The Importance of the Origin Story

Source: gustavus.edu

Happy New Year!  Like I said, my initial plan was to let the blog go until the first full week of 2014 (starting January 6), but I just couldn’t.

James Fallows of the Atlantic has been working on a very good extended series called American Futures.  Beginning last August, Fallows and his wife Deborah have been flying (he’s a licensed pilot) across the country to visit small cities and get to know the things that make them work.  They’ve been making observations of towns like Holland, MI, Sioux Falls, SD, Burlington, VT, Eastport, ME, and others as they’ve been slowly winding their way across the nation.  Through countless interviews with locals, they’ve learned what makes successful small-town America click, and examine the things they did to get there.

Recently they reached Redlands, CA, former hometown of James Fallows and the corporate headquarters of ESRI, the technology company best known for its suite of geographic information systems (GIS) software and a leader in geographic technology (ESRI is also a sponsor of the American Futures venture).  The trip to Redlands caused Fallows to reflect on his visits, and touch on a recurring theme:

In this month’s magazine and in some previous posts plus a Marketplace segment with Kai Ryssdal, I’ve emphasized the importance of civic “stories.” These are the shared public understandings, some closer to historical accuracy than others, that convey a community’s sense of what makes it unusual, what successes and struggles have brought it to today, and what options are best for tomorrow.

To call these understandings stories, or even myths, doesn’t mean that they are fictitious by either accident or design. Instead it emphasizes the importance of their narrative shape: past, present, future; cause and character leading to effect.

Many comic book aficionados (trust me, I’m not one but I know of this) will know this as the “origin story”,  and the successful understanding of the origin story plays a huge role in what a comic book superhero is able to accomplish in tough superhero times.

Fallows goes on to write about Redlands’ origin story (I hope Mr. Fallows can forgive me for this rather long clip of his blog post):

Like many other Sunbelt areas, this part of California grew during several nationwide migration surges: the late 1800s, when people came from the East and the Midwest for warmer climates, cheaper land, and better growing conditions (Redlands was incorporated in 1888); the teens and 1920s, when the citrus-growing industry dominated this part of inland Southern California and Redlands was connected to Los Angeles, 70 miles away, by the “Red Car” electric railroad; the Dust Bowl and Depression era; and of course the post-WWII California Dream era, when millions of people (including my parents, from Pennsylvania) came for the fresh start in the sun. 

Pacific Electric “Red Car” map from the 1920s, pre-freeway. Redlands helpfully noted with blue arrow.

That’s the common Sunbelt/California story. “In the 1880s cities were growing everywhere around here,” Nathan Gonzales, the city’s archivist, told us. “The railroads had rate wars, and land was going on the cheap.” He said it was a remarkable confluence of technologies that came together to produce this Southern California boom. “Think of what had to happen at the same time: railroads all the way to the west coast, and ice-making equipment to preserve fruit for cross-country shipment, and grading and packing equipment to handle large volumes of fruit.”The different version understood in Redlands is that it looks, feels, and acts different from a lot of other LA Basin sprawl-suburbs because:

  • It is still physically separate — the last city in the LA/San Bernardino basin before sizable mountains on the east, a usually dry river bed (“the wash”) and more mountains on the north, canyon land on the south, and a not-yet-entirely sprawl-developed buffer to the west. The map above  aerial view below give the main idea. (The red lines are not the actual city limits but for practical purposes are its extent.)
  • It remembers its founders who made long-term investments in the city’s physical and natural heritage. The easiest way to explain this is by analogy with Central Park in New York. If Central Park didn’t exist, you couldn’t create it now — and all sane people give thanks to their 19th century New York forebears who had the vision to make it happen. Redlands is by comparison a tiny place, but people there have a similar view of the forebears who created: Prospect Park, a substantial undeveloped area in the middle of a residential zone; or the Redlands Bowl, set up in the 1920s as a free outdoor concert amphitheater for a town that was just getting going; or the Smiley Library, created by twin-brother Quakers from New York, Alfred and Albert Smiley; or the University chapel; or many others other aspects of the city beautiful.
Free concert at the Redlands Bowl, where all concerts have been free since the 1920s, (and
where my high school graduation took place), via this site.
  • Its economy was originally based on oranges, and as the groves have given way to development it has responded in two ways: by preserving as many as it can, as a public good, and by pushing the heritage in every other way.
Downtown murals, with remember-our-history theme.

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 What Fallows has found, though, is that what’s most important for the towns he’s visited is that the origin story plays a crucial role in how a town deals with a critical turning point.  When downtown Holland was threatened by the growth and expansion of malls, the community’s origin story told present-day residents that the town center was worth preserving and revitalizing, and they did that.  When Redlands’s orange groves were threatened by suburban expansion, its origin story told people that a commitment should be made to the preservation of groves and the marketing of oranges as a critical piece of the community’s heritage.

I think this is an important point to note, and a critical piece of understanding for the future survival of the Rust Belt.  Mr. and Mrs. Fallows have generally been visiting towns that never had a very strong manufacturing presence, and thus never incorporated manufacturing as part of their origin story (the possible exception is Eastport, the former home of milling industries and fishing canaries that have long since departed the town).  The origin story of Rust Belt towns small and large is often along the lines of city fathers creating large industries that employed thousands and gave simple people comfortable middle-class lifestyles — which promptly disappeared.  Many don’t have stories of significant foresight by early leaders; would Gary, IN cover its entire Lake Michigan shoreline today with steel mills?  Where is the public legacy gift to the people of Flint, MI?  As a result, Rust Belt cities often continue to struggle with an appropriate response to an existential threat.  A threat that most did not recognize as existential until the Great Recession.  Sadly, many people have said they’re a lost cause.

Origin stories and how cities navigate through their turning points are vitally important, and the Rust Belt’s small cities, midsize metros and large megalopolises must find the story that gets them to turn the corner.  There is a story that the Rust Belt can tell itself, at this critical juncture, and must continue to tell itself.  It is one of authenticity and  resilience.

Thanks to James and Deborah Fallows for bringing that to our attention, and I hope to see more of this from them soon.

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