Delaware Public Media

'Our Towns' authors: 'The turnaround is possible'

Nov 7, 2019

The authors of a book on the state of towns and small cities across America visited Wilmington this week. 


James and Deborah Fallows travelled in a small plane to dozens of towns across the country for their book, “Our Towns: A 100,000-mile Journey Into the Heart of America.” They documented towns dealing with challenges from the opioid epidemic to political crises— and reinventing themselves.

The Fallows visited Wilmington this week to speak as part of the Delaware Community Foundation’s 2019 Building Opportunity initiative.

The two say some of the challenges Delaware’s largest city faces — and its approach to overcoming them—are reflected elsewhere across the country. 

James Fallows says Port of Wilmington operator GT USA's plan to use the vacant Elbert-Palmer Elementary School building in Southbridge as a worker training center sounds reminiscent of efforts in Louisville, Ky. and central California to shift toward more advanced manufacturing. 

“Some of the most successful examples we’ve seen have been where the companies decide they’re going to set up training centers for the local population who need new opportunities,” he said. “Their parents might have worked in the factories, the factories aren’t there any more, so for their childrens’ generation, what can they do?”

Fallows adds it is important for towns to attract new residents as well as support their existing populations. 

“The towns that seem to be growing fastest, developing their businesses and developing their downtowns are ones that are thinking consciously about attracting new people too,” he said. “The kinds of things that are happening in Wilmington’s downtown— which we’ve begun to see, we need to come back and learn about more— are the kind of things we’ve seen in places from Greenville, S.C. to Bend, Ore. to Fresno, Calif. to Duluth, Minn. and another million in the list, of making attractive areas for people to live, work, shop and recreate downtown.”

City leaders have talked about their desire to attract young people to Wilmington. 

Deborah Fallows says during the couple’s single day in Wilmington, she noticed the potential for millenials to be attracted to the city. 

“There's a good employment base for young people to do lots of different things. The bones of the city make it very adaptable to downtown living— mixed use of shops, recreation and apartment living in the downtown.”

But the city still struggles with the issue of gun violence, which is trending upward again after decreasing significantly last year. Last month, the number of shooting victims in Wilmington so far this year surpassed the total number in 2018. 

James Fallows says many cities across the country deal with the problem of gun violence that Wilmington struggles with.  He says cities need to tackle problem of gun violence itself while promoting positive amenities in their downtowns. “Some of the areas that are now the most stylish residential parts of DC were the places that were the most plagued by gun violence, drug violence. So the turnaround is possible.”

The City of Wilmington launched a rebranding campaign, “It’s Time,” last year in an attempt to shift the city’s reputation away from an association with gun violence. 

Deborah Fallows says efforts to rebrand a town are only as effective as the actual change behind them. 

“Language is important,” she said. “For example, Fresno— which has traditionally been a troubled town with a lot of violence in the downtown too, there's a rebranding effort kind of in your face to call it, we are Fres-yes, not Fres-no. You can start with words, but unless there’s something behind it, it’s not going to work.”