Ahoy! June 2010

June 2, 2010

Last month I was in Norton, Va. Travel guides bill Norton’s location as the heart of the Appalachian Mountains. It’s in Wise County, in the far western part of the state, just 62 miles from Maces Spring, Va., where the Carter family is from, and about 85 miles from Butcher Holler, Ky., where Loretta Lynn was born.

I was impressed by a number of things about Norton, population 3,702. The first was the striking beauty of its location, tucked at the base of one of the thousands of valleys in that part of the world. Another was the musical quality of the  residents’ spoken English.

Another is pace. In Norton, the pace of life jumps up and makes itself known as one registers at the hotel desk. It is evidenced in the 25 mph speed limit on city streets, the speed, in fact, that people drive. They stop for pedestrians crossing their streets and they don’t exhibit signs of annoyance about doing so.

In Norton, I witnessed a rare quality of politeness among the local people. There was no expression of impatience or disapproval about the friendly pace that groceries were rung up at the cash register. When I was collecting local papers, I stopped at a gas station in Norton, where I waited 12 minutes, or longer, for the person in front of me to conclude her chat with station’s attendant. No sighs, no admonishments from me or from the man in line behind me, even though, frankly, after five minutes, I found I needed to dismiss impatience when I felt it arise in myself.

The most striking of many enviable qualities of Norton and its inhabitants, however, was the downright authentic friendliness they offered me. People in small communities know who is and is not local. Almost without exception, I was greeted with direct eye contact and unhurried hellos and how-are-you’s, to me, an obvious stranger in their midst. I admit that it took some getting used to on my part but by day three, I found I’d let down my guard. I rediscovered that that is a good way to conduct oneself in the public sphere, free of those defenses.

I wondered what they think of us Northerners because I think we must seem hurried and abrupt and guarded in contrast to their norm. Since it was work, and not a leisure excursion for me, I didn’t have much opportunity to mingle and talk with the area residents; however, I did talk briefly with an electrical contractor who was working in Norton, a native and resident of North Carolina. When he heard how I spoke English, he asked me “where up north” I was from. When I told him Milwaukee, Wis., he rewarded me with a warm, broad smile. He told me that one of his buddies had worked in Wisconsin for a few months and said “that people were really friendly up there.”

I agree, we are pretty friendly up here, but not like people are in Norton. Conduct yourself in a big city practically anywhere in the United States, as people conduct themselves in Norton (and lots of other small towns all over this nation) and you are likely to be deemed “disturbed” and/or be preyed upon. It is not our way to be as open and warm as I have found people to be in the South, including big cities like Houston and Atlanta. We develop defenses for good reasons, like self-protection. But there is more to it than that. I think it’s just our way to be a little more formal and removed.

And that, in a way, brings me round to this issue and the news of this neighborhood, its residents, and the communities within this Northern city. I will highlight some of what you will find our talented, dedicated writers bring you this month.

You will find a progress report of the dynamic garden project at the corner of Burrell Street and Deer Place. There’s news about the TIN program in the northwest corner of Bay View. You’ll find a brief about the Bay View High School students who are helping clean and spruce up the Humboldt Park pavilion. There’s a story about the beginnings and development of Humboldt Park itself, which celebrates its 120th “birthday.” You’ll also learn of the fate of the park’s playground. (Many of you have called or emailed to ask why the playground equipment was moved.)

You’ll also learn about unwelcome guests in our area and all over Wisconsin, the botanical invasives thriving in our state’s wetlands. For balance, you’ll read about the Vogelmanns, small-scale farmers who are growing basil, salad greens, and strawberries (and more). The couple sells their produce at the South Shore Farmers Market, which begins its 10th season this month. Hue, a new restaurant, is introduced in this issue, and a movie that many are talking about, City Island, is reviewed. The Lilies, a local band, is profiled, too.

Don’t miss page 16 where you’ll find the schedule for this summer’s Chill on the Hill concert series.

It’s good to be in Milwaukee. And while most of us will never speak as lyrically and musically as they do in Norton, Va., and while I suspect most of us, if forced to choose, would elect to pay higher taxes than to drive 25 miles in Milwaukee, there is much to celebrate in Bay View. There is a spirit about this community that is distinctive, and to many outside its borders, much that is enviable.

Have a good summer, all y’all,

Katherine Keller

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