book review: what i learned in a thousand towns (dar williams)

Right, so. I have a blog.

I also have a therapist. She’s new. I’ll call her LS, because that’s her name. It has been a rough mental health year for me because besides, you know, a fucking disgusting racist xenophobic sexual assuaulter being elected President, both my longtime prescriber and therapist BOTH retired. The last time I saw my prescriber was November 8, 2016. We talked about how it had been a rough year but starting on the 9th, things would ease up a little. HOW LITTLE WE FUCKING KNEW, AM I RIGHT. And then on top of that I started planning a wedding.

Anyway, I had to find a new prescriber – found one, she retired five months in, found another, she rocks – and I thought I was doing okay without a therapist except then I wasn’t. I tried a new one, a older dude who wanted to dig through my history – been there, did five years of CBT, have the coping mechanisms, I don’t want to talk about my relationship with my mom or my mother-in-law – and then I found LS, who is about my age, and understood immediately when I walked in to her office and said, “I want to talk about how the President is horrible, the world is on fire, and also I’m planning a wedding.”

She said, “Alright.”

LS is amazing.

The last time I saw her, I talked a lot about how while my job, just by nature of literally what my job is, makes me feel like I’m part of the Resistance Capital R Resistance, I wanted to do more. She asked me what my passions were. Photography. Theater. I used to write a ton of fan fiction. Plants. I like high schoolers because I was a weird high schooler and real adults were nice to me and listened to me and I could be that for some teenager now.

“Okay, your homework is to figure out how to turn that into volunteer work.”

So it’s been on my mind, and then Trav got me Dar Williams’ book for Christmas. What I Found In A Thousand Towns. On its face, it is basically about how to create a thriving large town or small city. But as I tore through during the early NBA games on Christmas Day, it was exactly the book I needed at exactly this time.

It’s about how cities and towns, the kind that Trump maybe won in 2016, the kind who have collapsed because the industry that they thrived on collapsed, can save themselves in the wake of that collapse. It’s about art. It’s about food. It’s about the harm of gentrification and why low cost swimming lessons matter and how to make affordable housing happen and the best ways to eliminate town-gown relations and just have Town Relations. There’s a whole chapter about Carrboro.

Carrboro is pretty expensive and named for a noted racist, my vague ancestor Julian Shakespeare Carr (he’s a fifth cousin somewhere back through marriage, I think). I wish it wasn’t named for a noted racist. But it loves community. And art, and music, and food, and beer, and people. People who live in Carrboro are invested in Carrboro. I knew that, sort of, in the back of my head. I know how many people I know and like that I see when I occasionally venture out to a concert, or even just out for a burrito. When I was house-hunting in Chapel Hill, it was in Chapel Hill, because I didn’t want to be too far from what felt like my community. I hadn’t realized I was so attached to Carrboro and Chapel Hill until I realized that the thought of buying a house in Durham was abhorrent to me (and not just because of Duke basketball, all you smart asses out there). Dar talks a lot about proximity, and how proximity is important to community, and I could verify that with my own experience: I can walk to downtown Chapel Hill and downtown Carrboro, if I wanted to. It is and was important to me to be that close to places.

2017 has been a gross dumpster fire of a hellscape year, but it’s been a gross dumpster fire of a hellscape year that really motivated people to get involved, in their communities, in other communities, to engage with the world. What I Found In A Thousand Towns is technically probably a book about urban planning rather than a memoir, which is what I thought it might be. I think it’s a surprisingly low key important book for the United States right now. Coal isn’t coming back. The uranium industry in Moab, Utah wasn’t coming back, either, and the town has found a way to thrive despite that. (The Most Scenic Dump story had me crying laughing.) Those things aren’t coming back, despite lies from the President about how he’d bring those jobs back, but there are other ways to save towns.

There aren’t solutions to the many sprawling and very serious problems of gentrification, which is often what “rejuvenating” a town or city comes down to; and the book can be a little white-person-focused at times, which is what it is. It isn’t a perfect book, but it was a book that made me think about things I hadn’t been thinking about before, and it was a book that crystalized some ideas I’d been wrestling with in their amorphous blob forms. It pointed out things I can do, and it pointed out where the most helpful thing I can do is to ask other people what they need. It made me ask a lot of questions about the place I live, even though Dar holds up Carrboro as a model of a pretty good small town. We are. Chapel Hill is. But we can do better, too, we can do a lot better, and I read this book, and I’m going to do better.

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Author: brandnewkindof

Photographer, baseball fan, lover of rock music, sweet tea, chili cheese hotdogs, and Matt Wieters.

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