Reverse osmotic flow,” of people choosing what he calls “the countryside” over metropolises. This is because of real estate prices, local ties and the sense of engagement possible in smaller cities. It’s easier to plug in and make things happen.
  • Political temperament. If you don’t bring up political issues, in most places, they don’t come up. Instead, people are willing to rally around their town and its leaders to make things happen.
  • Innovative city governments. Citizens are looking for ways to engage in local government. They mention unique approaches to problem solving.

Should you get a chance to read their book “Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America,” I believe you will enjoy the message.

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Merrill Stewart Jr.

Merrill Stewart is Founder and CEO of The Stewart/Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham.