Man About Town

A newcomer finds that taking root in a town means taking stock of the lessons it offers.

By Anne Matthews

The Last Undiscovered Place
By David K. Leff; University of Virginia Press, $27.95

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The Last Undiscovered Place

No place is commonplace, argues David Leff, certainly not his adopted home of Collinsville, Conn. (pop. 8,840). Like so many small towns, it only looks low-key. Leff is a deputy commissioner for the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection and a frequent essayist for The Hartford Courant. He moved to Collinsville in 1984 because it was only 16 miles west of Hartford yet fit his checklist. Walkable. Affordable. Good schools. Agreeably funky atmosphere. But over two decades, convenience turned to loyalty, and then to love. Leff earned community membership the hard way, chairing the historic district commission, restoring a Greek revival house, even serving as a volunteer firefighter.

This doubled vision has yielded a quietly intelligent guide to becoming "native" to a place. To understand his small town in time as well as space, Leff rummaged in archives and museums, learned local geology and botany by hiking and river walking, and absorbed village tales from older residents until he felt himself "breaking through to the past as if through a fragile layer of ice." Training himself to see, not merely look, was hardest of all. "As Walden was merely a pond at the edge of a town, or Henry Beston's 'outermost house' another shack at the shore, so was Collinsville just a mill village. Like Thoreau and Beston, I gradually discovered in simple workaday territory a realm both curious and singular … Collinsville's magical dimension."

By New England standards, Collins-ville is young, founded in 1826 by the tool-factory owner Samuel Collins, who wanted a model settlement for his managers and workers. (As a civil engineering student, Frederick Law Olmsted watched the streets and public spaces of Collinsville take shape; Leff hypothesizes that its shady greens and elm-lined roads are echoed later in Olmsted's designs for Central Park and the Back Bay Fens.)

The Collins Co. was once the world's leading maker of edged tools—supplying picks to California gold miners, pikes for John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry, and plows for breaking the Great Plains. Collins ice axes went with Adm. Peary into the Arctic. But after the works closed in 1966, the village faded and grew shabby, like so many of the region's mill towns. Some people saw in its battered streets an opportunity for urban-renewal clearance; others, a chance to restore, adapt, and preserve. For nearly two generations now, newcomers and natives have debated and negotiated, not always comfortably, the price of keeping Collinsville the Last Undiscovered Place.

Leff is especially good at deflating easy fantasies of small-town charm. Northern Exposure's Cicely or Jan Karon's Mitford this is not. "At times I have almost wished I lived in a sterile subdivision where neighbors are strangers and people are known only by the vehicle they drive. It would be less stressful. But Collinsville is a place that merits the struggle. ... We must ultimately stand for those places that cannot be mistaken for simply anywhere."

And so he tracks the elusive chemistry of community—parades and elections, Memorial Day recitations at the town graveyard, the divine madness of old-house repair, and the stately rites of backyard sugaring. In the last chapter, Leff moves from cicerone to analyst and offers several cliffhanging case studies in the contradictions of historic preservation and the meanings of authenticity. Will an enigmatic developer enhance the town or betray it? Will the U.S. Postal Service strip Collinsville of its zip code, and thus its identity? Can the town lose its coffeehouse and its hardware store but somehow keep its soul? He offers his ledger of successes and defeats as an object lesson, and a warning. Knowledge of place is only a first step to true belonging. To stave off an encroaching big-box culture, you also need volunteerism and vigilance.

Different readers might wish for different emphases. Scholars will find little reference to the large body of theory that bears out Leff's investigations and intuitions. W.C. Fields might say: Enough with the author's peppy lectures to the kids. But bibliophiles will commend the University of Virginia Press for its book craft, from the useful maps and illustrations to the thoughtful recommended-reading list. And defenders of the American sense of place can welcome, with pleasure and relief, an unusually authoritative defense of the charms of staying put.