“Place“, to most of us, means an identifiable and findable “spot” that exists in our world. But, if you were to ask what place means to a Historic Preservation, you might get a much richer description and ultimately hear more about something called a “sense of place” instead.
So, in Historic Preservation, What is the difference between “place” and “sense of place?”
Starting with “place,” instead of simply meaning an actual spot on our planet that you can find over and over again like where “X” marks the spot, place now also includes all sorts of additional meanings given to it by humans. For example, “place” now includes a special name, nickname, or a secret name. “Place” also has a unique look to it that makes it different from other similar “places.” Just like how each employee cube or desk looks different depending on which person sits there despite that fact the desks are identical otherwise. The meaning of “place” starts to get interesting when you consider scenarios like if you were to move your house from a desert to a jungle. So, in historic preservation, the concept of “place” also includes the overall “lay of land” surrounding a place. Most curious of all is that “place” can also mean a “space” or an area. A good example is that well known, well traveled and well worn walking trail that oddly enough, may not even have a name! Or, a favorite grand landscape viewable only from the top of a hill.
In historic preservation, a “sense of place” has a deeper meaning from “place.” As Tim Creswell so well defines it, “spaces which people have made meaningful. They are all spaces people are attached to in one way or another… a meaningful location.” (Creswell, 2014) You can find it when you think of it as how you feel when you are at a “place.” It is the complete experience you have when you are there. I like to imagine that in order to capture a sense of a place, I need to pay very close attention to each of my five senses. Because, the more I can capture in my memory the total collection of sensory responses, the more likely I will be able to re-experience the exact sense of place again.
In historic preservation, both of these concepts are identifiable, distinct, unique, unrenewable, special, and irreplaceable! They are this way because of the interaction they have with or due to human activities.
Let’s consider an example located at 318 N Main St, Doylestown, PA 18901. Generically speaking, it has an identifiable and findable location. Humans have personalized it by giving it a name and a nickname. It can be moved but it has its own unique surroundings. Before giving you all those details, I want to start by describing its “sense of place.” I could use all of my senses to tell you things like how to get there, what it looks like inside and out. What it smells like, feels like to touch, taste or sounds like. But instead, I want to give you a deeper explanation of the “sense of place” using feelings through my experiences instead.
When my husband and I first moved into town, we went out for ice cream not knowing just how special this “place” was. Despite its outward appearance, as soon as we entered, we knew this “place” was identifiable, distinct, unique, unrenewable, irreplaceable and one of those special “places”! It was “the place to go” when people wanted to see and and be seen. Not so much in a braggy way, but in a celebration way. I admit I felt happy but, a little left out too. An outsider because we really wanted to be part of the community. To do that, we figured we had to experience what we were witnessing. Many years later, we did just that when my daughter was given the solo at her Elementary Schools’ Celebration of the Arts. And we knew just what to do after the performance. We drove immediately to this “place” to celebrate. We finally arrived! We were part of the community now. There we were, all dressed up. Madelaine was holding her flowers. Darin, her little brother, was both proud and a bit jealous of all the attention his big sister was getting. We answered questions about why we were there, chatted about other people’s evenings and smiled when we saw familiar faces.
It was an experience I will never forget. It wasn’t the taste of the ice cream, the smell of the warm chicken or well buttered bread, not even the cool smooth feel of the laminate tables or the gliding of the model trains choo-choo’ing above my head. It was the experience of being just one of the many there that night, celebrating an event that happened nearby, in what was now our town too. The funny thing is, this “place’s” “sense of place” was always available to us! I learned this lesson that same evening. You see, while celebrating, I paused and spotted in the eyes of the quiet man who was always there alone, the understanding that, you don’t have to be the ones celebrating to feel membership. You just have to “be there” to share in the “joy of celebration!” Just like how Dana Gioia implored in his TEDx Talk titled “A Sense of Place,” it is critical that we take the time to stop and observe when we are in a special place. He said, “be present in your own life and your own place. Be alert to the actual world around you. Know where you are. Be able to describe it, and savor it.” (Gioia, 2012)
The “place” I am writing about is located at 318 N Main St, Doylestown, PA 18901. It’s name is “the Doylestown Dairy Queen.” It’s nickname is “the DQ.” It sits low in a less than fancy parking lot, in a neighborhood south of central Doylestown. The building itself is pretty outdated and rather unappealing actually.
I write about this DQ because it taught me and everyone in the community the value of that special “sense of place” we shared together. Despite its appearance, it meets all the criteria needed in order for historic preservationists to consider it a “place.” Through human interactions it is an identifiable, distinct, unique, unrenewable, special, and irreplaceable place.
Sadly, it also clarifies the differences between ownership and stewardship as the owner of DQ’s land and building, sold and tore it down! Therefore you can appreciate how being the steward of something is a very different thing than it is to be just an owner. Now that the DQ is gone forever, so too went with it, it’s “sense of place”
Can our community’s celebration experiences ever feel the same again in a new place? The owners of the DQ seem to think so as they built a new DQ just north of Plumsteadville.
But, I ask, with such poor stewardship of the DQ’s “place” & “sense of place,” will the community ever be willing to share their “sense of place” with them again? Only time will tell.
Callahan, Marian. The Intelligencer. 20, Feb., 2021. Online. https://www.theintell.com/news/20200220/doylestown-dairy-queen-may-close-to-make-way-for-bank. Accessed 30, Jan., 2021.
Creswell, Tim. “Place: An Introduction” Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014. 6-18.
Gioia, Dana. “A Sense of Place” Tedx Sonoma County (22 June, 2012). Online. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k_LPbi_gqhI (Links to an external site.). Accessed 30, Jan. 2021.
Patrick, Timothy Patrick. Doylestown Facebook Page, 28 Jan., 2021.