Seeing Your Own Ohio/Michigan/Pennsylvania/Indiana/Illinois/New York/Wisconsin/Iowa Town in Moundsville, WV

The first time we screened a rough cut of Moundsville, for friends, my favorite reaction was from my pal (and neighbor) Matt, who grew up in a small town called Cresson, in central Pennsylvania. “I see Cresson in Moundsville,” he said. His reaction confirmed my sense that in West Virginia, we had found a wider story, and a place with an arc that matched that of hundreds, if not thousands of towns across the country but especially in Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Illinois, New York, Wisconsin and Iowa.

As the movie (which you can rent for $3.99 here) gets more attention, we hear from more viewers having the same experience Matt did. The economic forces that compelled companies to build factories and pay good wages in Moundsville — proximate natural resources, rivers, railroads, labor and markets in a time of national economic expansion during the rise of the 20th century consumer society — were the same that sustained Main Street prosperity around the country.

The declines triggered by a complicated mix of capitalist cycles, changing markets, free trade, private equity, the stock market, big box stores, automation, the cultural popularity of suburban living, and the internet were similar.

Their grief over increasing poverty, the brain drain, and the people who stayed feeling left behind, and desire for a savior, drove them in similar ways to vote for Trump. (And, also, Obama.) And the ways in which they now hope and confront reality, and some are trying to build something new between the cracks, are widespread.

This weekend, Moundsville received its first review in a national publication, The Atlantic. James Fallows, one of the great American journalists of his generation, praised the movie for

a completely clear-eyed understanding … of the inevitability of ceaseless economic and technological change—i.e., the absence of any thoughts on the line of, “We’ll be just fine, once the factories and the mines open back up again”

Last night, a viewer named Ken Stump posted this note on Vimeo:

Thanks to James Fallows for his mention of this documentary in The Atlantic, which is how I found out about it. I lived in a southeastern Ohio town about 50 miles west of Moundsville and Wheeling during my childhood in the 1960s and early 1970s, where my father found work in manufacturing. Today the manufacturing plants are gone, the young people have mostly moved away in search of better opportunities elsewhere, and those who stayed face the same post-industrial realities and voice the same sentiments as the characters in this documentary. I recognize their wistfulness and pride in the rich history of the place, and I admire their realism and honesty about the prospects for the future. Theirs is a dilemma faced by so many other small towns and rural communities across America’s heartland. No amount of wishful thinking or dwelling on the past will restore the region’s former greatness, but there is no obvious or easy path to renewal and reinvention either. But the underlying decency and humanity of the people shines through this film and gives me some hope. Thank you for this wonderful portrait and character study of Moundsville.

As Fallows argues in his prescient book, written with his wife Deb, Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of America, redemption isn’t coming from Washington or any national politician. Instead, Americans can rebuild by facing reality, grieving the past when necessary, turning off their TV, and then getting to work in the places they live. That’s the journey Michele Anderson, an arts manager from Fergus Falls, Minn., describes in her excellent New York Times op-ed published this week.

Utopias don’t exist. The 20th century is never coming back. In the scheme of things, America is still a rich country, with an almost infinite number of places where you can live decently, if modestly, and build something new. The only thing we know about the future is that it will be different. And, we believe, it will be better if we can share an honest story about where we’ve been and where we are.

John W. Miller

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