OFF THE SHELF | Book Review The Secret in a Thousand Towns

Like most successful performing artists, Dar Williams travels a lot. The popular folk singer-songwriter and longtime Hudson Valley resident has crisscrossed the United States dozens, if not hundreds of times during her 20-plus years as a performer crooning in small town cafes and singing before vast crowds in nationally recognized festivals. On the road, she is a true folk singer, drawing as much inspiration from the communities she visits and their folk as her audiences do from her.

And this is what sets her apart. Williams is a musician. But she is also a social anthropologist who revels in fieldwork. When she waves goodbye to her Cold Spring home to go on tour, she takes up the role of the active observer, noting if, when, and how societies change as the years ebb and flow around them. What I Found In A Thousand Towns: A Traveling Musician’s Guide to Rebuilding America’s Communities – One Coffee Shop, Dog Run, & Open-Mike Night at a Time (Basic Books, 2017) is her observation journal, developed over decades traversing the states. It is part diary and part thesis, the summa of a project subconsciously commenced during her student years at Wesleyan University, a project that will likely continue for many years to come.

The premise of What I Found in A Thousand Towns is that a common thread exists in communities that thrive, a concept Williams originally believed to be false. What she calls “positive proximity” is that je ne sais quoi that small towns like Beacon have in spades. It is the intangible force that draws in and unites both longtime residents and curious outsiders. It is also what makes them never want to leave.

In her book, Williams structures a positive proximity how-to guide much like a musical tour, hopping from one city to the next. Exploring the concrete ingredients of positive proximity, each chapter operates as a small town case study in which the author highlights what makes the region tick. Interspersed throughout the text are powerful interviews with “conscious bridgers,” her term for community figures who bring people together and bolster the life and growth in a local society.

As one might expect, she begins her textual journey right here in the Hudson Valley. Anyone who has visited downtown Beacon, whether as a local or an out-of-towner, can likely recognize that special something that the town exudes. Thanks to the unique location, the town movers and shakers who care about community, and a thriving artistic culture, Beacon shines as an example of positive proximity.

The Beacon case study marks the first of three chapters in the book’s Part One, called “Spaces.” Williams discusses three types of community defining spaces: created spaces, natural spaces, and waterfronts. All have the power to aid in the development the oft romanticized small town life. Yet all, as Williams points out in Part Three, titled “Translation,” often require the assistance of conscious bridgers to transform undefined or underdefined locations into beguiling destinations.

Part Two is called “Identity Building.” Within this section, Williams praises Phoenixville, PA, for its history, Carrboro, NC, for its culture, and the Finger Lakes region in upstate New York for its food. As the author notes, these three regions have that “It” factor, the one subject around which residents can build an intriguing identity. When said subject develops, it becomes a magnetic force for a town, pulling tourists toward it and making them want to share their experience with others for a positive ripple effect, if you will.

As a visitor to these towns over many years – and to many others that struggle to achieve positive proximity – Williams has experienced firsthand the aftermath of that ripple effect. In the course of her narrative, she continues to relate her travels to each of these places months and years after visiting them. She wants to share how great they are. She wants to see them do well. She wants to add to the ripple.

What I Found In A Thousand Towns is a must read for anyone interested in natural community building or for those who have stepped foot into one of the towns that Williams mentions. She narrates in the first person and interjects her insights and observations throughout the text. Although she visits these towns to perform, she experiences them much like the rest of us would. She drinks coffee at the cafes, meanders the sidewalks with her family, and asks locals about the best eats. Her well wishes for the spaces on her tour stops are often endearing. When she discusses the wonders that the Dia:Beacon museum and the local cafe culture have done for Beacon, for instance, it is hard not to nod in agreement.

Whether you identify as an armchair observer, a conscious bridger, or somewhere inbetween, the book is well worth the read. With a fresh, first-person perspective and an inviting conversational tone, the pages fly by as Williams introduces each community. By the end of each chapter, it feels as though you have been right beside Williams during her conversations with community shapers and her observational walks around town. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself wondering about the fastest route to Moab, Utah, or the next foodie festival in the Finger Lakes. Positive proximity is powerful stuff.