The Vermont Village Green: Alternative to Empire

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 cruise missiles, 747s, 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.

Stephen Morris has recently published a great book which captures many of these images. It is called The New Village Green, and it was published by New Society Publishers. The book contains a collage, a potpourri of essays, vignettes, and quotations from many of the members of Who’s Who in Green America including Rachael Carson, Donella Meadows, Bill McKibben, and Kirkpatrick Sale to mention only a few.

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 during the early 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.

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 is now 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.

Although Charlotte’s new town hall, library, senior center, and post office are situated on a green, the real town green lies about three miles away at the Stony Loam Farm where the gourmet Pizza on Earth sells French bread, pastries, and pizzas to clients of the CSA farm when they come to pick up their weekly allotment of produce. Between June and October, Stony Loam is the hottest place in town. After picking their vegetables from the field, farm subscribers often order a pizza and sit outside eating and drinking with live music provided by local musicians. Some Friday nights there are as many as twenty cars there.

At one level, it is not an exaggeration to suggest that the village green is a metaphor for the entire state of Vermont. The Vermont village green is all about the politics of human scale. Vermont is smaller, more rural, more democratic, less violent, less commercial, more egalitarian, more humane, more independent, and 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 always trumps the politics of money, power, size, speed, greed, and fear of terrorism.

The American Empire has lost its moral authority. It is unsustainable, ungovernable, and unfixable. It is going down.

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

Stephen Morris’s The New Village Green is a must read for anyone searching for meaning, community, and human connectedness, as well as alternatives to full spectrum dominance and imperial overstretch.

Stephen Morris, The New Village Green. Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: New Society Publishers, 2007, 266 pages, $17.95.

Thomas H. Naylor
September 1, 2007