I watched the movie The Grand Seduction recently and have been thinking about it in the context of community ever since. Somehow this little indie movie about a Newfoundland village that tries to lure a doctor to plant roots has permeated my thinking in consulting projects.
The premise of the movie is that the village is trying to land a factory and to do so, need to demonstrate that they have a sizable population and a town doctor. There’s one hilarious scene in which company representatives visit and the town leaders secretly shuffle residents from site to site so that the town might appear to be vibrant and well-populated.
The movie poster says it all: “Welcome to Tickle Head: Population 120. Terrible liars seeking experienced doctor.”
Authenticity or a Web of Lies?
In the movie, the visiting doctor is enamored by the village. There’s a moment in which he’s giddy in talking about how authentic the community was. What he didn’t know was the trickery that was taking place in order to woo him. They had painted houses, learned to play his favorite sport (cricket, while they’d rather be watching hockey), and the list goes on. They were so committed to landing both the doctor and the factory that they weaved a comical web of lies. And yet, behind it all was their intense desire to thrive as a community (and all the while, they were making tangible improvements to the benefit of all).
Whether or not authenticity exists in communities is debated by planners and placemakers. Aren’t we all putting on a facade at some level – creating and re-creating communities and main streets? “Authentic” and pleasant experiences in our natural spaces can require some behind-the-scenes work as well. I once spoke with Paul Nordell with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and he remarked that in many cases, “The pristine, inviting view people find means somebody’s been there to clean it up. Stewards set the table for an experience.”
My Own One-Woman Clean Up
In March, I was visiting the town of Confluence, PA and noticed there was a lot of litter along the Great Allegheny Passage and the route into town. The trail has become a visitor lifeblood for the town of 800. The debris had built up throughout the winter and there hadn’t yet been any community clean ups. I was planning to have a group visit on a Business of Trails best practices trip and wanted for the community – albeit not my own – to look its best. I had Paul Nordell’s comments about stewards setting the table for experiences rattling around in my head. My goal was to deliver a superb experience, and so that’s how I found myself driving 90 minutes on a snowy spring morning to pick up trash alone. I felt a bit foolish doing this, but again, it was the experience that mattered in the end.
So what can we learn from The Grand Seduction and the characters’ earnestness without ourselves crossing over the line to trickery?
- Passion for place can be contagious, particularly when tangible improvements are being made to the benefit of local residents. They set out to make the doctor believe it was a great community, and wouldn’t you know they ended up believing it, too?
- Authentic places are rarely wrapped in a perfect bow. Sure, it’s nice to present well, but cover up too many of a community’s rough edges and authenticity is out the window.
- Those clean ups done by stewards, they ought to be done by locals and for the benefit of locals. Sure, I did a personal clean up for the benefit of my event, a one-time exception to contribute to an enjoyable experience. But it’s local capacity and local pride that keeps that corridor tidy the rest of the year through. It may be done to create a positive first impression for visitors, but local interests are behind even this. (The visitor has a great experience, they recommend the trip to others and come back themselves, and the community enjoys the benefit of tourism.)
Perhaps authenticity is an impossible ideal. As I mentioned, we create and re-create our places so that they’re more attractive, more vibrant, and more livable. Is this “authentic?” I don’t know for sure. But in the realm of visitor attraction, if we as community members are setting the table for experience, let’s just be sure that it’s a table at which we’d like to dine.