Much of my travel over recent decades has been to major urban centers as I attended conferences, visited state capitols and met with partners, politicians and supporters of our work at Pew. In contrast, my current trips have been oriented toward small towns and villages. When you are only going to be in a place for a night, you can fully immerse yourself in the life of these communities by walking the streets and visiting some of the main local haunts.
Thanks to my dear friend John Moyers, I had the opportunity to spend much of a week in Bristol, Vermont. Founded in 1762, Bristol is a genuine small town with a population slightly under 4,000.
I have a warm spot in my heart for such places. I spent the first ten years of my life in Beardstown, Illinois which currently has a population that slightly exceeds 6,000. The next decade was in Geneseo, New York, a comparative metropolis with more than 10,000 people.
Don’t get me wrong, I love major urban areas. As a small child, I remember watching the Macy’s Day parade and marveling at the scenes of New York City. One of my priorities when I got to college (Hamilton College in Clinton New York – population 1,942 according to the 2010 census) was to make friends with classmates from the Big Apple and get invited to their homes. That first trip left me enthralled. After college, I moved to Washington DC and have never looked back.
But I still feel at home on the streets of towns like Bristol. When you look up definitions and synonyms for small towns they are most often negative. Terms like parochial, provincial, insular, limited, sectarian, confined, narrow-minded, white-bread, bounded, conservative, inflexible, and intolerant predominate. I understand where this perception comes from and it has some validity. One morning in Bristol, we passed the “one other” gay-out man in the community. Diversity is not often a defining characteristic of places with such small populations.
But another term that applies is community and it is one to be valued. Bristol was filled with moments that reminded me of the community-spirit that can infuse these streets. The first night I arrived in town John got a call from Andrew, a neighbor and local lawyer, asking him to come over to play scrabble after dinner and bring his visiting friend. I haven’t done that in quite a while. What was more telling is that every day afterwards, I would run into Andrew in a local café, walking down the small main street, or on a bar stool. How can you avoid being neighbors?
While there are petty squabbles, biases and feuds, there is also caring. In a small town in Colorado (Eagle -population 6,508 in the 2010 census), I sat at a bar and marveled at how everyone that walked in was greeted by name and embraced by bartenders and customers at other tables throughout the evening. In Galena Kansas (population 3,085), I watched as a mentally challenged Latino man fighting a demon on the street was quietly ushered into a small café and with food and a jovial and loving exchange was able to find his balance again. A scene I learned that was replayed many days each week with this troubled neighbor.
In Bristol, John gave me an opportunity to give back. He was rehabbing an old property on Main Street whose electrical system was dangerous and the building needed to be gutted. A couple had resided in the apartment upstairs for years. The man was a functional alcoholic – still working and very amiable but in a stupor most hours of the day. His partner struggled with various mental problems including an intense anxiety disorder. Since their home was not safe, they needed to be moved out. John rallied friends and neighbors including a social worker with a local nonprofit that found them a new apartment and then pulled together a group of us to move them – not an insubstantial task since they were hoarders.
As I mull over the path I want to take in the next stage of my life, I was inspired by the social worker that fondly but firmly led this couple through the transition. She helped them not only find the new home and adjust to the momentous change that loomed but also to work through what could be left behind. When we found that the new apartment had some deficits that had not been addressed by the landlord, she also turned into a zealous advocate. In an era of evictions and homelessness, it is a true calling to stand for those that can be taken advantage of even if you can only help on the periphery of the array of problems that they face. In a small town like Bristol, this couple was not allowed to fall through the cracks. How many in my hometown of Arlington, Virginia (population 229,164) don’t have that support? The simple fact is that I don’t know.
Human nature cannot be studied in cities except at a disadvantage–a village is the place. There you can know your man inside and out–in a city you but know his crust, and his crust is usually a lie.
Mark Twain/Samuel Clemens, 1883
Alas! Everything has changed in Hannibal–but when I reached Third or Fourth street the tears burst forth, for I recognized the mud. It at least was the same–the same old mud.
Mark Twain/Samuel Clemens, 1882