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Originally published Saturday, March 26, 2011 at 10:02 PM

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In Langley, Wash., togetherness comes one citizen at a time

Whidbey Island's Langley brims with events and characters. The town celebrates not only its quintessential seaside setting and eclectic scene but also the kind of devoted localism that helps breed.

IT'S OPENING night of the Saints and Sinners show at Museo gallery in Langley, and guests from all over South Whidbey Island are spilling out the door — showing up for the party that gallery owner Sandra Jarvis is throwing. Rock tunes float in the chilly air as a fire-eater prances on the sidewalk in front of the gallery and a winged angel at the door hands out wads of fake dollar bills. It's hard to tell which is more edgy — the all-ages crowd or the work by 33 artists, most of them local.

Galleries in Seattle could only hope to have such a packed and spirited opening night. But by 7 o'clock, the party's over, and everyone has moved on home or off to one of a couple of restaurants in town.

Just another big night in Langley.

Next door at the Clyde Theatre, quite a different event recently drew another throng to Kerby Fest. Turns out that Bill Kerby, the guy who walks miles around town cleaning up litter, used to be a big-deal Hollywood screenwriter. So the Clyde was showing the 1979 Bette Midler movie "The Rose," with Kerby on hand to answer questions after. Every seat was filled, and the crowd broke into applause when Kerby's name came up in the credits.

On this or any night of the week, owners Blake and Lynn Willeford might announce a local's birthday, prompting moviegoers to sing a round of "Happy Birthday" from their seats before the show starts. Some people claim they moved to Langley just so they could walk to the Clyde, where admission is six bucks, popcorn's a dollar and movies change twice a week.

The second city in the country to elect an all-female slate of officials in 1919, Langley at 98 years old seems to brim with such events and characters. From the Welcome the Whales parade to DjangoFest and Mystery Weekend, the town celebrates not only its quintessential seaside setting and eclectic scene but also the kind of devoted localism all of that helps breed.

Everyone in Langley seems to have a backstory: the window-washer is a wildlife biologist, the high-tech businessman plays the bass in a popular local trio and most everyone is a writer, actor, visual artist, musician or photographer in addition to whatever they do to make a living.

Prominent people mix with locals, and soon enough are indistinguishable.

Best-selling mystery writer Elizabeth George moved in a couple of years ago, and her next novel — "The Edge of Nowhere: The Dog House," coming out late this year — will be the first in a series set in Langley and environs. Actor and film producer Richard Evans premieres his movies at the Clyde. And Gloria Steinem is a frequent guest at Hedgebrook, a women's writers retreat founded by arts patron and civic booster Nancy Nordhoff.

How did so many creative souls come together in an isolated little town an hour's drive and 15-minute ferry ride northwest of Seattle?

Many say they moved to Langley for the natural beauty, which is breathtaking on a sunny day. The scene includes views of Saratoga Passage, Mount Baker and the Cascade Mountains, sheep-laden pastures and a main street that looks as if a child could have drawn the colorful little peaked buildings with a crayon. Others moved to Langley for the arts community, which boasts three theater companies, dozens of musical groups and a concentration of prominent glass artists. The Whidbey Island Center for the Arts recently raised $2.2 million for expansion.

And though the location feels rural and the population is just 1,100 people, there's nothing provincial about Langley. It's a liberal place that seems to welcome all comers. As one 32-year-old shop owner says, "There's no fine line to be walked in Langley."

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JOHN UPDIKE, a fancier of New England villages, once wrote that a town is the perfect size when every time you go out you run into people you know and someone you haven't met yet. This balance of familiar and new — plus the generosity of volunteers and the creativity of artists and business owners, all energized by a raft of tourists in summer — make the Langley experience richer than a casual observer might expect.

The distinctive sense of place is kept to a comfortably human scale and is so authentically Langley that it's taken for granted. The town embodies the new urbanism and the lost art of place-making that developers and urban planners so often seek. Architect Ross Chapin, who lives and works in Langley, launched his first cottage community here, a cluster of small homes with inviting front porches but no garages.

People walk into town to get groceries or hang out at the coffee shop, passing buskers out front. They stop to chat on their way to the library or post office. Sharp-eyed strollers stop to ring the whale bell on First Street whenever a Great Gray swims past. This casual, easy pace draws people to visit and then stay, despite the challenge of earning a living. One recent Texas transplant flies to Chicago for work most weeks; many others commute to destinations in or near Seattle.

Langley is one of a few towns in the state bypassed by a highway. Sherry Jennings, executive director of the Langley Chamber of Commerce, thinks that has helped make the town special, a place where people feel connected. "I grew up in a family of volunteers; it's in my blood to be in a community," she says. A single mom, she finds Langley an ideal place to raise her 9-year-old daughter, Lily Mays. "Lily has a network of families here," Jennings says. "She even knows the police chief by name." Mother and daughter volunteer at Choochokam, the annual July arts festival, where craft booths line First Street and bands play for two days, culminating in an old-fashioned street dance.

"The island works on people, it shapes them," says Cary Peterson, another one of Langley's many committed volunteers. A gardener, she's planted long ribbons of lavender along the roads, inspiring other volunteers and business owners to fill alleys and parking strips with wisteria, roses, hollyhocks and thousands of daffodils. Her latest project was to turn a sunny field at the Good Cheer Food Bank into a vegetable garden that turned out 5,200 pounds of produce last year to feed hungry families.

On an island that takes care of its own, Good Cheer stands out as a charity that touches the lives of nearly every person who lives on South Whidbey. So many people donate their stuff, then shop at the bustling Good Cheer thrift stores, that there's a sense of constant recycling going on all over town. Volunteers staff the shops, drive the trucks and raise the food, which nourishes an average of 784 families a month.

Sharen Heath, a thrift-store volunteer who moved to Langley because "it pushed my Cape Cod buttons," admires how Good Cheer affords dignity to everyone involved. "If they come into Good Cheer and say they're hungry, we give them a box and invite them to fill it up themselves," says Heath, who also puts her newspaper background to work serving as a modern town crier, promoting Langley events and people on Facebook.

The community is lucky, too, to have backing from angels who give generously, and often quietly, to many causes and projects. Nordhoff, for instance, donated an entire park. Elizabeth George supports the Whidbey Island Writers Conference and last year donated $100,000 to help save nearby Trillium Forest. Former Seattle Mayor Paul Schell's wife, Pam, led the charge to raise the money for the arts center.

Anyone who talks about South Whidbey charities mentions the Clyde Theatre's Lynn Willeford. The hugely successful Hearts and Hammers event was an idea Willeford had to teach young people it can be fun to volunteer. On a single day in May, more than 400 volunteers, led by contractors donating their time, tools and expertise, fan out around the south end of the island to help repair the homes of their neighbors in need. Willeford also started Friends of Friends, an island-wide charity that helps people pay their medical expenses.

"A lot of small towns have these safety nets," Willeford says, "but we've codified it here."

SHERRY JENNINGS' job at the Chamber is made easier by the stability of so many Langley businesses. Tiny, silver-haired Josh Hauser has owned and operated Moonraker Books since 1972. Gene and Tamar Felton have run the town anchor, Star Store, a mercantile and grocery, for nearly 30 years. Island Design has drawn people in search of one-of-a-kind furnishings for decades. And the Schells changed the local economy when, in 1989, they built the Inn at Langley, which Travel + Leisure magazine recently named one of the world's best hotels.

But as with many small towns, Langley has been hit hard by the recession. Residents lament the closing of the beloved Dog House tavern as well as the Edgecliff restaurant, the drugstore and the medical clinic.

The long-standing feud between those who court development and those who insist Langley should stay as it is simmers and sometimes erupts. The civic discourse has been acrimonious lately, and the local paper publishes letters as vitriolic toward City Hall as any that run in big-city newspapers.

But real-estate sales have slowed considerably, and the multiyear backlog of properties on the market may well cool down the property-development controversy for a while.

In any case, Jennings points out that a whole new generation of business owners is adding a sense of energy to the scene, including artisanal coffee roaster Des Rock, whose Useless Bay Coffee Company has transformed sleepy Second Street into the town's hot spot.

Also on Second Street, the old firehouse now houses a brewery and a glassblower, and is a model for the new "experience economy" piece of the town's comprehensive plan. By offering memorable experiences like live music, beer tasting and blow-your-own-glass pumpkin, Langley hopes to attract visitors looking for more than shopping and sightseeing.

Michael McMahon, 35, who grew up in Langley and recently returned to the island, opened Langley Brewery in the old firehouse building last summer. "I guess I never outgrew the clubhouse mentality," McMahon says of the cool, yeasty-smelling space where he brews and serves up handcrafted beer. "To earn a living here, you have to have a big bag to draw from," says the tattooed, jovial McMahon, who teaches brewing classes, runs a bar, hosts events and brews nearly 100 kinds of beer to sell to restaurants around the Northwest.

Sarah Diers, 33, was determined to stay on in Langley when she was laid off from her job teaching science at Langley Middle School. "This community means more to me than my career; this place suits my soul," she says. A self-described "gear head," Diers drew on her love of the outdoors to start Wander on Whidbey, a mini-REI-type store, last July. She and her neighbor, who owns the equally new Bliss Spa, laughingly call themselves "Lower Langley, the new hip, urban part of town."

Paul Samuelson, former barber and Langley's first full-time mayor, says that in all, 15 new businesses have started up, expanded or changed hands in the past 18 months or so.

The local economy has also gotten a boost from a new wave of younger people, many of whom are described by Russell Sparkman as "place agnostic," meaning they can do their work anywhere. Sparkman, former Langley city councilman, bass player and owner of Fusionspark Media, says there's a hidden economy of home-based workers on the island's south end, including IT people, consultants and creatives. Sparkman set up his international social-media business in Langley in 2001 in part because of what he considers "an incredible brain and talent trust here" but also because Whidbey Telecom offered such excellent broadband service.

Raising two kids on South Whidbey, Sparkman has come to treasure what he calls "the Mayberry-like character of the place."

Samuelson concurs. "The spirit of this place draws out people's support, from picking up litter to serving on city boards and commissions."

Whether people came to Langley for its stunning setting or the vibrant arts community, it doesn't take long to discover that it's this quiet dedication of individual citizens — the time and wide variety of talents they contribute to the common good — that makes the difference here in every aspect of life.

"That's the magic of this place," concludes Cary Peterson. "You know you're held."

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer. Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com. Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

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