How much do you know about your hometown? Author and Inhabitat writer Greg Beach, who moved to Watertown, Massachusetts at age nine, was inspired to dig more into his town’s history after the Boston Marathon Bombing. You may only be familiar with the name Watertown because of the attack, but Beach shows there’s a lot more to this place in his new book The World and Watertown: Tales of an American Hometown. Not only was Watertown once the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s largest town, today it’s home to a garden cemetery, permaculture farmers, a project to preserve the stories of Armenians far from home, and the artist of an Afghan-American wheelchair superhero comic. But this isn’t just the story of one city. Beach’s book explores issues relevant to the entire world through stories set in this small New England town. Read on for our interview after the jump.
INHABITAT: What was your initial inspiration for The World and Watertown?
BEACH: The original spark was what happened after the Boston Marathon Bombing. The whole greater Boston area shut down, but 20 blocks in Watertown had a particular experience other parts of the city didn’t. There were a lot of questions I was curious about after it was all over. Stories started coming out of things people were concerned about and wanted to talk about, and there wasn’t really a space to do that immediately after because people were relieved it was over and feeling patriotic about the whole thing. So they didn’t really want to ask some of those tough questions.
Once I got into that I realized it was a lot bigger than what I was capable of doing as a part-time writer. It was both too big and too small because the town is a lot more than this event that happened. I’d been thinking about writing a book for a long time, and it was a way for me to dig into issues I’ve always really cared about and tell those big stories, whether it’s the war on terror, or ecology, or native people, through that localized lens. That’s why the ‘world’ comes before ‘Watertown,’ because it is the story of a town, but it was mainly to be a story of how the world finds it its way through this little town.
INHABITAT: Watertown is very much a focus in the book, but you also wanted to tell stories that have a global relevance. How did you balance the local with the global?
BEACH: It depended on the particular topic. For example, one thing that really energized me about talking about the Armenian community in Watertown – a community of friends and family I grew up with – was that it was only as an adult, with the onset of the Syrian civil war, that I started to understand the Armenian presence in Syria and around the world. It’s important to do what we can to support Syrian refugees because they’re our neighbors in the global fence, but also they’re our literal neighbors. Some of our neighbors were born in Syria, and their family members are still over there, and I wanted to think about how we can tie that together.
There were other issues that guided my thinking; for example, I talk about this rise of luxury apartments in these big cities, trying to figure out what exactly is going on because to me, it just doesn’t seem right. Something about it doesn’t make sense in terms of the supply and demand. I started reading Inhabitat when I was in college, years before I started writing for the publication, and I remember reading stories about ghost cities in China. I didn’t put that in the book, but things like that were in the back of my mind, thinking something’s not right here, and there’s a lot of clues, but I don’t know how to put them together.
And I was trying to tell universal stories of people trying to do good in their community, and finding ways to build connections and support each other.
These big issues are really complex. For example, in the United States right now, there’s this big public debate over police brutality and racism, so I had to talk about that because it’s important, but at the same time I had to acknowledge the police officers who are really doing their best to do well, and not just individual officers, but police departments who recognize flaws, and they’re trying to do better – without excusing anything, but just saying, we want to bring the good up, even as we’re trying to push back on the bad.
INHABITAT: When did you personally start becoming interested in ecology and sustainability? How did growing up in Watertown play a role in shaping that passion for you?
BEACH: One of my favorite chapters in the book is the first chapter, digging into local ecology. Before I was born, the Charles River was very polluted, and I heard stories of how awful it was when my parents were children, and now, the ecosystem is really revitalized, and it’s a beautiful community resource. Boston didn’t clean up the Charles River and the Boston Harbor until there was a court order to clean up these waterways. Boston has this reputation now as this progressive global city, but for a long time, it had the same challenges that a lot of other parts of the United States are facing. It was forced to do it, but eventually, it did something about it. There are many ways society and the public can make positive changes to protect our ecosystems.
And I just love being outside, and the green spaces in Watertown, and being by the ocean – there’s just a lot packed into a really small place, and of course, that small place is connected to the larger eastern Massachusetts region. As I got older, I got into growing food and permaculture and incorporated that into my work as an educator.
INHABITAT: In the book, you brought out the stories of people that went outside their comfort zones to help make Watertown a better place. One of the people I’m thinking of is Harry Friedman, who you affectionately dubbed the Weird Guy Pulling Carts From The River. What did you take away from those stories?
BEACH: I walked the river path often, and I would see this guy standing there every season, and eventually I got over my New England awkwardness where people don’t say hello and thought, this guy seems like someone worth knowing, so just started talking to him. Harry showed me it’s okay to be yourself and be yourself in a very friendly, open way.
Also, I remember talking to Ruth Tomasian, who started this organization called Project SAVE, which has archived 45,000 photographs of Armenian history. She was also very inspiring. I’d said about the book, ‘Oh, this is kind of an amateur effort I’m doing,’ and she said, ‘You’re working this into something, you’re getting out there,’ and shared with me some of the mistakes she made in starting this big project and being open to putting yourself out there. You might fail, but you also might open up some doors and encourage other people to open up.
I saw the book working in three different layers. One layer was the big issues like the war on terror, the war on drugs, or ecology. The next layer was how all these topics fit in the local history. And then for me, the most important layer – the book wouldn’t have a heart if it didn’t have these people who bring these stories to life. It makes people care. I wanted it to write the book to serve my town and Massachusetts, but I did want people, no matter where they’re from, to get something out of it. Those universal stories of people in the community, participating in their own way to make it a better place, that happens everywhere around the world.
INHABITAT: You mention wins for Watertown, like a garden cemetery providing a habitat for wildlife, and also losses, like the empty luxury apartments most locals couldn’t afford. With the knowledge that no city is perfect, how, in your opinion, could cities approach ecology more holistically?
BEACH: There are a lot of hidden costs of exploiting the world’s resources. The cost of cleaning up pollution is socialized, everyone has to pay for it in one way or another, but the profits are privatized. Whether it’s a municipal government or a national government, they should find a way to put those costs in at the beginning of the calculation instead of waiting; 20 years down the line you’re going to be paying more, you’re going to have more damage. I think of Flint, and I know there are big structural issues at play like racism and poverty. But I think about small things, like investing in public spaces, investing in bike trails, and taking land that was previously vacant and turning it into something open to the public. That’s what’s happened in Watertown for the past several decades. The river path I talked about wasn’t there when my dad grew up in Watertown; it was an overgrown place. They could have taken that and developed it into waterfront property, and maybe today they would, but they didn’t and now that’s preserved for future generations. It’s the same thing with building bike trails along old rail lines; finding the low hanging fruit that really does provide so much of a benefit for the community, in terms of fitness, bringing people together, mental health; it’s something to be proud of in the community, it’s a place to put up art. Those big structural issues will be there, and we have to deal with those too, but there are some small ways to bring the community together and serve them.
INHABITAT: You don’t shy away from Watertown’s historical failures even as you celebrate its successes. How did your view of your hometown change and evolve the more research you did about its past and the more people you talked to while writing the book?
BEACH: A lot of people I spoke to I met from doing the book, so that was really encouraging because it made me feel closer to the town. It made me feel like I really understood its character today and in the past. I’ve been a student of history for a long time, so I know the broad strokes and the mistakes that have been made in New England and the United States and how they continue today, but something that’s really important that I try and get across in the book – and in my work with middle school students as a teacher – is this idea that there can be multiple truths that exist at the same time: that you can hold different, seemingly conflicting things to be true at the same time. You can say yes, the United States has this history of colonialism and racism, but at the same time, this is a place that so many people have come to call home, and however it was formed and however it’s continued, in that place there’s a lot of good, and a lot of people trying to do good and make it a better place for everyone. Those two things have been true about the United States since the beginning. You want to make your home a better place, you want to make sure your town or your country is a good place to live. It’s not easy; you have to keep working at it. It’s clear that the United States is very divided right now, but I think generally people around the world all want the same things. We all want to feel like we belong, we want to feel like we have meaning in our lives. So I try and bring those things up as much as I can.
INHABITAT: How would you encourage people to get more involved in their own hometowns?
BEACH: It depends on who you are and what you enjoy, because not everyone is going to feel comfortable getting involved in a civic organization or a town committee. Every person can find a way of contributing. It could be spending more time on green spaces and meeting people that way. It could be trying to start a community garden, or it could just be sharing vegetables you grew with someone in your community. It also goes back to that idea of being willing to be yourself and say hello and engage with people. Just learning is also a way to get involved. I knew a lot about my town and the country, but I learned so much about so many different things in writing this book. That has to affect how I think about issues, or how I try and engage with people. I’ve met so many people through this and learned from them and been inspired by them. And I’m an introvert too. I need to get away from people to recharge, but I love getting to know people and connecting with them.
INHABITAT: What do you hope readers will take away from the book? What do you hope they walk away thinking about?
BEACH: I hope they walk away with more information, maybe a better understanding of some of these big issues, but at the same time feel encouraged to ask questions and then pursue them. That was driving me the whole time: I just had these questions that I needed answered, and I want readers to feel similarly excited to trace questions and see where they lead, and they might not have an answer. I think also it goes back to the theme of holding multiple ideas to be true at the same time, recognizing that the world is a huge place, and there are these huge systems it’s so hard to really get ahold of them, but then, it’s also a very small world, because there are individuals and groups out there trying to build a better world in small places.
I realized the other day that I applied for a job at Inhabitat right around the same time I was starting to really write the book. It actually happened on Christmas Eve. I was sick so I didn’t go out with my family and I was at home, and I saw this opening for Inhabitat, which I had been reading for years. I’d given articles from Inhabitat to students. I got a response and started writing. Those two things running parallel to each other really supported and reinforced each other. Being concise and clear on Inhabitat is really important because there’s a lot of content out there, and you want your readers to get to the meat of it, but you also make sure there’s an appealing style to the writing. Some of the topics I cover in the book actually started off as Inhabitat articles, like one I wrote about Japanese knotweed. I just wanted to add some context to the connections.
You can buy The World and Watertown here.
Images courtesy of Greg Beach and Harry Friedman, lead image via Wikimedia