Dar Williams has been called “one of America’s very best singer-songwriters” by The New Yorker. She’s released ten studio albums and authored four books including her latest, What I Found In A Thousand Towns. Known as much for her staunch progressive ideals as her raw acoustic energy, Williams has been captivating audiences with her sheer elegance and honesty in her folk-pop songwriting since the '90s. Williams’ growth as an individual over her two-decade-long career has gone hand-in-hand with her evolution as an artist, touring along the way with such distinguished peers as Joan Baez, Patty Griffin, Ani DiFranco, Loudon Wainwright III and Shawn Colvin among others. In preparation for Williams' performance during the TrustLive on Revitalizing Small Communities at PastForward 2019 we wanted to share an excerpt from What I Found in A Thousand Towns, along with a few videos of Williams in concert.
How do you reach into the past to find your present and future? To answer that, we must follow the sound of slightly ominous chanting in the distance. It’s early December in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania. Thousands of people stand at the edge of town shouting in unison, “Burn that bird! Burn that bird!” Above them a phoenix looms with archaic, graceful severity, eighteen feet high, constructed out of wooden pallets.
Every year more people take part in the spectacle of the Firebird Festival. Dancers writhe with lit torches as the excitement grows. And then, suddenly, the dancers charge to their positions at the base of the firebird, tip their torches, and touch their fire to tall, angular legs and feet with foot-long talons. The flames climb. The cheering erupts. Soon the whole bird is engulfed. There is a moment when the phoenix stands, her beak, wings, and prow-like chest clearly defined against the night sky in pure fire. Soon enough, slats of wood start to fall like burning feathers. Then the body, consumed, starts to collapse. By morning, the phoenix is a wide, shallow pit of ash.
A small group of people then returns and starts digging in a slurry of mud and ash to pull out small clay birds made by people in town. The birds have been fired once in a kiln and a second time in the heat of the burning phoenix. Everyone makes two birds, one to keep and one to sell to raise money for the next year. After they are retrieved, the birds are brushed off to reveal the charred and iodized designs that the fire has imprinted on them.
This digging out, on a very grand scale, is what Phoenixville did over a twenty-year period. It dug into the ashes of its past to pull out its fragile, fire-mottled treasures. More than two hundred years of history found their way into the plans that invigorated the prosperous, highly functioning downtown we see today. Phoenixville has risen carefully and creatively, and it provides a wonderful model for towns and cities everywhere. After all, everyone has a history.
Death of a Way of Life
In 2007, I played a gig in Phoenixville. I recognized it as one of many Pennsylvania towns struggling to find its twenty-first-century identity. A true revitalization of mid-Atlantic Rust Belt towns had many obstacles to overcome as those places soldiered along to the end of the twentieth century. Stretching from New York to Ohio, steel mills and coal mines went from boom to bust almost all at once, so it was difficult for any town to hitch its wagon to a nearby star. When motivated citizens would propose a project such as a coffeehouse concert series, there weren’t many regional resources to kick everything into gear, let alone audience members who could afford to attend.
Meanwhile, big box stores lurked around the edges of every struggling town. In fact, the big box strategy was to find Main Streets with disappearing businesses and weak political will. They moved in, undercutting and capturing most remaining local business.
When Phoenix Iron and Steel downsized to almost nothing in the 1980s, Phoenixville fell very hard. The King of Prussia Mall provided another fatal reason for everyone to abandon its demoralized downtown.
Borough Manager Jean Krack told me what he saw when he first passed through, years before he worked in Phoenixville: “You have people that were doing less than stellar things for profit or income, and it was readily apparent; it was, ‘Okay, can I find a different road to drive through to get where I’m going?’ And that was in ’98.” Eli Wenger, co-owner of the Steel City Coffeehouse, gives a less elliptical account of what those “less than stellar” businesses were: “When I was growing up, Phoenixville is where you went to get drugs.”
Jean Krack said, “The steel mill had long since been closed, and so, like many steel towns throughout Pennsylvania, this town was just folding onto itself. Having been in other communities nearby with other steel mills that have gone down, when that occurs, and that traffic begins to come in, quality of life goes to heck in a handcart.” But at the turn of the twenty-first century Phoenixville, almost like a person on the other side of a death or divorce, started to come back into the world. Specifically, some determined people stabilized the town with unique, history-based projects.
I saw the early efforts to revive the town when I played at Phoenixville’s Colonial Theatre in 2007. The colonial, a historic theater, was a big part of the effort to bring the town back. Renovating a building and bringing life back into it is a great way to honor local history and make the most of what is left. But I worried. Part of playing in towns is that I worry about them. Could this midsized town support an old six-hundred-thirty-seat theater? Wasn’t that a little big? Could they afford to heat it? Could they find an audience?
The theater was still a little rough around the edges, but that was part of its charm, and I could see how excited the volunteers were to have music in their downtown. The staff members introduced themselves, and the promoters sent flowers backstage to me and to Lucy Wainwright Roche, who was also playing that night. These were all good signs.
There was a straight-up beer-and-burgers restaurant nearby. Like the Colonial, it was serviceable and friendly. People could go there before the show, and that would help the town: keeping an audience on your main strip before and after concerts is key for compounding the value of the concert venue. The coffee place down from the Colonial was another music venue, the Steel City Coffeehouse. It was a funky, sprawling café, a highly beneficial space for gathering up all the eclectic conversations and energies of this town and helping its residents imagine new steps for going forward. And it had excellent coffee. The ducks were lining up. Still, I thought, this town could go either way. The work of a few can only go so far.
When I returned in 2011, there were lots of restaurants, there was plenty of great coffee, and I saw further improvements to the Colonial, which now had a nicer dressing room and was open three hundred sixty days a year.
How did the town that had faced such a complete shutdown come back in force? There was strong leadership for sure. Large, ungainly, wire-tangling trees were chopped down, new trees were planted, lampposts were painted blue, benches were installed, and sidewalks were repaired. But something has to precede good governance. Otherwise, why bother governing at all?
Everywhere I looked, I saw Phoenixville’s use of history as its strongest life-giving force. It was in the architecture, the murals, the signs, and even in the majority of my discussions with people. They restored the structural integrity of the town’s old buildings while also delving into their social history to locate themselves in the present. This town was growing from its roots.
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