The year's most engaging urban-planning book comes from an unlikely source: activist and musician Dar Williams, a folk-festival and Lilith Fair veteran, who independently released her first full album, "The Honesty Room," in 1993.
"What I Found in a Thousand Towns," published earlier this month, offers case studies, often humorous ones, of people coming together, in places like Wilmington, Gainesville — even Middletown, where Williams spent formative years in the 1980s as a Wesleyan University undergraduate.
Then again, few are more qualified than Williams, who as a musician has spent much of her life touring: returning, again and again, to the same towns, frequenting restaurants and coffee shops, searching for guitar strings, and so on.
What ties Williams' stories together is "positive proximity" — "a state of being where living side by side with other people is experienced as beneficial," she writes, achieved through unifying spaces, projects and the act of translation.
Middletown, Williams suggests, offers a good case study of how individual and institutional partnerships can help bridge the typical town-gown gap, which often occurs wherever affluent youngsters occupy an economically challenged city for nine months of the year.
One example is the founding of the Center for Community Partnerships in 2003, which created an alliance between Wesleyan administrators, faculty and students and the Middletown community.
Williams spoke by phone from Cold Spring, N.Y., where she lives, about her book and offers a few thoughts about Hartford.
Q: At times, "What I Found in a Thousand Towns" reads like a guidebook for how to make your hometown a better place. Was that part of your intention?
A: Yes. It felt funny at first, because I don't have a Ph.D. in urban planning or sociology. But I did keep seeing things that worked over and over again in towns. I felt confident saying that when you have a food festival, the good that comes from it lasts more than one day. It can be the basis for a lot of relationships in your town.
Q: It strikes me that this kind of book could only have been written by a traveling musician.
A: The urban theorists that read the book were supportive of it, which surprised me. This is their full-time job. Jeff Speck is an urban planner who does go to lots of towns and sometimes lives there. He has that inside thing. But I realized that I am the ultimate field researcher. A lot of the things that I saw went hand in hand with their data and their research and their theories. I was the one who saw them, wrote about them and then discovered that my observations already existed with different terminology. Basically I got out there and said, "You're right, guys, this is what works."
Watching Hartford coming along, watching Middletown change: That's been happening for 20 years. There are places you would never expect would come to life the way they do, and once they're on the other side of it, you can't imagine they were anything but this. I've watched countless transformations. Who's not going to write a book about that once they've seen it? It was a unique vantage point.
Q: Here's a hypothetical situation: You land in a city you've never been to before. How quickly could you get a sense of its positive proximity? What would you look at first?
A: Meeting a city is like meeting a person. You can get a wrong first impression. One of my reminders to myself when I meet someone new is "don't make an assessment until you've seen them smile." You have to see what's going on inside. You have to recognize that first impressions both count and don't count.
There's a social survival element for me, because I'm a traveler. You're looking for good coffee. You're looking for something that feels comforting and welcoming, and often for something very specific, like guitar strings or band-aids. You learn how to orient yourself quickly to something more than just roads and signs. I allow myself to get a general feel for a city. Some feel cold to the touch. You figure out why you see not just one, but 10 signs that say, "There's no public bathroom in this establishment," as opposed to stores that have free coffee. How businesses are oriented to their towns gives you a sense of its civic life.
There's a radio station I wrote about in Moab [Utah], where the DJ played songs by artists performing in the festival that weekend. She also said she was going to do astrological readings later in the hour. You got a sense that this was a community that could handle that plane or had some space for that. You look for things that have a certain kind of welcome mat to them: the friendliness of the people in stores, the signs pointing you where to go. There's a sense that people are proud, that they want you to find places. They want to show you around. They're not xenophobic. If there are public greens where people are actually sitting down and interacting with each other, that's a sign of positive proximity. People telling me about their towns when they're on line to get a CD signed by me.
I look for the three concepts that are in the book: spaces that allow them to interact warmly with one another, projects that they've dug into — last night there was a street music festival that they do every month — and do they translate themselves to each other. Are there ways they can introduced themselves to each other, safely and smoothly?
Hartford is hard with the highway in the middle. That's the challenge. But people are being imaginative about what to do with underpasses. It doesn't have a lot of access to the river yet, from what I can see, but people are trying to figure out how to get people to the river. It's very beautiful. There's so much that's well done in Bushnell Park. I think the dots are starting to get connected. I would be thrilled if anyone would read a book about urban planning and say, "Yeah, that's what I've been wanting to do."