Specialness of Place

  • Aria Bendix at CityLab writes on Boston’s new poetry initiative. It’s ingenious. Poetry is applied to sidewalks around the city with a biodegradable, water-activated spray paint. When it rains, the sidewalks share their poems:

    Thanks to a partnership between Boston’s City Hall and Mass Poetry, a nonprofit that supports the Massachusetts poetry community, the city’s showers are being transformed into a hidden art project.

    The project, appropriately titled “Raining Poetry,” uses biodegradable water-repellent spray to stencil poems on Boston’s concrete streets. On a sunny day, the letters remain invisible. But once water hits them, the words of famous poets suddenly reveal themselves to unsuspecting passersby. …

    It’s also a chance to expose Boston residents to the rich history of their city, which was once home to poets like Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop, and e. e. cummings. Indeed, what better way to honor Boston’s literary greats than to look to their words as cures for a gloomy day?

    This is the sort of thing that can enchant a city or town, adding a spirit of magic to a place that gives rise to a lifetime of affection—helping the resident know his home better, with the words of the long-forgotten appearing once more, just as much as it forms a bond for the visitor, who will leave with a fresh idea in her mind of the place she expected to visit for only a weekend, but that now will come back to her in memory again and again even after a wet and perhaps dismal visit.

  • Robert J. Schiller writes on Why Land and Homes Actually Tend to be Disappointing Investments:

    Over the century from 1915 to 2015, though, the real value of American farmland (deflated by the Consumer Price Index) increased only 3.1 times, according to the Department of Agriculture. That comes to an average increase of only 1.1 percent a year — and with a growing population, that’s barely enough to keep per capita real land value unchanged.

    According to my own data (relying on the S&P/Case-Shiller U.S. National Home Price Index, which I helped create), real home prices rose even more slowly over the same period — a total increase of 1.8 times, which comes to an average of only 0.6 percent a year.

    What all that amounts to is that neither farmland nor housing has been a great place to invest money over the long term. …

    … we need to realize what land represents, even in Manhattan or Silicon Valley or any booming area. People in such places usually aren’t buying land for its own sake but for the myriad services that housing provides. A home is not just a place to sleep and store clothing and keepsakes. It can be a place that is convenient to a stimulating place of work, good schools and entertainment and, indeed, part of an entire human community.

    … the slow long-term pace of farmland and home price increases is not surprising. Nor would it be shocking if this trend continued for the next century, despite price surges over the last few years.

    A more extreme outcome is also quite plausible. In a hundred years, we might even see much of our former farmland converted back to wildlife preserves. In fact, it’s far from inconceivable that the real price of land could be even lower than it is right now.

    You’re investing in a place when you buy a home. You’re not investing in a house. If you haven’t enjoyed your investment, it’s probably because you’re treating a plot of soil or pile of metal, plastic, and wood as if they were more valuable than the place you’ve put them.

  • I wrote the other day on a possible way to understand beauty in nature. There’s also beauty in what man creates, and David A. Cowan writes about what Prince Charles and Alexander Stoddard have done to advance beauty along those lines in architecture and public art:

    An unlikely leading figure in the effort for reviving beauty in urban spaces is Prince Charles, the future King of England. As long ago as 1984, Prince Charles delivered a provocative speech to the Royal Institute of British Architects which criticized the architectural styles of the post-war era. He elegantly described a prewar London where an…

    “…affinity between buildings and the earth, in spite of the City’s immense size, was so close and organic that the houses looked almost as though they had grown out of the earth and had not been imposed upon it—grown moreover, in such a way that as few trees as possible were thrust out of the way.” …

    Charles has not been merely content to voice his concerns. He has put his words into action through The Prince’s Foundation for Building Community. Its most significant achievement has been Poundbury, an urban extension of Dorchester in Dorset, England, where traditional urban styles have been adopted. …

    Another important crusader for beauty in urban spaces is the Scottish sculptor Alexander Stoddart, who has focused on reviving the neoclassical tradition. His two most notable works are the bronze statues of Adam Smith (2008) and David Hume (1997) on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile…

    Beauty is based upon an ethos of affirmation. It makes people’s sense of place and belonging tangible which is essential to the flourishing of individuals and communities. By putting beauty at the heart of urban planning and turning back the tide of vulgarity and ugliness, there is hope that we can create urban spaces which reaffirm our collective identity instead of rejecting our past.

  • Gracy Olmstead writes on Why America needs to revitalize its local politics:

    …what would happen if at least a few of Washington’s elites returned home and invested in the communities they left behind? What if, instead of running for Congress, some of our politicians considered running for some local office? What if the journalists trying to make it in Washington, D.C., decided instead to invest in a local paper? What if, instead of covering the next Trump or Hillary Clinton rally, they decided to attend their local town hall meeting? What if those of us who live in or near the beltway spent a little less time fixating on the presidential election, and focused instead on city and county politics?

    We often think of these things as being not nearly as important as national politics. We scoff at local matters as small and provincial. Where is the glory in covering a school board meeting? But the deleterious idea that what happens in Washington matters more than anything happening in the rest of the country is the root of our problem.

    French political scientist and historian Alexis de Tocqueville believed America’s highly unique government worked because its citizens were active in the political sphere. They voted and attended town meetings, involved themselves in private associations, and went to church. But all these things have faded in popularity as our news and politics have become more centralized. Many of us don’t take the time to talk to our neighbors, let alone go to a town hall meeting. And when no one shows concern for the local sphere, it’s easy to feel unimportant and helpless, which results either in apathy or bitter anger — both of which we’re seeing in this election cycle.

    Where do we think that national leaders take their cues from? They take them from local leaders. Local businesspeople. Local intellectuals. Locals.

    Every “big” notion that Washington gets into its head ultimately comes from an experience of what works (or doesn’t) on the level of a state, or a city, or a smaller community someplace across this continent. If we stop cultivating local leaders, and local businesspeople, and local intellectuals—and most importantly if we stop communicating the experiences of the localities to the national leaders—the only place national leaders will have to turn is to their international peers.

    If we want to make an impact, it’s easiest and usually the most important to try to do that on a small level. In time, it can filter up on the big stage of national politics if it’s worth holding up as a model for the nation.

  • Joanne Wilson shared Monocle’s insights recently on the characteristics of the ideal community. They’re all worth sharing:

    1 – Village Square would anchor the city with grass, flowers, moveable chairs, cafes and a 24-hour kiosk.

    2 – Main Street where there would be awnings to keep us from rain or too much sun.  Retail on the bottom and residential homes downstairs creating constant community.

    3 – Housing that was small and large from single homes to large family homes with balconies and front lawns for a little outdoor space.  Everyone pays for the upkeep of the public spaces.  The buildings would all be environmentally conscious made with smart materials.

    4 – Services that include a hospital for serious situations and a small medical center for smaller injuries.  Certainly a fire department and a police department who would even rescue the local cat.

    5 – All shops would be open from 8 – 8 catering to all from a haircut to getting your groceries on the way home.

    6 – Local newspaper that reports on everything happening in the town and some national info thrown in too.

    7 – Good signs that help brand the village.  Has to be good looking signs from the book shop the barber shop and the cafe.

    8 – Weekend farmers markets to buy the farmers vegetables and chickens including home brews and wine.

    9 – Local farm where people can always go to purchase from the farm shop on a daily basis.  Keeping the community sustainable.

    10 – A beautiful flowing river that moves through the town.  People can fish, canoe and enjoy the river side as well.

    11 – Founding myths and folklore about the town to be passed down generation to generation.

    12 – A local tennis and bathing club open all year round to the entire town.  More community there.

    13 – An artists studio for the young to the old.

    14 – A library piled high with books, magazines and easy to download materials.

    15 – An artisan quarter for people making furniture or even getting a kitchen chair repaired.

    16 – Serious wifi for all.

    17 – A grand hotel with amazing food on a leafy terrace overlooking the river.

    18 – A primary school that everyone has attended at one point of their life.

    19 – Public transportation for everyone.

    20 – Festivals held during the year from music to arts.

    What do all of these things, more or less, have in common? They’re not the characteristics of suburbs.

  • I’ve written before about what suburbs do. I’ve thought a lot about why cities like Philadelphia and New York are so preferable compared to cities like Houston or states like Florida. Alex Balashov, writing on “why even driving through suburbia is soul crushing,” speaks to most of the reasons why suburbs are anathema:

    The destruction of the pedestrian public realm is not merely an economic or ecological absurdity; it has real deleterious effects. For just one small example of many: life in a subdivision cul-de-sac keeps children from exploring and becoming conversant with the wider world around them, because it tethers their social lives and activities to their busy parents’ willingness to drive them somewhere. There’s literally nowhere for them to go. The spontaneity of childhood in the courtyard, on the street, or in the square gives way to the managed, curated, prearranged “play-date.” Small wonder that kids retreat within the four walls of their house and lead increasingly electronic lives. (The virtues of a private backyard are easily exaggerated; it’s vacuous and isolated, and kids quickly outgrow it.)

    However, it’s been difficult to elucidate in specific physical terms what it is about suburbia that makes it so hostile to humanity. To someone with no training in architecture, it’s often experienced as a great, non-articulated existential malaise, like depression. You know it sucks, but it’s hard to say exactly why. The same holds true in reverse; North Americans who have not travelled abroad extensively and don’t have a clear basis for comparison can be tongue-tied when asked to explain what exactly makes a non-sprawl city street “charming” or “cozy.” It’s telling that we have no widespread cultural vernacular for why classical urban settlements, which draw on millennia of intellectual background and corpuses of architectural knowledge, are pleasant. It’s because Americans took that inheritance and unceremoniously discarded it, consonantly with the rise of the mass-produced automobile. It irks me that many of us know, on some level, that we live in a dystopian nightmare but can’t say what makes it a dystopian nightmare.

  • Correcting institutional identity

    I first wrote last spring about “strengthening institutional identity” for Penn State’s campus radio station. We had commissioned a small historical marker, and worked with The LION 90.7fm‘s student leadership at the time to place it in the new facility.

    As I wrote at the time, the idea was that an historical marker could help “defeat some of the corrosive effects of transience and the attendant loss of perspective and memory that often alienates people from enjoying a meaningful sense of place.” A lot of us who’ve “been through the halls” care about the place, and want to make the experience even more beautiful for generations to come. Knowing the history plays a big role in that.

    After we had last year’s historical marker manufactured and installed, I spent a number of days researching and cataloguing the earliest newspaper articles concerning Penn State radio. I was stunned to learn we had gotten our own history wrong. We had believed the earliest origins of Penn State radio had begun with WDFM in 1951. In fact, there was an entire earlier (the earliest) generation that began with Penn State’s Senior Gift of the Class of 1912, which led to the creation of WPSC which broadcast through the early 1930s.

    This discovery had been a great lesson to me personally in the value of digging deeper, doing first-hand research to verify the history rather than relying only on the received history passed down by peers. For whatever set of reasons, the institutional memory of the 1912 gift and the WPSC pioneers had long faded from anything heard by students and alumni of The LION 90.7fm over the past 20+ years. The pioneers of a century ago have passed out of living memory, too.

    We had our historical marker recast to correct our initially incomplete history. I’m glad that, in this small way at least, we can honor those who were there at the start.

  • Admiring the valley

    There’s no better way to admire something than to experience it. It’s the highest compliment you can offer. And it’s a complement I offer to Central Pennsylvania’s Nittany Valley as often as I can.

    I soaked in this beautiful view from the backyard of a new friend earlier today. It’s a beautiful place to enjoy a beautiful scene.

    One of the things I spoke to in Conserving Mount Nittany is that in Central Pennsylvania’s Nittany Valley, the fact that you’re in a valley amidst mountains is much more in-your-face. Philadelphians talk about the “Delaware Valley,” but where are their corresponding mountains?

    This is one of the least remarked upon but most consequential aspects of the character of this place.

  • This Benedict Evans tweet came across my Twitter stream earlier: “New to the country, I am still at the stage where everything I see has a value precisely because I don’t know what value to give it.”

    It’s a perfect way to think about experiencing any new place. Familiarity gives rise to complacency, and characteristics to place that might be genuinely remarkable become literally the opposite: unremarkable and unremarked upon aspects of the character of a place.

    In considering what this looks like in my own daily life, it’s a reminder of the value of getting away from the normal and into the new—of experiencing new places, new adventures, new friendships—so that on returning to a familiar place it can be unfamiliar again, for a time.

  • Alan Jacobs writes on “the problem of modern identity” by telling the story of Miss Marple in Agatha Christie’s A Murder is Announced. In short:

    “… Every village and small country place is full of people who’ve just come and settled there without any ties to bring them. The big houses have been sold, and the cottages have been converted and changed. And people just come — and all you know about them is what they say of themselves.” All you know about them is what they say of themselves — this is, in a nutshell, one of the core problems of modernity.

    In a flat world, place matters more than ever. I really believe this, and I think explains why we still invest so much meaning in living where we live, whether it’s New York, San Francisco, or somewhere in the great unwashed middle.

    In many ways I think we’re living through the triumph of libertarianism. We can mostly move to wherever we want and we can create the story about our lives we want to tell. We can live as we’d like, as free from any meaningful judgment from the local pastor—who doesn’t really know us—as we can from our neighbors, with whom we have equally vague relationships.

    We’re proud of living in New York, but we know no New Yorkers, so to speak. We don’t become New Yorkers by living there; New Yorkers are people from New York. If we moved there, at what point are we from there?

    I think one way to answer that is that we’re from a place when we become truly familiar with it; intimate in our knowledge of its history, its strange and defining characteristics, its prominent families and the disputes that have shaped the place, and the hopes with which the soil of a place has been fused with the glow of meaning that attracted us to it in the first place.