Sky Sharp, from Bend, Ore., is featured in the film “Our Towns.” HBO Max

“How does a town like this keep coming up with new ways to create a future for itself,” ask journalists and authors James and Deborah Fallows concerning the small Washington County city of Eastport. After all, they add, “It’s not like Downeast Mainers are famous for their optimism.”

Something of a burn there, but the Fallows’ overall glowing assessment of Eastport’s resilience makes up a good part of the 2021 documentary “Our Towns,” which is currently garnering praise on HBO Max, so I guess we Mainers will, begrudgingly, have to allow it. In fact, “Our Towns” holds up Eastport’s recent and ongoing reinvigoration as something of a model for all of America, so that’s not a bad thing, as the film posits a ground-up approach to revitalizing a beleaguered nation modeled on six municipal success stories, of which Eastport is one.

Directed by Academy Award-nominees Steven Ascher and Jeanne Jordan (“Troublesome Creek: A Midwestern”), “Our Towns” is based on the well-traveled Fallows’ 2018 book, “Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of America,” which sought out, as James puts it in the film, “towns that had some kind of story to tell.” And while everyone’s hometown has its own story, the authors were focused on those towns across the country where ingenuity, innovation, outside-the-box thinking and good, old small-town stubbornness have succeeded in pulling troubled communities back from the brink of economic and social collapse.

Enter Eastport. As one of the six communities (alongside San Bernardino, California; Sioux Falls South Dakota; Charleston, West Virginia; Columbus, Mississippi; and Bend, Oregon) spotlighted in “Our Towns,” Eastport is presented as having “found and lost so many ways of sustaining itself” that, as one resident puts it, “If you don’t love living here, you wouldn’t put the work in that it requires.” Having run through periods where its entire economy was dependent on one industry (a running theme in the film), Eastport has seen its sardine and wild salmon resources run dry, while climate change threatens lobstering next. “I’d guess we have 15 years of lobstering left,” says one teenage lobster fisherman sadly, even as he prepares for what’s next. Oh, and then there’s the time in 1887 that all of Main Street burned to the ground, and the steady shrinkage that’s seen Eastport’s population dwindle to just 1,300 or so people, down from it’s sardine-fueled 10,000 citizen heyday.

As the Fallows put it in the film, “A town left behind by economic change may just die off,” and, from the outside, tiny Eastport should probably have been reclaimed by the Maine woods by now. That it hasn’t makes it one of “Our Towns’ ” most encouraging and perhaps instructive tales. “Our Towns” presents a list of common denominators they’ve found in all of the towns they’ve visited in their little, single-engine plane in researching their book, and Eastport ticks a lot of those boxes. An investment in a desirable and vibrant downtown – check. An investment in the public art and artist scene – check. (Both Eastport’s artist-in-residence destination the Tides Institute and the civic-minded The Women of the Commons’ plans to renovate the old sardine cannery into artist spaces, shops and residences are held up for praise.) A strong local newspaper – big check, as Eastport’s Quoddy Times is held up as a model of independent, fully staffed and engaged local journalism. Toss in the Fallows’ own individual pet indicators (a fully funded public library, a welcoming community college system, an accepting and supportive environment for immigrants and refugees, tourism, and a preponderance of breweries and brewpubs, for some reason), and you’ve got a template for a small American town doing it the right way.

Of course, all these things can’t exist without revenue, and “Our Towns” especially lauds Eastport’s willingness to adapt with the times when it comes to its main industries. Wood pulp export (thanks to Eastport’s deep-water, forest-adjacent port) has become one key to the town’s prosperity, while, in an unexpected swerve, “pregnant cows” trots in at a surprising second place. As one local businessperson explains, when someone approached the shipping town with a plan to export expecting bovines to Turkey, nobody gave into the inconvenient fact that nobody knew anything about such things, resulting in Eastport ultimately shipping some 50,000 head of cattle. “Sometimes you just have to try things, realistic or not,” explains the unlikely Maine cattleman, in what might be “Our Towns”’ mission statement.

It’s a bracing but never too-rosy portrait of small-town American gumption and resourcefulness that the film presents. Other stops confront Columbus’ still-uneasy relationship with both its Black citizens and some residents’ stubbornness in clinging to “Southern heritage,” with all that implies. There, one business-attracting (white) entrepreneur suggests that it’s just good common fiscal sense to not be racist, since that will drive potential, lucratively relocating industries away. (I remain unconvinced that common sense has ever been the bulwark against idiotic bigotry, but it’s a nice thought.) And the small-town opioid crisis has forced several of the film’s chosen communities to come up with creative ways to save an entire generation.

More convincing are the concrete examples the film gives, such as the bank-backed grant programs that tempt police officers and teachers (who rarely work in the communities they serve) to move into “challenging neighborhoods” with low-price homes or the similarly investor-funded program where jail inmates are paid actual going wages as building contractors in those same communities. Outside the box, innovative and solving several pressing local problems at once.

If “Our Towns” left me a bit unsatisfied, it’s mostly that the film’s folksy appeal to the virtues of small-town life occasionally skirts close to indulging the sort of “city slicker” stereotyping it claims those city types are guilty of. It’s undeniable that big-city types (hello, Portland) will sometimes look down on people who live in places like Eastport, assuming, as one Eastporter puts it, “that we’re not paying attention” to the world at large. But the Fallows’ stated rule of never talking national politics when they come to a new town “because that conversation goes nowhere,” is belied by the fact that, in Eastport, that nascent cattle business has dried up of late thanks to the socioeconomic ripples stemming from the far-away conflict in Syria. In indulging their chosen subjects’ own stereotypes about big cities (and those darned Washington types), the filmmakers undermine their own, boosterish premise.

That aside, “Our Towns” is refreshingly constructive in identifying things our communities can do to weather even the usual upheavals of social and economic history. (The film was made prior to the current pandemic, they’re quick to note, considering all the in-person interviews.) Most effectively, though, the film posits that the lure of our hometowns is something that can be sustained even as we, inevitably, choose to head out into that bigger world. As with the brothers who help drive Eastport’s newspaper and Tides Institute, respectively, we never really let go of our love of the place where we grew up. It’s up to those towns to transform with the times until we, looking for a place to settle down, decide that home still has something worth returning to other than mere nostalgia.

“Our Towns” is currently streaming on HBO Max. 

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.

A Martin Luther King Day march in Riverside, Calif., from the documentary “Our Towns.” HBO Max


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: