Friday, August 22, 2014

The Core vs. Transient Values of Place

As Mugs and I drive cross country each year via different routes, we average 9 or 10 hours a day on the road and always stop in time to grab dinner, if possible, at a local restaurant and swing through the downtown area.

On this trip stops included Tuscaloosa, Fort Worth, Santa Fe, Richfield (UT,) Salt Lake, Dillon (MT,) Coeur d’Alene, Casper, Lincoln and Nashville before returning to Durham, North Carolina where we live.

I also read or re-read books on the trip, often related to places along the way, including this year, Creating the Land of the Sky, Rising Tide, The Big Burn and West of the Revolution, a horizontal snapshot across North American during the time of the American Revolution.

Usually histories drill down into an event but horizontal histories are fascinating because they link events across context.

I even re-read the fictional This House of Sky, the memoir of an author who grew up ten years ahead of me along the Montana Side of the Bitterroots.

To get “centered” each morning, I randomly read for a few minutes from the life and beliefs of Saint Francis of Assisi.

It was remarkable how similar revitalized downtowns were along the way, almost as if they were following a formula.  They were similar down to the variety of street trees also planted back in Downtown Durham and the near universal application of the description “cool.”

I happened to be re-reading The City: A Global History by Joel Kotkin as I enjoyed my now once-weekly “steak night” by dropping into Misty’s, an acclaimed local restaurant and located in the “P District” of Downtown Lincoln, Nebraska.

It is a local favorite familiar to one of Lincoln’s native sons who will be chef of Nanasteak when three friends open it in Durham’s historic American Tobacco District, lending a touch of Durham authenticity to a section devoid.

Equidistant from Misty’s in downtown Lincoln is a plaza, a performing arts center featuring Broadway musicals, a minor league baseball stadium, and historic buildings adapted for residential lofts and hotels, all seemingly replicated in every downtown now at the expense of differentiation and often obscuring organic traits.

Kotkin, the director of the Center for Demographics and Policy at Chapman University is an expert in the evolution of cities over the last nearly 10,000 years.

He laments that the rush of cities now “to convert old warehouses, factories, and even office buildings” into “residential resorts” is not sustainable because “an economy oriented to entertainment, tourism and ‘creative functions’ is ill suited to provide upward mobility.”

He warns that “focused largely on boosting culture and constructing spectacular buildings, urban governments may tend to neglect” what makes cities sustainable including relentlessly fostering a strong and always evolving “middle class.”

These places risk becoming “dual cities,” inhabited only by the rich and the low wage workers it takes to provide for them.

Professor Kotkin makes a compelling argument that historically, cities that continue to thrive over time engender a “shared identity” and “a peculiar and strong attachment, sentiments that separate one specific place from others.”

He would agree with Bill Baker, an expert at helping communities drill down into the values and traits that make them distinct, that these elements of sense of place are far more significant than physical traits such as historic structures.

Fortuitous for Durham where acceptance of differences has historically been a key part of its personality over many generations, this aspect is one of the pivotal and predictive traits Kotkin pinpoints as to why some places rise and fall while others remain vital.

Coincidentally, I first read Kotkin’s book, The City, in 2006, right after Baker had concluded his work over a two year period in conjunction with thousands of Durham residents to distill its overarching personality or, as we say in marketing, brand.

It was also the year I attended a small destination marketing conference of professionals beginning to embrace a strategy I had somehow stumbled onto early in the four-decade career from which I retired at the end of 2009.

Distinguished from idolization of mega-cultural facilities that have proven to homogenize community identity, it is anchored foremost in differentiation and authenticity of sense of place, organically incorporating only distinctive facilities of appropriate scale.

It isn’t easy to revitalize city centers but care must be taken to differentiate, and often that means protecting cultural, historic and natural elements from the very forces of homogenization it unleashes.  Place-making is often more about deciding “what not to do.”

This is why sustainable revitalization is more like “gardening” than “big game hunting.” Once erased, distinctiveness is impossible to “salt and pepper” back into formulas without going through another cycle of decline and resurrection.

At dinner recently, a long-time friend of mine at the very center of Durham’s revitalized core rhetorically asked, “What does Durham need to do to get more of the entrepreneurs it has always spawned to stay and buy homes here?”

“Just be true to who we are at our most temporal level,” I replied remembering Kotkin’s admonition.  People who share and help perpetuate that distinctiveness will be drawn to build their lives here.

Seeking to become something your not or frenetically replicating other places in pursuit of what Kotkin terms the “transient values” of “hipness, coolness, artfulness, and fashionability” is a recipe for losing a community’s soul.

Places “without moral cohesion (shared values) or a sense of civic identity, we are doomed to decadence and decline.”

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