Small Towns: Paris, France?


Have I gone off my rocker with the above tagline? How could a place with nearly 2.2 million people be a small town? Note small towns plural.


City sprawl from a quiet spot in Montmarte

Numerous European cities differ from those in North America by not being entirely geared to automobiles. There are indeed traffic-clogged streets filled with the brash claxon peals of car horns in Paris, but much of the city consists of neighborhoods in which feet and bicycles are ubiquitous. It’s huge in area, but its neighborhoods function as villages within the metropolis, each with a distinct character. 


Bikes outside a major train station


Paris is divided into 17 districts–it used to be 20–called arrondisements. These go back to times in which most were separate villages and towns. By my count I’ve been to a dozen during my four visits, enough to offer a generalization: Paris is more human-scaled than most US cities. 


Off Blvd St-Michel

Think of places such as Atlanta, Dallas, Los Angeles, or Phoenix whose sprawl is so vast and generic that there is “no there there,” as Gertrude Stein famously observed about Oakland. Scores of others have spawned cookie-cutter suburbs and distant exurbs. In each case, public life and community identity are truncated or non-existent.  


Only a handful of U.S. and Canadian cities come close to offering a comparable intimate vibe to Paris. New York perhaps, though many of its boroughs are services-challenged. Parts of Montreal, Portland, San Francisco and Vancouver also spring to mind, but even they have numerous isolated neighborhoods in which stores and entertainment are distant from where the populace resides. Boston is walkable, but its traffic snarl is infamous for a reason; there’s just not much going on in most of the ‘burbs and several of its inner-city neighborhoods lack amenities.  


Good public transportation is rare in North American cities, though it’s not a panacea if it does exist. It takes urbanities from one place to the next–and subways are far faster than surface traffic–but it mostly moves people when they must leave where they live. That’s usually connected to work, whether we define that as where paychecks are doled out, or gathering food and other necessities. In such a setup, going to a café, seeing a movie, meeting friends, or even taking a walk becomes a “task.” That’s why so many people endlessly complain of lacking leisure time.


Vaneau cafe after hours


In June, we stayed in Vaneau, which straddles Paris’ 6th and 7th arrondisements. You’ve probably never heard of this quiet residential neighborhood, but it also had a nice hotel and, as my first evening’s stroll revealed, numerous green grocers, two patisseries,  several cafés, and a smelly store that proved to be a fromagerie. Within two blocks was a Bon Marché department store and a side street with numerous shops. That small street ended at large café, a new district, and the Vaneau pattern repeated. Hop on the Metro you’ll see the same elsewhere, though each neighborhood exudes its own vibe. When we went to the 9th arrondisement for dinner, it was grittier than Vaneau but also quite vibrant. 



In the 9th arrondisement



Paris was drastically rebuilt and modernized by Baron Haussmann in the mid-19th century. He cleaned out dangerous areas and gave it the Renaissance Revival elegance with which we today associate the city. What did not happen next is just as important: Paris did not throw its neighborhoods under automobile tires. It could have happened. Carl Benz, a German, gets credit for the first automobile in 1886, but French inventors came up with prototypes a century earlier.  


Even bike racks look good amidst this



Many U.S. cities used to be like Paris. In 1908, though, Henry Ford’s  Model-T rolled out of his factory and altered the course of American history. Automobiles were instrumental in creating distinct shopping and entertainment precincts: first downtowns, then further-distanced shopping centers and venues, then suburbia. Trolley lines and railroads went into deep decline and cross-street traffic made walking more difficult. Car culture trifurcates where we live, work, and play. They’re also a time suck. A London study revealed Victorians moved faster in horse-drawn carriages. 


Tourist area, but note who rules the streets


One of my Northampton friends is French, spent his youth in Paris, and tries new neighborhoods when he visits. He doesn’t rent a car, but he is yet to come back saying there was nothing to see, do, or eat where he’s stayed. Surface traffic in Paris can be as brutal as in any American city, but let’s hear it for cities as a collection of towns rather than a network of asphalt.


Rob Weir  


The Rainmaker (1956): Dress Rehearsal for Elmer Gantry?



Directed by Joseph Anthony

Paramount, 121 minutes, Not-rated




The Rainmaker was remade twice and the 1997 Francis Ford Coppola film of that name has nothing to do with this one. The 1956 film in question could be considered Burt Lancaster’s dress rehearsal for Elmer Gantry.


The film’s action takes place in Kansas during the Great Depression. Forget soup lines and unemployment; if you paid attention to The Wizard of Oz  (or your history instructors!) you know that a crippling drought turned farmland into the Dust Bowl. That’s one of the problems facing the Curry family headed by H.C. (Cameron Prud’Homme), a widower with two sons–Noah (Lloyd Bridges) and Jim (Earl Holliman)– and daughter Lizzie (Katharine Hepburn). Lizzie is the other problem. Although she’s sort of attracted to Howard Thomas (Wallace Ford), the local sheriff, he has the vocal skills of a mime, and other prospects have been even less promising. Middle-aged, reticent, bookish, and independent spell “old maid” in an age in which women were expected to marry. Lizzie thinks she’s plain-looking, another blow to her already low self-esteem.


Meanwhile, we see Bill Starbuck (Lancaster) trying to sell lightning rods to gullible farmers from the back of his carny-like wagon, though they  look like a digeridoo crossed with a voodoo staff. It’s a good day when he can hightail it out of town ahead of law enforcement. He makes his way to the Curry farm after a chance encounter with Lizzie. She and her family recognize him as a conman even before Howard and his deputy warn them there’s a huckster in the area. Starbuck doesn’t even try to deny the charge, but times are desperate and H.C. and Lizzie are intrigued by his offer to make it rain. If it does, they pay him; if it doesn’t, he’ll disappear.


Moby Dick readers will recognize the name Starbuck. In Melville’s novel Starbuck was a serious Quaker with deep respect for the plans of the Almighty and warns others to pay attention to God’s will. He was also cautious and quiet, something Bill Starbuck is not. Bill’s the sort who’d try to sell paint to cover vinyl siding, but he also quotes Scripture, exudes religious-like passion, and has rogue-like charm. Do you suspect that he and Lizzie will have a fling? Wouldn’t that be Lizzie’s business? H. C. thinks so, but her brothers play good cop/bad cop roles on that question. And don’t be so sure you know what their relationship will be.


The Rainmaker is played for laughs in a broad almost sit-com way that occasionally goes over the top. It was made 67 years ago and some of those situations and many of the social values now seem prehistoric. Hepburn was 49 in 1956, but anyone who has seen a picture of her in full bloom would find it hard to imagine that, in the film’s logic, she was always too plain-looking to attract a husband. Of course, we must also remember that woman-as-homemaker was a dominant value of both the 1930s and the 1950s. If it helps, men’s roles were often stereotypical as well. Those who worked with their hands weren’t expected to be Einsteins or worry about feelings–their own or those of anyone else.


What makes The Rainmaker interesting to watch in 2023 is the acting. Hepburn plays against what was by then her type: wisecracking, cosmopolitan, and tough, even if the script called for her to be clumsy or fall in love. That’s why her attempts to show deference or act the role of the perfect homemaker are funny in The Rainmaker. Lancaster is at his bombastic best as Starbuck. You can imagine how he must have been totally pumped to be offered the role of Gantry four years later. Today we find his performance histrionic, but it was in keeping with method acting techniques of his day. You don’t need to know a thing about that, though; you could just revel in the unbridled delight of watching him chew scenery like chicken wings and celery sticks.


I do wish the secondary characters had been as well developed as those of Lizzie and Starbuck. Several talented actors–Bridges and Ford especially–are reduced to cardboard cutouts and there’s a reason you won’t recognize the names of a few of the background characters. It’s all in good fun though. Wedding bells? Rain? Not sayin’.


Rob Weir            


The Hopeful World of Carrie Newcomer



I’ve known Carrie Newcomer since 1991. She’s one of the most reflective people I know and a person who puts her Quaker principles into action. Carrie will drop a new album A Great Wild Mercy later this fall–a full review will come when it’s available­–but I had a chance to speak with her in late July. That interview has been edited for space. 


Carrie Newcomer on empathy and A Great Wild Mercy:


I think that the title cut … holds a lot of the threads that that through this album. The opening image is of a woman who has a blue umbrella over her head…. She steps out into the rain, looks up, puts down her umbrella, and lets the rain wash over her.  


I … thought we all been longing…. for the presence of something wilder….  There's a line in the song “There's news of the world and news of the heart .” The news of the world will tell us that that we are small that we are without power in light of climate change and economic injustice. But the …  things at the heart are the great mercy.  There is an ever-present goodness still in world and that we are part of it if we choose to be.


On remaining optimistic:


I’m not the kind of person who thinks that the glass half full or half empty; I just think it's a really big glass!  My friend [author] Parker Palmer has [a] beautiful definition for hope: “Hope is holding in creative tension all that is and could be and each day taking action to narrow the distance between them.” It's not sugar-coated optimism; it's holding what is and the challenges we face.  I don’t belittle that, but … holding onto our finest aspirations … is what I do each day what in my daily action and voice. I read a quote by Rick Rubin: “The things we believe carry a charge,” and I really believe that.  What we do in our daily lives does matter and does shift something in the world….  O]ur current media system is based on  a  steady diet of fear and outrage.  It’s important for the arts to uplift another kind of voice: We are not small and are not without power.


On “Singing in the Dark,” co-written with John McCutcheon


… We are living in a vulnerable moment culturally and as a planet. We need to keep singing in the moment and in the darkness. “Singing in the Dark” happened I had gone to Gethsemane where Thomas Merton worked. The monks do something called “singing the hours.” Seven times during the day they all gather [to sing]…. One of those times is 3 AM and I [spoke] with one of the monks … and asked him how he felt about getting up every day at that time. He said [that]… he worked on a crisis hotline before [he] became a monk and … that 3 a.m. was when people hit bottom. It’s also the darkest time in the monastery, but… “the idea of faithfully putting what we do into practice and supporting others sustained me.”


On the collaboration process with McCutcheon:


…John is a writer’s writer.  [He’s] in Georgia now, so we Zoom.  John is a lyrics-first kind of guy and so we break down lyrics and shake them together. Sometimes … a quote, an idea or a poem… become[s] the basis for lyrics…. Then we take it to music, and we’ll work on the music separately.  One song that I really love that we created together is “Field of Stars, “ which came out walking to Compostela. We created the lyrics and then John wrote the music and played it for me. Sometimes I'll have the music … and we shift or change … the bridge…. but the lyrics really come together very organically in the moment.  


On the whimsical song “Potluck:”


In Joy, Robert Gay talks about a potluck where everybody brought their joys and their sorrows as a way to prayerfully be kinder to one another. I love writing with Siri Undlin [of Humbird]. We both … thought the Midwestern potluck was a great metaphor…. It’s part of Midwestern culture. You have to trust what people will bring to the table. If everyone brings chocolate cake, that’s what we have! You put it on the table next to the beer….  There's a … kind of graciousness but also the blessing of community and the care that we give one another, a “glad you're here” moment. We're coming out of a pandemic …. and we're coming back to community, [but] …. we’re a little rusty. At the same time we're celebrating connection.



On integrating poetry, music, and meter:


My process for songwriting is to do a lot of writing… essays, journal[ing] … a Substack page, poetry…. A lot of writing isn't a song, but … from all that writing I'll start to pull out things that become lyrics. That's pretty much the classic Carrie Newcomer process.  I definitely write prose poetry, though.


… I always come back to songwriting because it makes me happy. There’s something about a few verses and choruses in a compressed format…. Language is powerful, but a song also has music that must be completely entwined to be effective. In poetry there's the setup, but in a song….  you're … laying out of the story, but it can't just be documentation.


On the new album’s varied genres:



I've always crossed genres that way. There’s something really beautiful about a great pop song. The Beatles' [songs] are still around for a reason. The funky bass on “Start with a Stone” grew out the cushion that drummer Jim Brock [laid down] and Paul Kowert is one of the finest bass players I've ever encountered. But, I’ve never had any problem calling myself a folk artist because I don't censor my subject matter…. I write about all kinds of relationships [not just love songs]… romantic relationships… but also family relationships, spiritual relationships, and political relationships. The lack of a censor  very much puts me in the folk music [category]. The last few records were a bit more intimate, but I coproduced this one with David Weber… There are songs that are very quiet, but three of the musicians are members of Hawktail and project a bluegrass- meets-classical [feel]. My longtime creative pianist also plays Hammond organ, so it was … an interesting collaboration.  


On the mental shifts between genres:


 That's production, I guess. The songs are generally what I'm writing, so… one [might] end  up with a combination of pop longing with a kind of Americana rhythm.  But I started writing “Path Through the Evening Woods” when I was walking and there’s … Irish ethnicity entwined in the song, the arrangement, and melody.


On being a veteran performer in a younger profession:


I embrace it. In the song “Book of Questions,” every line could be a writing prompt and tell my story from it. Everything has brought me here–the seriously stupid stuff and the  transcendent. I had something important to say at every point of my career, but I couldn’t have written the last album one day before it was done or 10 years ago. I’m … grateful for who I’ve become as a writer and for the songs I write today. I … often [don’t know] know exactly what an album is about–this is like my 20th–and when I'm recording one. I [also] don’t write songs because I have answers; I write songs because I have questions. Who was I becoming? What do I still have to offer?


I love … collaboration … with those in their 20’s and 30’s  but Jim Brock is 70 and we had fabulous conversations … about what art is and what is it that [we] still have to offer…. [There’s] a certain kind of soup that we're all kind of swimming in right now and I love that I get to swim with folks from different generations and think about all kinds of ways we create together. Bob Dylan said that  if you’re not growing, you die.