Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Perceiving Sense of Place - Part 2

This essay picks up where I left off yesterday with mention of a pivotal event at the root of Anchorage, Alaska’s unusual sense of urgency about sense of place, something missing from so many much longer established destinations.

But first, for readers new to sense of place, let me try in layman’s terms to explain what that phrase means to me in few paragraphs.

It involves numerous characteristics, that when woven together, reinforce the feel of a particular place.  This is, collectively, what is meant by the term “sense of place.”

Barely a quarter of the way into my four decade career as a community destination marketing exec, I read a new essay by Wallace Stegner that began to connect a lot of dots for me.

But I remain a student and explorer even now in retirement and learn something new about it nearly every day.

The more temporal elements of the sense of a particular place are its soil, geology, terrain, light patterns, wildlife and native vegetation that took shape long before human settlement, even aboriginal.

Long before the nomenclature of place is applied.

Along the continuum of place these are the most real and authentic elements followed by the heritage, culture and values of human inhabitants and then the architecture of the dwellings and buildings being at the more superficial end.

These characteristics need not be entirely unique for it is how distinctively they are manifest when woven together that gives a particular spot a sense of place.

When not the destroyer of sense of place, it is the “built” ingredient that often distinguishes it, not, to paraphrase my favorite architectural author Witold Rybczynski, to “be nostalgic or because history has all the answers.”

But because “freedom from history is no freedom at all.”

Mutual respect by the “built” characteristics across each of the other elements of place, “while linking the past with the present, and seeing the old anew,”  is acknowledgement that “they belong.” That is what  weaves the “sense to a particular place.”

Most visitors, including newcomers, sense it and are drawn to it.  “Stayers” treasure it.  Some people never get it, exposed by their constant dismissiveness of the importance of place.

Anchorage celebrates its first century being designated by that name next year.  It had barely turned 60 when I arrived there.

But what immediately signaled it as a place worthy of love and visitation was that the first public edifice erected was not for performing arts or sports or conventions.

It was a museum to celebrate its local history, values and art.  Erected 10 years before my arrival, it was, in part, to honor the hundredth anniversary of America’s purchase of Alaska from Russia, barely 50 years before that community’s first permanent settlers.

Shown here, its architecture illustrates that lacking the historic architecture of Durham, NC where I have worked/lived ever since, Anchorage’s “built” aspect of sense of place, seeks instead to both open up to and reflect the expansiveness of its setting.

“Stayers” there had first formed an organization as means to preserve artifacts barely forty years after the first settlement, grasping that they tell stories, connect people, capture moments and mark changes.

Anchorage figured all of this out much earlier than most.

In the words of Elaine Gurian, formerly the overseer of what was then all 14 Smithsonian museums, “These objects are the touchstones to bring memories and meanings to life.”

Not coincidentally, a part of the Smithsonian is now embedded in the Anchorage Museum, conducting ongoing research as well as bringing home priceless exhibitions of Alaska artifacts, art and history.

On average, most communities figure out this piece by the time they are 60 years old.  That’s about the stage when the founding generation here in Durham began to treasure and preserve its history.

But it took Durham twice as long as Anchorage to recognize the wisdom of a local history museum, an ambition that is still unfulfilled, or at best, piecemeal.

Instead, despite unparalleled public support for a local history museum over any other cultural facility, for nearly eight more decades in Durham, we’ve left priceless symbols and stories of Durham’s history at risk of being lost forever, while leapfrogging that important step with fantasy and amusement instead.

In the meantime, the Anchorage Museum has already completed its third expansion, two since my decade promoting that community.

What makes that museum even more significant is that it opened just four years after Anchorage was nearly destroyed by a massive earthquake that dropped one side of its main street ten feet lower than the other, liquefying much of a popular neighborhood and closing the International Airport.

At the time, Alaska had only been a state for five years.

This signature natural event sparked a sense of urgency to preserve and tell the Anchorage story so lacking in other much longer established communities.

It also quickened concern across all aspects of sense of place there.

Several weeks before I arrived there in 1978, Nellie Brown died.  In 1912, she and her husband, an American Forest Service ranger, had been dropped off as the first permanent settlers of Anchorage.

Nellie was an Eyak from the Copper River Delta area, east across Prince William Sound around Cordova.  Alaska natives were not given U.S. citizenship for another twelve years, five years after the Anchorage area was withdrawn from the national forest.

Of course, before the Brown’s, there had been humans temporarily inhabiting Anchorage for 6,000 years including seasonal Dena’ina fish camps.  A few Russians had transited by the early 1800s, then by the late 1800s by a handful of transient traders, surveyors and gold miners.

But Nellie’s passing helped me realize just how much had been done to preserve Anchorage’s sense of place in such a short span including the first efforts to set aside park land little more than a decade after settlement.

About 30 years after the first setters, this playful map was created, and by then, Anchorage had already started on what would become four protected forested greenbelts stretching along streams running the Chugach Mountains down to the sea some connecting to a later trail along the coast.

These stretches are home to 200-300 Moose who live year round in the most populated area, joined by another 800-900 during the winter.  Altogether, Anchorage has set aside nearly 14,000 acres this way.

But Moose in the summer are just one of the 52 kinds of mammals including bear, wolves, beaver and Dall sheep.

Anchorage is also home to five salmon species and 230 bird species as well as Marine mammals, including beluga whales, all highly regarded by more than 80% of residents and to visitors as part of the community’s sense of place.

Anchorage was heavily forested before settlement compared to just 30% of Alaska.  Today, 59% of Anchorage remains forested, ranging from nearly 78% in Chugach State Park to 68% overall in other parks.

The canopy in populated areas ranges from 35% overall to 38% in residential areas and just below 10% in commercial areas. Overall the most populated area has lost 50% of its tree cover.

But similar to here in Durham, 97% of Anchorage residents “strongly agree” that forests are important to the community’s quality as a place, more so than any other infrastructure, even education.

Until recently, like Durham, local government there paid attention only to street trees and the property it owns.

But unlike Durham, thanks to grants, Anchorage has completed a comprehensive tree inventory, assessment and management plan covering the entire Municipality.

It notes that it is impossible for municipalities to reach forest canopy objectives let alone preserve this pivotal aspect of sense of place by planting on city property alone.

Anchorage residents are energized in other aspects about preserving its sense of place.  Corridors leading north and south along the Municipality are now parts of two state/national scenic byways

Not only is the community home to a repository of historic aircraft, but citizens have worked hard there to preserve and adaptively reuse a signature part of its more recent past.

When I lived in Durham, I would frequently encounter remnants of two of the three Nike Surface to Air Missile sites deployed during the Cold War.

One in walking distance from my first house when I lived there had been conveyed to Anchorage and converted to Kincaid Park, a heavily forested peninsula that points into Cook Inlet, dividing it into Knik and Turnagain Arms.

One of the bunkers for the missile site there had been converted to an alpine ski chalet.  Another that wasn’t taken out of service until the year after I arrived was visible when silhouetted by moonlight high on a peak in the Chugach Mountains behind Anchorage.

Now it is being preserved as a historical site called Nike Site Summit.

In conclusion, one aspect of Anchorage’s sense of places is art, not just because many artists live there but because its sense of place is so often the subject of their creations, perhaps spurred by the unique patterns of light there.

None has been more prolific than Byron Birdsall, who just created a print to commemorate the Centennial for Anchorage next year (as shown above in this essay.)  I treasure an original watercolor he and Tennys Owens presented me on behalf of the community as I left.

Tennys’ delightful eastern North Carolina accent would be more familiar to me now.  She had founded Artique Ltd. several years before I arrived and became a governing board member of mine, good friend and one of our biggest supporters.

The watercolor they gave me features a beloved old Porsche of mine, which a friend totaled shortly after I arrived in Durham, sitting on the Anchorage shoreline with Cook Inlet and the Alaska Range as as a backdrop.

We had worked with the gallery and with many other local artists over the years to feature their works on the covers of annual Anchorage Visitor Guides which were also framed and given to me that night.

This two-part essay and memoir has been useful, I hope, to those trying to get their heads around the sense of place where they live, if it hasn’t already become extinct that is and accessible only to archeologists.

Sense of Place, once woven, is also extremely fragile.

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