If you haven’t been to downtown Pulaski lately, you should visit. It’s difficult to keep track of all the exciting developments. As the lyrics go in my new favorite musical, “Look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now…history is happening in [Pulaski] and we just happen to be in the greatest [town] in the world.” (ed.) Of course, this song was intended to be about New York City in the late 18th century, but some of the same themes apply. In both places and times, changes are afoot, excitement is building, and the disparities between those with disposable income and time and those without are growing.
It really is a great time to be alive in Pulaski if you’ve got the money and time to hang out in the new restaurants, coffee shop, renovated theater, baseball games and fudge shop. It’s even greater, I assume, if you’ve got access to the money to own one of these businesses. But I really have a hard time seeing how most of these developments benefit those who don’t. Sure, some jobs have been created, but I would be hard pressed to make a case that many of them provide economic stability in terms of living wages or benefits.
Of course some of what’s happening does help us all. Cleaning up the buildings contaminated by the businesses that used to employ so many in decent jobs is necessary and benefits everyone. And while some would say that Pulaski’s best kept secret is the brunch at Al’s, I’d argue that it might be Pulaski Area Transit. I’ve worked with communities around the country trying to solve public transportation problems and Pulaski Area Transit is a model that should be lifted up for rural communities around the country.
In other places, gentrification is the word we use to describe economic development that only benefits the wealthy. Such a term feels strange in our little part of the Appalachian Mountains, but we can learn lessons from the mistakes made by other communities who have faced these same challenges. And, if we can figure out how to make decisions about economic development in a way that is inclusive of all Pulaski residents we will be more likely to make decisions that benefit us all. Developing in a way that creates economic opportunity and stability for those who don’t currently have it will make our entire community stronger.
In an attempt to make these abstract ideas a little more concrete, I offer a few examples of the types of development I’m talking about.
How many times have you driven down Route 11 near the VW bus farm (VuhVanagon) and seen people risking their lives to cross the highway from Meadowview Apartments to the sidewalk on the other side of the street? I can’t even count the number of times I’ve heard snide comments about these pedestrians along the lines of, “What kind of a parent pushes a stroller across a busy highway?” My response is generally, “Probably a parent without a car who wants to feed her child or do anything other than sit in her apartment.”
Come on people, let’s use logic. If you live in Meadowview Apartments, there’s a pretty good chance that you don’t have adequate transportation. And there are no grocery stores, sidewalks, or even gas stations on the east side of that portion of Route 11. So leaving Meadowview to get food or to get to work, school, the doctor or the library always requires crossing Route 11 and there is no crosswalk to provide safe passage.
Planning for economic development that benefits everyone requires that we think about how to connect people to opportunities and services that they need. Meadowview residents are literally and figuratively separated from opportunities that are basic to economic stability. Creating a crosswalk that would allow those who are able to walk to do so safely so that they can access these opportunities is an obvious first step in this direction.
And a safe crosswalk for Meadowview residents would help the rest of us, too. Left turns on and off of Northwood Drive from Route 11 are tricky enough just with the vehicle traffic. A crosswalk would provide more structure to that area that could benefit drivers as well as pedestrians. All of which is a good example of how we all benefit when we plan for addressing the needs of those who have traditionally been most removed from opportunities.
Strategically designed greenway system
Apparently there was a meeting on a recent Tuesday afternoon during which the town requested community feedback on an expanded trail system plan. I couldn’t go because I was working. And my husband was taking care of our kids. (We assumed childcare wasn’t provided at the meeting.) So I’m not sure how many people showed up or what kind of demographics they represented. But I’d bet the five dollars in my wallet that there weren’t many working class or poor Pulaski residents in attendance.
If they had been represented adequately, then I’m guessing the trail system that they might have advocated for would look more like a practical solution to local transportation problems than a plan that would drive tourism and help people like me meet our Fitbit step goals. To be clear, I don’t know what kind of plans are in the works for this greenway system. But if we want to plan for economic development that benefits us all, I hope that the walkways will be adjacent to low income communities lacking in grocery stores and other essential services and will serve to safely connect those residents to them.
Such a plan doesn’t rule out the possibility that the walkways will help me to meet my step goals (or my real impossible dream that my kids can one day walk to school safely), but if we are going to use tax dollars to support these plans, then I think we have an obligation to prioritize connecting residents to opportunities that the rest of us take for granted.
The suggestions I’ve offered thus far are directed toward the Town, mostly because I don’t place much hope in the private sector addressing these concerns. That said, there are business structures that would be more conducive to improving the economic stability of larger numbers of working class residents. I’m thinking specifically of the worker-owned cooperative business model which I believe is perfectly suited for our town.
Worker-owned cooperatives function on two main principles: (1) worker-owners share in the profits generated by the business and (2) decisions about the business are democratically decided. Working together for a common cause is central to Pulaski’s small-town culture; applying that value to a business would be as easy here as it would be anywhere.
There are many examples of successful worker-owned cooperatives. Some involve workers coming together to purchase a business from its previous owner and some involve worker-owners establishing a new business. The model could apply in virtually any industry – home health care, farmers, or solar energy are just a few examples.
I selfishly first started imagining a worker-owned cooperative here in Pulaski when my husband and I bought our home here and were looking for the perfect dining room table. We couldn’t find any mass-manufactured table that was affordable, fit into our space, and met my very specific vision of being able to seat 17 for family dinners. So we started looking for a custom-made table. Black Dog Salvage gave us a quote of a few thousand dollars for what we had in mind. We ended up finding a former employee of the local furniture industry from Salem who made us the perfect table from reclaimed wood for a fraction of the Black Dog Salvage estimate.
And this got me thinking about the potential for a worker-owned cooperative of furniture makers that included former Pulaski Furniture workers and local young people who could be trained in the trade by these older experienced tradesmen and women. They could custom design and make beautiful furniture to meet the demands of the shockingly large number of people shopping for reclaimed wood furniture and willing to pay lots of money for it.
While this idea isn’t directed toward town and county officials, there are roles that our local governments could play in terms of supporting worker-owned cooperatives in any field. For example, the Town could provide incubation space for new worker-owned businesses or even consultants to help them develop their business models. A business incubator could include some common staff to help with things like internet-based marketing, payroll and bookkeeping.
And, like with my other suggestions, we could all benefit from such a cooperative even if the primary beneficiaries would be the worker-owners and their families. The business would contribute to the tax base and it could draw more people into town for shopping, food, and recreation. And, not for nothing, now that the weather is getting warmer, I’m in the market for some locally-made patio furniture.
My husband and I left New York City two years ago to move back to Pulaski. If money were no issue, New York City is, in many ways, the greatest city in the world. But we chose Pulaski in part because we love it here and, in part, because money is always an issue. We couldn’t live a comfortable lifestyle and spend quality time with each other and our children in New York City given our demanding work responsibilities. We can do that here in Pulaski, but not everyone can.
I want to live in a community where everyone has the opportunity to work a reasonable schedule for living wages and spend quality time with the people they love. Given our low cost-of-living and beautiful location, that possibility seems more achievable in Pulaski than other places. And if we can figure out how to make economic opportunity accessible to everyone, then Pulaski will be the greatest town in the world.