|Published as a Public Service by REM, Convenor of Collaborative Community Enterprises||Fall 2007|
By Jim Baumer
Not long ago, James Kunstler wrote a book called The Geography of Nowhere. His stated premise was that as all parts of the U.S. and elsewhere are developed and paved over, the resultant ubiquitous sameness robs us of who we are (or were). Meanwhile, the once vibrant downtowns we remember from our youth are harder to find. Unless this trend is checked, many of our younger citizens may witness the day when downtowns, filled with locally owned businesses, will disappear for good.
The sameness one experiences while on the road, particularly when roaming the ribbons of interstate highways that crisscross the continental United States, can be mind numbing. The regional distinctions that once defined much of the country are vanishing before our eyes.
Even our own state, beginning with southern Maine and extending northward along the various exits of I-95, no longer provides any distinction to travelers. The Pine Tree State is no longer immune to the scourge of big-box behemoths, scarring even the most rural parts of our state's landscape. Rather than recognize them for the community-killers that they are, we trumpet them as economic catalysts. Meanwhile, the local hardware, or grocery store owned by someone we knew by name, signposts of our town, are shuttered and the sustainable benefits to the area that were generated by them disappear.
A sense of place is essential to the health of communities. It defines who we are in many ways. It is a rare human being that doesn't have a longing for some place. Very often, place is tied to a pleasant memory, or a special event that occurred in that place, rooted specifically in time. While the pace of life moves at breakneck speed, talk to anyone, particularly an older American about their past, and you'll find them traveling backwards into nostalgia, rhapsodizing about a ball field where they hit their first home run, the soda fountain where they met their future wife, or even the local department store where a young girl bought a dress, for some special occasion. These are our traditions and these traditions once shaped us, as well as our communities.
Today, many of our young are adrift, in fogs of indifference, cell phones intact, but tuned out and disconnected from the needs of the commons. Most can't articulate why they feel a sense of malaise and restlessness. I think it comes from an inability to put down roots that are deep and permanent. Having whatever gadget marketers tell them they need won't fill the emptiness at their core. The local big-box might have whatever is needed to satiate rampant consumerism, but material fixations won't lend definition to who we are.
I'm fortunate to have grown up during the late 1960's and early 1970's — one of the last great eras to be a kid. Because of that experience, I can draw upon people and places, rooted in a specific period of time. Younger Americans, who are in their early 20's, like my son, or younger, may not be able to find the same deep and abiding connection that I have, with a special place.
Communities like Waterville, with their solid downtown infrastructure, designed for pedestrians, have so much potential. Rather than build out, local leaders should find ways to redevelop the central core. I'm encouraged about the possibilities of the old Hathaway Shirt Factory's being developed as a multi-use, creative center. Community spaces, like The Center, hold much promise as places to gather and reconnect with one another, at the heart of downtown.
Data indicates that many young professionals are looking to locate in vibrant urban areas and smaller cities. If that trend continues, then once dynamic downtowns, like Waterville, may once again play a role in helping us rediscover that sacred connection we need to have with place.
Editor's Note: Jim Baumer is a writer, community leader, and workforce trainer. He is the author of When Towns Had Teams, a book on Maine town team baseball. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.