Specialness of Place

  • A strange reflection. Too much of the Brothers Grimm in my childhood? I don’t know. In any event:

    There was something about Ave Maria that I really liked the first few times I visited the place, starting three years ago. In many ways, Ave is still a work in progress. It’s a little enclave amidst the wilderness of Southwest Florida. Ninety minutes from Miami, almost an hour from Naples and Fort Myers, its early neighbors were the people of Immokalee in the farmers markets and casinos. Other than that, just the local bear and panther population.

    Visiting Ave felt, I think now, something like I imagine some Austrian or Swiss castle three centuries ago. You arrive after a great distance at the edge of a settlement, a sleepy little village. Making your way past the mostly quiet and dimly lit alleys of the village proper, you navigate the narrow path to the castle grounds on the center hill.

    Within, you find great company. Faces you’ll come to know and love over a night together, rocked by the storm that began raging outside the walls. It’s a castle with a thousand rooms and one, yet it feels small and accessible in its own way. You feel comfortable with it, with its unknowns. There are some rooms and spaces you don’t enter. The time you share with your new companions will be yours forever; the candor and camaraderie of strangers creating friendships that will endure, even if you’ll never see each other again.

    You leave this place the next morning, making your way delicately past the still slumbering village and back onto whatever path it was that led you there. In time you wonder whether any of it ever really happened, and whether that place existed. Maybe it was an enchanted place.

    Enchantment’s distinctive allure. Ave has some of that allure for me.

  • G.K. Chesterton’s Brave New Family contrasts “small” versus “big” communities. It struck me as very applicable to my experience of places like Ave Maria and State College:

    “It is not fashionable to say much nowadays of the advantages of the small community. We are told that we must go in for large empires and large ideas. There is one advantage, however, in the small state, the city, or the village, which only the willfully blind can overlook. The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men.

    The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us. Thus in all extensive and highly civilized societies, groups come into existence founded upon what is called sympathy, and shut out the real world more sharply than the gates of a monastery. There is nothing really narrow about the clan; the thing which is really narrow is the clique. The men of the clan live together because they all wear the same tartan or are descended from the same sacred cow; but in their souls by the divine luck of things there will always be more colors than in any tartan. But the men of the clique live together because they have the same kind of soul, and their narrowness is a narrowness of spiritual coherence and contentment, like that which exists in hell.

    A big society exists in order to form cliques. A big society is a society for the promotion of narrowness. It is a machinery for the purpose of guarding the solitary and sensitive individual from all experience of the bitter and bracing human compromises. It is, in the most literary sense of the words, a society for the prevention of Christian knowledge.”

  • One of the countless details that define contemporary New York is the subway experience, and it’s no surprise that the voice of the subway is a long time Bloomberg announcer:

    I think one of the marks of a successful mayorship is that both big things and small things changed for the better. This is one example of one of the “small things” that nonetheless plays a big day-to-day impact and shapes a part of the New York experience for millions. I don’t think his voice covers every line, but it covers at least the newer cars.

    Check the 4:10 mark for a cool look at one of the subway’s coolest closed stations.

  • Shore

    I’m in Ocean City, New Jersey this week. Going down the shore is something so many Philadelphians know as a part of the tradition of family life, and it’s been part of mine for most of my life, though we converted to New Jersey from Rehoboth Beach, Delaware in the late 1990s.

    One of the benefits to vacation (at least the kind of vacation worth having) is time for reflection. It’s been a good year, and a lot of good work and projects have been accomplished so far. I’m excited about the weeks and months to come, which are going to bring some significant changes.

    One thing I know I want to continue is the habit of daily writing. It’s something I’ve been able to get comfortable with, and as a sort of public journal, sounding board, and sharing device it’s been rewarding. I’ve been writing mostly for me so far, though getting into next year I want to figure out how to make the writing here a bit more evergreen.

    In the meantime, I’m enjoying the shore.

  • Neighborliness

    I snapped this on Fraser Street in State College recently. A new Hyatt Hotel and Conference Center is under construction there along with luxury residential condos and other shops. It’ll bring a distinct character to the downtown area that’s lacking at present.

    It’ll also be contemporary architecture, including both storefront windows and sidewalk level underground parking access. With that change on the way I took this picture to contrast some of the older architecture.

    I think what you see from the storefront window on the left is a valuable example of neighborly architecture. Not only is the storefront “human scale” rather than just glass fronted, but notice the little detail of the recessed windowsill. This is a building designed for the people on the street to enjoy it—for kids or older folks needing to catch their breath or just someone paging through a book. It’s recessed enough to sit or lean for a few moments, and in doing so you’re likely to draw other passerby to notice the storefront window and the business within.

    It’s of those minor details that nonetheless has the effect of contributing to a less rushed and more neighborly character to a place. I’m glad State College will have some newer, more contemporary character, but more than anything I like that both styles can live together.

  • Streets

    I snapped this while sitting in Liberty Craft House in State College. It’s been raining since late afternoon, which I like. Everything feels denser and closer-in when it rains in this town. I think that’s largely due to the trees and their canopy effect especially when their branches wilt with the weight of wet leaves.

    Anyway. I wanted to capture this view because it’ll change in the years to come. Earlier today I was reading through the Borough of State College’s master plan. It’s an ambitious and welcome plan, particularly for its aesthetic instincts for the redevelopment of the downtown area.

    Views like this will change in the years ahead because the sidewalks will expand further, bricks will replace much of the concrete, and more trees will be planted. In time, Downtown State College will become a lot prettier.

    As great as it is now, there’s a lot of opportunity to improve. I’ll write more about the plan at some point.

  • I’m a fan of Penn State’s Heritage Trees & Groves program, which aims to conserve and sustain historic and remarkable parts of the campus landscape. This article caught my attention: Tree Experts From Japan Use Century-Old Technique to Save ‘Heritage’ Tree, specifically:

    “[The Japanese consultants] had brought some of their traditional materials and tools and passed them around, and we were looking at things and talking,” says Kalp. “And they showed slides of cherry trees, which are particularly sacred, that have been preserved for a thousand to fifteen hundred years. It was crazy.”

    I like the idea of coming to see certain trees as sacred parts of our environment. I think Old Willow can be that for Penn Staters. A tree can outlive its planter, and it can grow in meaning with each year and each life that appreciates its beauty.

    The roots of the tree can be a symbol for the roots of the people that help conserve it for enjoyment today and tomorrow. I think our attitudes toward something as simple as a tree can sometimes serve as a proxy for larger attitudes.

    What trees do in their own way is ask whether we see ourselves as part of a larger story. Whether we see just what’s in front of us, or whether we understand how time lets roots grow deep, limbs wide, and leaves green.

    It’s not necessary to think of a particular tree as sacred, but on the flip side it’s a shame if you only think of a tree as decoration.

  • Robert Beese’s Mount Nittany

    On a trip to State College last year a friend of mine familiar with my love for Mount Nittany pulled something remarkable out of her basement. What she had was the photo you see here. It’s a photo of Mount Nittany taken by Robert Beese probably sometime in the 1940s.

    The second I laid eyes on this it captured me. I don’t just see Mount Nittany. I see a pristine place of beauty. Not only the Mountain untouched by man, but pretty much an entirely natural landscape.

    Robert Beese’s Mount Nittany doesn’t just capture a bit of pre-industrial Central Pennsylvania—a bit of the world of a few decades ago. I think it captures the ancient spirit of the Mountain. It’s the same scene that Evan Pugh would have seen when looking out from campus. And it’s the landscape that the Lenni Lenape and countless generations before them would have been a part of. To really be carried away by Robert Beese’s Mount Nittany is to let yourself, for a few moments, slip out of time.

    Obviously, I love it. If you do too, get the high resolution version and make your own print. I’ll assume Robert Beese would have wanted to share unless I hear otherwise from his family.

    Beese died in 2004 at age 86, and my older State College friend was a friend of his. Penn State Libraries has a collection of his work, and the text below is from their site. After my State College friend gave me his Mount Nittany, I had it framed pretty much right away.

    From 1942 until his retirement in 1977, Robert S. Beese served as photographer for the College of Agricultural Sciences at Penn State, advised the Penn State Camera Club, and was active with the Color Slide Club. Beese began his photographic career while growing up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He was an active member of his high school’s camera club, and even set up a dark room in his parents’ basement, equipped with an enlarger he made himself. Shortly after graduation, he began an apprenticeship with a local photographer who encouraged him to enroll in a top photographic school. Beese enrolled at the Clarence White School of Photography in New York City, where he studied under Ansel Adams. His classmates included Dorothea Lange and Margaret Bourke-White. Beese also studied at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, the Layton School of Art in Milwaukee, and the Winowa and Leica schools of photography, both in Winowa, Indiana.

  • Bucks County, Pennsylvania was a great place to grow up. The neighborhood I grew up in had been built on former orchard fields in the 1960s. It was walkable. It was connected enough to the local bowling alley, convenience store, etc. which meant kids could safely ride their bike and explore without crossing highways. There were woods within a block where I could spend summer afternoons with friends or alone under the trees. There were creeks and trails nearby too.

    But one of the things I remember most is the giant Oak tree that my grandfather planted in the front yard that’s growing larger every year. The tree seemed enormous to me then. I would sit under it selling lemonade. I would collect and play with its acorns. I would sit against it. I would try to climb it. It became a part of my childhood experience.

    Trees can also be tremendous symbols. What any single generation chooses to conserve forms the first draft of its history. When we take care of great trees, we pass along something that lives beyond us and can touch the lives of people for decades, centuries, and sometimes even longer.

    It’s worth planting trees. But if you want a tree to have the potential impact that Oak had for me, it’s got to be intentional. Not decorative trees, but great trees.

    Great trees convey a vision. Decorative trees convey a fashion.

  • “Life is lived out in a place. Any given place has a natural geography and belongs to a shaped landscape and a built environment of structures, buildings, homes, organized spaces, and a multitude of objects, tools, and machines. Also, a place, which can be defined as a discrete locality or as an expanded region or state, embodies a type of commerce and industry, as well as a stage of an economy. A place is also a society—a set of institutions, a collection of groups, and a mixture of communities and cultures. A set of unities, similarities, contrasts, juxtapositions, polarities, and contradictions, a place exists also as a combination of differing states of change, development, maturation, decay, and decline”

    This is from “Why Place Matters: Geography, Identity, and Civic Life in Modern America,” an anthology that came out a year or two ago. Specifically, it’s from Joseph A. Amato’s chapter “Local History: A Way to Place and Home.”

    Maybe this excerpt is obvious, but I think there’s also some confusion about what constitutes place. And I think there’s value in re-encountering basic concepts every so often.

    Capitalism and globalization are minimizing the importance of physical distances, but as market forces they’re still driven by the desire to serve specific people in particular places.

    And understanding the place we live and how we might make it better is what makes a city, town, or neighborhood worth contributing to, not only in terms of the market but also the culture.