James and Deborah Follows explore small towns across America in “Our Towns”

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Photo by Jeremy Fredricks

A map of where the Follows traveled during their documentary , “Our Towns.” The trip took them from the west coast of California, to the Atlantic Ocean’s shoreline in Maine to South Dakota.

By Jeremy Fredricks, Copy Editor

In Americana, a small town is the ideal place — full of nights spent at the ballpark, outdoor plays reflecting the small town’s heritage and a sense of community. Yet, many don’t get to see this part of America — often assuming a completely false version of small, rural towns. But, James and Deborah Follows, a married pair of journalists, wanted to change that.

The Follows spent five years traveling across the United States. They decided to write a book — “Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America” — on their travels, which HBO turned into a documentary — “Our Towns.” To write the book, the Follows needed to find small towns in America. That’s when James, who was writing for “The Atlantic” magazine at the time, decided to put out a request for readers to write about what made their small town special. After receiving over 1,000 requests, James and his wife Deborah decided to go to some of them.

The Follows, not only narrated the documentary, but traveled by plane to the cities — claiming it was the best mode of transportation, as it allowed them to see some hard-to-reach places. Their first stop in the documentary: James’ childhood home in the Inland Empire, Calif.

The Inland Empire includes San Bernardino and Redlands. San Bernardino saw an interstate highway move away from it, which severely impacted the economy — an air force base became a graveyard for planes that would never see the sky; an orange orchard struggled to get people to pick the eponymous fruit; automation killed off jobs. This has led to an increase in homelessness. 

But the people of the Inland Empire didn’t just sit idly by: they took action. A group collects data on homeless people, which allows the government to come up with steps to address the situation. It also is working to help its youth — Redlands is known for its circus program for youth, which provides a sense of community to the 500-or-so kids. And a local high school, once known for its subpar graduation rate, now offers pathways to help students get into college.

The second town where they broke the stereotype was Sioux Falls, S.D. People assume that there aren’t many technological opportunities in the town, but it is home to a company that collects satellite images of the Earth and another that makes weather balloons and balloons for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. They’re also famous for artwork within the city — most notably, the broken bridge sculpture, which glows at night.

The town is diverse. It is full of refugees and immigrants who work jobs varying from the local meatpacking plant to starting their own small business. Sioux Fall also is near Native American reservations — a reminder of the country’s history — and the Natives’ struggles with assimilation, disrespect and loss of culture are talked about.

In Columbus, Miss., high school students show what they learned in their history class through a play. They present their findings of what the town was like — from the earliest days when there were plantations from the Confederacy to the Jim Crow era — in a cemetery for Black people killed in Columbus. The goal of these plays is ending discrimination faced by Black residents.

When traditional jobs disappeared and local people remained unemployed because they didn’t have the degrees, they needed to go to community college. There is one highly-technical community college that helps people get jobs.

They also traveled to Eastport, Maine, a town that has faced many challenges. The main street burned down once, the shipping industry stopped coming because it was too far out of the way and the fish went north and stopped coming to the region.

But, resourceful is the best word to describe the people. They use their resources — like turning the lack of salmon fishing into salmon farming. A 17-year-old not only goes to high school, but takes online college courses and catches lobster. A group of women converted an old building into an art gallery. They’re doing it again — this time building a restaurant and residence area.

The first assumption about Charleston, W.Va. may not be its art scene. Actor Jeff Daniel has a band — the Mountain State Band. A local artist created paintings on the wall of local people and Union soldiers. In fact, some people even asked to be painted in the wall portraits.

Helping the community is important to residents there. They emphasize the importance of libraries for books, computers, lawyer services and the sense of community. There’s a drug court to prevent youth addictions. There are plans to rehabilitate West Charleston, W.Va. by giving loans to police officers and teachers moving to the neighborhood. And, a former NFL player — Adrian Wright — opened up a barbecue restaurant, which serves as a community gathering place.

The community is in love with the local minor league baseball team — the West Virginia Power. People love to go to the ballpark, especially the kids who went to drug court, attending as a treat.

Bend, Ore. has found its way back from failure. The logging boom ended in the 1980s, but it’s now a vibrant community. People come for the snow (as one owner said, fresh powder means employees coming in late), remote working (before that was cool), nature and the breweries.

The documentary seemed to settle on a few key points: the importance of nature to humans, cities becoming resilient, stereotypes are wrong and a sense of community.

It also emphasized the importance of local issues. Many people don’t know what is happening in these communities, but they should. That’s why there is such a crucial need for having a local newspaper. This isn’t the only time they mention journalism. During the transition between cities, it shows a plane taking off or landing and the Follows talk about the role of journalism, their personal lives and traveling advice.

One issue was the documentary was too jumpy. It went from one thing about the town to another, without the details necessary to fully-understand the town. There were plenty of interesting stories that were covered for a minute, when they could’ve been covered for longer. 

In the end, the documentary talked about why there is optimism for the future in these small towns. After seeing the documentary, it makes sense why.