Can a Community Fair Save a Dying Town?

Last weekend there were two ribbon cuttings here in Louisa County. One was for an expansion of the food pantry and the other was to celebrate the relocation of a 1770s-era house to a prominent location next to the Town Hall. The house had been falling in on itself on an isolated lot; now it was rebuilt for the community to visit and learn about its history.

At the opening for the restored house, the director of the historical society related the well-known story of “Stone Soup.” The tale begins with a man who has a pot of hot water with nothing more than a stone in it. Not especially tasty, and he's all alone. Then he is approached by various townspeople, each of whom offers a different vegetable to flavor the soup. In the end the community shares a delicious feast.

The story was a way to put a spotlight on the wide range of people from the community who had come together to restore this valuable historical structure, which provides clues to the origins of many of us.

I was struck by the food metaphor, given that the day before they had cut a ribbon to celebrate an expanded food pantry. The community really came together to make that project happen, too. But what a strange thing, if you think about it, that we are excited about expanding a resource to make sure people have enough to eat, because the local economy and society are otherwise unable to help people thrive.
A recent blog post on featured an excerpt from Robert Wuthnow's new book Small Town America: Finding Community, Shaping the Future, in which he talks about the effort and importance of organizing small town fairs. Like saving a historical house, these events and projects can generate enormous amounts of positive energy.

But it’s a lot harder, the author noted, to plan for long-term changes that a community needs, like a local food sector that can help people feed themselves and support their neighbors’ businesses. Or developing a stable supply of reasonably priced housing.

The small victories are certainly important, as long as there is a plan to build toward bigger changes that are sustainable.

(Photo by Bread for the City CC BY-NC-SA)

David Holtzman is a planner for Louisa County, Virginia, a freelance writer, and a former Shelterforce editor.


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