Small town America is changing. As some jobs in industries like steel and iron disappear from places like Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, there’s a need for towns to reinvent themselves in order to survive. So what makes a successful small town? Dar Williams is a folk singer and songwriter who travels the country with her music. She’s watched small towns change and grow during her travels. Now she’s the author of a new book about what it takes for these communities to thrive, “What I Found in a Thousand Towns.” Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal spoke to her about what she’s seen in small town America. Below is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Kai Ryssdal: We should probably start by establishing the bona fides here. This is what you do, you go around this country and you sing and you talk to people and you see small towns don’t you?
Dar Williams: All the time. I go to downtowns to perform, I’m not an arena performer so I really get down into the towns and cities and into all that grassroots stuff where people are working together to put on concerts with their neighbors.
Ryssdal: When did you realize, in your travels, that you were seeing something in small town America that maybe was worth looking at?
Williams: In 1995, I was driving around the Midwest with my boyfriend. And he was so heartbroken at all of the boarded up stores, and he said, this is the fate of downtowns because the big boxes have come and they’re going to suck the life out of the downtown. And I said, what’s a big box. So that’s where we were in 1995. And then in 1999-ish I was in Keene, New Hampshire. I was at a theater that they were renovating, an old you know opera house or vaudeville theater. And everything was not quite up to speed, it wasn’t quite heated yet, but they were so excited and they were talking about little local projects, whether it was landscaping, or little stores opening up. And that’s when I got the sense that people wanted that and they would find excuses to do that. And I started to watch that happen over the next you know 20 years, up to now.
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Ryssdal: The catch of course though is that when this good stuff happens, when the theater in Keene gets renovated, or when you talk about Wilmington, Delaware, and the waterfront there and how important it is, gentrification happens, right? More people come and then stuff gets expensive and then the folks who used to live there can’t anymore.
Williams: Yeah that’s the next chapter that has to be written. All these downtowns kind of went down and all of the conversations that you can have in the little stores that you don’t have in a big box, all that stuff started to disappear. So much good has happened by coming back into our downtowns and infilling our cities and all those good urban plans. The problem is that then it’s attractive. And along comes the money, and money just smells all that local basil growing in your community garden. Who doesn’t want that? So what is the next chapter, who are the next people who say, OK now let’s really create the policy language, and even the legislation, or the the ethos in the air that affordability and livability is inherent to what has made us so wonderful.
Ryssdal: So we’ve done a lot of coverage along this line actually of small towns and how it’s working there with Jim Fallows of The Atlantic magazine. And one of the things Jim has pointed out, and which our coverage showed, and which this book talks about as well, is how well things are working in small town America and how that doesn’t translate to the national government. And I’d love your thoughts on that.
Williams: I think we’re at an important place right now because I’ve seen this really wonderful positive force and it’s gone in the opposite direction of the television sets telling you that we are divided and all of those things. Division is really a wonderful thing for large entities that just want to come in and bulldoze everything in front of them and create the world in their own image, in terms of money. So we’re always going to be working against a narrative that divides and conquers everybody so that something large can move in without us questioning it, and coming after it and saying, no this is the fabric of our community, you can’t build there. My motto coming out of this research is: think in bridges. Think towards how you can help people and incorporate more stories. If it weren’t a narrative of division guiding our country right now, those bridges could just continue to proliferate and we’d get to see what this next century could be.
Click here to read an excerpt from Dar Williams’, “What I Found in a Thousand Towns.”
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