Regenerating Society One "Cell" at a Time
By Steve Hamm
Bridge Street in Humboldt (early morning)
Ten years ago, Humboldt, Kansas, was a lot like thousands of small towns across the United States. Economic and social shifts had left the once-booming downtown feeling eerily abandoned. Walmart stores had opened up to the north and south of town, “sucking the life out,” as one local man put it. A highway bypass had been built. And, because of mechanization, the many farms in the area required fewer workers. As a result, many storefronts were empty and the town population was dwindling.
But the residents of this town of 1900 people didn’t give up. The area economy was actually quite sound. There were three successful industries—farming, a cement plant, and a fast-growing trailer hitch company. It was the downtown and the sense of wellbeing that needed a shot of adrenaline. That boost is now being provided by Joe Works, the founder and CEO of B&W Trailer Hitches, and a group of young people, mostly made up of his children, who launched an initiative called A Bolder Humboldt aimed at making the town a vibrant place to live and visit. “Why should people have to move elsewhere to enjoy the nicer things in life? Why can’t they have all those things in a small town in the Midwest?” says Joe.
Joe has planted 20,000 walnut trees on underutilized farm land
The UN’s Climate Champions have designated “innovation” as today’s theme for the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland, but not all innovation is technological. What’s going on in Humboldt is an example of social innovation and reflects a trend that’s happening all over the world. Communities are setting out to revitalize themselves using local ideas, local resources, and local experimentation. In many cases, sustainability and resilience are part of the revitalization effort. We at Pivot Projects call this trend the cellular economy. The core idea is that we must reform our economic system, reshaping capitalism and pivoting from today’s focus on consumption and maximizing profits and instead harness the positive forces in capitalism to improve the wellbeing of individuals and communities.
The building blocks of the cellular economy already exist. The world is full of organizations and communities and individuals focused on making the world a better place. These “cells” are humanistic, collaborative, community oriented, and experimental. Right now, most operate in isolation. We believe that these initiatives can change the world—if there are enough of them and they are aligned and connected. We’re working on helping with alignment by fostering cooperation between a global network of these cells of positivity. Come join us!
While A Bolder Humboldt isn’t explicitly aimed at environmental sustainability and achieving climate goals, those values are embraced by some of the participants. For the group as a whole, the focus is on economic and social regeneration. Still, it’s a model for community activism.
Joe kicked the revival off several years ago by purchasing one property after another on the main square. His children and their allies have been busy renovating buildings and establishing businesses—including a coffee shop where you can enjoy a pumpkin spice latte with oat milk, a boutique hotel with a fancy bar, a brew pub, an entertainment venue in an old church, and a park near a bike trail with a pond and cabins for glamping. The goal is to please locals and attract visitors from miles around. “We tell ourselves and others who get involved that it’s vital to do everything so it’s remarkable. Nothing is ordinary. We want people to tell their friends about the amazing things they did in Humboldt,” says Josh Works, one of Joe and Jane Works’ sons, who has taken the lead on several of the projects.
Josh in the soon-to-be brunch restaurant at the Bailey hotel
The park on the outskirts of town, called Base Camp, is farthest along. It is located at the terminus of a long rails-to-trails biking trail that is attracting people from all over the area. At Base Camp, people can rent rustic cabins and canoes, buy food, and fix their bikes. It’s a short ride into the center of town. In fact, most everything in town is less than a 15-minute walk from anything else.
The Bailey hotel shows a lot of promise. Expected to open within a few months, it’s being remodeled in the style of the town at the beginning of the 20th century when Humboldt’s population and farm economy were reaching their peak. Weekend visitors will be able to stay in rooms that have the design quality of a boutique Manhattan hotel, have cocktails in bar that has booths with velvet seat coverings, take a tour to learn about Humboldt’s history as stop on the Underground Railroad, and spend the evening at the music venue.
The music venue, Revival Music Hall, aims to attract concert goers from as far as a four-hour drive away. It will stage a mix of artists, from country and blues to rock and hip-hop. Visiting musicians will be able stay overnight in a large apartment in the church basement—complete with a music room and a small museum.
While Works family members are at the center of the revitalization effort, they’re drawing others into their vortex, including Damaris Kunkler, who is their community engagement director and the project lead for the music venue. “Most everybody in town is participating,” she says. “They’re opening businesses, and they’re volunteering for events and community beautification projects.” Damaris serves as the unofficial “connector” for the community, helping people write grant applications and find partners for projects.
Damaris is a singer-songwriter in addition to her "connector" duties
A Bolder Humboldt is fostering virtuous circularity. Each business or activity reinforces the others and adds to the draw the town hopes to exert on residents, potential residents, and visitors. One of the newest projects, for example, an affordable housing development, provides housing for newcomers and makes it easier for the trailer hitch company to recruit employees.
Humboldt’s future is still uncertain. “We won’t know the verdict for quite a while,” Joe says. But the A Bolder Humboldt team is committed to their cause and they share an experimental spirit. If one concept doesn’t work, they’ll try something else.
The same can be said for all of humanity. We’re at a critical inflection point. The status quo is unsustainable. Massive changes are needed if we hope to save the environment and the civilization that depends on it. Hopefully, experiments run by cells in towns, neighborhoods, and cities all over the globe will be fruitful, others will learn from them, and the positivity will spread and multiply.
Steve Hamm is a freelance writer and documentary filmmaker based in New Haven, CT, USA. His new book, The Pivot: Addressing Global Problems Through Local Action, was published by Columbia University Press in October. The Works are his cousins.