You’ve been there: a neighborhood, a street, a whole town that immediately seems welcoming. There’s lots going on and you feel as though you’re invited to join in, even if you’re just passing through. You’ve seen the reverse of that, too: places that really don’t welcome you. You may have seen places — cities, towns, regions – which are in between these two ways of living, struggling to be more welcoming or sliding toward unwelcome.
How and why do places change, one to the other? Places where travelers feel really at home nurture their residents too. Grounded in local connection and collaboration, people and the businesses and organizations they create live and act in ways that allow their authenticity to reach out to residents and visitors alike.
What makes the difference?
It begins, Dar Williams thinks, with story. So she opens her book What I Found in a Thousand Towns with a story about a hill children might want to sled on in winter, and the connections among adults which could grow from that. From that, she brings her readers along on a journey discovering and considering how interactions among spaces, identity, and the connection created by translating these things into community occur – and don’t — in small town America.
Williams has thought quite a bit about these things, and has both practical experience and an artist’s eye with which to form and share her thoughts. She comes from a small town in the Hudson Valley of New York state, a region where she still lives and is now raising her own family.
Dar Williams is a singer and songwriter by trade, which means she does a lot of traveling. She has done a lot of thinking, reflecting, and talking with people, too. One result is her book, the full title of which is 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.
Williams anchors the chapters which make up the core of her book around eight different places, from the Hudson Valley to Utah, from Florida to North Carolina to the Finger Lakes of New York State. In each of these she explores the – sometimes unlikely – ways people have built and rebuilt community, in several cases when odds seemed all against them to succeed. From her two decades of touring she draws in stories and ideas from other towns too. She has spoken with civic leaders, city planners, involved community members, small business owners, educators, and other interested persons, and brings in their thoughts as well as her own as she tells stories of communities including Moab, Utah, Gainesville, Florida, Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, Beacon, New York, Wilmington, Delaware, Finger Lakes, New York, Middletown, Connecticut, and Carrboro, North Carolina.
One place focuses on history – in an unexpected way. Another sees many communities co-operating to feature regional foods and farm to table experiences. Arts and the development of what becomes a thriving arts center is the anchor in one town, while the geography of a waterfront in need of revival is the focus for another.
The deeper question, before the nuts and bolts of how people in these communities created welcome for themselves and their visitors, is why. Dar Williams writes:
“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.”
Positive proximity is the name Dar Williams has chosen for the constellation of factors that help towns, neighborhoods and regions succeed in building, rebuilding and sustaining economic and civic life which make residents and visitors alike feel welcome.
“Over time I have detected certain simple patterns that facilitate positive proximity,” Williams writes. “There are 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.”
The third factor is a bit less easy to summarize – but when it is present, and when it is not, you’ll know it on your travels. The third factor is “the abstract quality that I call translation,” Williams says. “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.
“…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.”
In the last chapter of What I Found in a Thousand Towns, Williams asks good questions about how you might bring positive proximity to your own town. One of her comments which will resonate especially with travelers, in the United States and elsewhere:
“When we let our curiosity and interests, and a little trust, lead us outside our doors and onto the village green, we will flourish as citizens and so will our towns…Where to go from there,” she continues, “is to bridge wherever possible.”
At a time when the focus of civic life between and within communities and nations often turns toward division, What I Found In A Thousand Towns offers a different perspective, and practical ideas about how to implement that perspective. There are good stories of the challenges people are facing doing just that across small town America, too. The examples are drawn from the United States, but these are ideas to look for in other countries as you travel as well.
Though What I Found in a Thousand Towns is not a travel book as such, chances are you will find yourself wanting to visit the places Dar Williams talks about, and that thinking about the ideas she shares and questions she raises will deepen your experience of travel – and perhaps of the time you spend in your home town too.
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