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Mares: Elements Of Community

Almost 180 years ago, the French visitor Alexis de Tocqueville remarked upon the American social tension between the needs of the community and the wants of the individual.

Then in the 1980s a phrase from his book, Democracy in America, became the title of another enquiry into how the United States could balance the centrifugal force of individuals with the centripetal pull of the community. In The Habits of the Heart, sociologist Robert Bellah and others argued that without the larger context of a social whole - a community or historical tradition - the individual is at a loss and incapable of sustaining himself, herself or the public good. The community gives a sense of unity and a context of meaning to an individual's life.
I thought of these observations on the American condition, with the recent publication of two new books about Burlington.
The first, called Legendary Locals of Burlington is a collection of more than 100 2-page bios of prominent and not-so prominent Burlingtonians who have left a mark on "Burlap," as the late journalist Peter Freyne - himself a "legendary local" - often called the city.
The author of this idiosyncratic volume is Robert Resnick, research librarian, musician, artist and radio host. Reading the book felt like going to a giant block party where I recognized most people, but also met a few complete strangers.
Historical figures Ira Allen and Bishop de Goesbriand put in an appearance, as well as historians Lillian Baker Carlisle and Tom Bassett. Well known politicians Bernie Sanders and Madeleine Kunin are in the book. And so are banker Dudley Davis and chocolatier Jim Lantman - as well as restaurateurs Mark Bove and Nector Rorris. Some others are known just by nick-names - like the Hot-Dog Lady, the Clarinet Man and the Jazz Man.
Within weeks of publishing, Resnick had enough "omissions" suggested to him for another book. To which he jokingly responded, "If you don't like my selection, write your own book!"
The other book that got me thinking local is called, Sustainable Communities: Creating a Durable Local Economy about the last 30 years of economic development in Burlington. Two of the authors, Bruce Seifer and Ed Antczak, are former or current employees of the city's Community and Economic Development Office or CEDO. The book offers a descriptive-prescriptive template for community economic development and the focus here is upon organizations, instead of individuals. Discussion centers on topics like the creation of CEDO, the Sustainable Jobs Fund, support of employee ownership, and the development of businesses along Pine Street. It explores the need to balance diverse elements like community planning, social enterprise development, energy and environmental concerns, food systems and cultural well-being.
Taken together these two books reminded me that sustainable communities are born of both vibrant institutions and public-spirited people.
Perhaps not surprisingly, several people appear in both books!

Writer Bill Mares of Burlington is also a former teacher and state legislator. His most recent book is a collection of his VPR commentaries, titled "3:14 And Out."
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