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Aimsel Ponti

Aimsel Ponti is a Content Producer at MaineToday.com and a music writer for MaineToday.com and the Portland Press Herald. She has been obsessed with - and inspired by - music since she listened to Monkees records borrowed from the town library when she was six years old. She bought her first Rolling Stones record at a flea market when she was in 7th grade and discovered David Bowie a year later. She's a HUGE fan of the local music scene and covers it along with national musical happenings in her "Face the Music" column and with artist interviews that appear in print in the Portland Press Herald and online at Mainetoday.com. You'll also find her out and about absorbing live music like a sponge and roaming around local record shops and flea markets. Aimsel is also the host of Music from 207 on 98.9 WCLZ and appears monthly on the WCHS TV show “207” to talk about...music of course.

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Posted: October 30, 2017

Singer-songwriter Dar Williams pens a book about small towns — including Portland

Written by: Aimsel Ponti
Photo by Amy Dickerson

Photo by Amy Dickerson

Dar Williams is not only an accomplished singer-songwriter with an extensive discography, she’s also a published author. In the ’90s, she wrote a book called “The Tofu Tollbooth: A Guide to Great Natural Food Stores & Eating Spots with Lots of Other Cool Stops Along the Way” and also authored two young adult books in the mid-2000s. Her latest book is called “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” (Basic Books, Sept. 5, 2017).

“What I Found In a Thousand Towns” was born out of Williams being a touring musician for more than two decades and essentially paying attention to the towns and cities she played in. Some towns seemed to have hit their stride and were thriving, while others seemed lost and off-kilter. Her curiosity was piqued over time, and Williams came up with a concept she calls “positive proximity,” which she defines as a state of being in which living side by side with other people is experienced as beneficial. She then identified three aspects of positive proximity: Spaces, indoor and out that naturally maximize the number of good interactions in a town; projects that build a town’s identity socially, culturally and/or historically; and translation, which is all acts of communication that open up a town to itself and to the world.

Image courtesy of Basic Books

Image courtesy of Basic Books

In “What I Found,” Williams takes deep dives in places like Moab, Utah; Wilmington, Delaware; Phoenixville, Pennsylvania; Middletown, Connecticut; and Gainesville, Florida, among a few other locales, and interviewed local experts, residents, historians and others invested in their communities. But she also mentioned Portland. Williams has played in the area many times since the ’90s and is particularly keen on our Eastern Promenade and rates our positive proximity as high. “Its citizens have been long ahead of the curve when it comes to buying local, supporting local artists, and infilling their urban center. The promenade connects the city with its maritime history, not to mention its maritime present.”

I connected with Williams, 50, via telephone in her Hudson Valley, New York, home to talk about the book.

When did you decide that this was going to become a book?

Around 2013. I basically spent a year kind of coming up with the categories. It’s like looking at a blueprint and you move this here, and you move this there, and I was trying to come up with names for what I was seeing and categories. What finally happened, I had been talking to my parents about these ideas I had, and I remember calling my mom and saying, “Mom, is this a thing?” and she said, “Yes, honey, it’s a thing.” So that’s when I went ahead and put the word out that I wanted to do this. The owner of my record company knew a wonderful agent who took me on and took me around just based on an outline. Everything happened fast after that.

Was one of the goals in writing it to challenge people to think about their towns and about the concept of positive proximity?

I really hoped it would ring this bell of recognition in people who have been involved in their communities and really love where they’re located in the context of their communities and didn’t quite know why. Because I saw this was what people were with each other; it was more open palms than clenched fists, more “welcome to our store” than “we have no bathrooms.” And more Old Port Festival than chain stores in a downtown. It was things like that that helped me see that there’s kind of an ethos in the air that all of those ways that people get involved in their communities count. You get out and be real in your real town and then trust that extension of your identity will be a good thing for you and for everybody. There’s a little part of each of us that’s a bit of an urban planner, kind of “I love this town, I have this vision for it,” whether it’s straightening up the old gravestones and hiring a mower to mow the old cemetery, that committee or having zombie night at the library or a school garden, a makers’ space at your elementary school. People have these little visions of what could happen, and they find kindred spirits, and when they do this, even on the smallest scale, it introduces them to the terrain and to each other, and one thing will often lead to another. It will engender certain kinds of trust and excitement about how much life you can have in the commons as opposed to everything you have behind closed doors. And then the next thing, when you really feel in stride with your community, you find yourself running for political office or being on a government committee. I see people returning to those roles and finding a lot of meaning, even in the hostile Facebook comment age, and that’s an exciting thing to see too.

This book in a way feels like a handbook for what to do when you move to a new town because it inspires people to figure out what’s going on in their town. Would you agree?

What I’ve been able to do is say, “Well, do what you want, no pressure from me.” But the towns that have that real feel of excitement, that draw you in, that have that warmth are filled with people who find ways to love that town in particular. That’s why I identified those projects: history, food, culture, waterfront, nature and the kinds of spaces that feel like a hearth, that welcome people in and draw community-focused conversations out of us. All of those things that people find, towns where people find parts of themselves through parts of their town’s culture and history have a real feel about them, and I think they’re incredibly attractive to outsiders, and hopefully this is a book that will help people find an inside track and enjoy their role in it. Because I think that people want that.

Let’s talk about social media. I see people railing on it about things like rents being too high. There’s a tremendous about of cynicism about that issue in Portland, and it sometimes feels like social media can be a negative as far as wrapping your arms, head and heart around positive proximity. Does that ring true to you?

I would say there are moments when the bright glare of social media keeps an issue in focus, gets people angry and indignant and motivated, and I’m not going to say that that’s a bad thing. It has its moments. But here’s some questions: Number one, are we managing change? If we’re rejecting or embracing change blindly, we’re probably not going to be too happy. Number two, are we attacking an individual or are we really looking at an issue? Because attacking an individual will just scare them out of the public discourse. We can do that, but what is the underlying issue that we’re trying to address here? And then the third is, is this spinning our wheels? What is the action that we want? Is there something that we can do? There is no silver bullet answer to the displacement that comes from a town succeeding, going from drug deals to an active downtown. There’s no active downtown that’s just gonna sell aspirin and shovels. You’re not going to have a downtown unless you have $20 beeswax candles and farm-to-table restaurants and hip bars. You’re not going to have a downtown based on selling string. So, no one has the best answer yet about displacement of the soul of the community and the displacement of humans because of housing and consumer costs. Everyone is grappling with it; everybody has been asking me about it in towns, which is arguably a beautiful thing.

“What I Found In a Thousand Towns” is available wherever books are sold.

 

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