Chautauqua: an idea embedded in a place
July 22nd, 2020
I want to tell you about the place I spent summers growing up. It's called Chautauqua Institution, and it's one of the most special places in the world — and not just because I spent my childhood there.
Chautauqua is special because it is an idea embedded in a place.
The place is a small town in western New York, on the edge of the Great Lakes. Chautauqua's human-scale streets are lined with lovingly-tended gardens and charming Victorian cottages. It's a place where bicycles aren't locked, children romp without adult supervision, and neighbors wave from front porches.
The idea embedded in this place is the Chautauqua movement, which began in 1874. The movement was an experiment in out-of-school learning. Its purpose was to provide an education and access to the arts to those who without the means to attend college.
Today, Chautauqua continues to be a place of perpetual learning and tight-knit community. The Institution runs 9 weeks of summer programs offering a wide range of speakers, performances, lectures, concerts, classes, parades, art fairs, theater shows, children's camps, waterfront activities, and more. These events are shared by everyone in the community; this means you can start an interesting conversation with anyone on the street, because they're likely walking back from the same lecture that you just attended too.
These programs are enjoyable in their own right, but the real value is that they select for people who care about learning and improving their community. There's a real sense of shared values, and many of the programs are run by self-organizing clubs. The club members host these events on top of infrastructure provided by the Institution (which includes an amphitheater, multiple open air pavilions, a cinema, and more). Chautauqua is a place created by the ~8,000 people who live there every summer, and they've shaped the place to their values.
Chautauqua is the embodiment of an earnest optimism, and it's infectious as soon as you step foot into the Institution. It's like a nerdy Disneyland, except you're part of creating the experience with everyone around you rather than just consuming it.
I don't know of any place quite like Chautauqua. Spending time here prompts some questions:
- How could you adapt the Chautauqua format for different purposes and audiences?
- What would it take to create a successor of Chautauqua today? To flip the question: Why aren't there more places like Chautauqua?
- What places have you been that are like Chautauqua?
- Why does the programming at Chautauqua run for 9 weeks of the year? How would it change the dynamics if the season were longer or shorter?
If you have answers, let me know!
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