Teri Orr: I just couldn’t love this book more
Sunday in the Park
Park Record columnist
For me, summer reading is usually a mystery or two, a romance, a thriller, a bit of nonfiction that inspires.
The advance copy I just read by the singer-songwriter, city planning geek Dar Williams has all those elements combined. The book won’t be out until late September and I am grateful my friend and bookseller offered it to me to read ahead.
The working title is “What I Found in a Thousand Towns,” with the sub heading of “A Traveling Musician’s Guide to Rebuilding America’s Communities — One Coffee Shop, Dog Run, Open Mike at a Time.”
Her breezy storytelling takes us from Beacon, New York, to Moab, to Carrboro, North Carolina, to lots of stops in-between.
She captures and speaks about those illusive — yet still tangible — people, places and things that can tie seemingly disparate parts into a functioning, welcoming, vital community.
Maybe it appears somewhere, but I don’t remember once ever seeing the word “connectivity.” And I was relieved.
I think our electric buses are swell. Ditto our electric bikes. But what I really want to understand is what we are doing to protect those spaces that are outside the bold lines we have decided to color in/on. I went to Disneyland as a child, and decades later I took my own children there. I think the idea of seamlessly getting to Adventureland from Tomorrowland and passing through Frontierland makes perfect sense in an amusement park built for tourists.
In a real town with a very real history with sometimes very messy, real people living and working and raising families and even dying here, moving without effort — from A to B to C — this place is somehow missing the not-so-secret sauce of a great town.
It is in the corners and the neighborhoods and the shops on side streets that give a community life, vibrancy, spirit. Most of those generally don’t fall on a bus line. And there’s the magic, as Shel Silverstein wrote all those years ago, that starts where the sidewalk ends.
When I first moved to town, you simply went to the Mount Aire Cafe for all your social needs. It was open from early trucker breakfast to dessert after The Game. You would always find folks you knew there to share a cup with.
The gum-chewing, spontaneously singing waitresses also appeared on stage some weekends at the Egyptian Theatre in community theater productions. There were no prescribed dog parks. There was a character — O.D. MCGee — who ran for mayor on a platform of More Dogs on Main Street, which was comical because every bar already had dogs that hung out, out front. A character named Steakhouse regularly brought his little dog inside to drink with him; he’d put him on a stool and buy him a martini of his own. We were a lot more colorful back then.
But now we have become so gentrified our dogs need parks of their own. There are so many more of them/us. To find a space in town that feels like a natural gathering place —where we can learn of local events and see familiar faces and have a good cup of joe and walk to and from multiple starting points — you kinda have to step back in time.
Dar’s book looks at towns that almost failed and even those that did and came back from the edge with renewed spirit.
Most all found some piece of their natural beauty to focus on/embrace/show off to visitors. Walkways and reclaimed waterways. Trail systems. She talks about something she calls the V to R ratio, which in tourist towns (like ours) is the balance between the visitor and the resident in terms of spaces that are accessible to all and places you keep to yourselves.
She cites Moab as a place with a fragile balance of this, but a balance nonetheless. She cites the bookstore there as having the perfect ratio. She calls Back Of Beyond Books —with its trail maps and shelves of books by local writers — “ a very tourist-friendly business.” But with book signings and readings year-round, it “generally holds a hearth-like space for the information sharing and local news.”
Which, of course, could describe our own Dolly’s bookstore, a perfect V to R ratio.
“Cities are natural places repurposed into human habitats.” That just may be my favorite line in the book. We are all just guests who have colonized the places where the wild things are…or at least used to be.
She also talks about social sculpture…intentionally building a community from the ground up. And I love the idea that creating community is part of the “art” of being successful.
There is a bar, with no televisions, that relies on local folks to be the entertainment, and all the council members and planning commissioners frequent it. ( For old-timers here, think of the DownUnder at the Claimjumper in the ’80s). Only this place she talks about, The Dogwood, also has art and music and serves food (nothing fancy) so kids can be there too. And the owner has become a city council member himself.
The book is chock full of stories about real people in real towns facing real problems and opportunities, just like us. It has examples of “bridging social capital” and it explains carefully what it means. Dar quotes author Beth Macy who concluded a reading by saying “People and communities prosper only when they celebrate a diverse range of equal voices.”
It kinda has the bones to become a song lyric.
Here’s what I know: It feels like we need to recalibrate about now. Embrace where we are and fix the broken parts, whether they are crumbling “social sculptures” or an absence of “diverse…equal voices.” It isn’t something that can wait much longer. We could start the conversations this Sunday in the Park…
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the director of the Park City Institute, which provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.
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