On Being Polite

In the course of working at the Finger Lakes Community Newspapers for two and a half years I have attended an inordinate number of public meetings. It has been fascinating and mostly heartening to see democracy at work on the local level. Government officials who are being paid next to nothing (or, in the case of school board members, nothing) come home from their regular jobs, maybe get some supper and then trundle off to go through paperwork, listen to the opinions of residents and hired experts, and make some decisions about what to do with our tax money.
Our newspapers attend the public meetings of eight school districts, 11 towns and nine villages. They are all very different. I suppose they have all always had their own peculiar character as they are the product of the personalities of the people who live there. However, over the last 30 years all the towns and villages within a 20-mile radius of Ithaca have been seeing a steady incursion of “outsiders” with quite different folkways than the ones that have evolved over the 230 years of European settlement in central New York.
Outsiders have always contributed to the evolution of our local small towns. I live in Trumansburg and know its history best, so my favorite example of an outsider who arrived and turned the town upside down is Colonel Hermon Camp. He arrived on foot, virtually penniless, having walked from Owego before the War of 1812. He served in the war and then proceeded to greatly expand the means of production in Trumansburg, including founding what is now Tompkins Trust Company.
He had plenty of company in the 19th century. With the expansion of the canal system through the first half of the century made central New York the frontier of the republic. Entrepreneurs poured in. The advent of the railroads continued the economic expansion in the second of the century. The opening of the West must have slowed the flow of newcomers into central New York. In the 20th century it has basically slowly emptied out.
So the new newcomers are a different breed. They are mostly seeking a rural idyll. They look at the abandoned agricultural landscape and see a picturesque ruin that they wish to preserve as “greenspace” and “viewsheds.” Their economy is an international economy dependent as it is on Cornell, Ithaca College, Borg Warner and a network of clients whose work comes to them from all over the world through the Internet. It is all a long way from farming, woolen mills, and glove factories.
So as I sat in my folding chair night after night I was regularly disheartened by the awkward clash between the folkway of the inhabitants of a declined (but not extinct) rural economy and the folkway of a post-modern service economy. The principles of the latter seemed ahistorical, to be ungrounded by a sense of place, to emphasize personal achievement and addicted to decisions made by committees. The former are basically … the opposite. And in this case opposites do not always attract.
It is the responsibility of newcomers to learn the history of these communities, to get a feel for the folkways of the region, and to proceed with their engagement in public life accordingly. Unfortunately I don’t see that happening as much as I would like. So many times I have had to sit through a meeting where someone who is just trying to be civically responsible comes across as boorish, condescending and insensitive. They are then baffled by the negative reception that they get immediately and the backlash the unfolds subsequently. It is basically the local equivalent of moving to France and trying to convince that they don’t know anything about food or wine and then being surprised when they get a little shirty with you.
This is my last week as managing editor of the Finger Lakes Community Newspapers. It has generally been an uplifting experience, except for karmic downer described above. I can now look forward to simply reading the paper like everyone else and going to public meetings and practicing what I have just preached.

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