The little town of Willmar, Minnesota, doesn’t get much national attention, although Machine Gun Kelly and his gang did rob the bank there in 1930.
Last week, though, it made the news in an unexpected — and arguably positive — way. Thomas Friedman, the three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the New York Times cited Willmar (population 21,000) as a textbook case of a “modern, successful American melting pot.”
For the past two years, he’s been visiting communities across the country and has come away with a very different understanding than what is often portrayed:
“The cliché about America today is that we’re a country divided between two coasts —two coasts that are liberalizing, pluralizing, globalizing and modernizing. And in between is ‘flyover America,’ where everyone voted for Donald Trump, is suffering from addictions, and is waiting for the 1950s to return.
“That’s not what I’ve found. America is actually a checkerboard of towns and cities — some rising from the bottom up and others collapsing from the top down, ravaged by opioids, high unemployment among less-educated white males and a soaring suicide rate. I’ve been trying to understand why some communities rise and others fall — and so many of the answers can be found in Willmar.”
Once virtually all-white, this town about 90 miles west of Minneapolis has seen an influx of immigrants — first from Latin America but later from African and Asia — to work in the local meatpacking plant. The local high school now has students from 30 different countries. What Friedman found in Willmar was that for all the changes that have taken place there, the town works — and immigrants are helping drive an economic revival in the town. He credits several things, among them community leaders — elected or otherwise — who “check their party politics at the door and focus only on what works.”
You can find Friedman’s column online and read for yourself about Willmar. When we read it, two things immediately popped into our head.
First, Friedman’s analysis sounds a lot like that of fellow writer James Fallows, who likewise has been travelling across America to visit small cities and towns and drawn very similar conclusions. We’ve often quoted from Fallows “11 signs that a city will succeed” because Roanoke and other communities in western Virginia check off so many of them. The second thing we thought was that Friedman should come visit Roanoke. Although our story is not nearly as dramatic as Willmar’s, Roanoke does have a good story to tell, one that fits what both Friedman and Fallows have found.
- We were founded as a railroad city in the 1800s and spent our first 100 years as a key cog in the nation’s industrial economy. After the Norfolk & Western Railway headquarters left in 1982, Roanoke spent decades searching for a new economic identity. Today, it’s very energetically remaking itself, with the Virginia Tech Carilion Academic Health Center as its new centerpiece. We’ve gone “from train city to brain city,” in the famous words of former city manager Chris Morrill. That transition is still somewhat tentative and by no means complete, but it is happening. Roanoke has reversed decades of population losses and is now growing again. It’s even attracting young adults at a faster rate than any other Virginia city.
- Roanoke, being a rail city, had a different pattern of settlement from other Southern cities — waves of Greek and Lebanese immigrants in the late 1800s and early 1900s. It became a center for resettling Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s and now is home to more than 100 different nationalities — celebrated annually in our Local Colors festival. Twelve of the 21 players on the boys’ soccer team at Patrick Henry High School are foreign-born. Between them, they speak six different languages. If Friedman went downtown, he’d find a virtual United Nations of restaurants — the newest being an Afghan eatery.
- One of the main entities working to acculturate immigrants — now principally from the Mideast and various parts of Africa — is Blue Ridge Literacy. It was founded to teach locals who dropped out of school how to read and write; now virtually all its work is with immigrants. The new executive director is herself an immigrant — from Iran.
- Roanoke may be a city on the edge of Appalachia, but we certainly don’t fit the stereotype that conjures up. Some might dispute that we’re part of Appalachia, yet we certainly market our connection to the Appalachian mountain range, so we can’t have it both ways. In any case, we’re a predominantly white Southern city with an African American mayor — our second, by the way, in the person of Sherman Lea. Our first, the late Noel Taylor, was far and away the most popular politician of modern times. For awhile, we had an African American woman as vice mayor (Anita Price). Now, our vice mayor is a gay man (Joe Cobb). Both gained that title by virtue of being the leading vote-getter in their respective elections. All those candidates, by the way, were endorsed by the principal organs of the business community. We also now have a female majority on Roanoke City Council, and one of our state legislators is Muslim, the son of Palestinian immigrants. This is not what Friedman, or anyone else, might expect of a Southern city in the mountains.
- The Roanoke Valley definitely fits the Friedman model of localities that set political differences aside: The city is very Democratic; Roanoke County is very Republican and Salem is, well, Salem. Yet they routinely work together on key pieces of public infrastructure in ways they once didn’t. At some point about two decades ago, each realized their competition was not on the other side of Peters Creek Road; it was on the other side of the world.
- A few years ago, one of our leading business people — a retired bank chairman – gave the commencement at his alma mater. Warner Dalhouse used that address at Roanoke College to declare that “for me the last great civil rights injustices are the laws discriminating against gay and lesbian citizens.” This, by the way, was a year before the U.S. Supreme Court struck down bans on same-sex marriage.
Roanoke isn’t some kind of Berkeley-by-the-Blue Ridge, because it’s certainly not. But it does have a good story to tell that Friedman might be interested in. He’d also find some bad things, too, of course. We have poverty. We have opioids. We have crime. But we certainly don’t fit the profile that comes to mind when the phrase “small city on the edge of Appalachia” is mentioned. That’s a story worth telling.