On the Importance of Gathering Places

From the afterword of Peter Miller's 2005 book Vermont Gathering Places, published to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Preservation Trust of Vermont.

In Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Robert Putnam carefully details a thirty year nationwide decline in social institutions—the places where people get together. Putnam’s data was overwhelming, persuasive, and frightening. While we at the Preservation Trust of Vermont don’t have the detailed data to refute his analysis, in the course of our work around the state we have collected an enormous amount of anecdotal information and experiences that say Vermont has escaped the national trend.

This book offers further evidence. Yet we take Vermont’s gathering places for granted at our peril. None of them will survive without constant attention and stewardship. Many of them are fragile, and some face major threats.

Vermont’s village storekeepers face some of the same difficulties as dairy farmers. Even modest debt can sink these enterprises. Long hours with minimal financial return take a big toll. A lifestyle that requires everyday commitment can be hard to sustain year after year. The best of these stores provide a wide range of goods and services as they as fill the role of community center. If a village store goes out of business even close neighbors can go weeks or months without meeting.

Downtowns provide the same opportunities for community interaction. The best downtowns combine a variety of uses that serve the entire community: retail shops, restaurants, town hall, post office, commercial and government offices, schools, performing and visual arts organizations, movie theaters, religious buildings, libraries, and housing for all income levels. Unfortunately, many downtowns are vulnerable to losing these institutions—some already have. One of the biggest challenges they face is from the big-box stores. People need basic goods at good prices, but when these stores are built on the outskirts of town, downtowns suffer and so does the sense of community. Let’s encourage building smaller stores, in our downtowns.

Some communities have seen an incremental loss of gathering places. First the town offices move to the outskirts, then historic schools are abandoned for new schools outside of the center; the post office follows. As a result the village store loses the shopper traffic and the storekeeper struggles to stay in business. Over time the heart of the community disappears.

The stewardship of these gathering places and activities is an enormous task, requiring many volunteers. Consider how many community suppers happen across Vermont each year, and the number of volunteers are required to make them happen. Thousands help to maintain churches, community halls, farmer’s markets, libraries. Community groups work hard to save historic buildings so they can offer a gathering place. Each activity and each building requires careful stewardship; we’re lucky—and grateful—that people care enough to maintain and provide financial support for each of them. Every year, new volunteers and contributors are needed.

Solutions exist for these challenges, but they require passion, technical support, encouragement, and financial resources. We need the will and the courage to say No when Yes would undermine the vitality of our communities. With the continuing support from our donors and involvement in a variety of partnerships, the Preservation Trust of Vermont is committed to spending the next twenty-five years protecting the character of Vermont and strengthening the vitality of our communities. Please understand this is not about “pickling” Vermont, it’s about finding smart ways to grow and building on the essential qualities of the state. It’s about being good stewards of the Vermont we cherish.

We hope you will be a part of the work that is ahead.

Paul Bruhn
Executive Director
Preservation Trust of Vermont