Trio Uses an Old Newspaper Building to Create the Civic Standard in Hardwick | News | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Trio Uses an Old Newspaper Building to Create the Civic Standard in Hardwick


Published July 20, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated July 27, 2022 at 8:52 a.m.

From left: Tara Reese, Rose Friedman and Erica Heilman - TERRY ALLEN
  • Terry Allen
  • From left: Tara Reese, Rose Friedman and Erica Heilman

They envision it as a gathering place, like a general store, or "a long table in the kitchen." The place will not be a community center, exactly, nor a performance hall, but something arguably bigger: a space for rescuing the ties that bind Hardwick.

That's the goal of the three-woman team behind the Civic Standard, which aims to transform a shuttered newspaper office in the town of Hardwick into a site for building community through murder mysteries, fundraisers, avant-garde art displays, cooking parties, impromptu get-togethers — even bonfires. "We're losing those threads that make us feel some sense of responsibility to each other and to the greater good," said Rose Friedman, cofounder of Modern Times Theater in East Hardwick and one of the organizers of the Civic Standard. She is joined in the effort by Erica Heilman, Peabody Award-winning producer of the "Rumble Strip" podcast, and Tara Reese, a community organizer.

Civic ties in Vermont are fraying, Heilman said, because of a laundry list of trends: the disappearance of local school boards as districts merge, the shuttering of some churches, the adoption of the Australian ballot on Town Meeting Day and, as in Hardwick, the waning presence of community papers.

Heilman fears that towns could lose the traditions, quirks and character that set them apart, becoming mere clusters of homes. "I don't want to live in a house on the side of a road," Heilman said. "I want to live in my town. You know?"

The Civic Standard got a boost last week when the selectboard of Hardwick, a town of roughly 1,000 in the Northeast Kingdom, announced that it would allot the project $35,000 in federal American Rescue Plan funds. "It's an investment in our town," said David Upson, town manager.

Read: Hardwick's people. In 2020, Reese's 17-year-old son Finn Rooney died by suicide. She was moved by the breadth and strength of the town's response. She recounted visits by neighbors, community bonfires and food delivered to her home, including a roast chicken left in a basket in her mudroom. That was Friedman's doing.

That encounter sparked a deep friendship — and eventual creative partnership — between the two women. "We went on a walk," Reese recalled, "and by the end of the walk, we were like, we need to do something together."

Not too long after that, Heilman recorded a podcast about Friedman's separate efforts to organize free outdoor soup gatherings as a way to bring Hardwick neighbors together during the pandemic. Heilman recognized something special. Neighbors seemed eager to gather in a parking lot on a cold winter's evening and eat soup, even when it was awkward and difficult.

Friedman introduced Heilman to Reese at one of the soup events, and the two quickly became friends. That led to the award-winning episode of Heilman's podcast that chronicled the impact that Finn's life and death had on Hardwick. In preparing the episode, the women recognized the need for deeper community connection, which felt like a revelation. People of divergent political beliefs in Hardwick had rallied around each other. They had grieved and celebrated together. Reese saw the "need to be able to show that without a tragedy."

The seed for the Civic Standard was planted.

A location for the project became available when the Hardwick Gazette made the difficult decision to move out of the building — the oldest in Hardwick — that had been its home since the turn of the 20th century. The red clapboard two-story house, built along the Lamoille River in Hardwick's small downtown, is a place that residents had come know well as they stopped to deliver advertisements to the newspaper, or just to complain.

Two consecutive editors in chief had lived in the apartment upstairs, dedicating up to 80 hours a week to produce the paper. Founded in 1889, the Gazette is the oldest weekly in the Northeast Kingdom. Former owner Ross Connelly made headlines in 2016 when he decided to hand over the operation to the winner of a 400-word essay contest. The gambit was unsuccessful, but Connecticut-based contestant Ray Small still wanted to buy the paper. Connelly sold it to Small and his wife, Kim.

During the pandemic, however, ad revenue dropped by nearly 90 percent, and the Gazette stopped printing. It's now published online only, though Ray Small said he plans to bring back a printed monthly edition in coming months.

"The Hardwick Gazette is the only consistent evidence we have about the life of Hardwick," said Elizabeth Dow, president of the Hardwick Historical Society, who became tearful as she described the paper's impact. "The Gazette reflects the life of the town."

In many ways, that's what the Civic Standard is now hoping to do. Last week, Ray Small decided to donate the building to the group.

"We wanted the Gazette building to continue to play a pivotal role in town life, and the Civic Standard seems tailor made for that kind of thing," he said.

Its organizers like the fact that their planned headquarters is within walking distance of the high school. And they were purposeful in naming their project the Civic Standard, which has a newspaper-y sound to it. As they ready the former news building to reopen, the women have been dealing with broken pipes and many decades of junk, including typesetting equipment and decade-old mail.

Reese, Heilman and Friedman know they have their work cut out for them in a world of ever-growing political divides. The three plan to let the project unfold organically. Reese acknowledged that the nonprofit enterprise is very much an experiment and promises that she and her partners will follow the lead of the community in sketching what shape the Civic Standard eventually takes.

That's kind of the point, after all: fostering a sense of shared interest and obligation toward one another. "We don't have a reason anymore to stand in a parking lot," Heilman said, recalling the earlier soup gatherings. If it's so inspired, presumably Hardwick will find other, more joyful, reasons "to stand around together" again.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Setting a Civic Standard"