Traveling up the eastern seaboard of the US one-day last Fall, my wife, Allison and I wandered through North Carolina’s Inner Banks on our way back home to Alexandria, VA, mixing beautiful vistas with whiffs of history found in the small river towns along the way. Just about ready to head west to connect with the madness that is I-95, we drove over an aging bridge that spanned the Pamlico River. The bridge dumped us on Main Street (doesn’t every small town in the US have a Main Street?) in the heart of Washington, NC’s historic district. We drove two short blocks and then turned right on a street that bowed back toward the river and followed the waterfront for several blocks. A harbormaster sat at the beginning, or end, of the waterfront, depending which direction you were coming from. A newly renovated promenade stretched down the small harbor that featured docked sailboats and motorboats. Park benches lined a grassy median and looked out onto the widening Pamlico. Just 40 miles as the crow flies, the Pamlico flows into the Pamlico Sound and then works around the Outer Banks to the Atlantic. Time did not stop, nor did sunbeams break through the overcast to bathe the intimate harbor for us in a soft beckoning light. That only happens in Cecil B. DeMille movies. But what did happen is we parked the car in a city lot right next to a circa 1830s renovated brick warehouse with a molded blue crab in its front yard, walked across Stewart Parkway which feeds into Water Street and plopped down on one of those park benches. While a soft breeze played across our faces, and the afternoon sun warmed our cheeks, we closed our eyes and listened to gulls that lazily flew among those boats and the wind that quietly moved the boats against their moorings. Knots of people walked up and down the promenade. Life moves a tick or two slower in towns like Washington and that can be attractive for many; it was for us that September afternoon.
We finally and reluctantly stood up, unwilling to climb back in our car and head for the nearest route out of Washington. So we turned away from the Pamlico and sauntered up a side street to Main Street. Four blocks of old brick buildings that once housed local businesses a century ago and a couple of stone columned banks greeted us. We walked up one side and down the other and passed art galleries, some diners and restaurants, antique and novelty stores, and a community theater that had risen like a phoenix from the dust of the passing years. This is small town America. You can change out the river and the boats for town squares and parks with revolutionary, civil war, or WWI or II canons, depending on where you are. Old Courthouses and banks, maybe an old church or two, linger just a block or two away in Washington and across Main Street America. There is a history in each of these small towns, good and bad, that is captured by these buildings and the historic homes that surround the proverbial Main or Market Street.
Washington, NC is like so many other small towns and cities across the country, struggling to survive and stay relevant in a world and society that has supposedly passed them by in the blink of technology. But in the same token, while larger urban areas may offer a pace and opportunity for personal growth, and a stimulating and sometimes intoxicating mix of cultural and social diversity, that lifestyle is not for everybody. The divide between urban and rural breaks down when looking at towns like Washington, NC. The internet and social media, the rapid growth and success of small business, especially consulting and IT/software, the growth of high tech and research areas such as the Research Triangle in and around Raleigh-Durham and Charlotte in North Carolina allows the opportunity to live in smaller and slow-paced communities while still being active and successful in careers. Culture can be found in the community theaters and if parched for the arts, places like Greeneville (home of East Carolina University) or Raleigh/Durham are just 20 miles and two hours away. In addition, the recreational and leisure opportunity, and the quality of life that spins from nature and a lower cost-of-living promotes a greater draw of folks to, for example, the Inner Banks area.
It is these small towns and cities which have provided the social, cultural and historical fabric that knitted a sense of community for the US for over two centuries. Larger cities grew in response to the development of the US in trade and the ability to expand across the continent – while the country was populated by waves of immigrants seeking the kind of life and freedoms not available elsewhere. This diversity spread throughout farms, towns, and cities, bringing with it elements of culture and worldviews from all corners of the world. These worldviews ended up being molded into some pretty important core beliefs, not always religious, that were already here and passed on from generation to generation. The incubator for these commonly-held beliefs were America’s founding documents, but it was the community that enacted and reinforced these beliefs over the 250 years’ growth and development of this country.
Many definitions of community exist, just as there are numerous definitions of culture, but common features include a group of people with diverse personal and professional characteristics who are linked by social and cultural ties, or the shared acceptance of diverse ties. They reside within formal or informally accepted geographical boundaries, although the notion of community has grown beyond borders. A community shares common perspectives on actions and activities that strengthen, sustain, and better the lives of community members and that are, for many, actively involved and engaged in such action at local locations or settings. That is more or less the academic perspective of community. In other words, across past and contemporary America, small and large urban centers as well as rural and farmland areas, the notion of community was woven into our DNA. Communities have come together to create distinct senses of shared identity that rely on commonly-held beliefs and values.
The history of this country rests on the strength of communities coming together in war and in environmental crises to keep alive these dreams written out in the long hand of our ancestors. But the health of our country has also been founded on how communities have sustained the diversity of our legacies while lacing a shared tapestry of togetherness. Picture a community as the bricks that have been laid so carefully by the ancestral masons, and today this foundation still represents the best of who we are and mean to be. That is not to say that community hasn’t been hijacked by misguided or just downright bad groups of society, inflicting perverse interpretations of what it means to live in the land of the free and brave, because it has. These groups oftentimes forget that underneath that rich foundation of difference that drives who we were and still are, where we came from and places we may or may not ever want to return to, we are also bound together by the promise of what we can all be tomorrow and next year, till we take our last breath, and even then, what we can leave to our children to continue that common desire across time.
That was the message written on the Lady of Liberty that has greeted newcomers to these shores for decades,
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
That is community in a nutshell and in the history of how these American communities came together and sustained offers social and cultural blueprints for how the future of US society can continue to be the beacon of hope not just for the world, but more importantly for those who now call these shores home. Those blueprints include how neighborhoods were laid out and motivated by these elements of community, even as the residential patterns also reinforced the importance of these same components. The plans also included the use of common or community spaces which brought neighbors together while centers of learning and worship collected the diversity around them to take part. It isn’t just small towns and cities like Washington, NC where community sustained; it was in the urban centers of New York, Philadelphia, and with movement west to Chicago and St. Louis where neighborhoods coalesced around brownstones, apartments, and playgrounds. Rediscovering this DNA of past community is critical to the development of our neighborhood and towns of the present.
Back to the sun kissed afternoon on the Pamlico. We were so taken by Washington, NC that afternoon that when we had the good fortune to stumble into Alexis Davis, a real estate agent, in front of her office as we looked at real estate possibilities, we took advantage of it. We must have looked like who we were, tourists staring into the office window dotted with houses for sale and wanting to know if the grasp of afternoon magic was for real. We “kidnapped” her for an hour, threw her into the front seat of our Mini-Cooper convertible and drove around Washington’s historic district, peppering her with questions about the historic district, the community, and the town. Washington is so much like the many small towns I have lived in and near, poised to tip the scale on an economic boom. But even in dissimilarity with other towns that weren’t on a river or waterways, but maybe instead near amber waves of grain or at the foot of or perched on purple mountains majesty, Washington – as other small towns – strives to create and engender a sense of community. In hard times and in flush times, in catastrophes and crises (such as floods in Louisiana or tornadoes in Kansas), community will always offer to those who need it the most.
We gently deposited Alexis on the sidewalk near her office and snaked our way out of town. One year later, my friend and colleague David Steckel and I have formed a non-profit institute on the banks of the Pamlico to explore and promote historical preservation and community sustainability. That is what Pamlico Rose Institute of Sustainable Communities (PRI) is all about: finding ways to not only dip into the well of history to provide examples and pathways to sustain community but also to encourage utilization of historical resources in efforts to build further community growth and development through innovative uses and programs. We think this is a conversation worth having. Please join us if you do as well.