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. Continue reading
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. Continue reading
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,
82 Hollenbeck Avenue
This 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.”
You 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!
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.”
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?