Lesson from Ashland

August 23, 2012
Ashland, Oregon

I see men’s judgements are
A parcel of their fortunes; and things outward
Do draw the inward quality after them.

William Shakespeare, Anthony and Cleopatra

If Shakespeare were living in Ashland today, they’d elect him president of the Chamber of Commerce.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, with its magnificent campus downtown that includes three theaters, gardens, courtyard, and an outdoor stage, is Ashland’s second largest employer. In addition there are dozens of thriving businesses – restaurants, shops and inns – that serve theatergoers. As a successful businessman himself, Shakespeare would no doubt enjoy a hearty laugh at being a lynchpin of this economy.

In our visit this year, Wendy and I have also been drawn to something else about Ashland – Lithia Park. We began with breakfast downtown, at an outdoor table near Ashland Creek, picked up a trail nearby, and wandered up into the forested hillside. In the whole experience – the combination of wild forest with gentle landscaping, trails along the brightly flowing stream, picnic benches, duck ponds, and wild deer – we can feel the artistry of John McLaren, the landscape architect of Golden Gate Park, who was commissioned to design Lithia.

We get to a lovely place of open meadows near the stream. Wendy lies on the grass in the sun; I sit at a picnic table to compose my blog. I say hi to a female police officer walking through the park, making sure that everyone’s okay.

I’m blown away by what this town of 20,000 has accomplished. What have they done right? Is there a lesson here for other communities?

As a point of comparison, I think about the town where I live, Half Moon Bay, CA. Both places were settled by Europeans in the mid-1800s and began as agricultural settlements, both cover about 6.5 square miles, both are blessed with beautiful natural environments. Ashland, population 20,000, has Southern Oregon University within its borders. Half Moon Bay, population 11,000, is close to Stanford, UC Santa Cruz, and several community colleges.

Half Moon Bay has a well-educated population with an average family income almost twice that of Ashland. Yet our amateur theater and other cultural events, and small parks, don’t come remotely close to what Ashland has. And the town is in financial trouble, downsizing everything, even eliminating the police department. (We now get police services from the county sheriff.) And the merchants on Main Street are struggling to hold on.

So what can communities like mine learn from Ashland? Sitting here at a picnic table in Lithia Park, answering this question seems beyond me. Is it about the politics, the tax structure, the local leadership? Is it about accidents of geography or history? Is it about establishing your own university? I don’t know.

Suddenly four deer show up, very close, out of nowhere. Wendy is sleeping and no other people are around. They look like a family: a mother, father, two young ones. I stay very still. They wander across the grassy field to a spot near some trees.

Wikipedia offers an interesting clue about the Shakespeare Festival and Lithia Park. They both trace their roots to the Chautauqua movement . It was an independent movement of both religious and secular people that brought culture and entertainment to people throughout rural America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Shakespeare Festival began as a facility built in 1893 to house Chautauqua events. And Lithia Park began when members of the Ladies Chautauqua Club formed the Women’s Civic Improvement Club, which petitioned the city council in 1908 for the establishment of a park in Ashland.

Maybe there’s a lesson in that. What would be the equivalent of Chautauqua today?

I set my camera on the picnic table and snap some pictures of the deer. Whatever I wind up saying on the blog, this will make a good picture.

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