Community: more than a slogan

“Community” is a word we hear often in Vermont. The word pops up in official pronouncements, programs, mission and vision statements, and press releases. The word applies to social subgroups and natural communities of plants and animals. But like the natural communities that surround us, human community is fragile and fine-tuned. We can either build community or destroy it.

Vermont’s traditional bedrock community has persisted over 240 years, based on trust or merely acceptance, gained from a common history. This community shares manners, values, assumptions, expectations, habits and interests. The members don’t always agree—sometimes they violently disagree—but their commitment to the larger community keeps them on the same page.

It takes time to get to know this kind of community before an outsider can join it. So newcomers often form their own communities. Imported assumptions lead to certain expectations that in turn lead to goals that clash with the established, local ones. Ultimately, newcomers either assimilate or they form parallel communities that challenge the status quo, with positive or negative consequences for community.

Vermont has seen waves of in-migration for at least 100 years now. Some have been complete newcomers and some have been returning natives. Some have been able to survive financially in a chronically depressed economy, and some have not.

Vermont owes much to philanthropists of the Progressive Era of the late 19th century. Andrew Carnegie wrote that what you do with your wealth shows what kind of person you are. The Progressive Era took that to heart. They built their eccentric castles, protected thousands of acres from adverse development, collected antiques of all kinds before they disappeared forever, and yet loved and respected the local populace, who responded in kind. They joined the discussions around the general store pot-belly stove. They often worked alongside the tradesmen they hired. Frederick Billings of Woodstock and other gentleman farmers experimented in scientific animal husbandry and forest management, and shared freely what they learned for the betterment of the ordinary Vermont farm.

In short, they preserved community. They were admired in their time, and their legacy lives on in the historic sites, museums, libraries, parks and woodlands that locals and tourists alike enjoy and learn from today.

In the first half of the 20th century, the State of Vermont actively encouraged in-migration—“Oh, and bring money,” the state said in so many words. Vermont was in a bad way economically and the solution was seen in promoting—relentlessly—the many picturesque but run-down farms that could be had for a song, in illustrated brochures. The Woodstock Inn and other grand hotels beckoned well-to-do vacationers. But these newcomers no longer melded with the locals, other than buying local farm products. They gathered in stylish watering holes like Woodstock and Manchester and formed their own enclaves in the hills, intending not to settle but to turn the property over at the right moment.

In the run-up to World War II, other newcomers arrived, refugees from the winds of war, including artists. Then came the famous back-to-the-earth movement of the 1970s, fleeing another war and seeking a simpler life. These groups generally assimilated successfully and have grown into vibrant sustainers of local food and homegrown culture. And there are always “the summer people” and “the skiers,” who have been like migratory songbirds, among us but not “one of us.”

More recently, through the efforts of the state, Vermont has become increasingly—and disturbingly—“monetized.” The state cannot open a majestic new wildlife management area just for its own sake, without officialdom touting the millions of dollars in tourism revenue. The stiff goal of energy self-sufficiency drives projects that, in the eyes of many, destroy the very qualities of Vermont they are supposed to protect. Town plans are formulated using computer modeling and marketing strategies that threaten to replace the organically grown, rural community patterns with just another iteration of urban life.

~BM~

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