New England’s Town Meetings Offer Idea for Community Rebirth
In the past few weeks, the Winsted (Conn.) Evening Citizen has run three full page notices inviting the people of this small town (pop. 10,000) to come forward “with some ideas that will help Winsted.”
The Citizen’s publisher, Joe Bradley, wants “to get the people of this area thinking positively again.” He was referring to a problem that is typical of many New England mill towns which have been losing their industries. The local economy becomes less local and more dependent on commuting miles to work at some larger city. Unemployment is high and people despair over the stagnation.
In Winsted’s case, some of the textile mills closed down or moved away. Other factories were lured a few miles down the road by another town offering special incentives. Two other factories were purchased by conglomerates and shortly thereafter were shut down.
So Mr. Bradley and the local selectmen were asking for suggestions to improve the town and the townspeople started writing. The largest number of suggestions concerned cleaning up the town’s long main street and making it prettier. There were the inevitable proposals to improve parking and traffic, clear the snow better, and provide improved recreational facilities. One resident called for a farmers’ market; another demanded purer drinking water; while a third urged a program to help youngsters make things with their hands under the tutelage of senior citizens. All in all, they were remarkable for their modesty. There were few expectations that could be called ambitious.
If Mr. Bradley is trying to advance a community spirit, then a community gathering is a next logical step. An inventory of the town’s under-utilized assets can be compiled. A search for innovative solutions developed by other towns around the nation can be undertaken. Citizens can join committees working on distinct projects and with the help of more newspaper space can tap other townspeople to join their efforts.
This activity at first should be outside of government and
business institutions — strictly endeavor. In this way, the broadest public interest can be stimulated and rooted in preparation for the likely buffetings from special interests later. Citizen committees can look into the history of Winsted to see what lost knowledge can be recovered and put to use. The area used to supply more of its food needs. Given a recent Connecticut law designed to preserve agricultural lands and food production, can the growing interest in nutrition, gardens, and inflation-fighting find greater expression in the land around the town?
Energy efficiency is a national policy with many assistance programs. Small towns can inventory their energy waste and study their local energy supply opportunities. Solar, wind, and hydro energy will be major energy supplies in the New England of the future. Why not start the future now, albeit on a small scale first?
Developing a program where people with time and experience can teach youngsters their rights and duties as citizens and encourage them to study aspects of their home town that need improvement would have many short and long term benefits.
Once a community builds its élan through common projects to improve the quality of living, the strength to expand local economic activity that respects enlightened community standards will emerge. For industry, at any price — pollution, tax subsidies, and other forced concessions by imperious corporations, will indeed exact a heavy price from the residents. Just ask the towns presently afflicted with kepone, asbestos, lead and other poisons.
Columbia law professor, Adolf Berle, once said: “The instinct of the New England township is to solve its own problems,” Indeed the local town meeting form of government may well turn out to be the fountainhead of community renaissance. Its expanded use may be the best suggestion of all.