Category Archives: Community


Speak Out, or Watch Out?

Some say small-town politics are more vicious than the big-city variety because the stakes are so small. They can be vicious, that’s for sure. But the stakes aren’t small for people who live here and pay the bills, and my limited involvement in local politics has been a chance to connect with life-long residents who feel pressured by rising taxes and by an economy that is too dependent on tourists and second-home owners.

Great Barrington and other towns in the Berkshires benefit, though, from a highly educated influx of people who want not only to make their home here but to become part of the community. They join the selectboard, the school and finance committees, even the planning board. It’s wonderful. The weird part is that all too often after joining one of these boards or committees they drink the town-hall koolaid. They become the man. They stop questioning authority (or using their Harvard degrees to analyze the numbers) and start parroting the bureaucrats from Boston.

Part of the good life for me is being part of a small-town community, but it hasn’t turned out to be quite the cozy experience I imagined. This post is the first of a series in which I’ll introduce you to Great Barrington, not as it’s been written up in Smithsonian magazine but the far more interesting real-life, 21st-century community I know, love, and want to see prosper.

Speak Out, or Watch Out?

I’ve often been puzzled by the local School Committee (as the elected school board is called in Massachusetts), but never more than today, as they launch a series of public meetings called “speak out” sessions.

The meetings aren’t a surprise, after the defeat by voters in Great Barrington, the district’s larger town, of a carefully conceived and expensively presented proposal to renovate the regional high school. The defeat was a surprise to everyone. There was no organized opposition, and the town boards had voted in favor, but the $56-million renovation plan was shot down 2-1.

What puzzles me is that the “facilitator” of these meetings, Karen W. Smith, is the not the first person I would choose “to listen to the community members about concerns, questions, and issues that they have” or to ensure that “answers given only after the community members have all had a chance to speak.”

Karen is one of my favorite people in Great Barrington. She’s a genuine local character, known throughout the area for her big voice and strong opinions. I’ve known her since I came here from London in 1992, a single mother with two small children. I used an office on Main Street downstairs from her insurance office, and I bought a life insurance policy from her that is only now expiring. I’ve bought car and business insurance and got good advice and service from her over the years. For years she organized a golf tournament to raise funds for needy families, and she’s always shown an interest in our local schools.

But a diplomat she is not. Everyone in my office knows her booming voice from the days when she was our insurance agent and would call to demand some new piece of information. I often responded to her phone messages with email and would ask her to email me back, but she did things her way. It got so no one wanted to answer the phone when she was on a tear about a new policy. “It’s not yelling,” I’d tell my staff, “that’s just her manner. She talks like that to everyone.”

“She’s the Chris Christie of local politics,” someone said the other day, “who thinks she can bully people into doing what she thinks is right.”

It’s true that when I was on the School Committee and on the other side of a controversial issue, she came to a meeting and denounced me. There wasn’t much nuance to it, and not much “listening.” She has a good heart, but with Karen everything’s black and white. You’re with us or against us. You either care about kids and education (and therefore vote “yes”), or you don’t.

Maybe, I thought, she’s mellowed. But I couldn’t see any sign of mellowing the evening she went after the School Committee, saying that they’d lost because they had expected people to come to the mountain instead of the mountain going to them. (This had a certain rhetoric flourish because the meeting was held in the high school, which is in fact on a mountain north of town.)

The press release for the “speak-outs” promises that the school project advocates won’t speak till citizens have their turn. Unfortunately, anyone who knows Karen Smith will imagine that it’s a chance for her to knock a few heads together and make it clear that anyone who cares about children – get that? – will do the right thing next time and vote for the proposal.

What I think likely – given that the Massachusetts department pushing the defeated project has encouraged the School Committee to try to get it through again unchanged – is that the “speak-outs” will be used to bludgeon voters. “We gave you a chance to present your views and you didn’t do it then, on our terms, so why should you be heard anywhere else?” Critics of the powers-that-be are not always welcome, and I know all too many people – intelligent, thoughtful, professionally qualified people – who don’t want to become a “lightning rod.” When I was in opposition to the rest of the school committee, things got quite extreme: I had a local reporter ask who I had starting my car. “This isn’t New Jersey,” I said, “Or Sicily.” (The reporter’s allusion was to The Godfather.)

And it isn’t. I’m not worried about starting my car or whether the police will respond when I call. There’s an advertisement you see a lot here that says, “Every Community Has At Least One Realtor Like Nancy Kalodner (In the Berkshires it’s Nancy Kalodner).” I’m glad we have Karen Smith in our community. We need her talents, her energy, and her voice. But the School Committee will have to do much more than hold these “speak-outs” to satisfy the voters of Great Barrington and the other towns, too, who said “no” so emphatically.

PS: Yes, there’ll be more from Great Barrington in the days ahead.

Image courtesy Flickr @sparetomato


Six Myths that Lead to Small-town Battles

I drove up Route 7 to Monument Mountain High School on Friday night as the moon rose over East Mountain, milky white and nearly full, luminous in a sky streaked with coral and rose pink from the setting sun. I had forgotten how beautiful that stretch of the Berkshires is in the evening. I hadn’t been to a School Committee meeting since 2001 when I resigned soon after I returned from my first trip to China. In the twelve years since then, my attention has been focused on an increasingly global business, but between spearheading the Train Campaign and running a popular online group based in my Great Barrington neighborhood, I’ve been refocusing on local issues and thinking again about how I can best make a contribution to the small town I call home.

I had, all those years ago, ended up on the School Committee by chance. I was looking for some way to contribute to the community I’d moved to a few years before. My then-husband was leafing through the local paper and showed me a notice about a vacancy on the School Committee, as the regional school board is called in Massachusetts. “They’ll never pick you,” he said. But no one else applied for the position, and the town’s selectboard had to appoint me. I heard the news from my dentist as he prodded my molars. “It was on the radio this morning,” he said.

My appointment was not welcomed by the School Committee or the district’s administrators. I was treated with suspicion and then with outright hostility because a controversial school building project was in the works, and they thought I was infiltrating. I hadn’t even known about the project, but there was a reason they were worried, and before long, without in the least meaning to, I ended up leading the opposition.

My political horizons are rather different these days, but small-town politics offers a fascinating contrast to global geopolitics and as it happens, Great Barrington has another controversial building project in play, an expensive renovation of Monument Mountain High School. It was dramatically defeated in a vote on 5 November but many citizens are convinced that the School Committee plans to push it through anyway. That’s what the daily paper the Berkshire Eagle has suggested, and we have seen it before. But I am hopeful that the magnitude of the defeat in Great Barrington (nearly 2 to 1) was sufficiently clear, and I went to the Friday night meeting to find out what’s going on. What strikes me about the recent discussion and the defeated $56 million project is how certain misconceptions I saw during my time on the School Committee are evident today. There are commonalities in politics, of course, so I’ve made a list of the patterns in the hope that we can talk about the underlying assumptions that lead to misconceptions like these, and come to a better understanding of what really makes sense for our lovely small town.

Here are the six myths that lead to conflict in small-town communities:

#1: Only a Million. The trouble with being on boards is that people lose a sense of proportion. They think of the figures in the budget as Monopoly money. Some get infected with millionitis, a disease that makes people’s heads swell when they deal with long strings of zeroes. My favorite phrase of the recent debate about the high school renovation project was, “It’s only $21 million for Great Barrington.” That is, our town would pay “only” $21 million out of a total of $56 million to renovate our regional high school because the other towns and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts would pay the rest. But it is, nonetheless, $21 million, and Great Barrington is a town of less than 7,000 people.

#2: Buy 1, Get 1 Free. If we can save money by spending $5 million and getting a reimbursement from the state, we can save even more by spending $50 million.

#3: Manna from Heaven. The matching funds from the state just fell from the sky, and we should scoop them up before anyone else does.

#4: The Master Builder Syndrome. Neighbor Anthony Dapolito provided this apt term, writing at TheHillGB, “I practiced as a CPA serving not-for-profit organizations for 35 years. In the NFP business we call the uncontrollable and sometimes illogical urge by boards to leave a lasting edifice as the “Master Builder Syndrome.” No presentation, entreating for a reasonable approach, will alter that inherent and indefatigable drive.”

#5: The Power of Positive Thinking. Demographic information tells us that our population is ageing and declining. The total number of school children in the region has been falling for a long time and a number of districts are talking about consolidation for that reason. But some people think that we should ignore the facts because they are “negative.”

#6: Politics is Personal. Those who don’t agree with you are “spreading false information.” They are against education or against progress. They’re not “working for the community” the way you are. This is a classic example of an ad hominem argument, which attacks the character or authority of an opponent instead of addressing the substance of their argument.

These myths are understandable. People get attached. We have personal connections and loyalties and investments, and don’t always look at the big picture. But that’s where a diverse community can be helpful: by calling on the knowledge and professional experience of our citizens as well as on common sense, we can look beyond myths and misconceptions, and come up with sustainable, sensible solutions for our small town.

By Karen Christensen

Image source: Images_of_Money @Flickr

The sounds of music on The Hill in Great Barrington

Neighborly harmony is a thing devotedly to be wished for. It is not easy to achieve, and I’ve read plenty in the course of my research on community about battles over hedges (a huge issue in the UK), loud music, and lawn and garden housekeeping. It’s easy to avoid neighbors today. I know someone who has lived in in a crowded suburb in the Silicon Valley for decades without speaking to a neighbor or even knowing their names. In many places, people simply drive in and out of the driveway, and install high fences.

But in my neighborhood, we walk. The first warm day of spring is guaranteed to bring people out, and throughout much of the year there are people who routinely walk to town or just walk around the neighborhood. But there was no way to connect with people you didn’t already know, and although New Englanders will often nod in greeting or lift their hand to a passing car, they do not start conversations with strangers. So I had the idea of installing a bulletin board on my corner, built along the lines of a board we had in Camberwell, where I lived in London. It was always the first place to go if you needed a nanny or wanted to sell something. Then a couple came along, introduced themselves, and said that a board was great but it wasn’t enough. So I gathered up some emails and launched a listserv – a Google Group – and called it TheHillGB. Over the 18 months it’s been running, membership has gone over 120, and it’s become the place to go.

In a few minutes I’ll be heading up Hollenbeck to a gathering that began with sad email on the list:

Hello to all,
About three hours ago I had a troubling experience. While I was practicing my pipes, a police officer pulled up in front of my driveway and told me that a neighbor had complained that I was too loud. He said that the person who called said that it is usually not an issue because I normally practice inside. This, of course, is not true, since I have been playing outside for 15 years. This is the first I have ever heard of any complaint, either in person or through the police. The inaccurate statement about my practicing leads me to one of two conclusions. The complainant may have just moved here. A much more disturbing possibility that I must consider is that someone who has been a long time neighbor has been offended by my playing for years and finally complained. If that is the case, I’m sorry.
Out of respect for the police officer, I stopped immediately. Since then, I have had many thoughts that I wish had come to me when he was here. For example, are my pipes louder than lawn mowers and leaf blowers? Do I have the legal right to play them during the day? I hope it doesn’t come down to that question, but will I someday be arrested if I persist in playing?
When I think of all the things about which I have never called the police, it saddens me that a “neighbor” has called in the law to prevent me from being who I am. I’m not sure how I’m going to handle this, but if anyone has any insight, I’d like to hear it. If the truth is that most neighbors don’t want to hear me, I can accept that and practice elsewhere. If you’re the person who called the police, send me an email or drop by, so we can discuss a practice time that would work for you. Otherwise, it could be a long, distressing summer. Thanks,
Kevin Kavanah
82 Hollenbeck Avenue

Sign on treeThis lead to a flood of supportive responses and a discussion which seemed a little tense at times (because noise is a neighborly issue and bagpipes are not the only sound to be heard on The Hill). Over the course of two days, as lots of different people chimed in, I noticed something that seemed very important: we started to relax. People began to joke, and to come up with solutions. This has made me think that the less we talk to our neighbors, the harder it is to talk to them, the touchier we get, and so on. We need to talk, we even need a bit of debate and argument. And we need plenty of voices, and different perspectives, and jokes, and of course music and beer – which is on the menu for this evening. I need to find a sweater, too, because it’s chilly – quite appropriate for bagpiping. I was going to get some blue face paint (suggested by one of the writers) but I guess that’ll have to wait for another time.

Above you’ll see a photo I took this afternoon. The sign reads: “If you’re the person who called the police about my bagpipes, you must not know me very well. Knock on the door and tell me your work schedule. I’ll play when you’re not at home. Thanks.”

Tom Christensen at Bagpipe Festival 1987You can read the correspondence for yourself by clicking here, and I’ll post more about developments and get some photos. And here’s a photo of my son Tom, in red, at the national bagpipe competition in Stirling, Scotland. He was two and doesn’t remember it, but I think this is fun because he’s following the online discussion from Beijing, and I’ll bet he’ll be first in line for a seat on the lawn when he comes home next month.

Postscript: There was a big turnout on the sidewalk and we had a kind of neighborhood meet-and-greet while Kevin piped. It’s got me wondering about whether there isn’t some way to have that kind of informal out of doors event more often, and I’ve been thinking about why standing on the sidewalk with a paper cup of wine (thanks to the ever-thoughtful Suzette) is more comfortable for many people than gathering even at Castle Street Cafe. There’s no cost, of course, and going out anywhere in Great Barrington can get expensive quickly. But the big advantage of the sidewalk is that one can leave easily, without fuss or notice – I noticed, though, that no one seemed keen to leave once they got there! 91-year-old Dr Hassett, who’s lived on The Hill all his life, stayed in the car, and Alan Chartock was glued into his lawn chair, but the rest of the crowd milled quite happily, even after the piping finished. And now that we know Jon Greene owns an open piece of lawn in the middle of the neighborhood, there’s talk of a mini-Tanglewood right here on The Hill!

‘Cash-Mob’ Creates Movie-Like Fairy Tale for Family Behind Ohio Hardware Store – ABC News

The town I live in (“some of the time,” my neighbors might say) is known for efforts to promote local businesses as part of a sustainable regional economy. I’ve written about them and will be writing more. When I came across this article, which mentions the “sense of community,” I wondered if such a thing could happen in Great Barrington. And I wondered if the good feeling that motivated the “mob” shoppers would keep them coming back, again and again.

While Black has been fending media calls, Shutts and her family have been fending calls from longtime customers who had moved away but are now planning pilgrimage’s back to support Chagrin Falls’ favorite hardware store.

That sense of community, she said, is what her family will take away from Black’s “cash mob” event, not the day’s profits, which the Shutts have so far declined to release.

“It doesn’t matter about the money, “she said. “Just to see the community and my family’s faces light up like this, it’s worth everything.”

via ‘Cash-Mob’ Creates Movie-Like Fairy Tale for Family Behind Ohio Hardware Store – ABC News.

Welcome home

My usual walk is to Lake Mansfield, through the neighborhood we call “The Hill.” I occasionally see people but not many. It’s a quiet neighborhood, and even quieter along the lake until you get to the beach (busy this time of year). But this morning we needed milk so I walked down the hill to Main Street, to the Berkshire Coop. I had other on-foot errands (dropping boxes of cereal the no one likes at the food pantry and returning hangers to the drycleaners) I could do. More important, I saw two friends for the first time in months. Diane has a gift for being outside her house at important times: the first time she introduced herself, she told me about a yoga class that turned out to be transformative; later, she was getting out of her car one early evening as I walked slowly up the hill. It was the day after I told my then-husband I wanted a divorce and sadness had struck. I was realizing just what a change I had undertaken, and how lonely the road might be. Meeting her that evening was a bit of serendipity I was grateful for and will, I hope, never forget.

Today, I again learned something from our encounter, brief as it was (unlike the post-divorce conversation, which quickly moved from Castle Street to Diane’s attic study, where we sat on a mattress in a window alcove with drinks and Kleenex). “Welcome back,” she said. Back?, I thought, but I’ve been here. For almost a whole week straight, in fact. And I’d been here before that, after I flew back to New York from Beijing on the 12th of July, for most of each week. When I’m in Great Barrington, though, I’m usually working. My daughter does most of the grocery shopping and my walks take me to the most remote spots I can find, so who’s to know that I’m in town even when I am? But this neighborhood, I thought, is home, and it bothered me that my friend and neighbor think of me as always being somewhere else.

On the way back from the Coop I ran into Tim, another friend I haven’t seen for a long time. “How’ve you been?” seemed a little feeble, considering the complications of his work with the Community Development Corporation. “Things are fine,” was not exactly what I wanted to convey, either, about everything that’s happened in my life in the past year. He wanted to know how my book project was going and whether I’d written anything about the local development issues we’d talked about over a sunny lunch at the Coop. “I haven’t got there yet,” I explained, and we promised to meet soon. “There’s plenty more to tell,” he said, and I’m sure there is. This, too, felt like a kind of homecoming.

But as I walked up the hill, I remembered an evening last summer when I arrived in New York after having been away for what seemed like a particularly long stretch. As I trundled into the lobby with my little pull-back, our favorite doorman said, “Welcome home,” and at that moment that was exactly what I felt, that I was back at home in the West Village.

This is my quandary: Can I really be at home in more than one place? Will I ever be truly at home?