What can we learn from Hammondsport as we create the future of small towns?

Arriving: Downtown and Main Square

As  you arrive in Hammondsport, you can sense that something is different. Especially as one enters the downtown area, there are countless indications, big and small, of a strong sense of community. It is easy to see that Hammondsport has a dedicated group of people who have been creating a community with unique qualities over time, making Hammondsport what it is today.

There is strong evidence of what we call "zealous nuts," an affectionate term for people who don't know what they can't do – often the people who make the most positive changes in their communities. By the way that people live and care about their homes and communities in Hammondsport, it seems this type of enthusiasm is alive and well.

This photo essay is the beginning of their story.

Some of the assets that one immediately notices are right in the center of town. Public buildings and community institutions adjoin the most important public spaces, including the local church, a bed and breakfast, and a gazebo (with seating!) in the town square, and the police station along the waterfront.

Arriving: Downtown and Main Square

As you arrive in Hammondsport, you can see active storefronts and buildings directly in front of you which give a clear indication of a lively downtown. The road seems to end at a row of stores, peaking your interest enough for you to slow down and see what is going on...and there is a lot.

The Main Square

The center of Hammondsport is small and well proportioned enough to draw people in for various experiences. It really serves as a square, which is often better used than a more widespread town green approach. The latter, though often bigger, is much more passive.

In Hammondsport, the town square has ample seating, shade, and often hosts markets and performances.

Many downtown businesses huddle around the square, reinforcing its role as a center point. A mix of gastronomic and wine tourism-related attractions mingle with local establishments like hardware stores and libraries.

Shethar Street is one of the main streets that borders the town square, and has various storefronts and outdoor dining areas that spill out onto the sidewalk.

The ice cream parlor is one of the main attractions, in large part due to its ample outdoor sitting space.

Other sections of Shethar Street include the historic Frey Opera House (circa 1901) along with a street full of surprises so narrow that you literally have to walk your car through, adding to the mystery.

There are two key attractions located in this unusual building which has stores on the ground floor, apartments on two floors, and the actual "opera hall" on the top level venue.

The Opera House Antiques and a Wine Barrel store are major and equally interesting attractions on the ground floor.

Across the street is a dynamic collection of  buildings that offer food, art and public seating – seven chairs and a bench, and much more that is impossible to ignore.

Hammondsport also has a mini art park, labeled as a "pedestrian marketplace." It is not meant as a place to merely look at and pass through; ample seating and shaded picnic tables encourage a longer stay.

The art park is part of a wider engagement with public art in Hammondsport. This year marked the Annual Palettes 2022 Art Tour Exhibition, which was a summer-long art tour that is in its 16th year. Local businesses sponsor an artist to paint a "palette" to be placed on their property. This year there were 29 "palettes" in and around the downtown. People are invited to tour around town to find them, and then to fill out a form to get a prize. At the end of the summer each "palette" is sold off and proceeds go to local charities.

Behind the opera house are other treasures to add to the mix

Hammondsport's Library

Though the library is another lovely shared space in Hammondsport, its sense of place could have benefitted from a more accessible location in the downtown. Being on a hill with steep stairs leading up to the main entrance has the effect of setting the library above other destinations, and making it feel a bit disconnected. A connected plaza on the street level or slightly higher could give it a real presence. Adding seating and some sculptures could be even quicker ways to change that perception. Behind the library is a delightful park/gathering place, a wonderful destination a little too separate from the main building.

A Community of Porches

We've written before about the importance of porches in small towns. They are a major part of connecting neighbors with one another, and Hammondsport is yet another community that makes this case.


There is a small but compact corner of Keuka Lake, one of the many Finger lakes in Western New York State, where the center piece is an interesting architectural structure that actually serves as the local police station.

Outside the town there was another indication that we were coming into a community that deserved greater attention...a combination of an iceream "parlor" and a place to wash your dog and car.


The difference between Hammondsport and most other small towns is that the community is defined by a square and streets with attractions that are impossible to miss. The roads are not big and overwhelming. They are small roads scaled to the buildings and public spaces within the community. It feels more appealing and easy to get out of your car and walk around than to drive through as one does for most other small towns with oversized roads and intersections.

It is also easy to see strong evidence that the community has many residents who care about their homes and their community.

There are many long-standing stores that have stayed downtown as anchors. The grocery and auto parts store are still there after years, meaning that the many reasons for being in downtown on a daily basis for all your needs are still there.

Improvisation is the foundation for local communities to define themselves, and it is clearly at work in Hammondsport; you can see it everywhere.

Our background of exploring many small towns across the Northeast United States

For the past two and a half years we have been traveling throughout the entire Northeast US region, visiting small towns. Most towns, in fact the vast majority, are held back by the strategies we outline below. We found Hammondsport to be a community that works. It is a wonderful example for other communities working to create a future for their community. This collection of posts about rural communities is full of similiar stories and larger discusions on how to bring back rural North America:

Rural Communities - Social Life Project
Restoring social life in rural communities starts with a rethinking of streets, public spaces, and community institutions. COVID has helped us to realize that many of the changes we need to make feels more possible now than they have for some time.

General Resources

The Best Sidewalks in North America
Sidewalks are the foundation to making the social life of communities thrive. The best sidewalks share certain traits that make them welcoming, accessible, and socially active places.
What Happened to Small-Town Life and How to Recapture It
we found and learned from some truly wonderful examples of small-town social life, and it is these glimmers of hope that can lay the foundation for new attention to public spaces in smaller communities.


To Save the Planet, Start With the Social Life of Sidewalks
Rich street life is no frill. It is an expression of the most ancient function of a city—a place for people to come together, all kinds of people, face-to-face. — William “Holly” Whyte
Play Sculptures
Play-friendly sculptures can be a part of making someone’s visit to a park particularly memorable, whether that’s by bringing a beloved character to life, or offering a landscape for play unlike any other.
Emerging Social Hubs in Brooklyn: Building Back Better
A social hub is by nature community led. It is local, even hyper-local. It can ripple out from a single enterprise on a block, spread to others, and evolve organically

The Placemaking Movement

Social Life, How Can it Help Shape the Future of our Communities?
With people today longing to bond again with friends and family, it is becoming clearer that the foundation of our happiness and fulfillment is a rich social life. Reflections of Jay Walljasper.
Next Steps for the Global Placemaking Movement
Imagine if the places where we live were shaped for, and from, our social lives, re-imagined to make it easy for us to gather, shop, have fun, eat together, and be around people different from us. we would collectively have an impact on the health of our planet.

To the Hammondsport Community, this is a draft post that, with help from those of you who have made this happen, we could make a resource for other communities your size.  

The mission of the Social Life Project is to incite a renaissance of community connection in public spaces around the globe. Through our online publication, presentations, campaigns, and catalytic projects, we can create transformative impact on communities everywhere. Our work grows out of more than 50 years devoted to building the global placemaking movement. It is an initiative of the Placemaking Fund, along with PlacemakingX — a global network of leaders who together accelerate placemaking as a way to create healthy, inclusive, and beloved communities.

If you are interested in collaborating (articles, presentations, exhibits, projects, and more) or supporting the cause contact us.

Share this post