Golis: Among cities on the move, how does your town rate?

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What makes for a livable city? How does my hometown stack-up against the towns where good things are happening?

I’ve been thinking about these questions as I read a new book called “Our Towns — A 100,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of America.” The book recounts what journalists James and Deborah Fallows learned while spending time in more than two dozen American cities — from Eastport, Maine, to Riverside, California.

The national government may be falling apart, the Fallows conclude, but in towns all over America, innovation and energy are being applied to the work of making cities better places to live.

“Americans don’t realize how fast the country is moving toward becoming a better version of itself,” James Fallows, a national correspondent at the Atlantic, wrote last month.

The book tells of the people they met, the stories they heard and the places they saw during four years of traveling around the country (in their own single-engine plane).

This is journalism made more important by the daily rush of grim news from Washington. As a country, we risk not knowing about the optimism, cooperation and common sense that are alive and well in cities around America.

“Again and again,” notes a Washington Post book review, “they emphasize how different the conversations occurring throughout the country sound compared with Washington squabbles. “

Notwithstanding the Fallows’ enthusiasm, this doesn’t mean that urban utopias wait just around the corner. Every town faces its own set of challenges.

In our own travels, we’ve seen too many towns that won’t be experiencing a renaissance any time soon. The boarded storefronts on Main Street and rundown strip malls on the edge of town remind us that good intentions can’t compensate for an absence of wealth sufficient to support public investments.

Still, all of the cities visited by the Fallows are better for trying. And the Fallows’ journeys provide fodder for conversations about your town and about mine.

There are lessons along the way. We learn, for example, that San Bernardino spent years in bankruptcy after giving up authority to decide salaries for public safety employees. In simple terms, it became a low-income city spending beyonds it means.

The Fallows describe San Bernardino as “probably the hardest-pressed town in California, one of a handful of most troubled cities in the United States.”

Meanwhile, Riverside, only 12 miles away, found good fortune. The state decided to build a university there, and city leaders pursued a major effort to revitalize the downtown, beginning with the resurrection of a local landmark, the Mission Inn.

And so it goes. We learn how a high-tech company transformed Redlands (James Fallows’ hometown). We learn how the small town of Winters remains true to its farm traditions while keeping pace with change.

And we learn how Fresno is fighting back against condescension, sprawl and urban renewal projects based on theories that seemed like a good idea at the time.

In so many ways, every city’s fortunes hinge on accidents of history. What would Santa Rosa be like if the city fathers of long ago decided it was a bad idea to run a freeway through the middle of town?

At the last, the Fallows make note of what the most successful towns have in common, leaving us to judge how Sonoma County towns stack up

“People work together …” Sometimes, yes. Sometimes, not so much.

“You can pick out the local patriots.” People ask, when will the next generation of community leaders emerge?

“The phrase ‘public-private partnership’ refers to something real …” We’ll find out as communities begin the work of rebuilding after the fires of last October.

“People know the civic story.” Do you know where your town has been and where’s it going?

“They have downtowns.” It remains that some are destinations, and some are works in progress. (The Fallows say this is the most important marker of successful cities.)

“They are near a research university.” Hello, Sonoma State University.

“They have and care about a community college.” Some would say there is no better community college on the planet than Santa Rosa Junior College.

“They have distinctive, innovative schools.” A few qualify, but others do not.

“They make themselves open.” Not everybody welcomes immigrants, but most do.

“They have big plans.” Yes, but will those plans come to life, or gather dust in a closet somewhere?

And there is one more: “A city on the way back will have at least one craft brewery … and probably some small distilleries, too.” Here’s to you, Pliny the Younger.

In the rush of everyday business, city leaders and citizen alike can lose sight of the big ideas that distinguish successful cities from the faceless places that become just another splotch on a map.

Public spaces, colleges, museums and theaters, parks, bike paths, downtowns where you can shop and walk to dinner on a Saturday night — these become the markers that define a city and bring joy to the people who live there.

Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com.

You can send a letter to the editor at letters@pressdemocrat.com

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