Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Difference Between Being Treated and Feeling That Way

Durham, North Carolina’s community marketing agency pulls census numbers each year to help community and business leaders understand how unique it is that 2-out-of-3 people working here are non-residents.

This is largely because for decades now Durham has been the job engine for not only its own metro area but also another one much bigger nearby.

On average, each of these commuters spends $131.54 per week work side, not nearly as much as if they lived here, but helpful.

I remember in the 1990s, as head of Durham’s newly formed community marketing agency, having to call a candidate running for mayor of a nearby community to ask him to retrieve his campaigns signs which had been planted throughout Durham.

It was a dismissive affront to Durham’s identity but it was also confusing voters in our own elections.

He was a jerk about it.  But after I firmly, but respectfully, refuted his hegemonic misperception that Durham was somehow “his” suburb anyway, he finally had the signs retrieved.

All too often, I found myself also having to disavow non-residents who owned businesses here of this arrogant notion.

The story is often repeated that before Durham formed an organization to advocate for its identity, assets, virtues and sense of place, it was considered the “red-headed step child of the region.”

Hearing this old saw, many, including members of the local media, often mistake that Durham considered itself that way.

But community pride levels here even back then were off the charts, many times higher than this metric in other communities, especially those nearby, pretention to the contrary not withstanding.

There is a huge difference between “feeling” like a red-headed step-child and being “treated like one.”  Residents of Durham were always mystified when a news editorial or non-resident speaker would lecture Durham to feel better about itself.

Any here holding that misperception tended to be non-residents working in Durham, upon whom the distinction was lost.

Many of these commuters love Durham and treat it as they do their homes located elsewhere.  But many don’t which leads to several downsides.  Here are several:

  • Those who don’t like Durham perpetuate myths to visitors, especially the vast majority of relocating executives and newcomers who mystery shop the community as visitors first.


  • They also have a lot to say, often giving local news media and even local officials a distorted impression of how Durham residents feel about issues.


  • They often dominate boards of advocacy organizations which weigh in on Durham issues without revealing that their perceptions are contaminated.


  • As respectful as these commuters may be, just as visitors can be, they are more prone to litter, especially if pretentious or condescending toward Durham.


  • They also can’t help but be less passionate about Durham’s sense of place, often among the first to complain about developments needing to respect Durham’s culture by preserving groves or meeting historic preservation reviews.


  • Those who own businesses here seem dismissive of the importance of hiring locally, respecting Durham values and using Durham vendors and populating developments with locally-owned independent stores.


  • If not persuaded that when addressing questions from visitors or potential newcomers about Durham, the question is about Durham, not where they happen to live, non-residents working but not living here can wreak immense economic harm.

All of this is to say that local officials and news media must be extremely careful when addressing concerns raised by potential developments, even when fronted or given voices by so-called Durham organizations or businesses.

For a community to retain its sense of identity and place, it is important for local officials and the news media to give special weight to those who are Durham through and through.

As a friend of mine who is a researcher and author for the Urban Land Institute is fond of saying during presentations he gives across the country -

“Place is more than just a location or a spot on a map. A sense of place is a unique collection of qualities and characteristics – visual, cultural, social, and environmental – that provides meaning to a location.

Sense of place is what makes one location (e.g., your hometown) different from another location (e.g., my hometown), but sense of place is also that which makes our physical surroundings worth caring about.”

He ends each presentation by asking a question:

“Do you want new development to shape the character of your community?”


“Do you want the character of your community to shape new development?”

As Wendell Berry once wrote, “It all turns on affection.”

Affection for Durham is not a requirement for running for elected office in Durham.  In my time here, I’ve known a couple who had self-loathing instead.

But most love this community deeply.  They should just be very careful who they listen to and take their lead from those whom Berry calls “stickers,” especially when being overrun by “boomers.”

As cultural anthropologist Dr. Grant McCracken advises brands across the globe (emphasis mine):

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

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