For the past two decades, singer/songwriter Dar Williams has toured the farthest reaches of the country. Along the way she noticed something: Some towns seemed to have perfect chemistry—great community events, thriving small businesses, and connected residents. Others lacked the X factor of prosperity and connectivity, and it showed. Williams set out to find out why, and What I Found in a Thousand Towns: A Traveling Musician’s Guide to Rebuilding America’s Communities—One Coffee Shop, Dog Run, & Coffee Shop at a Time (Basic Books, 2017) is her instruction manual, outlining the successes of towns from Moab to Beacon. The Cold Spring resident shared her observations via e-mail.What was the impetus for writing What I Found in a Thousand Towns?
I kept thinking, “Someone should write this book about how towns and cities have come up through the last 25 years in the shadow of the decline of industry, drug epidemics, and the rise of malls and big boxes.” I got a little obsessed with it. Urban planners and sociologists were speaking the language of how far we’d come, but I got to see it firsthand in my touring, so I wrote this book. With significant help from the experts.
In your book, you summarize the qualities that make a town a place where people want to live as “positive proximity.” How did you come up with it?
I observed that there were mechanisms, not just intentions, that helped towns build and grow themselves and thrive. There were certain spaces that seemed to diversify conversations, which is great for positive proximity. The “two-roomer” cafe, for instance, was great. The second room was where people could really dream and scheme for their communities. Then there are identity-building projects that helped people remember how much they loved their towns and got dovetailing skill sets in motion. History, food, nature, culture, and anything involving a waterfront are touchstones for connections that are more proximal than partisan. And lastly, there was an ethos of translation: How towns create a sense of welcome and pride, whether through media, signage, or how they embraced their “conscious bridgers,” people who like finding bridges between social and geographical parts of town.
How does the concept of positive proximity work?
There’s a sociological word for it: bridging social capital. Positive proximity is both the building blocks and experience of wanting to contribute to where we live, feeling happy and grateful to be there, and to constantly look for more avenues of access for all of its citizens and visitors. Towns and cities get to this state of being the fastest when there are spaces, projects, and other mechanisms in place that bridge different groups together, whether it’s a dog run, a mushroom festival, or a proactive local radio station.
You write about Beacon: “People often shake their heads when I tell them about towns that have become at once unique, resilient, and prosperous. They just say, ‘Gentrification…’ as if inevitably the work of the commons only benefits a small group of people.” And while people in Beacon are actively fighting against this, Beacon, is, to some effect at this point, closed. Once these vibrant communities are created, how can they be kept equitable for all?
There is a difference, albeit a thin line, between “improvement” and “gentrification.” There has to be, right? We don’t want drug deals, organized crime, and waking to sleeping despair at every street corner. We want improvement. Malls and big box stores took the pulse out of downtowns. The public-private mix of local businesses and positive proximity brought life back in. Positive proximity even attracts businesses that create jobs, like in Rockingham, Vermont, where a company called Chroma was looking for a place with a good quality of life. They are beautiful. They have life. They have affordable parent-coached sports. They’ve got modern libraries. And yes, they have laughing people at outdoor wine bars sipping Chardonnay. They will attract people. Positive proximity got them there, and, hopefully, will provide a fabric of cohesion and conscience for moving forward. There is no one solution, but there have been attempts like rent control, a percentage of affordable units in new construction, new housing to outstrip demand, and housing for service jobs like teaching and policing. To even have ideas, you need to have a belief that all citizens in your town matter and that belief should inform every level of government. Beacon cares on all fronts. My answer is not sufficient. But without positive proximity, downtowns would be darkened hulls of despair, even in cities. Pedestrian culture, which benefits older and low-income citizens, wouldn’t exist. We have downtowns. How do we make them affordable?
Many of the developments you document in your book are citizen-activated, not governmentally driven. Was that by design, or did you see a pattern of citizen leadership on these issues?
Towns that work have civic engagement. They aren’t playing on each other’s fears, and they accommodate the right mix of voices in finding solutions to each challenge. That kind of ethos means that whether your running for government or connecting to it as a citizen, government itself flows pretty natural from the citizens, or the civicsphere as WNYC calls it.
What’s the easiest and most impactful way for people to get involved in rebuilding their own communities?
Find your own self-interest in the town, whether that be in its unique history, natural beauty, food, young people, older people, or getting the downtown into shape. That’s the first thing. I heard that loud and clear from people who had successfully revitalized their towns. Look for bridges that can be built, like bridging the digital divide, making a footbridge over a creek, or finding interesting connections or common ground between religions or ethnicities. That’s second. An Episcopalian church can partner with a Jewish temple for a coat drive or a winter festival, for instance. Towns with strong bridges thrive. And lastly, look for the people who are already involved in building up the town. Look for proactive librarians, council members, or teachers. There are bound to be a few.
Buy the book from our partner, local bookstore Oblong Books, in Rhinebeck: