THE COOLEST SMALL TOWNS IN THE U.S.A.

Great Barrington, Massachusetts

Pop. 7,500

Downtown Great Barrington (Morgan & Owens)

Great Barrington looks like the small town of Norman Rockwell's dreams--especially on Saturday mornings in summer, when folks turn out to watch free outdoor kids' concerts that take place in a gazebo.

In the southwest corner of the state, Great Barrington is the kind of comfortably supportive place that inspires locals to try new things. Last summer, native Daniel Mazursky pushed himself out of his comfort zone to open the SoCo Creamery, a gourmet ice cream shop that now has a second location in Lenox and supplies restaurants across the region (5 Railroad St., 413/528-9420, single cone $3).

Michigan native Matthew Rubiner, meanwhile, was a researcher at M.I.T. before learning how to be a cheesemonger. His eponymous shop is in an 1869 building that used to be a bank; Rubiner recently finished converting the old vault into a cheese-ripening room (264 Main St., 413/528-0488). Creative reuse is common: In 2004, artist Marilyn Kalish transformed the vault of the former Mahaiwe Bank into an exhibition space for the Vault Gallery (322 Main St., 413/644-0221), and Jane and Sam Kasten established SKH Gallery in what used to be Great Barrington's train station (46 Castle St., 413/528-3300).

Perhaps the best example of residents' can-do attitude is the River Walk. Since 1988, more than 2,000 volunteers have cleared 375 tons of debris from the banks of the Housatonic River, which runs through town. In 1992, the first section of trail was unveiled--all 136 feet of it. The Walk now covers about half a mile, and it's growing. Rachel Fletcher, the founder of the project, came to Great Barrington in 1981 and never left. "The spirit of community kept me here," she says. "You can really get involved without having to write a check. Everyone here--from old-timers to new arrivals--really takes care of the town."

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