Williams shares her ideas for small towns

“What I Found in a Thousand Towns: A Traveling Musician’s Guide to Rebuilding America’s Communities,” by Dar Williams, may not be a specifically Adirondack book, but much of its content proves applicable to the region. One might quickly list Plattsburgh, Saranac Lake, Glens Falls and Watertown as locations whose leaders and residents could benefit from a quick perusal.

Williams is primarily a songwriter and entertainer. I’ll proudly say that we both attended the same college (decades apart) and had the same major. That’s part of the reason I drove two hours to see her in concert last month.

But she drew me to her book through comments on cities and small towns around the country, and the efforts she’s observed in many to foster economic renaissance and cultural vitality. She’s toured the United States for 20 years, and she’s a good observer, two attributes that make her a useful source on these issues. And she exudes an attitude of optimism, always a refreshing attribute.

Her mantra is a phrase called “positive proximity.” She looks for ways to produce interactions and connections, and coalesce around community identity. Included, she argues, should be specific attempts to mobilize newcomers, creative forces, older people and those who are often undervalued or overlooked in community initiatives. The point should be to build bridges — between old and new citizens, between environmentalists and more commercially-minded folks, between artists and traditional businesspeople.

Several concepts struck me. A cadre of cities in New York state–a few of the aforementioned among them — are recipients of multi-million dollar grants for reimagining their downtowns, and each seems to be approaching its projects in a top-down manner. The successes that Williams describes have instead progressed from the ground up. In her words, don’t impose concepts upon communities; instead have them rise organically.

Commitment to the arts frequently played a role in her stories. Such instances can be cited locally as well. In addition, she shows how history can be a major supportive factor. Living near Plattsburgh, I’m especially proud of how that city progressively embraces its rich heritage. Locally produced food can be another nucleus. So can an area’s scenic wealth, useful for its contribution to identity and as a link between nature and community life.

Recreational opportunity looms important in reimagining. This need not be Olympian in caliber, though that doesn’t hurt. However, such initiatives need to engage everyday exercisers as well. It’s notable that successful places are also paying attention to the need for affordable housing; she suggests this needs to be done before gentrification has fully settled in.

She celebrates heterogeneity and inclusion, applauds public-private collaborations, advocates for mutually reinforcing and unique businesses, and seeks ways to use as many individuals’ skill sets as possible. “In towns with high positive proximity,” Williams argues, “people want to participate.”

I especially like her attitude toward tourism, which should be sought but not allowed to overwhelm. She points out what she terms the “V:R” ratio, stating cities need “places that are both visitor viable and resident relevant.”

Williams cites several notable examples along the way, including a former uranium mining town (Moab, Utah), a city that lost its steel mill (Phoenixville, Pennsylvania) and one community that inexplicably ignored its waterfront for far too long (Wilmington, Delaware). North Country situations have been both different and the same.

The author introduces readers to interesting personalities along the way, and she tells engaging stories. Her biggest contribution, however, comes in showing us what’s possible. She loves what she calls “accelerated serendipity,” urges people to accept and build on their differences (let common bonds transcend conflicts), and pushes to utilize everyone’s social capital.

There’s no achievement described that I can’t envision happening in our region, too. In fact, some of them already have. We simply need more. Some of her ideas may help.

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