James Howard Kunstler: Christmas story (doing things differently)
On Saturday, the town next to us, Cambridge, New York, put on its annual Christmas breakfast in the main theater of its old opera house, Hubbard Hall.
Cambridge is a farming town in a farming economy that died and is just beginning to be re-born. The town occupies a landscape of tender hollows and gentle hills that rise toward the Green Mountains of Vermont twenty miles east. This topography allowed a specialty economy of seed husbandry to thrive. Each little hollow, like a little isolation ward, could be used to cultivate pure seed strains of a vegetable untainted by other varieties.
The modest red-brick factory in the center of town was never a smokestack industry. It was a seed-sorting and packing operation. Today, the “re-purposed” building occupies a very mixed assortment of activities: a specialty woodworking shop, a health club full of cardio machines, and artist’s studios.
The town – indeed, much of Washington County – has attracted Bohemians over the years. It is just a little too distant from New York City to have been taken over by weekenders, and my guess is that the way things are going the danger of that is now past.
Of course, Bohemian artists are generally not wealthy and a glance down Main Street shows all the usual signs of distress visible in the shattered economies of small towns around the region. Many of the operating storefronts are antique shops – an effort to wring residual value from emptying the attics and barns of homesteads under-occupied and under utilized, the strip-mining of history.
Many of the big wooden houses, typical of the 19th century when large inter-generational families were the norm, are slowly decrepitating. They require a lot of expensive maintenance, which has been impossible for decades now, and it shows.
Hubbard Hall, a big wooden heap with its Second Empire mansardic tower, was erected in 1878 for the traveling shows and vaudevilles of the day, and shuttered in the 1920s. It was rescued from oblivion in the 1970s and has evolved into a very busy center for the lively arts, which now includes two other buildings, freight barns adjacent to the defunct railroad station.
There’s a ballet studio, a music rehearsal room, a room for kids’ art classes, and a separate building for contra dances. The programming is very rich. The old theater, where at least four plays and sometimes operas are performed by a capable local troupe each year, is the heart of the operation and that is where last week’s Christmas breakfast was held.
It is the kind of gathering place for people that could never be built now under the absurd burden of our construction codes. And that is finally what I want to talk about here: the magnificence of the room itself and how it affects the beating life of this struggling community.
Unlike the depressing “facilities” most of our festivals take place in around the USA – the gymnasiums and Holiday Inn “function rooms” with their extraneous furnishings, acoustical ceilings studded with fire-prevention shower heads, off-gassing carpets, and atrocious fluorescent lighting – Hubbard Hall has a lofty painted ceiling and a graceful swooping wooden balcony in the rear. The proscenium arch is decorated in floral motifs out of the William Morris pattern book. The big room smells like old wood and history and the stairs to it creak musically.
For seventeen years, the town has put on a Christmas breakfast devised to celebrate the culture of a foreign land, mostly for the sake of the children who grow up in a town that is, in the language of social services, ethnically un-diverse. This year it was Poland.
Now, it happens that I joined a string band about a year ago that practices every week and plays for the monthly contra dance. I play fiddle, an instrument that is easy to play badly. We practiced four Polish folk dance tunes for the month preceding and rehearsed with the dancers, a troupe of middle school girls, once.
I was not prepared for how splendid the event turned to be. The theater walls were decorated with pine boughs. Little electric lights and swags of pine edged the apron of the stage and the balcony rail. Many tables were set where the audience usually sits (the chairs are movable), covered with table-cloths, with a big platter of Christmas cookies at the center of each. Children about ten or eleven circulated with platters of pirogies and strudels. The bustle of life in that room was enchanting.
There were two seatings at the breakfast, nine and eleven, both of them very full. The program on stage was a mixed bag of dance, story-telling, puppetry, and musical performance, all done surprisingly well and with the wonderful élan of people who know and care about each other. When both seatings were over, our little band broke spontaneously into Christmas carols, which we hadn’t practiced at all, and somehow managed to play pretty well as the townspeople drifted toward the exits.
I maintain that there is something about the room itself, its small-scale magnificence, that honored the presence of the people in it, and amplified all the pleasures of being together for the purpose of festivity. America these days is mostly composed of places that are not neutral as they seem, but positively hostile and antagonistic to what is most human in us – the mechanism that produces love. To quote myself from a book published some time ago, we built a nation of scary places and became a land of scary people. Thus, we are truly fortunate that the long emergency is upon us, because now circumstances will compel us to do things differently.