“Build a Better Hometown: What does that mean, anyway?”
Paul Beyer, Founder & Director, Tom Tom Festival
This essay was published in the 2019 Tom Tom Spring Program on March 23, 2019
At Tom Tom, we talk a lot about small cities. We are, of course, a festival in the small city of Charlottesville, Virginia, but our experiences here reflect what seems to be a national trend: In an era of fragmentation and polarization, more and more people desire to live in a place where they can talk to their neighbors—and maybe even have an impact on the community in which they live. In 2017 alone, small metros (fewer than 1 million people) outgrew the large metros in net population.
Small cities, though, are often overlooked in the national dialogue, and the innovative solutions that are building more inclusive, equitable, and creative communities are not always shared. Tom Tom’s goal is to become a national destination for thought leadership for small cities, and in the process to elevate Charlottesville’s reputation as a hub for creators, changemakers, and visionaries by convening and connecting communities from across the country with our own.
Our theme in 2019 is “Building Better Hometowns,” which means that our national ideas Summit will continue the Tom Tom tradition of bringing together multi-sector civic leaders to trade best practices and playbooks for small cities. Those leaders will get a first-hand look at the incredible challenge that our own community is taking on as we evaluate where we’ve been and where we’re headed—on the path to building a better Charlottesville, one that’s welcoming to all and offers opportunity to people from a variety of backgrounds.
Tom Tom started eight years ago as a hometown celebration—an attempt to bring people together around a shared vision for the future. We began at downtown’s McGuffey Art Center with a free block party filling the front lawn with Latin American music while galleries inside brimmed with performances and ideas. Talks about biotech, design-thinking, and renewable energy unfolded alongside interactive urban planning projects and, together, it captured the indelible spirit of this small city. It’s no secret that discussions of #Charlottesville no longer focus exclusively on a charming, innovative, and progressive enclave. Instead, our town has now also become an international shorthand for images of extremism and bigotry. Overnight, Charlottesville went from topping lists ranking cities’ happiness and quality-of-life levels to also being synonymous with hatred as a result of the August 11 and 12 Unite the Right rallies in 2017. We recognize that the events have also precipitated a needed reckoning for a progressive city that, in truth, doesn’t live up to its cred—a city that does not adequately acknowledge legacies of segregation and massive resistance or the white supremacy that can be traced back to the founding fathers.
The story of #Charlottesville is a uniquely American one—and while it feels deeply personal to many of us, it’s also especially in line with our current national moment. That Charlottesville confronts its past and looks to create an equitable future for all of its residents is a dynamic immediately familiar to many hometowns across the country.
LET’S TALK ABOUT EQUITY
This year and from here on out, a primary theme of Tom Tom’s “Building Better Hometowns” framework is the notion that cities cannot be innovative if they are not also equitable. One area of innovation in cities is how to overcome decades and even centuries of injustice and oppression.
The Civic Innovation Conference in particular has embraced this intersection of equity and innovation as a primary focus, with a full day of sessions exploring topics such as education and opportunity, the housing ladder, the prevention of homelessness, inclusive placemaking, data and decision-making, criminal justice reform, and policing and public safety.
We celebrate many local voices at the Summit conferences, because many innovators here in Charlottesville are pioneering projects relevant to small city leaders across the nation. But equally, something extraordinary is happening in our local community and our Festival program aims to highlight that work, and build bridges among neighbors in the process.
Our free screening of Black Panther will raise funds for and celebrate African American Teaching Fellows, Abundant Life Ministries, and City of Promise, three essential local organizations that embody some of the positive messages in the movie centering on education and empowerment.
Directly preceding that screening, a Race & Place Walking Tour will trace the history of enslaved and oppressed people, from the building of the University of Virginia to the establishment of its downtown, followed by an event during which local, self-taught filmmakers will discuss their work about the Untold Stories and nearly forgotten histories of the African American community in Charlottesville. Black Panther, which will show at The Paramount Theater, will open with a trailer for one such work in progress: Lorenzo Dickerson’s 3rd Street. This film documents the Paramount’s segregated side entrance to balcony, which for generations of Charlottesville’s black community was the sole experience of the grand Theater.
It’s impossible to live in or visit Charlottesville and not see Jefferson. He’s everywhere. And rarely does one legacy embody so much polarization—democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, innovation, slavery, oppression. Many far more eloquent writers than I have struggled to capture, rage against, explain, gloss over, or justify this fundamental paradox. The fact that the events of August 11 and 12 could occur is a testament to the free speech that Jefferson championed; it can’t be avoided either that the riots’ leaders were trying to claim the Jefferson mantle, and justifying their white supremacy by invoking his name.
For those who ask about our name: Tom Tom is both a drum that exists in the kit of every rock band on the planet (we did begin primarily as a music festival). And, of course, it’s also a wink to Thomas Jefferson, our city’s original innovator, as Tom Tom falls each April on Jefferson’s birthday week.
For some people, even pre-August 12, this felt like a glib celebration of a man who’s already too uncritically celebrated. The legacies of white supremacy, of a system of thought where many women and men were not in fact “created equal,” but rather existed in a hierarchy of value is still with us.
Now, as we’ve grown seven years wiser, we see Tom Tom as an opportunity for Jefferson’s fuller legacy, for better and for worse, to be wrestled with.
A thriving hometown is one where all the pieces that make a great community are working in sync. The education of our children is tied to the future of industry and creativity; the urbanist understands the art, soul, and history of the city as well as the need for infrastructure. The silos that can be constructed around creative placemaking, community policing, maker education, affordable housing, and economic development (to name just a few) need to be dismantled. It means you have to acknowledge where you’ve been, understanding the past for both good and ill and how it has impacted—and continues to impact—your community. For hometowns to thrive, there also has be a setting for real dialogue, where people from different backgrounds and with differing perspectives have an opportunity to share and learn.
All of this is perhaps more than you would have expected to read in a Festival brochure. The downside of putting things in writing is that words can easily be misunderstood or taken out of context. Actions do speak louder than words, and in that sense, we hope that Tom Tom’s program shows you where we’re coming from. That said, we’re living in a time where it is more important than ever that individuals and organizations make clear their values and intentions, and commit to improving their communities. It’s too easy to be complicit with a status quo that doesn’t adequately address the needs of our neighbors.
The beauty of a “festival” is that it’s by definition a celebration, bringing a diversity of people together. While disagreement or polarization might occur in another setting, at a festival not every rough edge needs to be smooth, and commonalities can be found before differences. Being transported by the music at a concert, interacting with an art installation or a performance or a poignant talk, or even just enjoying a great meal together from a block party food truck, we can find fellowship.
Tom Tom champions creativity, civic innovation, and entrepreneurship in America’s small cities.
Since its launch in 2012, Tom Tom has grown into a national destination for visionaries and engaged citizens alike. In addition to its spring flagship Summit & Festival, which examines civic innovation across America, Tom Tom hosts multiple year-round initiatives, and each fall throws Tomtoberfest, a rollicking weekend-long tribute to the vibrant Charlottesville community. Since inception, Tom Tom has hosted more than 1,700 speakers and 550 artists and performers to 262,000 program attendees, while channeling more than $3.2 million to new ventures and nonprofits.