by Glenn Reed
(Swans - July 29, 2013)
Mellow rock music.
I could distinctly hear it the minute I stepped down from the front porch and onto the sidewalk. It was coming from down the street. Main Street.
It was a warm, quiet evening early in the summer. I was walking the half-mile or so to the small gym in Fair Haven, Vermont, where I presently reside. My route takes me straight down through the center of town. It passes the town common.
I soon determined the source of the music. It was coming from the little gazebo at the west side of the common. A foursome of teenage boys were gathered under its dim light, plucking and drumming out a classic rock tune, as about 20 people sat under the shady maples to listen.
The town common.
Also known as the "village green," it is, along with church steeples and quaint general stores, an integral part of the image of small New England towns. It also brings to mind Norman Rockwell paintings, such as one that features a man standing up to speak at traditional New England town meetings (from his Four Freedoms series).
Yeah, I know. A bit hokey.
While the latter represents an ideal in terms of direct democracy, and that ideal is under major assault these days, the former is symbolic of something that has also become decimated in the United States in recent decades: the common good.
The commons originated in Europe and date back to medieval times. They were, in general, areas that served as communal pasture and haying land for those without property. They also grew to be meeting places, areas for recreational events, and other uses as well over time. They generally served as the core of small communities and gave them a sense of place and shared struggle. The practice of building such towns around the "commons" migrated to the Americas along with colonists.
Slowly, but surely, the forces of aristocracy and land ownership/property rights chipped away at the commons back in Europe beginning in the mid 1600s. Known as the process of "enclosure," it gradually led to the fencing in of all land, the transformation of agriculture from subsistence farming to an industrial, mass production system (hello agribusinesses and Monsanto), and created a desperate underclass and a buffer middle class that was dependent on the whims of the upper 1%.
This process was pretty much completed by the mid-19th century. What remain of the "commons" now often serve as public park space, where they have been preserved. In many instances, those salvaged spaces have been dwarfed by endless sprawl around them in the more urban areas. The sheep and cattle are long gone, though some sense of community may remain with the park space. At least until they become privatized.
Here in the New England states (Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont) of the United States, town commons have remained prominent. For example, the Boston Common in Massachusetts is one big-city "village green" that survived urbanization with a semblance of its central role in the community. This green space is anchored by the Massachusetts State House, features frequent political gatherings or concerts on its grassy slopes, and may not have cows, but still offers ducks, geese, and its swan boat rides on stagnant little ponds.
In other towns, where rapid growth has mushroomed into cul de sac housing developments, strip malls, and miles of four- and six-avenue roads lined with chain stores, the old town cores, including village greens, almost seem lost in the cold asphalt, steel, and concrete of free market capitalism. Most development has been geared towards the automobile rather than the pedestrian, thus further de-emphasizing the concept of direct contact between people.
Several communities in southern New Hampshire come to my mind here. They doubled and tripled in population beginning in the 1980s so that many of their village greens become more "quaint" anachronisms than anything else.
Still, the spirit of the commons reappears in closed street events, farmers' markets, and communities that have closed limited sections of their old cores to motorized traffic. Such efforts to revive any urban core exist throughout the United States. That spirit makes brief appearances even in communities without any town common. It's coming more alive with each effort to Support Your Local Economy and to Buy Local.
New England remains a region sprinkled with small towns where the town common still does retain that power as the spoke of the community. Currently, I'm lucky enough to have strong ties to communities in Vermont that boast some of the nicest town commons in the state.
The Fair Haven commons is virtually covered with shady and gnarled sugar maples and the entire space is enclosed in a white fence. Small plaques on sections of the fence give credit to town donors who have helped preserve that fence. There are historical markers in several spots that provide glimpses into the town history. Gravel paths lead from each corner and the middle of each side to a fountain in the center. Along the streets surrounding the common are the town's fire station, library, elementary school, a couple of churches, and the main part of the historic business district.
This illustrates how community life used to revolve around the common. It was the place where people gathered, saw their neighbors, got together for entertainment. Despite the fact that most people here have to commute 15 to 30 miles for jobs or settle for low wages at the local Dollar Store or Dunkin' Donuts, and though the high school is a half-mile away, a lot still happens on the common. There's a series of concerts in the summer, along with a 5k road race, auto show, lumberjack show, and much more. There's an occasional wedding at the gazebo and the middle school graduation is held there each June, depending on the weather. People incorporate the space for their early evening walks in the summer and greet each other here.
On the other side of the state, where my parents live in the town of Newbury, Vermont, lies an even more expansive town common. On its edges lie the town meeting hall, elementary school, volunteer fire department, the post office, a general store, and many late 18th century homes. The common itself offers a baseball field, small gazebo and a corner that has been planted with a variety of trees and shrubs.
In the spring, the cherry trees are in bloom on one edge of this common. On late spring afternoons, the cheers and cracking bats of a baseball game can be heard in the corner closest to the school. In late July, the town's annual Cracker Barrel Bazaar offers, among other things, a fiddler's contest, a comedy stage, farm animal exhibits, and displays from local artisans. In the winter, snow coats the expanse and reduces activity to elementary school recess games in mittens and boots, though a depression of the land in one corner is often flooded with water so that a small skating rink is created. At Christmas, a short tree is placed in the gazebo and decorated with strings of colored lights.
Last summer I took my 84-year-old mother to the fiddlers' contest for the first time in many years. As the sun descended behind the ridge that stretches beyond the common, I looked around at the couple of hundred people gathered on lawn chairs and blankets. I'd not lived in the area for about 20 years, so doubted I'd recognize anyone despite my twice a year (or so) visits to my parents. Then I spied an older man with a moustache, who was unloading his fiddle from its case and I said to my mother, "I used to work with that guy." And I remembered how he'd brought the fiddle to work one day about 25 years prior, to entertain his co-workers at lunch time.
The concept of the commons is, in most ways, viewed as anathema to those who espouse the United States as the land of individual rights, especially the right to private property. In fact, recent decades have seen an acceleration in the process of financial "enclosure," here and an assault on any common good. Safety net programs have been shredded, corporate powers seek ownership of everything from our public education system to prisons, banks are deemed "too big to fail," while they are allowed to gouge the "little guys" and take away their homes, and the corporate media constantly bombard us with the "me first" mentality. Any whisper of a "common good" is often drowned out with shouts of "socialism."
Meanwhile, in the scattered, small towns where neighbors can still say "hello" to each other, children gather for impromptu ball games, and women's club volunteers still plant bright flowers in the spring, the heart of our common humanity continues to beat, ever so slight, but steady.
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About the Author
Glenn Reed Glenn Reed is a writer and activist from Fair Haven, Vermont, who works in the non-profit world. (back)