Classic car shows, farmers markets and city festivals have more in common than growing popularity.

They also build communities by bringing people together around shared interests, officials say. Anthropologists and tourism experts also cite less obvious commonalities, such as connecting to family and community roots and seeking a sense of authenticity, place and stability in a fast-changing world.

"One of the things that small-town festivals do is make time disappear. They don't change much over the years," said Robert Lavenda, an anthropology professor at St. Cloud State University who has written a book on community festivals.

"These festivals become either ways of recapturing the past or denying that time has really passed," he said. Lavenda said some classic cars "give people a sense of the past and their own family history. [They'll say:] 'That's the car that my dad had,' or 'Grandpa and Grandma used to drive that car.'"

Lavenda said car shows create a nostalgic sense "of what people think of as a simpler time or a better time when they were younger themselves. ... These events become ways of marking time as well as making it disappear."

It's not known how many car shows and farmers markets there are in Minnesota, but signs clearly show they are growing:

• The number of farmers markets paying to be listed in the state Agriculture Department's Minnesota Grown directory has nearly doubled to 108 in the past five years, said Paul Hugunin, coordinator of the Minnesota Grown program. New markets have sprouted this year in New Hope, Minnetonka, Savage, Woodbury and other suburbs.

• Car shows and cruises listed on the Minnesota Street Rod Association's website abounded this summer and early fall. Association officials say the number of car shows has increased more than 10 percent from last year.

• Many city festivals have added car shows, said Kent Gustafson, a tourism professor at the University of Minnesota. That has boosted festival attendance, as has the recession, which kept people closer to home, observers say.

• Farmers markets have benefited from "a tremendous increase in interest in local food," Gustafson said. People like to meet local growers and to know where their food comes from, he said.

Get-togethers around locally grown food, old cars and city history fill a social need to gather and celebrate the community, observers say.

"We don't have many shared rituals in society anymore. We shop at the same malls and eat at the same kind of restaurants," said David Davies, an associate professor of anthropology at Hamline University in St. Paul. Community fests or events "reinvigorate a sense of place or community around shared symbols."

Making connections

Car shows in Anoka's historic downtown are a nostalgic return "to a time people have very fond memories of and they want to relive," said Bob Kirchner, the city's community development director. They bring out local residents who can walk or bike downtown and meet their neighbors.

"They get to see each other regularly and in our culture today that is a unique and highly valued experience," Kirchner said. "You can go to an enclosed mall for hours and not see anybody you know."

He said the city's farmers market and its Halloween Parade, started in the 1920s, serve a similar function.

Crystal Mayor Kathi Hemken said she goes to the city's new farmers market every Saturday to see what's going on. Residents "stand around talking to each other. They find out why the grass wasn't mowed because a person was sick, and the neighbors mow it. It is an enormous benefit for bringing our community together," Hemken said. "And we have great vegetables. If you don't like vegetables, we have brats and beer."

Such community events offer connections and relationships, Davies said. Our consumer society works against that by managing people through advertising and separating them from producers, he said.

"I like to think we seek out more authentic, less managed relationships," Davies said. "People attend because they want a sense of something that existed in the past. They seek something different, outside the day-to-day homogeneity of life in America."

Soothing anecdotes

In tough economic and global times, going to local festivals or farmers markets offers nostalgic anecdotes to calm fears about global warming, pandemics or other concerns, Davies said.

"There's a sense of crisis in society," he said. "I think it would be comforting to drive around in '57 Chevy when you think the economy is tanking. When you have fears about food sources or disease, it's very comforting to look the producer in the eye when you buy your food."

Jim Adams • 612-673-7658