If you read this blog with regularity, you know I recently returned from Amherst, Massachusetts, where I attended a writing conference and explored literary landmarks around New England. I am also a student of municipalities that encourage and invite tourism, however, and Amherst, despite being small and comparatively out of the way, was doing a number of things to make their town tourist-friendly to folks like me:
1.) The public library celebrates renowned local authors and artists. In fact, the whole third floor of Jones Library is devoted to historical artifacts and volumes regarding Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost. Also, local landmarks have significance to the artistic and literary history of Amherst.
2.) The area’s history is celebrated with events, as well, and there appears to be good community involvement which has been stimulated through the use of various media.
3.) Churches and civic groups are partners in the arts.
4.) Colleges in Amherst offer their space as venues for arts-related and literary events, even if the organizers are unrelated to the colleges.
I was favorably impressed by all these details, and thought I would bring them back to my city as suggestions for implementation. After all, Winter Haven is a city on the grow, and with a renewed focus on the arts and tourism, all of these Amherst traits seemed worthy of emulation.
Why, then, don’t I plan to return to Amherst anytime soon? The answer lies in people. Everywhere I went, from the Stop N Shop and Big Y grocery stores to the corner diner, people were complaining. Conversation in the diner was dominated by older men bemoaning a new red light that had been installed. Younger women in the grocery store aisles were whining about their toddlers’ behaviors. Cashiers never smiled, and transacted business without pleasantries. It seemed to me, an outsider, like Amherst was a miserable place to be a local. I stopped in at Friendly’s, New England’s version of Steak N Shake, and nobody, not even the servers, made the restaurant live up to its name. Maybe the city was just having a bad week, but it was enough to sour my perception as a visitor.
Granted, I’m a little spoiled on hospitality. Here in my part of the country, “service with a smile” isn’t just a catchphrase, it’s an overall attitude. Some days, that smile might be forced, but there never seems to be a time when merchants aren’t glad to see you. Publix serves as a national example of what grocery stores should emulate, mostly because of their kind and responsive customer service. Likewise, local chatter at our diners and coffee shops usually consists of a healthy mixture of politics, business, family life, and current events — and most of the time, those conversations, even contentious ones, are cordial.
There are those who would accuse my people of being disingenuous. They might claim that we hide our anger, frustration, or dismay behind stereotypical southern “sunnyness.” But the truth is, no matter how bad the world might be, whether a new red light, an unruly child, or a hard day at work has flustered us, most of us can still muster up kindness for others. It’s what people here do, and it’s one reason why I stay.
The great irony of this post, perhaps, is that it falls into the category of “complaining about complaining.” I get that. But perhaps this post is also demonstrative of attitude infectiousness: pessimism yields more pessimism, yes, but the opposite is also true. Come to Winter Haven sometime and find out for yourself. I’m off to Richard’s Fine Coffees.