Touring professionally for 25 years, singer and songwriter Dar Williams has passed through a lot of towns, big and small — over and over again. She has witnessed from the stage, the hotel room, and Main Street many attempts at neighborhood revitalization.
“People ask me what my hobbies are,” she said. “And, sure, I have aspirations to have hobbies — but my real hobby is just walking around thinking about stuff. Turns out, that was my research.”
In “What I Found in a Thousand Towns: A Traveling Musician’s Guide to Rebuilding America’s Communities,” Williams walks and thinks — and talks to people who are inventing ways to build community in difficult circumstances. She profiles eight cities around the country, including two in this region: Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, and Wilmington, Delaware.
The book jacket has an unlikely juxtaposition of blurbs: Williams’ book has attracted accolades from both the academic urban theoretician Richard Florida and Emily Saliers of the Indigo Girls.
Williams is a proponent of “positive proximity,” the notion that communities are more resilient when people in close proximity to one another — i.e. neighbors — are able to self-start small projects. She has seen this happen in towns across a spectrum of racial and economic makeup.
“People said, we want our towns to thrive, so let’s just love each other. That does not work,” she laughed. “You can’t just decide that you’re going to get along and like your towns.”
It might not be love, per se, but it’s a feeling all the same. Williams recalls touring through a small, wealthy California town on the Pacific Coast, which she did not name.
“All of of the pieces were in place — they had a farmers market, they had local stores,” she said. “I was surrounded by people, and I thought, ‘I think they rolled their yoga mats a little too tightly around here.’”
In her experience, a good reading of the health of a community is the willingness to be goofy.
“The ability of a town to have fun together is resonant. It’s a real indicator,” she said. “That what you have with [Phoenxville’s] Blobfest. That’s what you see with Frozen Dead Guy Days in Nederland, Colorado. Sometimes that fun thing spurs on that next level of organization and sophistication.”
Williams breaks down who did what, when, and why to bring eight communities back from the brink. “I could have done Bethlehem, I could have done Lambertville, Frenchtown, Doylestown,” she said. “There are a lot of success stories in Pennsylvania.”