Monday, October 20, 2014

Truly, the Town's Hall

Ask folks what they feel is lacking in many American "communities" these days and the answer may well be that the very concept of "community" itself is missing. Community can be defined as, "a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals." From the birth of our nation up until around the time of World War II, America was rich with community groups and the "third places" in which they could easily meet. "Third places" being defined as "the social surroundings separate from the two usual social environments of home and the workplace," and included at that time: taverns, inns, public squares, village greens, lodges, meetinghouses, coffee shops, etc. Even during times of civil unrest and troubled economic periods, America never turned its back on community engagement and the idea that the public realm symbolized the common good.

Woodbury's Town Hall in its final day. It was torn down for a gas station.
image: Gloucester County Historical Society
However, early 20th century America saw a gradual shift from the importance it placed on communal, civic engagement (a "we're all in this together" mentality), to an increased interest in isolation and escapism largely brought on by the rise of suburban development and the increasing presence of the automobile. Simply, it became easier to distance oneself from problems than to address them in a civic forum. For example, where in pre-turn of the century America most adults participated in public societies (through the involvement in various lodge groups), and therefore actively engaged in direct civic contributions, by today's comparison there is very little involvement. The belief that it is always someone else's job to fix, is commonly expressed nowadays.

Take the morphing idea of the Town Hall (aka City Hall) as example. The original concept of the American Town Hall is nearly a foreign one by today's standards. Historically the Town Hall was truly an open-access hall or meeting space for the community and usually filled with art, performances, plays, educational lectures, and entertainment. Most towns and cities still retain a Town Hall, but this is in name only. Look inside today's Town Halls and we may find one or two meeting rooms that may or may not be used for community groups, but will predominantly consist of offices for the various bureaucratic functions of a municipality. It is the place you go to pay your tax bill or inquire about a zoning variance or have an ordinance passed. It is certainly not the place you would go to a Halloween ball and dance to a full orchestra band, or enjoy a family evening of roller skating (all things that regularly occurred in Woodbury's former Town Hall).

Research shows that Woodbury's original Town Hall sat on the SE corner of German (now Barber) and Broad Sts and was completed in 1875. It was cherished by the community. The Woodbury Constitution reported the opening as, "The reproach which we, as a community, so long endured, the mortification to which our citizens were for so many years subjected, is now happily a thing of the past. To-day we have an evidence of our city's growth and improvement, and addition to the long list of advantages which our City enjoys, a creditable and satisfactory answer to the imputations that we are standing still. The opening of the City Hall on Thursday evening last was an event which reflected no little  honor on the people of Woodbury, - it is marked a new and better era which is dawning, or has opened, upon this lovely habitation."

Woodbury's Town Hall consisted of a large hall on the second floor affording a comfortable seating capacity of 500, a gallery, and dressing/preparation rooms. It was lit by 37 lamps, heated with two large portable heaters, adorned with cypress and walnut trim, and boasted a 22 foot ornamental ceiling. A dumb-waiter provided convenient access from the basement kitchen. Various local commercial enterprises including a dry goods merchant, restaurant, shoe cobbler, grocery, oyster saloon, J. Elmer Jackson's patent medicine enterprise, barbershop and more thrived on the street level, truly making the building a mixed-use community center. It was also the location of the community library and reading-room, headquarters for the German Singing Society, Salvation Army Headquarters, and housed the town's first gymnasium hosting the Woodbury basketball team's home games. It was also transformed weekly as a skating rink and the town's first (silent) moving picture house in 1907 which featured a live female soloist to sing the illustrated parts. The hall throughout the years hosted many civic lectures and nights of entertainment and amusement for the community. It was the perfect culmination of American ingenuity and expression through culture.

This was Woodbury's Golden Age and with the above in consideration it becomes clear that the more value a community places in the recognition and engagement in Arts and Culture, the greater the health of that community. But as the years progressed and American communities slowly drifted apart to live quite literally among greener pastures, the very concept of community played a decreasing role in American civic life. Woodbury's Town Hall was torn down in 1936 for a gas station, which no doubt paradoxically provided the fuel for many one-time residents to leave Woodbury for good. Nothing replaced the Town Hall as the "civic, social, and athletic" center of Woodbury, and city leaders increasingly focused their energy on converting a residential-based city of proud locals to a drive-through business district and in doing so, forgot about Woodbury's remaining residents and their quality of life. A side effect of this quest to maximize short-term profit is that city leaders essentially forewent the trouble to worry about the town's aesthetic appeal. The story is no different across the nation during this time, when a quick transformation occurred and America's cities and towns went from proud human habitats, to current-day dilapidated, plastic strip malls clusters where consumers go in one end and out the other.

Despite America's decline in participation in civil activities over the past decade, the concept of Creative Placemaking through the arts is gaining steadfastly. Creative Placemaking "is an evolving field of practice that intentionally leverages the power of the arts, culture and creativity to serve a community's interest while driving a broader agenda for change, growth and transformation in a way that also builds character and quality of place." Traditional towns seemingly left for dead have been revitalized through Arts and Culture and have simultaneously increased an awareness of their own local History and importance. Quite simply, the arts stimulate local economies. The NJ Arts Council reports that, state arts funding employs an estimated 17,000 workers, supports 37,000 cultural events, and attracts 5 million visitors who spend $125 million. Perhaps more importantly however, is that the arts have been shown time and again to have the power to bridge divides and bring a renewed sense of pride to residents.

APA's latest national poll surveyed Millennials and Baby Boomers on community preferences and dispels popular assumptions on how to improve local economies and attract new residents. The wide-ranging national survey finds that Millennials and Baby Boomers want cities to focus less on recruiting new companies and more on investing in new transportation options, walkable communities, and making the area as attractive as possible. With the apparently failing model of 'business recruiting as economic development,' city leaders will be forced to look at alternatives. Creative Placemaking organizations such as the recently established FAF Coalition may hold the secret to the future success of the City of Woodbury.

Today the former site of Woodbury's Town Hall sits as an empty corner pocket-park along Broad Street in the heart of our once-bustling downtown. Not the best location for such a space and what some in the urban planning field might refer to as a "nature band-aid," but an open, green space nonetheless. With such a space there at least exists the potential for something to flourish. Perhaps "community" through Arts and Culture will once again sprout in the heart of our classic American downtown, and perhaps in towns across the entire nation, as a result of effective Creative Placemaking. Only then will we have the chance to come together, connect, and grow as a community. This is the formula for real progress, not only in 1875, but for today as well.

From the 1877 G.G. Green Daily Advertiser

Citations to follow...