For the past eleven years, I have spent a part of almost every summer at Chautauqua Institution (CI) in southwestern New York State. The Institution covers 750 acres of both land and water. It is a gated community, located on the west side of Chautauqua Lake. The Institution found its start in 1874 as a teaching camp for religious leaders; its mission has grown to encompass four key pillars: the arts, education, religion, and recreation. While some folks do live year-round on the grounds, the summer season is nine weeks, with each week declared a different theme; some from this year and last include: “Water Matters”, “Digital Identity”, “Radicalism”, “The Next Greatest Generation”, “The Pursuit of Happiness”, and “Turkey: Model for the Middle East?”.
There are a variety of places to stay on the grounds. The majority of visitors rent houses, though there are also apartments, condos, and two primary hotels. The architecture varies, from Late Victorian era to modern construction. There is no grocery store on the grounds; there are, however, multiple restaurants, as well as a convenience store and a dining hall/cafe lovingly referred to as The Refectory. The Institution hosts a fire department, post office, library, book store, farmer's market, and movie theatre, as well as boutiques, multiple art festivals, and a flea market every other year.
CI is a bicycle-dominated community; cars are not allowed on the grounds except to carry visitors to and from their rental property. The primary modes of transportation are walking, bicycling, and scooters.
The age range of visitors is large, from newborns to those 80 or older. There is something at Chautauqua for everyone. The Institution releases a catalog each season of classes one may pay to take, and there are also free daily lectures each morning, as well as philosophical talks and different arts programs each afternoon and night, such as music or dancing. The lectures correspond to the week's theme, as do some classes. There is a Boys' and Girls' Club day camp for young visitors; lessons or boats for rent are available from the Sailing Center; there are tennis courts for lessons and personal use. The night programs are different each year, with some recurring guests, and are featured in the Amphitheater; there are also operas and plays hosted a few nights each week in the two theaters on the grounds. If you do feel like getting off the grounds for a day or evening, there are restaurants, an amusement park, a miniature golf range, and antique stores in the surrounding towns.
The beauty of Chautauqua is that it is a town where nothing bad happens. Parents let their young children walk or ride alone to day camp or classes; bicycles are left unlocked throughout the grounds; should someone need help, they receive it. When I was eight or nine, I fell while riding my bike and scraped my knee. An older lady helped me stand and then took me to her house to clean my cut. While I don't remember this incident very well, I still have the scar, and I tell this story to emphasize the attitude of the Institution's visitors. I met someone in a class two years ago who used to live in my hometown. My friend's mom was on the phone once and, when asked where she was, the person knew both Chautauqua and the people staying next door. Almost everyone goes to Chautauqua for the same reason: to enjoy themselves while learning something and meeting new people. It is hard for me to imagine a safer, friendlier, and more relaxed place.
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