Dar Williams has hope for America's small towns

The folk singer has observed what brings neighbors together in communities where she performs.

One part urban planning, two parts community organizing, this text is a testament of hope amid the decline and despair of many American small towns. Drawing upon her experience as a traveling folksinger, Dar Williams highlights the struggles and successes of eight communities—from Moab, Utah, to Middletown, Connecticut, to the Finger Lakes region of New York, to Gaines­ville, Florida—and offers an account of how potentially demoralized towns can remain vital despite crushing economic blows.

Positive proximity is the term Williams coins to describe an organic approach to community development. It’s “a state of being where living side by side with other people is experienced as beneficial.” The goodwill garnered by positive proximity is a currency that can be used to broker a collective vision. Positive proximity is accomplished when residents pay attention not only to local spaces and projects but also to what Williams calls translation—“all the acts of communication that open up a town to itself and to the world.”

Translation requires “a tacit commitment to facilitating all the variegated voices and personalities in our towns.” In every town, there are folks who have their finger on the pulse of the community. They know who is doing what, where, why, and when, and how it all turned out. Williams dubs these astute leaders “conscious bridgers.” They “weave together disparate fibers of a town’s identity, open channels of communication, and turn up the volume on all that is fun and good in a town, often initiating those fun and good things on their own.” In so doing, they translate the work of their town to people within and beyond its borders.