Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The Folksinger's Guide to a Better, Smarter Hometown

Dar Williams, What I Found in a Thousand Towns: A Traveling Musician's Guide to Rebuilding America's Communities—One Coffee Shop, Dog Run, & Open-Mike Night at a Time

As a touring musician, Dar Williams has witnessed the ways certain cities have evolved over the last quarter century. Some small to medium-sized American communities emerged from the malaise of the middle 1990s stronger, smarter, and prepared to face the tech-savvy new generation, while others didn’t. What makes the difference? Williams, a part-time university instructor, dons her researcher hat to understand.

She starts with an insight revealed by a friend: Proximity. Our closest friends aren’t the people with whom we share the most values and interests, but with whom she share the most time. Successful communities provide opportunities for what Williams calls Positive Proximity, which briefly means, putting the right people together in the right places to cultivate a growing heart. Some aspects of Positive Proximity are easier than others.

Williams identifies three broad categories communities use to build Positive Proximity. She calls these Places, Identity Building, and Translation—that last a subtle concept which she explains somewhat vaguely. We’ll return to that. The first, Places, is pretty self-explanatory. Coffee shops, music venues, and other man-made spaces bring people together to talk. Natural environment makes communities unique. And hybrids of natural and man-made space, like waterfronts, meld the best virtues.

Identity Building emerges from the interactions which begin in Places. These are the activities that give individual communities their distinct flavor: not every town could cultivate a successful food tourism identity, like Williams describes in New York’s Finger Lakes region. (I live in corn country, so believe me, the pumpkin patch market gets saturated quickly.) But successful communities have something, history or industry or land or something, to establish an identity.

Dar Williams
Translation is the process of turning Place and Identity into action. The bridges between economic and social classes, for instance, or between a town and its most lucrative industries. I struggle to encapsulate Williams’ description of this concept, possibly because she struggles too. Though important in turning principles into product, it’s also pretty vague and shapeless. One suspects maybe it’s something we discover by doing.

Williams acknowledges these transitions are often time-consuming and difficult. Some communities may rely upon individual personalities to make such transitions. She describes one innovator in Ithaca, New York, who helped cultivate the town’s identity outside its university, but he died unexpectedly. Ithaca had others ready to step into his shoes, though, and develop the momentum he created. Town councils and real-estate developers often lack the long-term vision real community demands.

She also concedes that her principles can have deleterious consequences. One of the social justice movement’s recent bugaboos, gentrification, often follows rapid community development. People want to live in creative, interconnected towns, and long-term residents quickly get priced out of their hometowns. But that consequence isn’t inevitable. Communities which have plans to manage rapid development often avoid gentrification’s risks, or other perils like crime, in ways Williams describes.

Planning looms large in Williams’ vision for American community. Important, economically lucrative community renewals, like the refurbishment of Wilmington, Delaware’s waterfront district, or Middletown, Connecticut’s recent restoration of ties between Wesleyan University and the city, have concrete, long-term plans, often public/private partnerships. Something Williams says around page 65 really sticks with me: “I always thought love was the answer. And it’s not. … love is an outcome, not a plan.”

Living in Middle America, I’ve witnessed Williams’ principles in action. Many farming towns’ economic plans basically consist of waiting for the Eisenhower Era to return. But cities which plan their development, like Denver’s LoDo neighborhood, or which preserve a unified community vision, like Lawrence, Kansas, just do better in the long run. Williams simply codifies the cultural principles that successful, growing communities under mass media radar consistently share.

Some advance reviewers have complained that Williams voices some left-wing opinions between these covers. This apparently surprises them from a folk singer. Well, compared to her lyrics, this book is refreshingly apolitical; she simply starts from the opinion that people are more likely to love their neighbors (and organize accordingly) if they first know their neighbors. She also speaks warmly of more conservative-leaning towns and organizers. Her insights aren’t exclusive.

Williams emerged from the same generation of singer-songwriter goddesses that gave us Ani DiFranco and Shawn Colvin. A working musician’s life has given her numerous homes away from home, and a distinctive perspective on important  Seeing American cities and towns from an outsider’s viewpoint, she’s witnessed some towns grow exponentially, while others suffer, and some buy on credit what they cannot repay later. The distinction is often subtle.

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