Tom Hanks was so inspired by James and Deborah Fallows’ description of Sioux Falls and Rapid City in “Our Towns” that he tweeted Tuesday morning he might “move” to the cities, or at least visit.
Now, we’re not holding our breath that the Hanks will become “Sleepless in Sioux Falls,” but clearly something in the book inspired the tweet.
The authors spent five years traveling across America in a single-engine prop airplane. The book description says, “‘Our Towns’ is a story of their journey — and an account of a country busy remaking itself.”
They visited Sioux Falls and Rapid City in 2013.
Side note: You can buy the book at a local retailer or online, including on Amazon. It’s well worth it.
Whitney: Hanks doesn’t really want to live here. Are we OK with that?
So what does the book say about the area? For one, it’s clear the authors did their homework. You can tell they were passionate about their project and really wanted to learn more about each city they visited. After reading the section on Sioux Falls, it would seem they could write a book about the city with just a bit more research.
1. The friendly people
After arriving in Sioux Falls, the authors visited Granite City and later noted a beautiful sunset over the bike path. There, they talked to a group of young women and asked if they liked Sioux Falls:
Oh, yes, they began telling us in detail. It was growing. It was friendly. (Proving their point, they bought us beers when they learned that it was our anniversary.)
Later, James Fallows was riding the bike trail without a helmet. He had stopped to watch a fisherman along the river when another biker screeched to a stop. Fallows expected to get admonished for not wearing a helmet (something he hears often in Washington, D.C.).
To my surprise, the Sioux Falls rider started in with a friendly litany of, “Are you lost? Can I help? Ya need some direction?” I was caught off guard, then surprise at my own surprise by his friendly gesture here in the heart of the Midwest.
2. ‘A big small town’
The authors mention they heard people call Sioux Falls “a big small town” on several occasions.
To wit, it’s a city that draws people from other areas — a key for cities that are trendy or successful, the book says.
The dominant tone we heard in Sioux Falls was of people who feel that they have “made it” precisely by getting to the state’s biggest city from the farms or tiny hamlets where they grew up.
Yet the authors say they heard another word often when talking to Sioux Falls residents: the town is “safe.”
3. The falls. Oh, the falls
One of the first places Sioux Falls residents take out-of-town visitors is to Falls Park, so it’s no surprise the city’s namesake got a heavy mention in the book.
“A dozen years ago they had been crime-ridden and graffiti-covered,” the authors say, also mentioning the revitalized bike path.
As part of a civic cleanup program, they had been surrounded by a polished-seeming Falls Park — an attraction for tourists, a destination for local families.
Sioux Falls has invested a lot of money and time into revitalizing the riverfront area in recent years. The authors noted the importance of that move:
Deb eventually formulated a law: the mark of a successful city is having a river walk, whether or not there is a river.
4. Downtown industry
A recent letter writer to the Argus Leader complained about the smell in downtown Sioux Falls, but the authors see it as a sign of progress.
“In many parts of the United States, you might complain that it’s hard to ‘see’ the economy anymore,” they write. “In downtown Sioux Falls, where the slaughterhouse is an unavoidable visual and aromatic reminder of the realities of the modern food chain — and where it has a distinct social significance, as well — you would never say that.”
The authors note how many stories start with a variation of, “We came to town when my dad got a job at Morrell’s.”
Today, the company has become a part of the city’s “refugee fabric,” the book notes.
The city welcomed “wave after wave” of refugees starting in the 1970s. Nearly 10 percent of the students in Sioux Falls schools are ELL (English-language learners), the authors say.
The refugee community, the authors note, struggled with — but succeeded at — assimilating into the culture. Many immigrants come from countries where girls don’t receive an education, for instance. Kids find it difficult to make friends and compete in activities because family commitments and other factors can prohibit going anywhere.
6. Sioux Falls sprawl and retail
The state’s largest city has surpassed 180,000 residents in a space of 73 square miles.
It’s evidence of something the authors saw a lot in their travels across the country: Growing cities in America are increasingly taking more space to house people.
If the the footprint of Sioux Falls were laid down anywhere in China, you’d expect a population at least 20 times as great.
It’s perhaps no surprise that the authors noted the city’s vast amounts of retail, restaurants and hotels on the outer portions of the city, specifically where interstates and highways merge.
How, I wondered, did they possibly stay in business. Sioux Falls is not that big a town.
The reason for so many services?
If you lived within a couple-hundred-mile radius and needed to do back-to-school or special shopping, get a medical checkup, or spend money on entertainment, you were less likely to look in your own tiny Dakota town and more likely to go into Sioux Falls.
The authors then went on to note how busy The Empire Mall was, even on weekdays.
7. Credit card history
“Our Towns” goes into detail about the city’s history with the financial sector, which brought thousands of jobs.
In addition to changing their usury laws, part of the state’s argument at the time to get Citibank to come to the city was that payments from most places across the country would arrive in South Dakota quicker than they would to New York.
Another aspect, the authors note, was the state’s advanced telephone system, made possible by the state’s ICBM sites. That meant calling Sioux Falls for customers was cheaper than calling New York.
By 1982, one-third of all the mail going through (Sioux Falls’) post office was for Citibank.
8. The final word
Fallows said he heard one particular phrase often: “I love Sioux Falls.”
There is something about this phrase that is very disarming and genuine. I came to think that in its unabashed simplicity, it pretty well sums up how the residents of Sioux Falls talk about their town.
The book also touches on the rise of Raven Industries’s and their role in research and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade; how Earth Resources Observation and Science Center (EROS) landed in a cornfield north of Sioux Falls and became the “repository” of images of the earth.
Surprisingly, though, the book largely passes over the health care industry that has transformed the city, although the authors visited in 2013.
Also touched on in the book: The effect of railroads on the growth of small towns in South Dakota; the regional language of the Sioux Falls area (how people talk) and a summary of what they said about Sioux Falls (check out the word cloud in the book).
Plus, there’s another entire section about Rapid City in the book.