Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Capturing a Sense of Place

This morning on my walk I was admiring the trees and the sounds of frogs, as I often do in my New Hampshire neighborhood. I also had cause to reflect on my hometown of New York, which has been in the news quite a bit over the past few days -- with the 9/11 remembrances and a contentious congressional election. This invited me to reflect on how different my adopted home is from my birthplace. I am fascinated by the idea of "sense of place" and how it affects us and thought this was a good connection to make and address on my blog this morning.With a book due out in a short while, this week I am polishing up some old thoughts and am unable to spend much time to delve into new ideas. So, I thought I would share an excerpt on this topic from  my upcoming publication called, The Unofficial Family Archivist: A Guide to Creating and Maintaining Family Papers, Photographs, and Memorabilia. I hope that you enjoy this bit and I look forward to hearing your thoughts.


The backdrop to your personal story provides a valuable bit of information toward the understanding of your personal history, but it is one of those intangible elements that you will likely need to consciously convey and incorporate into your documentation efforts. A setting can influence us and the events around us in poignant ways. “Who am I?” has been influenced by the places I have lived.
For example, I grew up in a suburban environment, in a town about 45 minutes outside of New York City. I could walk to school and to the grocery store. Wildlife consisted of birds, bugs, and an occasional raccoon in the garbage. Sidewalks were the norm, and my cul-de-sac enabled me to learn to ride my bike without fear of being hit by a car. I now live in a more rural suburban environment. I need a vehicle to get almost anywhere. The hills are too big for easily learning to ride a bike. I have had deer, fox, and fisher cats in my yard. Frogs keep me up at night instead of traffic, and friends have told me that there is a bear in the neighborhood. My formative years were certainly different from my daughter’s early years, and her sense of self has a distinctly New Hampshire tinge to it. When we visit a city, she is struck by all the people and buildings, noting them as distinctly different from her norm.
The place from which we come gives us shared memories with other community members.[1] The place may also deeply impact us so that our “otherness” is obvious to others. Transmitting remembrances about our spaces is vital toward helping others understand us. One who lives in the inner city will have a very different perspective than one who lives in the country. A person of a particular nationality will also have alternate views from someone from another place. Explaining these differences is vital toward promoting harmony among diverse groups and can help us better understand ourselves and each other.
Try to capture your environment in your documentation work. Use visual tools to relay your setting to others. Describe what makes the place or places you have lived unique. Try to convey how your sense of place has impacted you. Use sense of place as a thread through your other documentation work, or focus exclusively on it by describing the setting directly. To convey your sense of place, think about the location itself. Consider the buildings, natural elements, and infrastructure that you recognize as your own. Also mull over the cultural environment that your residence has that makes it unique. What characteristics of the community reflect its uniqueness? What language, ideas, history, and recurring events are distinctive elements of this place?

[1] For more on “sense of place,” please see Robert Archibald’s A Place to Remember: Using History to Build Community (Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 1999).

Figure 36. I asked my mother to send me photos of her and Dad from their childhoods that demonstrate a sense of place. Their city upbringings are evident in these images. Mom stands with her little brother in a carriage. Dad is the little boy on the lower left in the other image.

1 comment:

  1. I have written down quite a bit about my homes - I lived in two different ones growing up. I have a book called "To Our Children's Children" that has a lot of prompts on family history. I think it's meant for you to ask the questions to your parents or grandparents, but I've been answering a lot of the questions myself about my childhood - before I forget!