Friday, September 25, 2009

A Sense of Place

How to restore a sense of place in your own community
Originally published in the Santa Cruz September 5, 2009.

“There is no there there.” Gertrude Stein

If you’ve ever taken a road trip with your family, you’ve undoubtedly had the experience of exiting from the highway and feeling like you’ve never left home. There will be a m
all, or housing development, or
row of fast-food restaurants that looks so very familiar. If you’re on vacation and you forgot to pack a swim suit, stumbling upon a Big 5, 1000 miles from home can be very opportune. But if you’ve convinced your blasé highschoolers in the backseat that Seattle is nothing like Santa Cruz, you may become disheartened when Trader Joe’s, Urban Outfitters, and Jamba Juice pop into view.

My family took a road trip this summer to Vancouver, Canada. Traveling up Highway 5 we spent a day exploring Portland, starting with the Best of Portland Walking Tour. Our excellent guide—Herb—showed us around downtown Portland, but also gave us a strong Sense of Place. Portlanders want you to know that their city is not just a random collection of buildings and streets, or a less-hip version of Seattle, but rather, a showpiece of ethical urban planning. Portlanders believe that their city’s design should, above all, reflect their collective ideals.

For example, they insist on streets that have long, clear views, without the clutter of signs or advertising. They support alternative forms of transportation with bike lanes, skateboard lanes, free downtown trains and streetcars, free electric car charging stations, and shared Zip Cars. And they’ve created numerous green spaces and parks, distributed throughout the downtown area.

Portlanders also seem to know, that A Sense of Place is strongly enhanced by the contributions of poets, novelists, historians artists and musician. I didn’t count, but reportedly saw 30 public art pieces (including the gargantuan copper statue, Portlandia) on the 2 1/2 hour walking tour. Oregon itself has had a Percent for Arts Program since 1975, where budgets for state buildings must include a portion for arts acquisitions that would enhanced or integrate with the structure.

“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” Aldo Leopold

So now your thoughts should be coming back around to your own home town. Whether large or small, does your town have a strong identity and character that is deeply felt by local inhabitants and by many visitors? If a visitor got off the bus in downtown Soquel and took a guided walking tour, would she find a unique character there? Do you Corralitos-ites ever wear a t-shirt featuring a photo of your hometown when you travel? When someone unfamiliar with Santa Cruz County asks you where are you from, how do you describe Brookdale or Aptos or Watsonville or Scotts Valley? Do you simply describe it in relation to somewhere else—“It’s just south (or north) of Santa Cruz”?—and leave it at that?

“You can’t know who you are until you know where you are.” Wendell Berry

With the help of William R. Ferris, a former Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, here is a list of things you can do to help create and preserve A Sense of Place in your own community.

First, we must view the arts as an essential means of preserving and celebrating American culture. Our writers, musicians and painters help us see ourselves clearly and honestly through their work. We need to support them in every way we can.

Second, we must commit ourselves to histor
ic preservation. One way is to become a collector of community artifacts. Start with photographs, newspaper and magazine articles, artworks and books that would give A Sense of Place to your grandchildren and future generations. On a larger scale, work to prevent old buildings from being demolished. Our buildings tell the story of who we are and we are connected to them.

Third, we must establish oral history projects. My 91-year-old neighbor died last December, taking with her an archive of remembrances about my town. She was a great storyteller with a crystal clear memory, and I missed my opportunity to tape some of our conversations about the old days and passed them on to others.

Fourth, we must seek the vision of a city planner. We should walk around our towns with a more discerning eye, to see if our values are truly reflected in our streets and buildings, parks and open spaces. Is our town special and unique? Does it foster a sense of human attachment and belonging?

Fifth, we must educate our students to recognize the uniqueness of their town, even as they are striving to separate themselves from it, and encourage them to become writers and designers, planners and volunteers, historians and teachers.

“To be rooted is perhaps the
most important but least understood need of the human soul.” Simone Weil

Developing A Sense of Place in your own community is not simply a public relations exercise. Places, memories and values are essential to life and should never be abandoned in the name of progress. They foster a sense of pride and connectedness that will create a domino effect of neighborliness, volunteerism and civic engagement. A community that knows who it is, will make sure that its values are reflected in its landscape, its teachings, and its commitment to its children.

Sidebar: If you haven’t yet visited the Sculpture Garden at Sierra Azul Nursery and Gardens, this is the time to go. Enjoy a great variety of colorful, large-scale pieces while strolling the paths of the beautifully landscaped ga
Over 100 works of outdoor sculpture and art, made from glass, ceramics, metal and unexpected materials, are integrated beautifully with the foliage. Sierra Azul Nursery is across the street from the county fairgrounds, at 2660 East Lake Avenue, in Watsonville. This must-see annual project of the Pajaro Valley Art Council continues through October 31.