Sense of Place

Keynote Address by Tom Slayton, Editor of Vermont Life Magazine
May 2002 Historic Preservation Conference, Rutland, VT

Sense of place is a term that often leaves us feeling uncomfortably vague . So I'm going to spend time trying to define it as specifically as I can. And then, I'm going to talk about some of the threats to Vermont's sense of place.

When I say "a sense of place", I mean the feeling I get only when I am physically at or in a given locality. It's that sense of "there" that Gertrude Stein was talking about when she said, in reference to Oakland, Calif.: "There's no 'there' there." Vermont has lots of "there" -- it feels like a real and definable place.

However, a sense of place is hard to define because it is primarily a feeling, and because it is made up of so many things. Hundreds, thousands, maybe millions, ranging from the shape and style of the local church steeple (and whether the church is still used as a church!) to the way the light comes over the eastern hills on a January morning. But generally, we can say that those "things" that define a place fall into three categories:

First: the geography: the place itself.

Second, the way human beings have lived on the landscape and the way they live now.

And third, the intangibles, the myths, stories, names of a place, and so on -- all of which help create the "feeling" a place has.

The most basic element, of course, is the land itself, that is, how the geography of a given location contributes to its sense of place. In the case of Central Vermont, that means being "in the hills" -- enclosed by mountains, with characteristic views of Camel's Hump and the Worcester Range off to the west. By contrast, in the Champlain Valley, the experience of place means living in the biggest valley in New England, one of the few inland places in this part of the world where the landscapes are broad and wide open as often as they are riverrine and enclosed. In the Connecticut River Valley, the sense of the land involves being close to a really big river, having some open land, and orienting oneself daily to Mount Ascutney, a sentinel that can be seen for miles up and down the valley.

Geologically, it means something about glaciers and hills and something about Lake Champlain, that great ecosystem right at Burlington's doorstep: being close to it, paddling on it, watching its weather, its moods and changes. Also, for much of Central Vermont, it means living in a a great ecosystem -- the Northern Forest, and seeing the world as populated with trees and a moist, northern forest ecology.

Next there's human activity and what that does to the landscape. There's the human activity of the present: farming, road building, timbering. And towns, houses, roads: to express a sense of place, these things need to be in scale with the natural surroundings and they need to be individual, local items, not cookie-cutter copies from someplace else.

In addition to the human creations of the present, there are the human creations of the past: historic buildings, old roads, covered bridges, barns and other nostalgic items that we have preserved and maintained because, in some way, they tell us who we are and where we have come from.

In this area, obviously, there is Montpelier's role as the state capital. This building is part of Montpelier's sense of place: the view of the golden dome from a hundred vantage points, and the sense government as a close and intimate, human institution this elegant little building imparts. The other government buildings, granite quarries over in Barre, Socialist Hall (recently renamed Old Labor Hall) in Barre and the Barre Opera House, all add to Central Vermont's sense of place. In the Champlain Valley, there are human institutions also, ranging from the University of Vermont to Shelburne Farms to Al's French Fries. There's the enormous social/cultural influence that Burlington exerts over this entire region, and the fact that it's the region's economic hub: Church Street, the city waterfront, the view of the Lake coming down Main Street hill.

And the smaller towns and cities of Vermont are important, too in defining our sense of place-- Northfield with its mills and tidy green and Norwich University, Vergennes with its green and opera house, St. Albans and Taylor Park, and Burton island; St. Johnsbury's world-class collection of Victorian architecture, a legacy of the Fairbanks family's generosity, and Newport, the lake port of the far north, now enjoying a downtown revitalization with a new marina. Hinesburg and Starksboro and the way the land changes there from open, rolling fields to closed-in valleys beneath the mountains. North Hero and South Hero and the low hills interwoven with views of the lake, the sense of being apart that being in "the Islands" gives you . Richmond and its wonderful Round Church --each different and yet each a part of the region, and in its own way, the state.

And there's all the human activity that these places represent, and the way human activity happens here. The fact that Vermont is usually (not completely) a place where people tend to ignore social classes, for the most part, and socialize across class lines, contributes to the sense of place that exists here. College professors do not have significantly greater social cachet here than masons or printers or lawyers or contractors, and people tend to be listened to on the strength of their arguments, rather than on the authority of their position.

The fact that there has been, historically, a farming presence here, and that many people in the area (unlike journalists like myself) still do real, honest physical work for a living is also an important element: it adds a certain no-nonsense, real-world bottom line to existence here. You need to be able to know how to DO things. And, I would say also that the myths of this place, the stories people tell and retell, the traditional songs they sing, the haunted houses and lovers' lanes, and places where the fish bite or the deer run -- all these are part of this place.

Names create a sense of place: The rolling plateau north of Montpelier has been known as "Horn of the Moon" for as long as I can remember. It's an Indian name with a touch of poetry to it, and part of our sense of place. I don't precisely why the little 980-foot eminence in Charlotte that was known for much of its life as Sugar Bush Hill was renamed Mount Philo in the 19th century. Esther Swift thinks it probably happened during one of that century's bursts of enthusiasm for names with a classical flavor. But it enhances the hill, the lovely view of farmland and lake waters that its summit provides, and it adds to our feeling for this place

The name of the Champlain Valley itself has a Romantic ring to it that enhances it and undoubtedly makes Champlain Valley residents more sure of the wisdom of their choice of domicile. (Central Vermont...a little more mundane...) All these things, tangible and intangible, add up to the feeling that a place has -- They are an accretion over time, and they're one reason why --for example --the hiking traditions of the White Mountains, the Green Mountains, and the Adirondacks are all slightly different, and why it feels one way to be in the beautiful lakes country of the Vermont's Northeast Kingdom, and another way to be in the wilder Rangely Lakes of Maine. The land is different, the buildings are different (think of the Great Camps of the Adirondacks, and Vermont's pondside camps, for example) -- the traditions are different, and the myths are different. Fortunately, almost all of Vermont remains a genuine place today.

But we also know that there are places that have lost their individuality. My son went to school and lived for three years in one such place, in central- northern New Jersey. I should add that there are places in New Jersey with lots of character -- the Pine Barrens, the Delaware Water Gap area, and Cape May, to name but three. But this particular town, which shall remain nameless, alas, has become, essentially, no place, because whatever place was there has been developed to death. There's no town center; the town's main drag is dominated by chain restaurants and gas stations, and there's no discernible community life functioning -- the housing tracts that climb the hillsides, for the most part are simply bedrooms for commuters to New York City.

Most interstate highways are likewise everyplace, and noplace: whether you're in Vermont or Maine or Nebraska, you're cut off from the towns and villages and meadows and lakes around you. You're always on the way to someplace else, and you always have the option of turning right at the next green sign -- there's a universal road culture there that may well express its own uniquely American style -- but is definitely not a location, not a place. I should add that Vermont is trying specifically to get people to get off the Interstate, precisely so that travelers can find out what Vermont --the thing itself -- is all about.

Want another non-place, one a bit closer to home? What about most of the Shelburne Road-- which to my eye looks a lot like central New Jersey? Granted, you don't have to go far to find a real place -- Shelburne Farms is one, Shelburne Village is another --but a big slice of South Burlington and Shelburne has, despite all the wonderful shopping and dining opportunities there, become indistinguishable from road strip, USA.

The Barre-Montpelier Road is another slice of that indistinguishable placeless place; so is Taft's Corners in Williston-- which most of us in this room have watched gradually be erased as a distinctive part of Chittenden County. Universal culture is essentially the same place, which is --noplace. Fortunately, most of Vermont still feels distinctive and place like to me, even though it comprises at least four or five distinct geographic regions.

What makes the Vermont a place apart? It seems to me that a sense of place, that great intangible, is made up of many very specific, tangible items, which we should be able to identify. Contributing to that sense in this particular area are the feeling of being folded into the hills that villages like Montpelier, Barre, Northfield, and Worcester have. The fact that the villages are small and that they have distinct edges -- that you go quickly from being in the town to being in the country--is important.

And human activities like kids playing Frisbee on the State House lawn, summer band concerts in Lyndonville, Montpelier, and St. Johnsbury all contribute. In the Champlain Valley, it seems to me, a sense of place is established and strengthened by buildings as various as Burlington's Unitarian Church -- the "church" of Church Street -- and the Oasis Diner. The valley's region's heroic past, perhaps expressed best in the Ethan Allen Homestead in Burlington --is important -- as is the quiet solitude of Williams Woods in Charlotte and Hubbard Park right behind us, in Montpelier. Mount Independence -- the Gibraltar of the North, or the Valley Forge of the North, depending upon how you slice your history; St. Anne's Shrine and the statue of Samuel de Champlain on Isle LaMotte; the Birds of Vermont Museum and the Audubon Nature Center in Huntington, the Winooski Mills and Chimney Point, Snake Mountain (also known for a time as Grandview Mountain) and the John Strong Mansion in Addison, Ben & Jerry's, and Ira Allen Chapel, and the view from Battery Park, and a great many more such items -- all add their part.

All these specific things contribute to the sense of place in northern Vermont, and all of them are important to it. My feeling is that when we begin to lose respect for a place, we begin to allow those specifics to be eroded. And as those precious, unique, specifics are lost, a region's sense of place is lost, too. That's why this town, Montpelier, resisted so strongly when a McDonald's wanted to locate downtown. McDonald's is everywhere. But the Capitol Grounds coffee shop is only in Montpelier. That's why there is a stubborn quixotic fight now being waged in Montpelier to save a small iron-truss bridge on the east end of town. And it's why local people were outraged when the chain hardware store in town attempted to close the local hardware store, Somers' Hardware, by refusing to renew its lease. Montpelierites protested vigorously, marched in front of the offending chain hardware store -- and won -- the local store got its lease renewed and both stores are still open for business. Montpelier people fought to save the local hardware store, not only because it's a good hardware store, but because it's Montpelier's hardware store. I think people feel the same way about Bear Pond Books and other locally owned businesses in town. We don't want to drive to Burlington and go to Barnes & Noble's huge bookstore -- we want our own unique, Bear Pond Books, tailored to our particular interests. And we want these things because Somers' and Bear Pond Books are specific parts of what makes Montpelier, Montpelier.

When respect for a place is lost, the specifics begin to blur, to be lost, to be replaced by mass market, cookie-cutter items. That's the precise moment when sprawl starts to happen. A farm field in Williston or a stretch of highway along Route 7 becomes indistinguishable from a stretch of road in West Lebanon, or Newark, N.J. A village center becomes hard to find and fast-food strip development takes over the outskirts of town, blurring the delineation between village and countryside. Working people find it too expensive to live in town, and so have to live in trailers outside town and drive to work. A museum depicting the industrial past of a region has to close, while a petting farm or a new golf course down the way does just fine. Housing developments with lots of convenience but little character begin to fill farm fields and forested hillsides. Huge homes occupied only a few weeks of every year sprout from the hilltops. As the real, ordinary, everyday life of a region begins to be lost, so does its unique sense of place. That's why every single genuine expression of place is important.

In all this, I'm not saying that things should never change. Change is inevitable, and can be good. The Burlington I went to school in had turned its back on the Lake Champlain waterfront; the waterfront was a dingy, forgotten place. Today that waterfront is Burlington's showpiece. And a big reason for the positive effect of that change is that the proponents of change respected the integrity and uniqueness of the place they were developing and worked to enhance its natural features. They even designed the new Burlington Boathouse to reflect the design of an earlier city boathouse on the lakefront! That's an example of what respecting a place means.

However, just as commerce is necessary to help keep a place vigorous and alive, a misguided commerce can degrade a place and destroy its meaning. To put into perspective the current controversy over allowing bigger and bigger trucks free rein over tiny downtowns that were never intended to contain them, all you need to do is stand on the green in downtown Woodstock and watch huge truck after huge truck roar by. During busy truck-traffic hours, there's not much of Woodstock that survives the din. Another way a sense of place becomes lost -- and this also involves a loss of respect for the place -- is by being gentrified. And sadly, this too is happening in some parts of Vermont. You know it's happening when you see gated communities being formed that are really enclaves for the wealthy, when fern bars or theme park entertainments take over the natural or traditional attractions that a region offers, when people begin to create a fictional, nostalgic past that has nothing to do with the imperfect, sweaty reality of their own real, live place.

A sense of place is created by a thousand-and-one specific things -- an accretion that over time creates human interconnections, myths and stories, folklore and -- a place. But just as place is created by specifics, it can be lost by specifics. Hayfields and historic buildings, downtowns and mountain tops, swimming holes and the cool, ferny depths of the forests that line the hillsides -- all these specific things are important, as are the lives of all the people who live here, their memories of the place, and the stories they tell. If one important museum has to close, if one vital village center becomes run-down and deserted, if one old man or woman with a good story never gets to tell that story to a listening younger ear -- then in every case, a region's sense of place is weakened. By the same token, every single local artist who can afford to keep working, every stretch of the Winooski or Lamoille River that is cleaned up, every traditional bridge that is maintained and kept open, every town that stays economically and culturally vital -- all of those things strengthen a region's sense of place.

We can conserve our sense of place in many ways. I've hinted at some of them in this talk. By promoting local education, the arts, historic preservation and environmental wholeness , Vermonters are building both their own contemporary sense of place, and Vermont's uniqueness as a community. Ultimately, I believe, it is a strong sense of community that leads to a strong sense of place. And what is community but commitment, care, and love of a place, expressed over time? Your work in your specific communities -- the care, love, and commitment that you bring to your home communities--are vital in keeping Vermont the attractive, good place that it now is. Thank you for your work.