We have a working checklist of criteria for our Haven – the place we plan to find and settle after spending a year or two on the road. As we continue our preliminary exploration of New England to learn more about areas we might (or might not) want to live in, we’re learning more about ourselves as well.
There Were Signs
There’s an honesty to small towns. Often, it takes only a cursory drive down Main Street to tell you everything you need to know about them.
Quaint, Mayberry-like towns exhibit a curated self-awareness and puffed-up pride in their own history. Gilded, hand-crafted signs declare their storied sense of place and time as they tout the quality of their purveyors’ craft coffee, quilting necessities, locally-sourced artisanal pub fare and, of course, antiques.
Each freshly painted storefront is thoughtfully adorned with charming symbols of their offerings – as much an enticement to enter the shop as a statement of the proprietors’ identity. Streets lined with American flags hung by the local Rotary and tidy flower boxes placed on bridges by the town Historical Society each serve to bid their visitors a cheerful welcome. Collectively, these tokens inform us of the residents’ relative prosperity, ambition and sense of community.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, you find blighted, derelict non-towns. No flags. No flowers. Instead, boarded storefronts and peeling paint express these down-on-their-luck towns’ apologies for their failures. Slouched porches, junk-strewn yards and dusty windows blocked by hoarders’ piles convey embarrassment for their dismal state, begging you to look away even as they seek your sympathy before you move on.
You see glimpses from of their glory days. Rickety gas station signs, faded soda sale posters, and vintage drug store insignias recall two or three (and sometimes four to five) decades ago when the people who dwelled there cared enough to try.
Using these markers, it’s easy for us to quickly keep or eliminate a small town from our list. Each one we pass through improves our ability to categorize their personalities, and to refine our checklist.
Like heroes and villains in old silent films, small towns can be safely identified based on appearances.
The Middle Ground
Mid-sized towns, we are finding, are harder to pin down.
Unlike their cosmopolitan big-brothers, they lack the space and resources to distract visitors’ attention away from their seedy underbellies with the bright lights of thriving theater districts, booming commercial centers, and verdant, sprawling parks. Both sides of a mid-size town are on plain display and in close quarters. You have to dig a little deeper to determine which is its true identity.
Waterville offered us just such a mystery.
It’s home to Colby College, a posh liberal arts school with tuition that rival Harvard’s and a picturesque campus that boasts a litany of wealthy donors on the placards found on its classrooms, library, athletic field, recital hall and … art museum.
Yes, there is an art museum – an impressive one. Today we stopped at the new $100M Alfond-Lunder Family Pavilion that houses such exhibits as a collection of etchings by Whistler, Picasso, and Rembrandt. We also saw priceless vases and other relics from China’s Qing dynasty and ancient Greece, examples of craft and culture of the local Abenaki Indians, an imposing portrait gallery, and more modern and pop art including an exhibit sponsored by Brooklyn Rail that highlights social issues. In short, quite unexpected and amazing.
On the other end of Waterville, we saw the tale of another town, one rooted in and now scarred by Maine’s industrial past. Not far from the downtown Dollar Tree and Goodwill Store, we found where Scott Paper was the last owner to operate the 127-year old mill on the banks of the Kennebec River. It was shuttered two decades ago. Today that homely jumble of dilapidated buildings sits idle, its broken and boarded widows staring blankly at the town that discarded it.
The site provides its own candid perspective of the town’s journey from booming mill town to sleepy college town to … aspiring regional cultural hub?
Colby College, local businesses and individuals recently unveiled a river walk park near the historic Two Cent Bridge where mill workers would pay 1¢ to walk each way along the footbridge to get to and then from work at the mill each day. Sadly, the park is surrounded by sketchy bars and agency liquor stores, a counterpoint to the welcoming appeal of the shiny new public space.
Also nearby, across the street, we saw another huge complex of abandoned buildings, the former Hathaway Shirt Factory housed in a 138-year old mill. That was too much.
So despite the polished impression we got from visiting the college campus, and checking out the cool Railroad Square Cinema that screens independent films, we grudgingly decided to strike Waterville from our candidate list of towns.
Until we dug a little deeper.
Turns out, the college, local banks and other interests recently purchased that complex of blight with plans to restore and repurpose it to a bustling multiuse space that will attach to the cultural center they’ve already established nearby. As we read more, we found the town is experiencing a renaissance of sorts – with the locals striving not to bury their past, but to shore it up and build it into a thriving city-center.
In a year or two, we expect Waterville will be transformed from what could have been just another crumbling mill town into a vital regional hub pulsing with commerce and culture.
What Does That Say About Us?
We were ready to write this town off like nearly every other mid-size town we encountered. Obviously, we thought, it was just another could-have-been town whose charming qualities were overshadowed by the unsightly, polluted and decaying remnants of its past.
We woke up to a realization that the big cities we’ve lived in and visited, of course, all have blighted areas but we chose to avoid or gloss over them. We’ve been selective in our perception and recollection – focusing on the positive and creating an unrealistic standard for our future home town.
No wonder we were disappointed to not find what we were looking for. That fairy-tale town doesn’t exist.
With our newfound appreciation and more realistic definition of what we’re seeking, we kept Waterville on our list so we can check back with them in a few years.