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An Alternative to Empire

Vermont’s Village Greens: an Alternative to Empire

by Thomas H. Naylor

Where have all the village greens gone?  They have been destroyed one by one.  Oh, when will we ever learn, sang Pete Seeger, a long time ago.

America needs a lot more village greens and far fewer unmanned drone aircraft, F-35s, and SUVs.  Village greens are small communities devoted to life, liberty, land, and locality rather than death, doom, and destruction of the planet earth.

The village green is a place near the center of town where people meet to chat, have a coffee, a beer, a glass of wine, or a bite to eat.  They may also buy a newspaper or a book, read it, listen to a concert, see an art exhibit, watch a play, smell the flowers, and pass the time away.  There are trees, bushes, birds, and grass and it is clean, green, and sustainable – - a place to be enjoyed for the ages.  It may be across the street from the town hall, the court house, the library, or the post office – - all purveyors of freedom and democracy.  Food and local trade are important elements of village greens – - locally owned restaurants and shops and perhaps a farmer’s market, not a Wal-Mart or a McDonald’s.  There may also be a church nearby.

Vermont village greens are democratic, nonviolent, crime free, noncommercial, egalitarian, and humane – a mirror image of the way America once was, but no longer knows how to be.

Unfortunately, there are a lot fewer viable town squares and village greens in America today than there once were.  In hundreds of small towns and many big cities former village greens are now unsightly eyesores surrounded by abandoned, sometimes boarded-up stores and visited by no one.

The town where I grew up in the 1950s, Jackson, Mississippi, had no village green as a result of the divisive racial climate there.  Neither did Durham nor Chapel Hill, North Carolina where I lived for thirty years while teaching at Duke University.  Arguably, the area around Washington Square in Greenwich Village, which I used to visit frequently when I was a student at Columbia University in the 1950s, possessed many of the characteristics of a village green.  So too did the French Quarter in New Orleans where I lived in the 1960s.

Back in the 1990s, Bill Clinton, snake oil salesman that he was, assured us that the Internet was “our new town square.”  Is the Internet a new town square or a cruel hoax designed to perpetuate our separation, isolation, loneliness, and lack of community?  Is it any more than a poor substitute for community in our high-speed chase to nowhere?  Is it possible to experience community with someone with whom you are connected only by electronic impulses transmitted between two black boxes?  We need more town squares and village greens where people can sit and talk, have a cup of coffee, and experience real community.  The Internet is no such place, nor is cell phone texting.

But, Oxford, Mississippi, the home of the University of Mississippi, has become such a place in recent years.  In the early 1960s, Oxford was a nondescript, sleepy, backwoods town which seemed to have benefited little from the fact that it was the home of Ole Miss and novelist William Faulkner.  Indeed, it was best known for the role it played in the 1962 forced integration of the University by James Meredith.

In 1979 Oxford’s fortunes took a turn for the better when native son Richard Howorth opened the Square Books bookstore.  This event single-handedly precipitated a complete transformation of downtown Oxford.  Today the Courthouse Square of Oxford has become a vibrant village green consisting of upscale boutiques, several first-class restaurants including City Grocery and L&M’s Kitchen, live music venues, and Square Books, which is a village green within a village green.  Quite appropriately, Richard Howorth became mayor of Oxford.  Politically, Oxford is a blue island surrounded by a sea of red.

No state has more active, well-preserved village greens than the state of Vermont.  Nearly every one of the 250 or so towns in Vermont has a village green which is alive and well.  Burlington has at least two village greens – - the Church Street pedestrian mall and the area down by the waterfront on the shore of Lake Champlain.  The entire town of Montpelier, Vermont’s state capital which has a population of only nine thousand, could be considered a village green.  The village greens in Middlebury, Craftsbury Common, and Woodstock are particularly charming.

It is not an exaggeration to suggest that the village green is a metaphor for Vermont even though Vermont is not nearly as radical as it once was twenty years ago, its Congressional delegation supports all of the Bush-Obama wars, and its liberals have turned a blind eye towards President Barack Obama’s cozy relationship with Wall Street, Corporate America, and the Pentagon.

The Vermont village green is all about the politics of human scale.  Vermont is smaller, more rural, more ecofriendly, more independent, and still more radical than most states.  It provides a communitarian alternative to the dehumanized, mass-production, mass-consumption, narcissistic lifestyle which pervades most of America.  The village green is an integral part of the Vermont mystique.  In Vermont the politics of human scale trumps the politics of money, power, size, speed, greed, gridlock, and fear of terrorism.

America needs a new metaphor – - an alternative to empire.  Vermont stands ready to provide such a metaphor – - the Vermont village green.

Thomas H. Naylor is Founder of the Second Vermont Republic and Professor Emeritus of Economics at Duke University; co-author of Affluenza, Downsizing the U.S.A., and The Search for Meaning.