Up By Our Bootstraps

An interview with residents of a town
recovering from economic collapse

One of the articles in Sustainable Habitat (IC#14)
Originally published in Autumn 1986 on page 47
Copyright (c)1986, 1997 by Context Institute

What might it feel like to be part of a community involved in the kind of economic development described in the previous article? Vicki Robin (of the U.V. Family) gives us a glimpse through this interview with Candace Kelley, Beth Hilbert, and Patty Jo Breiding of Idaho City, Idaho, a town in the process of rebuilding its economic base.

Could you recap the history of the town, especially what it was like and then how the bottom fell out.

Candace: We used to have an economy that had a forestry industry, we had mining, we had the forest service, the highway department, and government agencies (we’re the county seat) that employed a lot of people around here. The county government diminished as their budget diminished, the forest service had to tighten up, restructure, and send things out on contracts that they used to employ people for. We lost this base of employment to a great extent.

Vicki: So all that dried up when?

Beth: Mining, principally around World War II.

Candace: The timber’s just been the last 10 years. Canada opened up their timber industry and ours diminished. Several of the mills around the area shut down just as the economic crunch hit. This is a town that hit the economic slide.

Vicki: You said yesterday that everybody went to the bars for a couple of years to try to figure things out.

Candace: A lot of people did! I don’t know if that’s the total truth of it, but it did take a reorientation time. I watched loggers stay drunk for long periods of time and then shift around and rework their economy. It was a new life for them.

Vicki: What happened to turn things around?

Candace: Well, we are just now turning ourselves around. There are many in town who don’t even notice that there’s a turn taking place. But in my own personal life, I see a turnaround, because now I don’t need food stamps. Just watching my own life, and P.J.’s and Beth’s, we disengaged from the regular working world and became self-employed over a period of time. And it’s not like it takes place in a week. It takes place in a matter of several years. We’ve worked at the newspapers and at the libraries and the historical society and the grocery stores and the motel. And then we gradually eased out of those things and became self-employed in our own adventures. I chose art, still putting my office skills to work to bring in a paycheck here and there.

Vicki: How many people in town have reoriented themselves and begun to bring forth something new here?

Beth: Well, part of it is an influx of new people who are attracted to Idaho City. They want to live here, and they want to look for a livelihood. So, I would say a majority, at this point. It turned when we elected a mayor with a positive attitude; it was a pretty overwhelming vote for Larry. Here’s a guy with long hair and an earring, in basically a logger’s town where the old guard had ruled for many years. But these new people were coming in with college degrees, wanting to find a way to live here. It was basically a kind of a takeover, and then the old guard took it back, but in the meantime, a big change had taken place.

Vicki: So Larry being elected mayor was part of that?

Beth: In the two-year period in which he was the mayor, there was a change of attitude, and even when the old guard took it back, they had to go with that attitude. $419,000 worth of grant money had been put into the projects going on. We had people like myself and Candace showing up at city council meetings, who ordinarily didn’t go.

Candace: We’re gradually getting new business owners that actually live here. Somebody local now owns the newspaper whereas before it was owned by outsiders; same with the restaurant and the hotel.

And more people are building their own houses, for instance, instead of paying rent to some guy that lives in Boise or California. You pay your rent, you make your money, and gradually you get to where you’re independent. You learned how to be a bricklayer, say, while you were building your house, and now you work for the whole community. And the people who were hanging out in the bars are all of a sudden living in these beautiful owner-built homes. They’re proud of themselves.

Vicki: What have some of the loggers taken up?

P.J.: Well, Chuck would be one. He’s built a beautiful home, he has a dump truck and a caterpillar. He has his own scene, you know. We’ve had a lot of guys living up here who worked down in Boise at the train yard. All of a sudden that train yard closed down, and those guys didn’t have jobs. So now one is a full-time carpenter, another is a full- time mechanic; they’ve all built their own homes, have their shops on their own land.

Vicki: Has any grant money come in?

Beth: It’s happening right now, like on the corner of Highway 21 and Main St. That’s going to be a visitors’ center with restrooms and a parking lot.

Vicki: So as you’ve developed the tourist industry, there’s a tourist bureau that gives you money?

Candace: We’ve applied for it in block grants. The mayor we had, who has since left, had a grapevine of people that were planners and politicians down in Boise. They all saw the potential for our town and always had seen it. But the steps had not been taken. You have to qualify, apply, go after, and get these monies. The little group that was in that position took their steps, and the people after them are following those steps.

Vicki: Was it Larry or some other individual who saw the potential and started to turn things around, or was it everybody kind of noticing a piece of it?

Beth: In a lot of ways, the government sought us out. There is a very high unemployment rate in Boise County. I don’t think it was any one individual. It was the time to do it.

Vicki: So the state government came and approached you?

Candace: Yes, and we got a grant and hired a city planner who had put together a comprehensive plan for how to evaluate your community, how to look at its assets and its liabilities. We had a big sewer problem, and our roads were in trouble.

Vicki: So somebody had savvy.

Candace: Yes, enough to get the sparks ignited, and then we all blew on the flame. Because if we didn’t find a solution, we were all going to be without a home. We have a lot of assets. We have the mountains, we have the hot springs, and we have the beauty.

Vicki: Is there a sense that now there’s a vision that you all are going toward?

Beth: I think there is a vague goal that everybody is sharing right now. I think if we all sat down in a room and we were forced to put it down in concrete language, we would find that we have different visions. But I think, all in all, there is a shared vision of presenting the best picture of ourselves as a community and attracting tourists. But at the same time we want to retain the small town quality.

Vicki: Is there an element in the town that does not agree with this vision?

Candace: Yes; they’re afraid of change in any form.

Beth: They have their income under control. They don’t really need to worry about economics. A lot of them have been born and raised here. They’re mostly about to retire from their jobs in Boise.

Now the oldtimers and the newcomers are mixing together; like I’m the president of the Historical Foundation. The Foundation basically takes care of anything that would be tourism in Idaho City. We maintain the city park, we refurbished the old post office building into the museum – any historic structure is maintained by the Foundation. Now I’m the president of it, and I’ve only been here five years. That’s pretty odd. I have around me a group of newcomers who are pitching in and pounding nails and doing the work.

Candace: And the old guard is joining in, because they see that it’s fun. But nobody wants to be pushed, nobody wants to be forced. They love to join in and watch the flow work, but they don’t want anybody telling them how to make it work.

Beth: There is resentment for these funds, too. There’s that pride going, that we can do these things ourselves; we don’t need this government handout.

Vicki: I’m hearing that there’s a real sense of community among some rabid individualists. How have you brought this all together?

P.J.: I think it was just circumstances. In fact, just this morning, we lost one of the old guard. She died in her sleep last night. She has been an extremely active member of the community since day one, and she’s one of those people that it will take several people to fill her spot. I made a comment to Beth that I just hate small towns, because any time anything happens, it affects all of us, because the whole town was upset. And Beth said to me "But P.J., that’s why you love it." And that is why I love it.

Beth: And some people who didn’t like her are devastated right now. She was a very negative person, but something like this brings out the community feeling.

All the back-to-the-landers, the hippies, whatever, hit here in the early ’70s, hanging out at the bars. As they matured, (you can only sit in a bar and be back to the land for so long before the ’80s come along), they were building their houses or doing whatever happened economically. So they mixed in, and that’s probably a reason why a lot of this is taking place.

Vicki: Was this guy Larry one of the back- to-the-landers?

P.J.: Yes. One thing about Larry, he has this incredible enthusiasm, and he is a great starter. He came into this community and got everybody fired up and then went on his merry way. And he left in his wake a lot of people who are still very fired up. So even the old guard had to change their point of view a little bit, because all of a sudden we had $400,000, and tourism is proving to be a pretty good industry.

Candace: Being a starter, I don’t think it was odd that he moved out of that position and let the old guard come back in. We couldn’t have carried on year after year without the old guard being included.

Vicki: So the present mayor is part of the old guard but also friendly to the ambitions of the town?

Candace: Yes, and he had to be kind of squeezed into that.

Beth: He’s getting praise, and people are making a point of saying "Good job." That changes an attitude.

Candace: The oldtimers have a good eye for what needs to be done, and they always have. They just wouldn’t share their views and opinions. But gradually it’s come around to where they know it’s their responsibility.

Vicki: What are some of the threats you see to the new spirit?

Beth: I think it’s a lot harder to be positive than to be negative. When I’m feeling burned out, I say to my friends, "Oh, can’t we just go plant our gardens?" How do you keep going from year to year and not become resentful and negative?

Vicki: Is there any faction in town that wants to see a major outside industry coming in?

Candace: You have different ideas that come in to the fringes, like subdivisions of larger homes. Some fly-by-night subdivider will attempt to come in with a big idea, and without planning and zoning, we have to watch it.

Beth: We are in a very precarious position. There’s a momentum going, and we are looking at an increase in the tourist trade. Right now, people come in and they talk big, but they don’t have the money to back them. It’s only a matter of time before they have the money to back them. And they could virtually buy the town and do what they want with it.

Candace: If they could get by the peer pressure of the group that lives here. We use public opinion quite well.

Beth: Oh, I know, but we’ve just been fighting small battles. We haven’t really had a formidable enemy to go up against. So far, we’ve been really lucky, and the pace of growth has been manageable.

Vicki: Earlier you mentioned the grapevine. How does that work?

P.J.: It’s just amazing. Any time there’s somebody in need, people show up. As an example, we had salvaged a building to put up our new shop, and without ever calling anyone, without ever inviting anyone, we were able to put that whole building up in two days, because everybody just showed up. Maybe they didn’t show up to help, but eight hours later they were still there. It is like magic. I think a lot of it is that we’re a very economically depressed area, and none of us has much money. People help because we don’t have the money to pay someone.

Vicki: It really is an informal economy that’s going on, a bartering economy.

Candace: Yes. And somehow it usually comes out even. It sorts itself out. You don’t have to document who you did favors for.

Vicki: If you were to give advice to another town that’s in your situation, a small town whose economic base has disappeared, what would you recommend in order to get that sense of community, to pull themselves up by their bootstraps?

Candace: What helped me was that other people around me were evaluating their own skills. If you take a look at your own experience and what you have in your own attic and basement, those things that are right at hand can be put to use. Starting to share who you are and what you’ve got brings it back to you almost immediately.

P.J.: And not playing the victim. And having determination.

Candace: And making your wants realistic to what exists already. If you want a Maserati and you’ve got a bicycle, you’ve got to get the bicycle working today in order to take the steps to get the Maserati. Applying what you have today and using the day well makes your tomorrow take care of itself.

Beth: I would say there are quite a few people without sizeable bills to pay.

Candace: Most of us have been heading in that direction for years. We don’t have the habit of spending. I don’t have a lot of rampant desires. You learn not to buy things new. I’d rather make a list and wait for it to come in. And if things don’t arrive I obviously don’t need them.

Vicki: On a community-wide basis, what would you suggest?

Beth: Inventory what you already have.

Candace: And the people you have. We have a sense of humor and a sense of drama in the hippie group.

Beth: When you just get together for fun, not to raise money for anything, that brings the community together the most.

Candace: And working together makes you very fond of each other.

Vicki: And creaking traditions and customs that become everybody’s?

Beth: Yes, like the spring plays. The first one was "Our Town," which was a great choice. That brings the community together.

P.J.: The pioneer picnics brought the oldtimers and the hippies together. The oldtimers had the picnics, and all of a sudden the hippies wanted to go meet the oldtimers. I remember there was a time when the oldtimers just hated the hippies, and now they say "You know, when you kids came in, you were a good bunch of kids." They have a whole different perspective now, and that was built by working together.

An EcoCity In The Making

by Hal Rubin

DAVIS, CALIFORNIA’S 40,000 RESIDENTS own enough bicycles for each of them to mount up and ride off simultaneously, while still leaving some backups behind. That adds up to more bicycles per capita than any other city in the nation.

Bicycles are only one symbol of that city’s many-pronged ecological campaign. Since the early 1970s, city officials have effected a host of measures related to energy and water conservation, growth management, housing, land use, transportation, and cooperatives.

Davis is the home of one of the nine University of California campuses. The student and faculty vote is a significant element in city council and other elections. Academicians, university-trained graduates, students, and townspeople have shared the vision of an ecologically-oriented, attractive city that would hold urban blight in check.

Among other innovations, Davis boasts Village Homes, America’s first solar neighborhood; designed so that all the houses face into a common open space reserved for people and bicycles; no autos have access to the interior area. Included in the neighborhood are orchards, vineyards and a three-acre community garden.

Davis has a wide variety of cooperative ventures. There are co-ops for food purchase and arts and crafts marketing, a restaurant, and a cooperatively-owned cable television system.

Since 1975, Davis has worked to conserve energy through efficiency measures applied to new and existing housing and has reduced its consumption of energy for heating and cooling by a whopping 50%. The city also has a solar facility for the generation of electricity, power from which is presently sold to the Pacific Gas & Electric Co.; eventually, the city will supply all of its own electricity.

Residents attribute the impressive accomplishments in Davis to the process of participatory democracy. There has never been a shortage of willing hands to do the work required to implement Davis’ forward-looking policies. And those who made up the vanguard are convinced that any other community can do the same.

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