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What I Found in a Thousand Towns
A Traveling Musician's Guide to Rebuilding America's Communities-One Coffee Shop, Dog Run, and Open-Mike Night at a Time
By Dar Williams
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Dubbed by the New Yorker as “one of America’s very best singer-songwriters,” Dar Williams has made her career not in stadiums, but touring America’s small towns. She has played their venues, composed in their coffee shops, and drunk in their bars. She has seen these communities struggle, but also seen them thrive in the face of postindustrial identity crises.
Here, in an account that “reads as if Pete Seeger and Jane Jacobs teamed up” (New York Times), Williams muses on why some towns flourish while others fail, examining elements from the significance of history and nature to the uniting power of public spaces and food. Drawing on her own travels and the work of urban theorists, Williams offers real solutions to rebuild declining communities.
What I Found in a Thousand Towns is more than a love letter to America’s small towns, it’s a deeply personal and hopeful message about the potential of America’s lively and resilient communities.
IT DOESN'T START WITH LOVE. If you want to live in a great town, but you're not quite there yet, you don't just start to build that town with love, peace, civility, or morality. You start with a hill.
You say to yourself, That hill, off the side of the high school, would be perfect for sledding. I know someone who could mow it with his riding mower.
You call that guy and ask. He says, "Sure." On an early Saturday morning in late September when the streets are empty, he drives over on the main roads and mows the hill. You hand him a coffee and tell him your idea.
He says, pointing, "After it snows, you should get someone to just tamp it down, establish the track so the kids don't end up in the junk trees there."
You imagine thorny branches, kids with broken legs and stitches. Lawsuits, condemnation. Yes. Tamping. Tracks. Good idea.
"I know a guy with a plow," this guy says. "I'll get him to make a track when the first snow falls."
The snow falls, and the plow guy comes. He makes four parallel tracks and sends his niece over with a sled. You invite your kids and some of their friends to take a maiden run. All parties inform you that it's awesome. By afternoon there are twenty kids. The parents talk while the children sled.
A woman shyly approaches and says, "I'm on the PTA, and I was wondering if I could sell hot chocolate for a suggested donation. We're trying to fund some enrichment programs."
"Anyone can do anything," you say. "I have no claim on this. I just knew a couple of guys." Over the course of the winter, the PTA makes eight hundred dollars on hot chocolate and coffee sales. When people see it's for the PTA, they round up their donations as generously as they can. It's not a wealthy town, but still.
By the next year, the mowing guy knows a tree guy who's cleared away the junk trees to make more room for sledding.
The PTA woman who sold the hot chocolate has been talking about what the school is up to, what it could use. People offer to teach after-school programs and make school visits. One woman can come in to sing; would that be helpful? One woman has a python. Should she bring it? A librarian asks what the library can do.
By the next year, the sledding hill is the place to go. People bake for the PTA table, and a local farm is the milk sponsor. The PTA has accumulated a fleet of volunteers who tutor at the school. The woman from the PTA is dating the guy with the mower. The library and school are coordinating events. Someone has started a small concert and reading series at the base of the sledding hill in the summer because the slope of the hill is like a natural amphitheater.
Next year someone wants to run an outdoor film series. There's talk of a small community herb garden, and someone has approached the guy with a plow about starting a tool library. He says he'll talk to the gal at the VFW Hall. Maybe they could do it there.
That's when a father from another town, watching his kids speed down the hill, turns to you and says, "This is a great town. I wish we lived here."
What this town is building, aside from new trails and a better school, is positive proximity, or a state of being where living side by side with other people is experienced as beneficial. I have been seeing this phenomenon of town building for more than twenty years.
Someone starts something. Others join in. And then everything starts to shift into more clarity, more resilience, more goodwill, and more pride. Libraries find their way into the digital age. Schools improve. People actually sit and eat ice cream on the benches eerily empty for years.
I've seen the power of positive proximity firsthand in hundreds of towns such as Lowell, Massachusetts, hit with the twin degradations of industrial downturns and a crack epidemic in the 1990s. I saw it in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where, after the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company left the state in 1995, the promoters of my near-empty concert were vowing that they would revive the city through the arts. Good luck with that, I thought. They did have very good luck with that.
I didn't understand the power of the positive proximity I had witnessed until I was having dinner at my friend Kate's house in Charlottesville, Virginia. Her husband, Hal Movius, who writes books about conflict resolution, filled my wineglass and asked, "What do you think determines the relationships we'll have in our towns?" Hal loves to pore through Harvard studies and explain them to dinner guests.
I said, "Values." No.
"Politics?" No again.
Hal said, "Proximity. That's all."
I disagreed. Into my mind came full-blown images, provided by news headlines, of neighbors fighting over parking spaces and fallen tree branches. I'd just heard the story of a company that could identify DNA in dog poop so people could know the genetic fingerprint, as it were, of the anonymous offenses in their courtyards. Early clients were co-op associations.
But then I realized with a jolt the study Hal was referring to was right. When people transcend the myth that proximity means conflict and invasion of privacy, they gravitate toward finding ways to integrate the talents and skills of their community members. Not only that, after people discover each other in the commons of town, more connections are made, and the next thing you know, you're Lowell, Massachusetts, that small city that had a terrible drug problem but now has five museums, a popular minor league stadium and team, and a free concert series that attracts thousands of families every summer.
I see towns and cities as being like people who build some framework of identity that allows them to assert themselves, do good work, and know where they stand. I find myself almost befriending them, wanting to introduce them to each other. Peoria, Illinois, have you met Cedar Rapids, Iowa? Seattle, Washington, you have some interesting things in common with Asheville, North Carolina. Gardiner, Maine, I think Dover, New Hampshire, could provide some helpful insights as you continue the winning streak you're on with your downtown.
Over time I have detected certain simple patterns that facilitate positive proximity. This book lays out three essential categories for building and growing it.
First, there are spaces, indoors and out, that naturally maximize the number of good interactions in a town. Generally these spaces have some individual character while still being open enough to accommodate the desires and interests of diverse citizens.
Second, there are projects that build a town's identity—socially, culturally, and/or historically—helping them become… themselves. These projects bring out the advantages of proximity by attracting the passions and skill sets of people who are like-minded in some ways but very different in others, cross-pollinating abilities and personalities. Citizens tend to see past their partisanship and biases when they're trying to accomplish something they can't do alone, such as plant a community garden or start a riverfront music series. These projects remind us, whether we're building the scaffolding, installing the floor joists, or attending events in the finished barn, that collective pursuits are achievable. Creating or discovering a town's identity can be the ongoing proof that positive proximity exists. You can feel it in the air.
Third, there is the abstract quality that I call translation. Translation is essential for positive proximity to take root and grow. Translation is all the acts of communication that open up a town to itself and to the world. Translation is not to be mistaken for civility. Translation includes a tacit commitment to facilitating all the variegated voices and personalities in our towns. Whether it's the shy math whiz student who has an uncanny technique for explaining algebra to struggling students; the eccentric obsessed with cleaning up the local cemetery; the commuting banker dad who wants to learn how to coach seven-year-olds in soccer (benevolent dictatorship all the way!); the neurotic, though brilliant, lawyer who steps in to talk her town through a zoning issue, translation is the ability of a place to incorporate every willing citizen's contributions, and in so doing, find ways to make life more interesting, welcome the outside world, and provide stability for those who need support, because strong positive proximity means that no one gets left behind.
When towns have any or all of these components of spaces, identity-building projects, and translation, they grow. They become more self-determining, and they thrive.
No one starts with the word "love," but in so many towns I've visited, particularly in the ones I've profiled in this book, something happens after the sledding hill, the playing fields, the concert series, and the local festival start opening up a world of local relationships. There is a warmth and wonder in the expressions of the residents. They say, "I love it here. I belong here. I can't imagine living anywhere else." Some people even go from saying, "I live here" to "I'm from here."
There is one preliminary question that will help you gauge the positive proximity in your town and your relationship to it. You probably know where you live, but where are you from, and where do you belong?
HOW DOES THE TRANSITION BEGIN, the shift from having a place to live to having a sense of belonging in it? Often this kind of affinity begins with spaces where people can form loose networks of communication, where interactions occur but the conversations do not require us to bare our souls, defend our politics, or sign up to run a local festival as proof of community allegiance. These spaces can help us feel out the terrain and even assert, cautiously at first, our passions. At their best, they bring out something in us, some sense of engagement in the town, and we are happier for it.
When sociologist Mark Granovetter came up with a theory called the "strength of weak ties" in the 1950s, he was seeing that the best place to find a job, or a new job, was in exploring one's "weak" ties, or acquaintances, not just in consulting a tight circle of friends whose interests overlapped with one's own.
The "strength of weak ties" also applies to the ways in which we find and sustain positive proximity. The information gleaned from outside our immediate world of connections is where we find out where and how to branch out in new directions. This network of acquaintances is invaluable to our community goals and for creating information webs that open up all the ways they/we can contribute to the collective life in our towns.
Ultimately, all these casual bridgings, clumpings, and cross sections of different people add up to familiarity with our surroundings. A roomful of strangers becomes a town of people we know, where someone knows someone who knows someone who can help you paint a field of flowers on an upright piano someone rescued from the dump to put out on Main Street, or to plan a school foundation talent show fund-raiser, or to bring in new playground equipment to replace the antiquated rust pile that has parents checking their kids' tetanus booster dates.
Out of the positive proximity that builds in spaces, we start to accumulate social capital. Social capital, like financial or political capital, is a kind of bank account. The community coffers of goodwill are filled up with the acts of people who sew costumes for school plays, weed out the broken tricycles at the local park, or donate a bench down by the river. There is a sense that people contribute to the common good and that we have the power to do the same.
Someone or a few someones have to make the first deposit. One imaginative example of the bank account analogy can be found in the Stone Soup fable, in which everyone is asked to help make a pot of soup. Townspeople believe they have nothing to bring to the table until a person says he'll make soup with just a stone and some water. Suddenly everyone has a single carrot, a couple of onions, or some salt. In my travels, I've noticed that after there are beginnings of collective contributions, most of the people head to their cupboards to see what they can offer. They understand that their personal resources can be a form of community currency.
Spending this currency helps to create a landscape defined by helpfulness, imagination, and collaboration. From that moment of recognition on, towns can draw from the bank account to create and maintain projects or refill the coffers as needed. Ideally, the investment of time and effort yields a high return of gratitude and generosity, and the store of social capital grows.
There are spaces that facilitate and help us organize our social capital. The right spaces can also inform us, from a safe distance, about who's a depressive buzzkill, which person is long-winded and should be avoided when you're rushing to work, and which yoga teacher has left a wake of casualties instead of clients. Putting ourselves into a space will always take a little personal effort, but hopefully our first forays will feel more promising than scary. Good spaces minimize the downside of potential argument and discomfort while quietly offering the dividends of knowing who's around us.
Generally, milling about in the great outdoors with some local touchstone for discussion is ideal for building positive proximity, whether the touchstone is in the form of local food (farmers' markets, gardening, community gardening), local sports (watching or participating at every level), or hikes with great views. But there is one condition: nonmotorized activity.
Nonmotorized means that sometimes you walk your dog without earbuds. You have occasions to walk instead of driving. You work in the garden without music or news (or have them on at a very low level). This is tricky. How often do you really venture out of doors without any sonic distractions? Mowing your lawn means you won't be having any interactions.
I remember weeding for three blissful hours while listening to an audiobook of Michael Lewis's The Big Short. My husband's podcasts blare while he is repainting old furniture. I'm not preaching that you aspire to Zen-like openness every time you're in town or on your porch. In fact, when we feel our privacy impinged upon, that's usually when we stop seeking out the spaces that get us talking to each other. A sense of positive proximity, at its best, is just the way a town breathes, with plenty of freedom to be introverted as well as extroverted.
The best spaces will meet us, and help us meet others, in a nonintrusive way, but they do help us have encounters. Interactions can feel like a risk, and modern life invites us to avoid that risk altogether. I was on comedian Pete Holmes's podcast, "You Made It Weird," and we talked about the existential challenges of simply walking out your door and talking with people. Maybe you don't want to take a chance, considering all we have if we stay indoors. As Pete said, "Your needs are met." This profound statement sums up decades of air-conditioning, subterranean rec rooms, big box stores, and Xbox entertainment. Meanwhile, we lose out on seeing ourselves defined by more than our four walls and possibly a telecommuting job.
There are unmistakable rewards of being part of something like one's town. Taking the plunge and experiencing ourselves as members of the community can be part of our primary identities. There is a plaque in my hometown library that shows the past board presidents. My father's name is there. Before the plaque, my grandfather was the president of the library. The library was once in a little brick building close to the local school. When my grandfather was president, he kept it up-to-date and made it a welcoming space for children and senior citizens alike. Over time, as the library filled up with more books (the Bay of Pigs, the Vietnam War, and Woodstock expanded the Dewey decimal codes), it became cramped and the towering stacks of books took over whatever community meeting space existed. That's when my father and his colleagues proposed building an ambitious, airy, inviting new library with an adjoining gallery and theater. My father personally fought for the theater to be built, despite heated arguments that the extra expense might sink the whole capital campaign.
My dad is a fabulous gardener whose pumpkins and tomatoes have won ribbons at the local grange fair. He thrives on privacy and in long, solitary pursuits. But he and his dad both chose to get out in the fray. My father grew up in Chappaqua and had three kids in the public school system. He had diverse interests, all of which generated conversations in the local deli and pizza parlor, on train platforms, at community day, and at three parent-teacher nights per year. We had lots of neighborhood parties, too. Even for him, a man who could happily sit and read about the Peloponnesian Wars and pore over seed catalogs, stepping out into a possibly contentious space of public service felt relatively safe. My father isn't an introvert, but his trust and familiarity with people in town kept him from retreating to his armchair or greenhouse. He rallied, he persuaded, and he prevailed. And in return for his efforts, Chappaqua has an outstanding library that one fan has called the "crossroads of culture and community."
So let's explore the spaces that build positive proximity for people like you and me and my dad. There is no requirement to be an active member of your community or to help improve it, but I will say that the Chappaqua Library was recently expanded, forty years after we attended its groundbreaking ceremony. My father is particularly pleased.
Beacon, New York: The Power of Created Spaces
I MET A MULTITUDE OF INTERESTING PEOPLE from Beacon when I moved to Cold Spring, New York, in 2003. These were neighboring towns about an hour and a half from New York City, too far for most when it came to a daily commute but perfect for those of us freelancer, gig-economy types who had to go into the city every few weeks. Both towns were filled with interesting thinkers and people who had chosen a quality of life that wasn't dependent on a high income bracket. I immediately found it strange that, although the towns had such a high demographic of creative minds, and although some people had lived there for decades, there wasn't more life on Beacon's Main Street or events that could engage more than a few subgroups of like-minded, audiovisual, artsy types.
Beacon was supposed to "happen" in 2004 or so. But it didn't. Its long Main Street was run-down, with all the boarded-up stores that many other American towns had. It was a small, struggling city. Despite the arrival of Dia:Beacon (dia is Greek for "through"), an internationally renowned museum, and the steady, patient work of resident Pete Seeger, a luminary in the music world, Beacon as a whole was not prospering.
The locals have all heard the story of Dia by now. Michael Govan, who worked at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, and curator Lynne Cooke were flying over Beacon in a small, private plane. They saw an abandoned factory that once printed packaging for Nabisco Foods. Govan marked it on a map, drove to the site, and saw the future. This empty, light-filled space would become a museum that could house contemporary art installations with all the room they required. It would be accessible to New York City but just out of gossiping range from the New York scene. The space is the Dia we have today, as full of beautiful sunlight and airy, contemplative space as it is with outsized art, which includes Sol LeWitt's three rooms of Wall Drawings; Richard Serra's Torqued Ellipses, comprising four naturally lit, eight-foot-high distressed iron cylinders with entrances in which you walk and even spiral around; and Louise Bourgeois's eerily well-articulated Spider, which could fill a very big dining room.
I live eight miles down the road. I find peace and inspiration in this museum. I went so many times in 2007 that they started waving me through. I was writing lyrics there. One day, when I was still high from writing a single couplet (songwriting is slow), I walked down to the shores of the Hudson River, about a quarter mile away. What did I see but a tall man with a red knitted cap and a tiny chain saw. He was standing by the side of the river, ready to help a friend who was dragging up a tree branch that had floated ashore.
"Hello, Pete," I said loudly, because everyone in our neck of the woods knew that Pete Seeger was hard of hearing.
He turned around. "Hello, Dar!" he called. I knew what he and his friend were doing. They were finding good logs to cut up, dry out, and use for the Beacon Sloop Club fireplace. The otherwise unheated building was about twenty yards away, dank and unremarkable, with a long cement floor that could accommodate a line of card tables for big committee meetings.
No two buildings, Dia and the Beacon Sloop Club, could be more different, not to mention the icons they hosted on a regular basis. Dia brought the Merce Cunningham Dance Company into its space. Pete's sloop club members had a First Friday sing-along in theirs. Dia's visitors came from all over the world and spoke every language. Pete's group was from the region but gamely attempted to sing songs in many different languages. Dia is perfectly climate-controlled. The Beacon Sloop Club is heated by river logs.
Both Dia and Pete represented some pretty magnificent feathers in Beacon's cap. When Dia came along, it attracted high-profile visual artist Beacon residents in its wake. That's why everyone said that Beacon was about to "happen." Pete had been working and waiting fifty years for this. Where Dia and Pete's visions seemed to coincide (I won't presume to guess exactly what they were shooting for) was in believing their town could be a beacon of civilized coexistence—vibrant, spacious, affordable—and a haven for every kind of freethinker, artistic or otherwise.
The new citizens of Beacon, and many of the old ones, too, were primed to live in a place with the freedom to roam in body and spirit. They didn't want to stagnate, nor did they want to gentrify the city and call it a day. Many of the new arrivals in town didn't have a lot of money themselves and respected the people who were already there. They had seen the downside of gentrification in Brooklyn and Manhattan. They truly wanted to do their own thing in a way that would ultimately add to the community.
But almost a decade passed with everyone waiting for Beacon to become what they had envisioned. It was like one of those logs Pete had dragged up that might still be too soggy to burn.
Beacon is flying now. The people who live there don't just like what they can do in their own cliques; they participate and collaborate in a cross section of projects. They do not live like satellites of New York City. They attend All Beacon Day, and they venture out on Second Saturday evenings, when the stores stay open, or they attend the dog parade or the annual lighting of the Bicycle Holiday Tree and the Bicycle Menorah. In other words, they don't just live in Beacon; they are Beaconites. They even made a townie out of David Ross, former director of the Whitney Museum in New York City, and managed to snag his wife, Peggy, for the city council.
I met David at a music jam in 2010. He's a live wire. He jumps around from idea to idea with elegance and energy, quoting big names in the art world he counts as close friends. He's the first to say he's lived a charmed life. "I've lived in LA, Berkeley, San Francisco, Cambridge, New York. It doesn't get much better than that. I've been very lucky to live in all these great places, in beautiful homes surrounded by art." He made it clear that he is grateful, that in so many ways he "stumbled" into these great living situations. Then he said, "At the same time, Beacon is the first community I've lived in where I really feel at home. In my entire life, I'd never felt my neighborhood like this."
David didn't put up a sign that said, "I'm ready to see what it's like to live in a community." He went to Dogwood Bar, he went to Bank Square Café for coffee, he jammed with friends of Pete all over town, and he attended Dia functions. David and other newcomers were received into the spaces that existed in Beacon where they could find new frontiers of interest and engagement. And into these spaces he is now bringing his energies, quick mind, and goodwill. These are spaces that any town could have, some very traditional, some repurposed, and some temporary, but all of which are worth discussing.
What are the most advantageous spaces for building positive proximity? First we've got to talk about cafés. Café culture is an expression that conjures up visions of Parisian boulevards, where people can reflect, converse, and dream their fantastical Parisian dreams. Café culture doesn't have to be a precious, rarified thing, however. It can be a powerful source of positive proximity in any town or city, specifically of the kinds of connections we make at the beginning of becoming a cohesive community.
Cafés are my office on the road. For the price of my American coffee, I can sit for more than an hour (unless it's crowded—I don't want to overstay my welcome) and write my thoughts, essays, and lyrics. A great café is part of the inspiration. There is something about the conversation at the counter, the community art and flyers pinned up on the walls, and the fragments of discussion unfolding around me that make their way into my psyche and onto the page. I've also noticed that some cafés are outposts for certain kinds of interesting people, extroverts who prefer to leave their houses and drink coffee around other people. They often like to talk about what they're up to and what their towns are up to. A good café is the ersatz salon of a person who likes to report and build upon all the interesting projects around her.
I've discerned four characteristics of cafés that increase the buzz of community-focused discussions.
1. The two-roomer. The main room is where the people at the counter take care of business, people go in and out, and a few people can sit for thirty minutes or so and leave. The second room is where the depressed teenager goes to write in her journal; where three people can have a long meeting; and where, if the occasion arises, there can be a larger meeting, a poetry reading, or a concert.
2. The toy corner. The toys are a boon to the children, sure, but the toy corner jump-starts some pretty potent community connections. Parenthood forces you out into many different territories, interacting with other parents you'd never dream of meeting otherwise. Parenthood is also very tedious. Think of all the good that can come when these parents, who are plugged into a cross section of the social scene and who are longing for grown-up engagement, can find each other.
3. The friendly staff. Ideally the people at the counter are open to the community. They know the news, they share the news, they know the people, and they are the ones who welcome you.
4. The space that reflects the community. That big, cluttered bulletin board where people put up little business cards and goldenrod-colored flyers for pancake breakfasts is, at its best, a big, beautiful mess. Then there's the local art up on the walls. You can find local publications in the deep windowsills. These are the surfaces with which people will interact on some level, and they show that there is a there there.
- "The popular folk singer and songwriter Dar William's new book is not another endless parade of music memoirs. Having performed around around the United States for so many years, Williams writes about how she believes towns can best thrive in an age of economic and environmental struggles.... [What I Found in a Thousand Towns] reads as if Pete Seeger and Jane Jacobs teamed up, more a report from the Green party than the green room."—New York Times
"What I Found in a Thousand Towns is a thoughtful and passionately explored journey of how American towns can revitalize and come to life through their art, food, history, mom-and-pop business, and community bridge building. Dar Williams gives us hope and vision for the possibilities of human connection."
—Emily Saliers, Indigo Girls
"Dar Williams channels the soul and spirit of Jane Jacobs. With a song-writer's eye for detail and an urbanist's nose for what makes cities and towns work, she provides stunning portraits of America's great small towns. What I Found in a Thousand Towns will open your eyes to the key things that makes communities succeed and thrive even when the deck is stacked against them. I love this book: You will too."
—Richard Florida, author of The New Urban Crisis
"To become a great city planner takes three things: strong powers of observation, the ability to communicate, and the opportunity to travel the world to learn from successes and failures. Anyone who has heard a Dar Williams song is familiar with her gifts in the first two categories. And what better vocation than wandering minstrel to get to know the wide world and all its places? So observant, so articulate, and so prepared, Ms. Williams has created a stealth city planning text that is unsurpassed in its ability to charm and enlighten."
—Jeff Speck, city planner and author of Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time
"During a time of political, economic, and social upheaval across the United States, Williams' grounded optimism is a refreshing corrective."
- On Sale
- Sep 5, 2017
- Page Count
- 288 pages
- Basic Books