Dar Williams on What I Found in a Thousand Towns
Q: How did a musician become interested in what makes a city or town thrive?
A: Performing musicians travel, and that’s what I do. Some of my interest felt like survival. I always sought out towns and neighborhoods that were welcoming, had good coffee, and helped me feel like I was in a real place. I started to look at why some towns had such a harmonious feel to them, and I started seeing patterns. Songwriting depends on structures that help you express your interior poetry. I was seeing the social structures that brought out the poetic identities of cities, and I was fascinated.
Q: What made you want to write this book?
A: We have this driving narrative that our country is “divided,” but that’s not the whole story or even the real story. Hundreds of towns and cities are thriving because they are becoming more interconnected, responsive, and interesting. I wanted to write a book that looked at what these places were doing right.
Q: How long did it take you to write? What sort of research did you do? Interviews?
A: I started to write outlines and little article manifesto things in 2013, like “the importance of a good café” and “everyone can have a tomato festival.” By the time Basic Books took me on in 2015, I thought the book would write itself, which is hilarious. From signing the contract to galleys took two years of traveling and interviews. I’d fall asleep after every interview, because I was so busy worrying “How will this be relevant? Where does this fit my premise?” Every interview was valuable, but never in the way that I thought it would be. The premise evolved and deepened. I worried for nothing.
Q: How did you come to focus the book into the chapters it contains, looking at food, waterfronts, and other aspects of a city or town?
A: It took a while, but I realized three things really help towns become themselves: good connecting spaces, identity-building projects, and the willingness to translate our skills and invite the talents of others into the commons. My original chapters pinballed all over the country, picking out examples of concepts in about twenty different places. Lara, my editor, got a little motion sick from reading it. She said, “Find a handful of cities or towns that express each of these concepts.” I thought she was asking for the impossible, but I had all the cities chosen by that night. She was right. The only problem is that now I’ve completely fallen for every place I researched.
Q: What were some of the most surprising things you learned while researching and writing the book?
A: People love talking about their towns. They love being proud of them. If you ask what’s wrong, they’ll lead with that, but if you ask what’s right, they will often rhapsodize about where they live.
Q: How did you come up with the term “positive proximity”?
A: My friend, Hal Movius, told me about a study that shows our relationships are mostly determined by proximity. I thought he was wrong. There’s such a narrative about proximity bringing bitterness and enmity. But then I realized that people’s perspectives on proximity are the essential ingredients of how towns will grow and develop. Where people view that closeness to one another as a good thing, their sense of positive proximity means that they’ll get to the walkability, livability, affordability, and general fun of their towns sooner.
Q: What are the most important steps a city or town’s leaders can take to cultivate positive proximity?
A: People want to participate in their communities, but they don’t want to feel like they’re entering a maelstrom of dysfunction, nor do they want to get into some creepy Whoville hug-fest. I recommend creating opportunities for people to test the waters of civic engagement, like encouraging social spaces that allow people to mix and match their interests, setting aside funding for projects that celebrate what is unique in a town, and basically creating access points for everyone to participate on their own terms.
Q: There are a lot of people out there who might like to put the ideas in the book into action. How can regular citizens and residents make positive proximity happen in their towns?
A: First start with your own interests. I learned that from Jen Alexander, who started Kid City, a museum in Middletown, Connecticut. She said, “You’d have to have a black belt in community organizing to create something that’s not in your own self-interest.” I’d also recommend taking an inventory of your town, just like you might take a personal inventory. You can start by looking at strengths and weaknesses, and what is interesting and unique about your towns. Then find a project that’s small and neutral, like getting a permit to plant flowers or giving a lecture on local history. When someone says no to your idea, find someone else. Some people just say no reflexively. There is always another path onto the town green, as it were.
Q: You can’t play favorites, but do you have a soft spot for one of the cities or towns in the book, and their story of coming back from difficult times?
A: I started with Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, and I’ll always feel a strong attachment to it. The residents showed me how a town can really make the most of its assets. Some scenes from “The Blob” were shot there, and Phoenixville now has a wildly successful summer festival called Blobfest. Some towns might think “What if we’re not so lucky? We don’t have a Blob!” Here’s the good news: everyone has a Blob.