Dar Williams on how to rebuild small town America

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Since the 1970s, the movie It’s a Wonderful Life has screened every Christmas in the U.S., fueling nostalgia for small town America. That’s even as people have left small towns in droves, heading for jobs and culturally interesting lives in bigger, mostly coastal cities.

But today, the cost of living in global cities like LA, New York and San Francisco is so high that small towns beckon once again.

The comeback of some small towns and cities is the topic of a new book by singer-songwriter Dar Williams, What I Found in a Thousand Towns: A Traveling Musician’s Guide to Rebuilding America’s Communities—One Coffee Shop, Dog Run, and Open-Mike Night at a Time.

Her book was inspired by her years spent touring the country, playing in coffee shops, bars and old theaters, and talking with people about their communities and what makes them work.

“In the 90s, when I started out downtowns were dying... because of the big boxes, and... preceding that were the malls that came along at just the times that the factories and the mines and mills were all closing down as well,” Williams said.

Then she said she found things started to change. In some places that had become really dejected, a few locals had decided they wanted to revive their towns. And they did so with small interventions that had a big ripple effect, like opening a coffee house, making a local historic site into a destination or by revitalizing a performance space.

Williams’ book looks at the rebirth of a range of small towns and midsize cities, including Beacon, New York; Moab, Utah; Carrboro, North Carolina; and the Fingers Lakes region in Western New York state (where you will find Seneca Falls, the town believed to have inspired director Frank Capra to create the town of Bedford Falls in It’s a Wonderful Life.)

Williams talks about what helps a town make a comeback: “heatseekers” who amplify local assets and attractions; walkable downtowns; community meetings with donuts and pizza; and what she calls “positive proximity.”

She also sings some of her songs, and explains the connection between the structure of a song and the structure of life in a small town.