We recently returned from a weeklong family vacation in San Diego. It was a wonderful time seeing three generations enjoying one another’s company in a beautiful place. Yet, despite all of this happiness and sense of discovery, at the end of the week, all of us West Virginians were anxious to return to Charleston.
The Mountain State may not have lovely beaches and perfect weather, but it has unpretentious, hardworking people, few traffic jams and a strong sense of community. Just as in life, you should savor and enhance what you have, rather than envy what you don’t have.
In a recently published book, “Our Towns,” authors James and Deborah Fallows describe their travels over four years in a small, single-engine plane to numerous small cities around the country, one of which was Charleston. The vast majority of the cities selected are in some way challenged by the changes occurring in late 20th- and early 21st-century America. These challenges come in all shapes, sizes and trajectories. Some, like Charleston, were included because of the diminishment of major economic engines within their region. Others are there because of demographic swings, cultural shifts or transportation re-routings.
The Fallows’ interventions usually consisted of multiple well-scripted visits to these cities with the goal of finding some common threads that suggest what makes a city prosper. They visited libraries, schools, entertainment and sports events, businesses, restaurants, recreational venues, prominent citizens and other community assets.
One sad but true general observation was that the toxicity of partisanship is so pervasive in Washington and in many statehouses that the best hope for true collaboration in the foreseeable future may be local governments and the communities they serve. They are quietly becoming our new “laboratories of democracy.”
In addition to relating numerous unique and engaging personal stories of these cities from every region of the country, the authors’ analysis of the massive amount of objective data they accumulated was striking. A few examples of the consistent themes they uncovered in successful cities were well-developed public-private partnerships, vibrant downtowns, recognition of the importance of innovative schools and public libraries, and easily identified individuals “who make the town go.”
Although there are accounts of at least 40 cities in the book, it’s encouraging that Charleston was chosen as the first for filming for a planned HBO documentary based on the book. The positive spin the authors related about our city’s economic fundamentals, in the book and during their recent visit for filming, should be a boost for our collective civic psyche. As I have also seen when long-time friends visit Charleston for the first time — sometimes it takes an outsider to fully recognize how fortunate we are to live here.
The message to me is twofold — perhaps we aren’t as bad off as many people think and, as we look to the future, there are diverse strategies, some short-term, but more long-term, that Charlestonians need to consider. To dig deeper into these issues and to help you to formulate your own opinions, I encourage you to read “Our Towns,” as we all work together on this continuing journey to a new and improved Charleston.