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What I Found in a Thousand Towns: A Traveling Musician's Guide to Rebuilding America's CommunitiesOne Coffee Shop, Dog Run, and Open-Mike Night at a Time Hardcover – September 5, 2017
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"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."
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In her book WHAT I FOUND IN A THOUSAND TOWNS, recording artist and author Dar Williams explores the benefits of working together and what can happen when communities lose their way and their support. Some of what she shares will probably seem pretty common sense: if you want your town to flourish you have to support it in all ways, especially financially. The book also shows that support is something that can be given by all members of the community,regardless of age.
We're all in this thing called life together, so Dar reminds us to do our part to support each other and where we live, because so many times that lack of support can have far-reaching consequences and lead to losing more than we thought possible.
I found myself a bit annoyed by the mixture of stories of personal experiences and academic theory. Once theorists are mentioned I’m afraid I want an index or a bibliography or at the very least a list of suggestions for further reading. (I had an advanced reading copy, so it is possible these things were added later.) I also thought the focus was a bit narrow, as her experiences often hinge on people who describe their ideal surroundings as “hip” and who are about her age or sharing her lifestyle choices. The problem is that the world is far more diverse than this, and lessons gleaned from this population don’t necessarily translate well to the entire urban environment.
These concerns simply won’t matter to many readers, though, and there is certainly a place for optimism and a focus on positive outcomes. She writes well, and many of the stories she tells are worth sharing. I can especially see that this book could help to jump start community groups working towards similar ends.
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.
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.