Dar Williams on the Rise of Large Towns and Small Cities

The singer-songwriter Dar Williams’ music is a revelation—The New Yorker has described her as “one of America’s very best singer-songwriters”—and so, it turns out, is her writing about cities. In her fantastic new book, What I Found in a Thousand Towns, Williams provides an insightful flâneuse’s take on what makes for a thriving community (full disclosure: I liked the book so much I blurbed it). She draws on her travels to cities and towns across America to set out the ingredients of a successful community—a perfect alchemy that allows some towns to thrive. This book describes that recipe for urban success, which Williams likens to magic, and tells the colorful stories of many people and places along the way. I talked to Williams about her new book and her distinct ideas about community.

I’ve been a lot of places, but I don’t think I’ve been to a thousand towns. How long did it take you to visit a thousand towns?

I’ve been touring for about 25 years. Every year there will be at least fifteen new concert venues and cities on my itinerary. I just got back from my first time in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, for instance. Gorgeous.

I and other urbanists write a lot about cities, but you write about smaller towns. While many creatives have long been drawn to urban centers like Greenwich Village, many others have long been more rural; think about how great artists and musicians like Bob Dylan and the Band were drawn to Woodstock. Do you think we will start to see a greater migration to more rural creative places as cities become more expensive?

I do foresee migration to large towns, like South Orange, New Jersey, and mid-sized cities, like Charlottesville, Virginia—but with a caveat. People want to live in pedestrian-friendly places. I have the best of all worlds: I live in a pedestrian town with a ten-minute walk to the train station. I go to New York City about once a week. Towns that can easily connect to cities and allow their citizens to walk to the grocery store are very popular now. They have shared workspaces, concerts, and restaurants that stay open late. Yes, I see them on the rise.

You mention the great economic sociologist’s Mark Granovetter’s theory of “the strength of weak ties.” Why, in your words, do these weak ties—as opposed to tight circles of family and friends—matter to great places?

The most exciting application of weak ties to me is when you have an idea for something like a community garden, and you know the twenty people who can make it happen. The rototiller guy is different from the girl scout leader whose troop plants the first seeds, as opposed to the moderately wealthy guy who donates five shovels or the graphic designer who makes the sign. The fact that they’re all so different is the best thing about them. The more projects we do in the commons, the more likely that we’ll know someone who knows someone who can help the next project succeed. We want a beautiful, wide loose network to help see our visions through.

You write that you like to befriend places and want to introduce to them to each other. What does this mean, exactly? And what can towns learn from making friends with one another?

I do see places as very similar to people with personalities and certain way of presenting themselves. They’re funny, or they’re artsy, or maybe they’re a little snobby. I’ll go to Lake Tahoe and think about Saranac Lake in New York; how do they keep their wonderful wild beauty when they’ve become so popular? There is so much that these towns, steeped in their deep regional identities and yet facing so many modern changes, can “discuss” or at least mutually appreciate. I think they’d “like” each other.

Like many great urbanists, you identify a phenomenon you call “positive proximity” as being key to great places. But you go beyond that and say there are three forms of proximity that are key: space, projects and translation. Tell us more about that.

If we want to get along in our towns and grow some collective identity, there are some helpful—I’d say essential—catalysts that I’ve come to recognize.

There are spaces that help us introduce ourselves to one another casually. Beacon, New York, came into its own out of all of its cafés, bars, and a variety of repurposed spaces.

There are projects, specifically ones that build on the historic and cultural identity of a town, that help us connect and reconnect with all the different personalities and abilities around us, like in Cincinnati, the Tall Stacks festival has music stages and majestic old river boats that pass up and down the Ohio River as a backdrop.

Translation is more elusive. It’s how freely we move in our towns and create access points for others to participate in them. Good public maps and clear street signs help towns translate themselves to outsiders, but the willingness to “translate” our own selves can also be the ethos in the air. Pittsburgh, for instance, always has the warmest, most fun audiences. There seem to be a multitude of ways for people to get involved with the life of the city; lots of public events, a great public radio station and well-trafficked public parks. In turn, they have always had a hometown pride and worldly welcome that they have extended to me.

You have a whole chapter on spaces for mixing and matching where you talk about bars and other kinds of spaces. How do these spaces help make great communities?

I got a really strong sense of how bars and other social spaces help people interact with one another on a trip to Charlottesville, Virginia. People were in outdoor wine bars after midnight, just talking and talking. Charlottesville has what I would call “high” positive proximity. People share their ideas, there’s cross-pollination. There’s always a new idea in the hopper. It comes out socially, as well as from places like the University of Virginia. Many things simply come out of fascinating conversations. Lots of best practices for agriculture, a strong local economy, sustainability, and arts education are growing out of cities with a variety of social gathering places.

You say many places suffer from a “piñata problem”: They have lots and lots of talent and resources, but they are disconnected and stashed away, and can’t come together in ways that enable the community to thrive. Tell us more about that.

We’ve been told that wealth gives us the convenience of isolation. And it’s true. You don’t have to share your pool, your parking spaces, or even your company with others when you are isolated, but it is…isolating. In some places, this isolation is systematized and frankly bloated into wealthy enclaves where ideologies become weirder and weirder (and more self-justifying) while nearby, entire neighborhoods are filled with curious, talented, beautiful children who could benefit from engagement and patronage in their community. Instead they have to look at the piñata of wealth that is held, tenaciously, away from them. No one benefits from this schism.

You talk about community identity, community pride, and being passionate about both one’s own pursuits as well as those of others. How do these factors help a community to thrive?

We have a sub-cultural narrative that says that people can’t be trusted, only blamed. The problem is, if you believe that, you’ll never get anything done. They’ll just never have The Firebird Festival in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, where countless volunteers build an eighteen-foot high Phoenix and burn it as a giant community celebration. The festival is the most successful night in town for local businesses and artisans. Putting ourselves into the community and letting our communities have an identity often means that we benefit from that identity. Low trust = joyless grocery shopping. High trust = memories for life of swirling fire dancers and stripping down to your t-shirt in the glow of a bonfire on an early December night. These are two very different experiences of prosperity.

You devote a whole chapter to waterfronts. How and why do they matter to great communities?

I started noticing waterfronts as organizing principles for cities. You start with your waterfront, just clear it off, plant some grass, and the next thing you know, there are so many ways for a city to be a city. You can do every kind of cultural event on the water itself, but safe, upcoming neighborhoods can be arrayed around a well-lit, harmonious, public-private owned, perfect wayfinding element like a waterfront.

How and why does food make a town great?

Food incorporates everything that helps a town feel unique. You can build a culture around food with food festivals and markets, you can explore your town’s history in its old orchards, and you can define your terrain with how you grow each crop. There just seems to be an inherent coolness, and I’d say greatness, and economic advantage, in a town that values and loves to celebrates its prawns, peaches, chili peppers, and chardonnays.

Is there any place in particular that is special to your own music making? On the flip side, has your career helped you in your efforts to understand what makes for great, thriving communities?

Every town and city can have the magic of a music scene, and it is magic. I had Boston. A music scene has open mics, song circles, tip jar gigs, bad bar gigs, good bar gigs, cafe gigs, monthly music series in the suburbs, local promoters who let you open for national acts, and media that support the gathering musical forces. There’s even a first audience made up of musicians and their friends. Within this scene is a cultural positive proximity that incubates talents and poetic sensibilities and supports its rising stars who in turn support [the town].

I am a big supporter of growing the culture of your city, not just for supporting its eventual stars, but for everyone. You can start small with an open mic or a music series in a church or a late-night radio show.

Professional, part-time, and non-professional musicians all benefit from music in the air, children benefit from seeing adults who keep art in their lives, communities benefit from the art and from the songs that witness them, and positive proximity grows. An art scene not only allows connections to happen. Those connections come from very resonant, honest, and often unusual, revelatory encounters. It’s the gold of positive proximity. My book has everything to do with what I experienced in Boston.