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ANNA SMITH: Civic and economic reinvention in the Heartland

There is a quietly growing movement brewing in the interior of America. Pretty soon it will boil over. And it’s about time somebody covered it.

The Central Valley is often included when folks disparagingly reference “flyover country” or “the heartland” — those parts of the country that don’t touch an ocean, that some might rather fly over than into. So it’s a welcome surprise to hear that noted journalists planned a years-long journey around America, purposefully landing in these places and staying to look around.

This is exactly what James and Deborah Fallowses did, collecting stories and documenting patterns for their recently published book, “Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America”.

They visited dozens of towns like our own, met hundreds of civic leaders, workers, immigrants, educators, environmentalists, artists, public servants, librarians, business people, city planners, students and entrepreneurs to take the pulse and understand the prospects of places that usually draw media attention only after a natural disaster or during a hotly contested political campaign.

They discovered a trend around the country that might surprise some. Despite bitter divisions in Washington, there is a more optimistic story to be told of smaller cities in the interior.

The Fallowses uncovered plenty of local people in towns across the country tackling local problems, creating original and effective ways to deal with them. These stories reflect the energy, generosity and compassion, the dreams and determination of many who are in the midst of making things a whole lot better.

If you haven’t yet gathered through this column, I am a passionate advocate for this city, unendingly enthusiastic about its potential. I can be a realist, though, and I know we have our challenges. But I honestly believe this place is on the upswing.

Perhaps I’m fueled by naïveté or persistence and grit. Whatever you want to call it, no amount of negative energy would cause me to change my mind.

So it’s comforting to know that Bakersfield is not the only place struggling on the cusp of a renaissance. Like so many other American towns often overshadowed by larger metro areas, our city has struggled with issues relating to our identity, economy, education, poverty, attraction and retention of talent.

Thankfully, though, we are also part of a larger narrative unfolding quietly across the country — a comeback tale. According to the Fallowses, the next big movement in America is not in big cities but towns like ours. (I happen to agree.)

What a thrilling time to be living as part of this story. I feel lucky for the chance to be in a place on the edge of a breakthrough.

My husband, Austin, and I have been following Deborah and James Fallows for a while now. We read everything by them that we can get our hands on. James has been a national correspondent for The Atlantic for more than 35 years, and Deborah is a linguist and writer with a doctorate in theoretical linguistics.

They are gifted at uncovering the people, places and ideas reshaping the country. And their book, “Our Towns”, just released this month, combines themes running throughout much of their work. It follows their travels in a single-engine plane to underdog towns, chronicling exciting developments in some surprising places.

My favorite chapter happens to be about another city in the Central Valley, Fresno, whose struggles have been remarkably similar to ours. Fresnans appear to have acknowledged a lot of the issues they face, like educational attainment, lack of industry diversity, suburban sprawl and a once-dicey downtown — and are working to address them. I soaked up every word about Fresno’s efforts to invest in their downtown, curb sprawl and establish truly innovative schools.

There’s a lot we could learn from the trials and practical solutions of similarly situated cities.

It’s a genuine thrill to get the chance to be part of this movement in our own town. Like so many of the underdog stories across the country, we see positive changes happening fast. While Bakersfield wasn’t included in the handful of places profiled by the Fallows, I think that if there’s a second volume, we just might be on the list.

This place is nowhere near perfect, but Bakersfield’s bones are good. She’s not a tear-down but a build-up. We should celebrate localism and join the chorus of other creative problem-solvers across the country who are tackling their city’s challenges head-on.


A local, all-woman team will collaborate on one of the traveling, farm-to-table dinners hosted by Outstanding in the Field, a national tour of 100-plus multi-course feasts from coast to coast across North America and around the world. Organizers partner with top regional chefs at each stop.

Bakersfield's part is being played by farming operation Autonomy Farms, a local, sustainable, woman-run farm. Set for 4 p.m. Sunday, the event will celebrate the talent, hard work and persistence of Southern California’s women. For more information, visit


The U.S. Geological Survey recently created a database mapping all 57,636 of America’s wind turbines. The database shows that Kern County has the nation’s highest population of turbines at 4,581.

Riverside (2,373) and Alameda (1,430) made second and third place, respectively. This not only ranks Kern County as the highest in the country, but places it as the highest turbine density in the world.

I also just learned that Kern produces more renewable energy than any other county in California. As of last year, more than $28 billion had been invested in the county by companies developing renewable energy projects.

These are some big, exciting numbers associated with positive news. I’ll take it!

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