Monday, March 30, 2015

A Shared Sense of Place


Chicago Old Town
Chicago, Illinois
Hello Everyone:

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At we talk a lot about old places and they are so vital to our ever changing world.  Tom Mayes of the National Trust for Historic Preservation gives us another reason to care about old places, community. "Old places foster community."  Dennis Hockman, the editor-in-chief of Preservation magazine, lives near Baltimore, Maryland and recently shared with Mr. Mayes his thoughts on why old neighborhoods matter.  Old places derive their sense of community from "...a shared sense of place, to the storytelling that happens in old neighborhoods, to the way people and gather on common ground."  Specifically, "People matter more than buildings, than things...but the spirit of the people-the heartbeat of the community-is in the old things."

Minneapolis Warehouse District
Minneapolis, Minnesota

One way old places foster a sense of community is in their personalities (ask people in Historic South Central Los Angeles), evidenced in the way public squares or parks act as magnets for daily public gatherings. (, accessed by Mr. Mayes Feb. 28, 2015)  An old place's personality is also felt in the way people in some communities appear to encounter exactly the person they need to see at that particular moment.  It sounds strange, especially if you live in an old place within a larger urban context but sometimes it does happen.  People have a sense of pride in where they live, they identify with it, they can efficiently run their lives where they live.  There is a sense of connection, interconnection and enmeshment where they live.  When people leave their communities, they experience a sense of longing, disconnection.  When yours truly moved to the Bay Area, Blogger also experienced a sense of homesickness.  Oddly enough, when yours truly returned to Los Angeles, Blogger experienced that very same sense of disconnection all over again.

Larimer Square
Denver, Colorado
Tom Mayes asks, "But how do old places, old buildings, old cities and town foster community?  What particular role do old places play?"  To answer that question, Mr. Mayes turned to writer Wendell Berry who said, "A community is the mental and spiritual condition of know that the place is shared." (Berry, 61, 2012)  Architectural critic Paul Goldberg echoes this point, "In an age in which we travel from private houses in little enclosed metal boxes on wheels into private office cubicles and then back again...there is precious little sense of shared experience in our lives, or at least precious few times in which shared experience is expressed in terms of a common physical place."  (Goldberger, speech given 2007)

Older communities are frequently places where the residents share a common space, experience, and shared sense of meaning.  The people within the community share a sense of identity and character, signified by the old places that act as local landmarks.  Tom Mayes cites a survey conducted by Sand Shannon that asked people if they preferred old or new buildings.  When Ms. Shannon reviewed the results, she concluded that, "....most people believing that historic resources are community assets and preservation is an important community service, even in comparison to other services considered important, such as economic development and public landscaping." (Shannon, Masters Thesis for USC Dec. 2014)

La Jolla Post Office
La Jolla, California

One example of how old places encourage a sense of community is how we experience the post office.  Fortunately, the post office in La Jolla, California (left) is far more architecturally distinct then Blogger's local post office.  Typically, the post office is located in the center of town and acts as a meeting place and community landmark.  (, accessed by Mr. Mayes Feb. 28, 2015)  The role of the post office as a community focal point is one reason people fiercely battle to keep them.  Mr. Mayes cites a recent newspaper article from Milton, Tennessee that capture the reason why post offices help foster a sense of community:

* Resident Michelle Eastman said "The history is great, but the convenience of it being here is better."
* While Milton's strong families are still in place, the symbols they make the community are at risk of going away.  In turn, they town and its leaders are  willing to fight to try to keep its longtime identity in place.
* When you don't have a gather place to go to, you start to lose your identity.
(Wilson, "Milton residents to keep Milton's community identity, accessed by Mr. Mayes Feb. 15, 2015)

Lexington Market 1885

Post offices are but one of a myriad of old places that provide a sense of community.  Schools, places of worship, town squares, streets, and so forth all play a role in a people's sense of shared places.  In planner's speak, a place such as the Lexington Market (left) are referred to as "community assets."  Quoting planner Jeffrey Soule who wrote on how communities "map" their shared assets, Mr. Mayes writes,

A key way to engage the community and gather specific data regarding how people use space and ultimately what they value, cultural mapping starts by asking the question "Where are the places in your community that are important to you?"

This is first don as a list-making exercise to identify the places within a community that people value: local meeting places, locations which serve to build community cohesion, spiritual sites, places of visual quality, and others.  Participants then go out into the community and actually map where these values and activities are found...{material omitted]....After site visits, the determine the threats to maintaining that place in the community. (Soule, "Using the Historic Urban Landscape Approach, accessed by Mr. Mayes Mar. 8, 2015)

Werne's Row, 4th and Hill
Louisville, Kentucky
In older communities, many of these assets are already established, and the communal determinants exist.  Tom Mayes writes, "The old buildings, streets, and parks may already be designed for walkability and interaction. These places may already have gathered stories over time, from the memory of the quirky family who lived in the house on the corner, to recollections about the crotchety old man who warned the kids off his lawn, to the reminiscences about schools that generations of families attended."  Every building, street, and even the trees act as landmarks for sharing the stories that give people a shared sense of community and a feeling of community that transcends time.

For over twenty years planners, preservationists, academicians, and civilians have wrung their hands over the way sprawl has wrecked the American landscape, diminished the individuality of places, and gutted the vibrancy of older towns and cities.  In short, how sprawl destroyed community.  New urbanists champion the idea of placemaking-"the design of new places to foster a distinctiveness of places and sense of community." (  The problem with this is that new places lack the history that older places have and often can feel like interlopers rather than part of the community. Developers promote the walkability design of new places, open spaces, public squares, mixed retail, residential, and work places that are all intended to foster human interaction, avoid automobile travel, in short create conditions that seed community. (In the rush to develop a sense of place, what gets overlooked is that older places already function well and have all the elements necessary in place)  Blogger agrees with Mr. Mayes's observation that these conditions are the very thing that are already built into old places.

A view of Quince Street from Locust Street
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
While the effort of the New Urbanists to manufacture a sense of place is a good idea, one thing that does get overlooked is real communities take time to develop.  Tom Mayes writes, "Community develops through the interaction between people and place over time.  We cannot build a community-we can only foster the conditions in which communities can grow and thrive." Communities grow and thrive in an organic manner.  They develop with a diversity of ages, incomes, and ethnicities.  In Urbanism Without Effort, Charles Wolfe discusses "that real urbanism, is best when it is recognized where it already exists and has developed organically." Specifically, Mr. Wolfe writes, "I believe the best urbanism is often the urbanism we already have, and that understanding the organic nature of this 'urbanism without effort' is key."  (Wolfe, Kindle Location 426-29, 2013)  If yours truly did not know any better, Blogger would think that Jane Jacobs is writing these statements because they echo the very same sentiments she wrote back in 1961.

Thames Street on Fell's Point
Baltimore, Maryland

Tom Mayes readily admits, "...not all old places are successful communities.  Some old neighborhoods are unsafe, undervalue, and (for the moment) undesirable on the real estate market, and do not provide their residents with adequate economic, educational or other opportunities."  In these particular neighborhoods, focusing on old places as community can play a part in revitalizing a community in such a way that its value increase by their residents and newcomers. One component for success, where there is re-investment, is the existence of old places that provide a communal sense of shared history, identity, and memory.  Tom Mayes cites a study by the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Preservation Green Lab conducted in the cities of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Baltimore, Maryland which identified neighborhoods that could be successful with government sector investment.  The key element are the older, smaller buildings.  (NTHP Preservation Green Lab, "Place Based Metrics, accessed by Mr. Mayes Feb. 28, 2015)

Georgetown Canal
Georgetown, Washington D.C,

While older small buildings can foster a sense of community, the loss of said buildings can lead to a loss of community.  Quoting former National Trust president Richard Moe's book, which he co-authored with Carter Wilke Changing Places Rebuilding Community in the Age of Sprawl, Mr. Mayes writes, "Like individuals, a community can fall victim to amnesia, can lose the memory of what it was, and thereby lose touch with what it is and what it was meant to be.  The loss of community memory happens most frequently and most dramatically in the destruction of familiar landmarks that are themselves familiar reminders of who were, what we believed, and where we were headed." (Moe and Wilke, 261, 1997)  When a landmark is lost it means a valuable community asset is gone for good.  That asset may have helpful in reversing the decline of a specific community and diminish the character defining feature the resident shared.

Everything that Tom Mayes wrote in his post smacks identical to what Jane Jacobs wrote over fifty years ago.  What makes this different is that they are getting a closer look in the context of growing urbanization and sustainability.  Old places matter for a long list of reasons, chief of which is they offer a close connection between people.  We live in an age where shared experience means experiencing something online.  It is not a true experience because there is no tangible connection.  An old place offers that tangible connection. You can go to a place, experience it with all yours, be part of it.  It becomes part of DNA.  It is a truly shared sense of place.

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