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Reinventing Community : River Valley edition : Tuesday, 22 August 2017 14:34 EDT : a service of The Public Press
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Who is more busy than he
who hath least to do?
– John Clarke



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Ingredients for Reinventing Community

     by Michael Potts

Our sense of community has been in decline for several decades -- probably as long as most of those in this tent have been alive. The possible reasons why -- cars, TV -- might serve as a useful study, but for many of us, and especially for the residents of my little village of Caspar, on California's scenic North Coast, this has become an urgent concern.

The adverse pressures on us Casparados began as part of the endgame when our town's company -- we were a company town from 1860 until 1955 -- dissolved, putting 60% of our 'downtown' open space, especially the gorgeous open meadow between us and our ocean, onto the hungry California coastal real estate market.

So far, the results have been happy. Not only have we preserved the headlands, riparian, and beach land from resort development (by engaging the interest of all Californians, to the tune of $5.3 million, to make it a State Reserve) but in doing so we have rediscovered the joys of community. Our most recent (and possibly scariest) success is purchasing the old schoolhouse and making it our Community Center (while assuming a half-million dollar obligation, and that is no small matter for a village of fewer than 1,000 souls!)

So far, the results have been happy. Not only have we preserved the headlands, riparian, and beach land from resort development (by engaging the interest of all Californians, to the tune of $5.3 million, to make it a State Reserve) but in doing so we have rediscovered the joys of community. Our most recent (and possibly scariest) success is purchasing the old schoolhouse and making it our Community Center (while assuming a half-million dollar obligation, and that is no small matter for a village of fewer than 1,000 souls!)

In the throes of this renaissance, we have reclaimed our streets for pedestrians, and we greet each other cheerfully -- pedestrianism is up dramatically, and so is friendliness. We recognize that our serious work begins now, because we find ourselves unexpectedly blessed with good land and great neighbors, but with some of our grandparents' skills in community, subsistence, and stewardship blunted by the last half century's urban materialism. We come to this time of "insurmountable opportunity" ready to change gradually, and, I hope, fast enough. We're devoted in theory to combining the best of tomorrow's technologies and yesterday's wisdom into an evolving recipe to sustain our village for at least the next 100 years. For each of us, knowing the impossibility of achieving such a plan adds a wry and wary flavor to the stew.

While seeking to make choices "to preserve and improve the quality of all life in Caspar" -- our mission statement -- we have begun to evolve, if not a recipe, at least a list of ingredients that seem to us to be crucial in concocting a remedy for disconnected community. We're always finding new ingredients, and hope you'll be able to help.

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pre-requisites

History

It seems to be useful to be starting the story of a village in the middle, not at the beginning. Towns like Levittown and Daly City lack the context that allows people to weave community.

Uniqueness

Many communities have succumbed to suburban globalism, their Main Street has become indistinguishable from the next town over. Too many Mickey Ds and Big Box stores are antithetical to a sense of community, but well suited to global consumerism.

Room to Grow
(or not)

Right at the outset, a community must face whether it can stand to grow. If there just isn't space for new homes and shops, the options are limited. I don't think reinventing community is impossible, but it is probably tougher, because there's not much room for new features.

Those gathered in the tent were quick to advise that Size Matters: if a town's already too big -- big enough for a Big Box Mart, for example -- it may be too big to reinvent community without first reinventing neighborhood.

Authenticity

Settlements made up of a homogeneous population don't have much impetus to create community. To cook up a rich stew, we need elders, workers, managers, artists, poets, teachers, children, religions, races, ethnicities -- we need diversity.

getting started

Patience

Haste makes waste, and being pressured by external events and conditions tends to encourage hasty decisions that are later found to have been unwise and, too often, motivated by one greedy developer's limited vision.

Song & Singer

To keep the pot bubbling, villagers need to tell and retell their story -- is it accidental that places where community is most alive and well still also enjoy a vivid oral tradition? In Caspar, we're lucky to have among our founders and "chief cooks" a great singer-songwriter, several journeyman press release writers, and interested local media.

Open to Change

If the NIMBYs are in the ascendant, it's tough to build community. Any kind of building involves change. It took us six years to loosen up enough to see that we need 30 or 40 more homes and 5 or 10 more businesses to have the "critical mass" that will sustain an autonomous community.

Flexibility

Like the foregoing ingredient, but different too, in that this is about bending before the winds of change. One early advisor suggested that most of our work should be assembling possibilities without judging or becoming attached to them; he likened it to strewing seeds of many different wildflowers, and being grateful for the mix that thrives.

Many Casparados want to make the plan, "set it in cement", and get on with their lives. "This planning takes too much time," they've been known to say. "Let's get it done!" What we've learned is that planning on a hundred-year scale is a perpetual process; the plan is always being refined, revamped, abandoned, and reinvented.

We guess this is true for building community, too.

Shared Vision

In Caspar, we started our process by agreeing on the "sacred spaces" -- the headlands above the Pacific, the duck pond, the village square. These were easy to find consensus about, and greased the machinery for finding more consensus. In retrospect, it's remarkable that so many people have come to such a broad and powerful shared vision for Caspar's future.

I should tell you that we hired a visionary community designer to help us with this visioning, because we knew we couldn't tease out the strands and textures by ourselves.

Inclusiveness

Everybody's welcome! If you believe in your heart you're a Casparado, you're a Casparado. We have come to acknowledge that for those who live in Keokuk, Iowa, this is their seacoast too.

Proactive style

We Casparados were great resisters -- many of us marched against the Viet Nam war in 1970, were instrumental in stopping Ronnie Raygun's Off-shore Oil proposal in the 1980s, and walked in the front ranks at Redwood Summer. We've stopped (temporarily) herbicide use and logging in our neighboring forest. But being anti isn't much fun, and ultimately it's not positive. You know us woo-woo Californians: we like to be positive!

Our successes in the last five years have been pro-active rather than re-active. We've anticipated the possible developments, and steered them by having a more powerful and inclusive vision than the planning establishment or the developers. We hope this strategy continues to work.

'Fun Raising'

Non-Governmental Organizations too often get bogged down in raising money. We've always been very careful to keep in mind that this work has to be fun, too. Our "fun raisers" include a Halloween Parade led by our Gorse Monster, annual New Years gatherings, potlucks after community meetings, and lots of mutual acknowledgement.

Generosity

Appreciation is one of the least expensive forms of energy, and we try to spread it around generously. In our meetings, the Hawaiian spirit of aloha aina -- love of the land -- keeps us generous with speakers and questioners whose opinions differ from our own. This, we are told, is rare in an increasingly contentious America.

sustaining

Children

Whether or not our children are able to stay, find housing, work, and play is emerging as the most important indicator of a healthy community. In Caspar, we've moved from an F to a D, but there's a long way to go.

Commitment
to Future

I remember trying to get my aging Dad to buy compact fluorescent lamps for his home. "I don't want any [expletives deleted] lightbulbs outlasting me!" he exploded.

One of the greatest qualities of the 100 year plan is that none of us will live to see its end. In a land increasingly governed by short economic and political cycles, the art of the long view has been lost. If not for ourselves or even our children, we are committed to the future for our grandchildren.

Suspension
of Disbelief

Perhaps as a result of our cultural short-sightedness, people don't seem to be very hopeful. Henny Penny and her inheritors fill our hearts and minds with gloom and doom, the end of Nature, and so forth. We are trying, very locally and on a small scale, to make the art of the possible, despite all the dark clouds on the horizon.

presented at Solarfest Vermont, July 2002
revised for the Mendocino Study Club, September 2003



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