Written by Jesse Thoeming, Executive Director, Downtown Cedar Rapids SSMID
In late October, I had the privilege to play tour guide for authors Jim and Deb Fallows for two days during their first visit to Cedar Rapids. While the Fallows’ have had incredibly accomplished and distinguished careers in journalism and education, respectively, their most recent work—a bestselling book adapted into an HBO documentary called Our Towns—is what first attracted my attention.
For five years they traveled to every corner of America and reported on communities roughly the same size as our region. Their focus was directed at what places were thriving or bouncing back from the effects brought on by the Great Recession. And, conversely, what places who had fallen on dire time were doing in terms of innovation, placemaking, and like. Working for an organization whose mission is to help grow our economy and population while at the same time doing everything we can to help our business community succeed, I found their reporting in Our Towns to be both fascinating and insightful. To say it was a thrill to get to meet both Jim and Deb and show them around would be an understatement. There was one takeaway following the nearly thirty hours we spent together that has stayed with me since we bid them adieu: a recent Gallup poll Jim referenced states that 85% of its respondents believe our country is heading in the wrong direction and their outlook for the future is bleak and abysmal. However, 85% of respondents also felt as though the place in which they live is going in the right direction and that there’s reason for genuine optimism about the future of their community. It’s an astonishing, but not surprising figure given today’s societal and political climate. Whatever the next iteration of the Our Towns movement becomes—sequel to the book or documentary or something entirely different—Jim and Deb will be aiming to help close this calamitous gap, perceived or otherwise. It’s the kind of bifurcation that seems to grow with each passing day.
It’s such an unfortunate and tragically disappointing situation we find ourselves in from a national perspective. Far too often we’d rather shriek, hiss, name-call, and be reviled by our fellow citizens and neighbors due to disagreements or disparate points of view. Compromise has become a non-starter and an ugly word in far too many circles. But with the right kind of eyes we should be able to appreciate how far we’ve all come on so many fronts in such a relatively short amount of time. For example, this summer a telescope orbiting the planet literally a million miles away is now sending back mind-bending imagery of the cosmos. The James Webb can see back billions of years in time to the formation of some of the first galaxies. Think about that. It was only a little more than one-hundred years ago that we first conquered rudimentary flight. In his final publication before his death in 2018, the legendary astrophysicist Stephen Hawking opined that a comet or asteroid collision was humanity’s single greatest threat when it comes to extinction or mass annihilation. Four years later the DART mission successfully knocked an asteroid out of its orbital motion earlier this fall. These awe-inspiring feats of science and engineering showcase what can be accomplished when we work together.
Here in Cedar Rapids we’re challenged with the need for a larger, more diverse workforce. To attract people we champion our unwavering resiliency. Our affordability. And several other characteristics that make us unique and might set us a part to those looking to start or jumpstart a career or perhaps expand or start up a new business. It’s a difficult mountain to climb in order to be successful when competing with so many other places trying to do the exact same thing. But to me, this is where so many of the nuanced lessons stemming from Our Towns can be brought to bear. These include boundless collaboration and cooperation. Private and public sector partnerships that significantly enhance quality of life. Citizenry asking—and doing—what they can do for their community rather than demanding their cities or local governments do more for them. It’s a mindset. And if tips over to the point of mass consensus then you will see the kind of change that propels Cedar Rapids to the top of the pyramid in terms of ideal places that people want to live, work, and play. But it starts with you. And me. All of us. Because no matter your age, race, creed, political affiliation, or sexual orientation, we’re all in this thing together. A community whose vast majority understands and appreciates this fact will inevitably tower above the rest as challenges will undoubtedly be met and accomplishments abound. It’s up to all of us to make it happen. Not just City Hall or organizations like the Economic Alliance. All of us. And we can all most assuredly do better for the juice of life is so often derived from those arguments that don’t seem obvious. Our shared interests and pursuits far outweigh our divisions. So often the most effective forms of innovation are simply rediscovering what was lost.