Archive for the ‘Local Living’ Category

I love a good comeback story. Whether it’s an athlete battling back from a career-ending injury, a friend from a life-threatening disease or a business from an unexpected economic condition–I am cheering them on. And while disasters and misfortune and pain are a significant part of our reality and we hate to see anyone dealing with difficulty, you have to admit, comebacks are sublime. My favorite children’s stories, movies, news events and even cartoons always seem to involve someone or some place overcoming obstacles.

Comebacks came to mind 312187_416858315078290_430805569_nthis past week while attending a BALLE (Business Alliance for Local Living Economies) Conference in Buffalo, NY. Having never been to Buffalo, I was thrilled when my cab driver gave me an impromptu history lesson about Buffalo’s rise from the economic disaster after Great Lakes shipping was rerouted and the steel mills relocated. That evening while attending the conference opening reception, I got another history lesson in the recovery of Buffalo’s cultural vibrancy after the decline of the grain-milling industry from another local resident. In both conversations, the pride with which these life-long residents recounted the slow, but significant recovery their city had effected was palpable. They LOVED telling me the comeback tale.

Having been through a personal comeback of my own this past few years (and still climbing), my experience in Buffalo reminded me of how comebacks not only define us as human beings, but as organisms within a greater system of similar tenacity.  Nature comes back in the face of extinction (Nature’s Top 10 Greatest Comebacks of the 20th Century.) Small towns rebound from economic down turns (America’s Best Small Town Comebacks–my hometown of DeLand, FL made the top ten!). Cities devastated by natural disaster come back with more ingenuity and community spirit than ever (7 U.S. Cities that Rallied after Natural Disaster).

And while stability and prosperity are preferred states of being, the reality of the world we live in is a reflection of the planet we inhabit. There is flux and destruction and loss. But there is also glorious tenacity, perseverance and resiliency. So instead of focusing on what’s terribly wrong in today’s world, on the ecological, economic and social problems with us and looming on the horizon, the community leaders at the BALLE conference championed creative comebacks. Realistic about the challenges, they highlighted the tenacity and resolve of communities all over North America making a real difference. And when see the comebacks all around us, we can feel confident and yes, hopeful that no matter what, we have what it takes to rise again and again. Famed football coach Vince Lombardi Jr. summed it up: “The real glory is being knocked to your knees and then coming back. That’s real glory. That’s the essence of it.” Amen Coach. Amen.


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I admit it and my friends and family will attest: I’m a bit of a Grinch when it comes to the holidays. The obligation, the commercialism, the hype annoys me to no end. But this past weekend while working the soft opening of a new business venture and observing community events geared towards the holidays, I gleefully noticed an  ever-so-slow shift in thinking that is beginning to build among us.  Instead of just paying lip-service to the new economy and finding a different way of measuring success, we are beginning to DO it. We are beginning to measure success in relationships, community and shared experiences rather than dollars. I heard it in conversations at meetings, in  interactions with local merchants. I saw it in the plans people were making together beyond the holiday hype.

I observed all this while hanging out at Virtually Sisters, a project/community development collaboration now housed at 16 West Beverley St. in Staunton, Virginia. The partners in the venture (me being one) dream of a collaborative space that is the container and springboard for micro business ideas in the Staunton area. Some people would call it an incubator. I disagree. It’s not a place to “hatch” something. It’s a place to showcase, and most of all, DO what we are passionate about. 16 West is a light socket, an electrical outlet, a generator plug, a stage, a virtual audience, hands to shield the wind while a spark bursts to flame.

Virtually Sisters has hosted two business/retail activities in the space so far–the launch of the new (h)Economy time bank, and a series of Holiday Pop-Up retail days for home/internet based businesses. In the coming weeks 16 West will  be made available as inexpensive downtown work space, as a networking hub and as a showcase spot where micro businesses can be discovered and accessed in new ways– both through brick-and-mortar and virtual means. With so many cool things going on just below the surface of Staunton’s enormously creative community, 16 West will be a window to everything new and innovative happening right here.


So what shift in consciousness did I observe during these beginning events? People came together to share things they truly CARE about–families, friends, gardening/farming, crafts, technology, homesteading, art, music, photography, sewing, books–and began to build partnerships to help make their passions a bigger part of their lives. It was business mixed equally with the human need for relationship and joy. Sure, we all need to survive and earning money is part of the survival equation. But what if we measure our success by the ways we build partnerships and share ideas and help each other grow them? What if people equity  and relationships return as our primary source of business and community satisfaction rather than purely economic measures? Seeing that happen makes this Grinch very happy.


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I just got back from the National Main Street Conference in Baltimore where hundreds of managers and fans of historic preservation and revitalization gathered to pump each other up to continue doing what they do.  There were many examples of success and lots of suggestions for making cities all over America better PLACES to live.   The following comment in the closing speech from sociologist and writer Robyn Ryle summed it up for me:

“…external landscapes… shape the very ground of our consciousness, the way we see ourselves, the wider world, and our relationship to it.”

Then you can imagine my dismay when upon returning home to my beloved small town of Staunton, VA–an artsy, quirky and truly unique PLACE, I discovered a strong rumor that one of its most unusual destinations, Marino’s Lunch was going to close down.

Now there are lots of ways to describe this iconic local joint, but nothing really captures being squeezed like sardines into a dive (term most definitely affectionate) full of musicians and characters who are crazy about playing music except the word PLACE.  Marino’s Lunch is one of those defining pieces of history and community that is infectious and authentic.  The spirit of “we are all in this together” flows through every person that plops down on a bar stool.  No matter who you are or what you like, if you are an observant person you can’t help but feel it, breathe it, let it the vibrations of stringed instruments and raspy voices and clanking plates and bottles connect you to the deep roots of the human soul.  For nearly 100 years, this little hole in the wall has been a remarkable mediation on who we are, where we’ve been and where we choose to live.

Saving places like Marino’s Lunch may not always be possible, but finding ways to continually remember and revisit why place matters IS possible.  I’m often reminded of  Wendell Berry’s quote “If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are,” when I  describe my own passion for what Robyn Ryle calls being a “place-ist.”   She says: ” I am a feminist.  An environmentalist.  An anti-racist.  A place-ist.  I am unapologetically committed to places.” Me too Robyn.

Staunton Virginia is a  Great American Main Street Community that has a terrific culture of preservation. I hope we will band together to remember and revisit the enormous legacy of PLACES like Marino’s Lunch hold.  In the very least,  let’s archive what it has meant to our town.  Photo sets & articles about Marino’s that I could find online are posted below.  Got more?  Drop me a comment and I’ll link them here.

The Professional Foreigner
Photos by Pat Jarrett
Photos by Peter Aaslestad
Sitting on a g at Mario’s

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After attending several sessions of a fast-paced, fun open mic for creative ideas called Ignite Staunton recently, I started wondering how the demographic of this small town nestled in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia appears to have shifted from more traditional over 35 business types to a decidedly “hip” group of entrepreneurs interested in green, creative and grassroots business ideas.  Where did these folks come from and what does it mean for our local economy?  Why here?

Then I ran across this article on NPR “The Hipsterfication of America” and it totally made sense.  “Hipsters, after all, know how to adapt: how to make the cheap chic, the disheveled dishy, the peripheral preferable. A shaky, shabby economy is the perfect breeding ground for hipsters….Hipsterishness is a state of mind.”

So a room full of young ideas from every possible age group…presenters ranged from 10 years old to the AARP eligible…convinces me that the hipster state of mind has totally arrived in this tiny community.  Why? It used to be that odd, creative minds fled small town America’s scrutiny for the anonymity and comraderie of other weirdos in the big city.  What’s different here?

My theory is that despite its reputation for being a  little pocket of Southern conservatism, Staunton has always embraced creativity and the arts.  It’s not just a charming historic town.  It is a place willing to take creative risks, to accept quirkiness.  And despite the usual obstacles and threads of old power getting in the way at times, there’s a local state of mind that embraces innovation as the key to surviving and thriving.  And the hipsters feel it.

The hipsters have arrived, and they are heating things up.   Keep your eye on Staunton, it’s slowly lighting up the Valley.

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