Friday, March 21, 2014

Stickers, Boomers and Enablers

My first encounter with the term, “sense of place” was in 1985 or 1986 while reading an incredible essay by that name.

The author was Dr. Wallace Stegner, who had retired from Stanford in 1971 just after I took my first assignment, while still in college, in a field that would become known as Destination Marketing.

Until I read Stegner’s essay I had fumbled with how to describe the approach to community destination marketing taught to me by my first two destinations, Spokane, and at the time, Anchorage.

It was usually easier to describe my approach to community marketing by what it wasn’t; the “generic” approach still all too prevalent, or as we call it today, “plug and play.”

Little did I realize back then that reading “A Sense of Place” triggered in me that any grasp of sense of place I might obtain would likely come from “the knowing that poets specialize in.”

It was a knowing for me that was translated into community marketing.  That was bookended two decades later when hearing “The Geography of Somewhere” by Dr. Scott Russell Sanders, a few years before retiring.

Stegner began his essay entitled “A Sense of Place,” which has been republished many times since, with a quote by Wendell Berry, with which he has been misattributed many times:

“If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are.”

Don’t worry, the statement is meant to make you stop and think, and Stegner goes on to explain what his former pupil meant.

Berry returned the favor in a wonderful speech about sense of place in a lecture entitled, “It All Turns On Affection,” which was delivered the year before last to the National Endowment for the Humanities, which also happens to have a research center in Durham where I concluded my career and still live.

The speech disturbed some conservatives who obviously hadn’t read Stegner’s essay, when Berry used the words “stickers” and “boomers” to describe two kinds of inclination Stegner assigns to Americans.

Stegner uses the terms “placed” and “displaced” but Berry’s terminology is less subtle, something needed in today’s America.  The difference really does turn on “affection.”

“Boomers” are transient, often motivated by greed.  “Stickers” are motivated by affection for places and the desire to shape and preserve their distinct personalities.  “Boomers” by nature push to make them the same.

There are people in the area where the two intersect.  Some people, such as me, are transient but respect and advocate on behalf of sense of place.  Others in this intersection are “boomer” enablers, chipping away at the distinctiveness of the places they love.

The latter are often the most dangerous to sense of place because they are more afraid of losing a project than they are sense of place.  They often cave to pressure from “boomers.”

However well intended, boomer enablers fail to grasp what Robert J. Gibbs, a retail consultant and author of the book entitled, Principles of Urban Retail Planning and Development, calls Plan A, B, or C.

Gibbs says that developers who come to town generally have three designs ranging from Anywhere USA to Unique (sensitive to local character.)

He cautions that “which one gets built depends heavily on how much push back the company gets from local residents and officials about design and its importance.”

I traveled recently to Salisbury, North Carolina to hear a presentation by Ed McMahon, a friend, fellow-scenic preservationist and a senior fellow at the Urban Land Institute.

He cautioned – “Do you want the character of your community to shape new development – OR – Do you want new development to shape the character of your community?”

Ed’s presentation included several examples of chain stores, fast food restaurants and big-box retailers building or adaptively reusing building in keeping with the community character where they are being built.

McDonald’s, failing after it sued one community, then used the store eventually built as an example of its company’s sustainability initiatives.  Robert W. Stocker, a Wal-Mart vice president noted before the chain built a new store to suit the character of urban Washington, D.C. while also facilitating local, independent businesses that:

“We no longer have to build a gray-blue battleship box.”

Of course the built environment is only one characteristic of sense of place, alongside cultural and natural place-based assets, but it is the one where strongly inclined “boomers” and their enablers can do the most irreparable damage to all three.

Communities such as Durham are known for sense of place.  It is a pillar of their visitor-centric economic and cultural development spearheaded by community destination marketing.

But it seems for every two steps forward there is always one step back, usually brought about by a failure to think strategically or consider unintended consequences, such as the closing of Charlie’s, a mainstay on Ninth Street, brought about by increased rents spurred by chain store development across the street.

A few who fail to understand that the motorcycles parked outside cost $30,000 to $40,000 and more, will fail to grasp that the organic nature represented by Charlie’s is far more appealing than chains to the Creative Class, according to research by Dr. Richard Florida.

Communities with a sense of place to retain need to seek a new breed of developers who cater to brands who according to MIT cultural-economics anthropologist Dr. Grant McCracken:

“…don’t come in and colonize the space, [but] sort of occupy it and honor what was there before and…draw cultural meanings out of it into [the] brand….which is richer, more interesting for the connection.”

Paraphrasing McCracken in relationship to community marketing, this is “making meaning as a means of marketing.” Sense of place is the “artisan…triumph over industrial [mass appeal],” a “created scarcity…time travel out of the here and now and into a different place.”

To finish with one of my favorite lines in Stegner’s essay, “A Sense of Place:”

“No place is a place until things that have happened in it are remembered in history.”

Change can either enhance or “stereotype.”

It All Turns On Affection.

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