The Most Patriotic Town in America
By Mike McGrath
As I watched the spontaneous celebration outside the White House Sunday night, I was struck by how much how attitudes about patriotism and the military have changed since I was young. The unembarrassed, flag-waving patriotism of the people in DC and New York was contagious. It wasn’t a “red versus blue” crowd. It was a “red, white and blue” crowd.
During the Vietnam years, support for the military reached a low point. Then there was the anti-anti-war reaction of the 1980s, when Hollywood revenge fantasies like “First Blood” turned vets into superheroes and anti-war activists into villainous stereotypes.
American culture was a roller coaster ride during those years. Patriotism was on the rise, but it was a peculiar kind of partisan patriotism that pitted one side of the political/cultural spectrum against another. Are we now experiencing the birth of a new kind of “post partisan” patriotism? Hard to say, but if you want to see one version of what a “new patriotism” might look like, you should check out this article in Time magazine about Fayetteville, North Carolina, “America’s most pro-military town.”
The story goes back to the bad old days of the Vietnam War era, when the local army base, Fort Bragg, was a major stopping off point for soldiers bound for Southeast Asian. Being an Army town during those years was a mixed bag. Most of the draftees who went through the town were not happy about being there. Nor were the townies always thrilled. Strip clubs, cheap bars and tattoo parlors proliferated downtown, earning a new nickname that stuck for years, “Fayette-nam.”
Flash forward to the year 2001 when Fayetteville, like much of the industrial south was languishing economically. Per capita income was stagnant. Few jobs were being created and young people who grew up there had to look elsewhere if they wanted to find promising career paths.
A community improvement effort known as Greater Fayetteville Futures came up with an idea. Why not turn the community’s Army town identity, once considered something of a liability, into a major cultural and economic asset? Members of the community actually voted online to adopt their new slogan, “History, Heroes and a Hometown Feeling.” Fayette-nam rebranded itself as “the most patriotic town in America.”
This was in part a canny form of pure economic development. In 2005, Fayetteville opened its North Carolina Military Business Center, working with local businesses and individual to garner defense industry contracts. Instead of attracting strip clubs and cinder block taverns, the city would bring in high tech companies and defense industry entrepreneurs.
But it’s not all about marketing. Residents were encouraged to fly flags and say “thank you” to service men and women they pass on the street. Local organizations were formed to help military families find housing and jobs. There was a local baby boom-let a few years ago when 22,000 members of the 82 Airborne returned from Iraq, so the town threw a mass military baby shower for all the hundreds of expectant mothers.
The results have been impressive—more than 5000 jobs and $586 million invested and a housing market that is booming—this according to the city’s application for All-America Award. Per capita income growth is the second highest in the country. Tourism is also on the rise with a convention bureau that touts the military-friendly posture to vets planning Army reunions and other events and local attractions like the Airborne and Special Operations Museum and the soon to open Veteran’s Park downtown.
Not that everything is all roses in Fayetteville. It never is. There was a controversy earlier this year when the mayor asked a local Quaker group to participate in a celebration of Vietnam era vets and some of the veteran groups objected.
But the military people interviewed in the Time article and other news reports seem to like the sense of welcome in town. And the local group Fayetteville Cares plans to hold its second “Boots and Booties” event for military moms June 25 at the city’s events center. Apparently a large number of Fort Bragg soldiers returned from a deployment late last year, setting off another baby boom-let in Fayetteville.
Also in June (15-17), the All-America City Awards in Kansas City, Missouri, and Fayetteville will be there as a finalist.
Mike McGrath is senior editor and chief information officer for the National Civic League. A former newspaper reporter and magazine writer, he is editor of the quarterly National Civic Review, which will be beginning its centennial year of publishing this spring.
Mike’s posts will appear every Thursday on the State of the Re:Union website.