The Fight to Save the Town

Reimagining Discarded America

Michelle Wilde Anderson
Avid Reader Press ($30)

by Jonathan Shipley 

Thomas Jefferson wrote, “The care of human life and happiness . . . is the first and only object of good government.” His contemporary, Thomas Paine, wrote, “Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one.” There’s no telling what either might have thought about today’s political climate. The headlines of the day focus mainly on federal government, and the debates about it rage. The events of January 6 at the Capitol make the news. The Supreme Court’s rulings make the news. The nation is soaked in these conflicts large and small.

And yet, it’s at the local level that things seem to matter most. It’s the governments of towns and counties that can affect people for the better, or the worse. What’s the race like for the county commissioner position? What political leanings do the town council have? What is the city’s mayor going to do about the recent spate of crime? If county residents don’t want to be taxed for the library, will the library shut down? Michelle Wilde Anderson, a professor of property, local government, and environmental justice at Stanford Law School, showcases four distinct communities in America in her new book The Fight to Save the Town, a hard-hitting yet hopeful look at places lost in the wilds of income inequality, crime, lack of education, and poor infrastructure.

“In some of the poorest postindustrial places,” she writes in the prologue, “people are fighting to make something beautiful from something broken. May these stories restore our will to help them.” In Oregon, Josephine County’s fortunes are tied to the volatile timber industry, and an anti-government stance permeates the place. “Between 2004 and 2016, county voters went to the polls nine times to consider revenue measures that would help revive law enforcement, reopen the library, and improve other services,” Anderson writes. “Every time, a majority voted the taxes down.” Anderson follows and quietly celebrates community leaders who defiantly enact new taxes to support basic services in this area populated by a great many don’t-tread-on-me types.

Meanwhile, in Stockton, California, violence reigns. With people in poverty because of a loss of local manufacturing jobs, redlining, and segregation, violence is a threat around most every corner. Yet, some of those street corners are being proverbially lit by community activists who are leading a redirection and refocus of policing. How can a community reduce gun violence and treat trauma beyond local law enforcement? It’s a question being answered.

In Lawrence, Massachusetts, the textile factories have all gone away, and people struggle doing service-economy work. “The scarce, insecure jobs of the postindustrial economy leave much of the city’s workforce unemployed more hours each week and more months each year,” Anderson writes, “living in households with more members who cannot find any work at all.” For more than a century, the town has been nicknamed the “Immigrant City.” Today, in poverty, the city’s residents are doing their best despite hardships by building tight social networks and looking out for one another.

Finally, Anderson casts a keen eye on Detroit, focusing on the devastating decline of African American homeownership. “Where do you start to stop a housing crisis of that scale?” Anderson asks. “Detroit teaches that you get to work.” She highlights some activists and organizations who are working to “expose, defend, pressure, reform, restore.”

The work is hard for all these communities, and Anderson, though hopeful, doesn’t sugarcoat. Whenever they think they’ve hit rock bottom, the ground beneath them crumbles, and they fall further down. Yet, throughout the tumult, there are individuals and organizations lending a hand. Small governments are enacting measures and laws to assist. Americans are bettering themselves, regardless of if they believe Jefferson’s words or Paine’s. It’s always a work in progress. Our home, our country, is never finished, for there can always be a way to improve it.

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