This is roughly the speech I gave on Friday at Preserving Places: Indiana’s Statewide Historic Preservation Conference in lovely Wabash, Indiana. Great conference and a great town. I was so impressed with all the amazing things happening around our state related to historic preservation.
I’m here because I’m a sociologist who studies places and community, but my love for places came before my love for sociology. I loved places before I even knew what sociology was. I was a placist before I was a sociologist.
What is a placist? Placist is a word invented by a friend of mine-Sara Patterson-who is a historian of religion and is also obsessed with place. She’s obsessed with place and religion…with sacred places. She studies how spaces come to be seen as sacred. Placist is not in the dictionary….yet. I give you all permission to start using it freely.
Being placist is an ideological stance. It is a conviction, a passion, a movement you choose to align yourself with. It is an “ist.” People will tell you ‘ists’ are bad, but don’t believe them. I think we all need to embrace and be proud of own our passions. I am a feminist. An environmentalist. An anti-racist. A place-ist. I am unapologetically committed to places.
As a sociologist, I’m interested in how places shape social life. So, I ask questions about how places shape our social interactions and the kind of communities in which we live. I’m interested in how places create or contribute to existing inequalities and in how places shape our identities, the way we understand who we are and how we fit into the world. These are the kinds of questions sociologists ask.
I want to talk to you about being a placist and being a sociologist using two the places that have been most important to me—the corner store and the coffee shop. So I’m going to start with the place I’m from and end with the place I live now. In between, I’ll talk about what we’re discovering about the wide-ranging effects of the places we live in—how they affect our old age, our childhood, our friendships and our health.
The Corner Store
The corner store in Burlington, Kentucky, taught me how to love a place and what happens when that place is lost. The two most important landscapes of my childhood were the woods around the house where I grew up and the streets of downtown Burlington. My grandmother lived in downtown Burlington and my sister and I spent a lot of time at her house and a lot of time walking to the corner store. And yes, we mostly went there for candy.
If you grew up in a town with a corner store, or anything like it, you know that it wasn’t all about the candy. Or the ice cream. Or the soda. Or whatever the particular treat was for you. Of course, the candy was part of it. But a corner store with candy is also a destination for children, a place to go.
Going to the corner store is all about that experience of independence and exploration and possibility. Anything could happen in the two blocks between grandma’s house and the corner store. You could run into people, some you’re happy about running into, and some you’re not so happy about running into. You could take any number of different routes to the corner store, some of them more acceptable to your grandmother than others. You had a measure of independence and freedom from adult supervision before you turned sixteen and got a driver’s license.
In a small town like Burlington when I was growing up, we didn’t worry about something dangerous happening on the way to the corner store. That wasn’t because there was less crime back then. In fact, the crime rate in the U.S. has decreased since I was a kid.
We worried less in part because we did understand what it meant to see places as caretakers. Good places create caretakers. They create a community of caretakers, and therefore a safe environment for children. The sociologist William H. Whyte in his study of small urban spaces found that the best predictor of the safety of a place was the presence of women. If you find women in a place, it is generally a safe space to be. I would say the same of children. If children can walk around in your town on their own, you are probably in a safe community.
About the time I was in graduate school, the corner store closed its doors. Then the church down the street bought it and tore it down. Can you guess what they put in its place? Think of the Joni Mitchell song if you need a clue. A parking lot. Of course. There is never a shortage of parking lots in the world. It seems we believe that we could always use one more.
Now it’s almost 15 years later, and a lot of the people who made up that community are gone and so is the corner store. Communities shift and change. People move in and people move in out. People are born and people die. If you preserve places, though, something of the community goes on. Research tells us that our minds and our memories are spatially oriented. The best way to remember something is to create a replica of a place you know inside your mind and put the memory there. It comes as no surprise, then, that places serve as physical markers for our memories, our identities and our communities.
The corner store taught me what it was to love a place and then what it was to lose it.
A sociological interlude
I left Burlington for college and then graduate school where I learned what a sociological perspective on place might look like. The more I learned, the more I became convinced that places were more than just the physical repositories of memories and communities. They could actively make us healthier and happier.
For years, I was convinced that many of the places we were creating were failing us. Increasingly, research has shown this to be true. This is just a small sampling of the research that’s out there about the effects of places on our lives and well-being.
Places and aging
The idea of aging in place has been around for a long time. It describes the advantages for the elderly of being able to stay in their existing communities instead of having to move to a home or other group facility. It only works if the place you’re already in is a good place in which to age, and research shows that many of our existing places are not.
The Population Reference Bureau compiled research on neighborhood effects on aging. They identified six important factors for making aging in place beneficial for seniors. These include that the place be walkable, accessible, compact, safe, have plentiful resources and have healthy air. When a place meets these criteria, it has wide-ranging effects for the elderly, from their ability to get around to their cognitive functioning. Places are important in shaping what our health and well-being will be as we age.
Places and friendship
Places shape the kinds of interactions we have and therefore the types of relationships that are formed. Research on friendship tells us that among adults in the United States, the ability to form friendships seems to be getting harder and harder. In interviews, adults describe “being” there as an important quality in friendship, but admit that they spend little time with their friends, even when they live relatively close.
Repeated spontaneous contact might explain why adults today struggle with forming and maintaining meaningful friendships. Repeated spontaneous contact is that process of running into someone over and over again and is a necessary part of forming friendships. It happens easily in high school, college or graduate school, where you live together, eat together and attend classes together. It gets harder as we get older.
If you have a partner, a job and children, where in most of our modern lives would we have repeated spontaneous contact with people? When we’re not working, we spend an average of 290 hours per year on the road, or the equivalent of seven, full forty-hour work weeks driving. There’s not much repeated spontaneous contact that happens in a car. When we design places that force us to spend most of our time driving, our ability to form and maintain friendships as adults suffers.
Places with a healthy walkshed are more likely to produce this repeated spontaneous contact so important to friendship formation. A walkshed is an area in which a community of people regularly mingles doing errands, walking their dogs, playing in the parks, going to school and work, etc. When we design places where people are likely to run into each often outside of the confined space of their cars, we make friendship easier.
Places and addiction
What could the design of places and addiction possibly have in common? The dominant understanding of addiction is that it’s a chemical process. We become addicted to drugs because of the effects they have on our brains. But some research suggests that addiction is less about chemistry and more about our interactions.
In his book, Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the Drug War, Johann Hari sets out to learn about the cause of addiction. He comes upon the research of Bruce Alexander, a psychology professor in Vancouver. Alexander knew that if a lone rat in a cage is given water laced with heroine or cocaine as well as plain water, the rat will choose to drink the drug-laced water until it dies. In other words, the rat will become addicted. But what if the rat was in a different cage?
Alexander put rats together in what he called Rat Park. Rat Park had other rats as well as colored balls, good rat food, plenty of tunnels and lots of rat friends. The rats in Rat Park were offered drug-laced and plain water. They sampled the drug-laced water, but they didn’t become addicted. They didn’t drink it until they died. None of the rats in Rat Park became heavy users while all of the rats alone in their cage did. Alexander concluded, it’s not the drugs that cause addiction, but the cage.
In other words, humans naturally seek to bond and we usually fulfill that need with other humans. But when we find ourselves in the cage by ourselves—alone and without another human to connect with—we’re more likely to turn to drugs or alcohol or gambling or shopping as a substitute for that human connection. Surely if we live in places that are more like the human equivalent of Rat Park—places that encourage connection and interaction—we would see less addiction.
The coffee shop
A good place should be walkable, accessible and with plentiful resources for the elderly. It should have a healthy walkshed to help adults form friendships. It should be a place that encourages interaction and connection. What would such a place look like?
After I left Burlington, I got my Ph.D. and took a job at Hanover College, which is just down the road from Madison, Indiana. This is the part of the speech where I show you pictures and sell you on how great Madison is. I wish I could tell you that I was very intentional about taking the job at Hanover so that I could live someplace like Madison but the truth is, I just got lucky. If you haven’t visited Madison, start making plans now. And assume that once you visit, you might not want to leave. It happens to a lot of people.
One of my favorite places in Madison is the coffee shop. There’s been a coffee shop in this location for as long as I’ve been in Madison—about 15 years. The current incarnation is The Red Roaster Coffee and Eatery. I wrote this speech in the coffee shop; it’s where I get most of my best work done. If you come to Madison, you’ll probably find me there.
Here’s what you might see on a typical day in the coffee shop. Nick and Rich, who both work there, might make a bet about whether I’ll order an iced tea or a cappuccino that day. They know what their regulars like and sometimes they’ll make your drink for you before you even order. Folks will come in and gossip with Rich, who’s the manager. In good places, you’ll hear lots of gossip, lots of people talking, because that’s part of what good places do. They foster interaction and gossip is a kind of social interaction that makes up the fabric of community; it’s sharing knowledge and creating community. The coffee shop would be a great place to study gossip. You’d think people would lower their voices, but they really don’t, so you can imagine all the interesting things you might hear sitting there.
At the coffee shop, you can sit on a nice stool looking out the window onto Main Street. You’re looking at a walkshed. People walk the streets of Madison at all hours of the day and night. They walk to parks and our movie theater and to see music or shop or go to the library. You’ll see seniors walking by, with their walkers. They might be going to the senior center down the street. They come into the coffee shop and strike up conversations. Bill is a regular who’s elderly and developmentally disabled and sometimes he’ll be taking a little snooze in one of the comfy chairs in the corner.
You’ll also see young people. This is a picture of my daughter and her friends. She’s been doing her homework in the coffee shop since kindergarten and she’s a sophomore in high school now. This was her corner store as she grew up. She still comes here with her friends. There are college students from Hanover and Ivy Tech, too. The coffee shop, like all good places, draws a diverse group of people. It’s a home for the funky kids, the ones who might not fit into other spaces in a small, rural town. But you’ll also see middle-aged women who get together to knit or color in adult coloring books. You’ll see members of our LGBT community and people of color. Different races, different class backgrounds, different ages, different political beliefs. I believe for some people who come into Madison Coffee and Tea Company, it may be the only conversations they have all day long.
At the coffee shop, people have repeated spontaneous contact. We met our friend Dave at the coffee shop. He lives across the street from us, but we’d never met him. We didn’t meet him because my partner and I have jobs and a child who needs to be places. But we walk to the coffee shop and that’s where we met Dave.
Every day I’m thankful to live in a town like Madison with places like the coffee shop. I know what it is to lose places. And I know that many people aren’t so lucky.
Making better places
We can no longer afford to take the places we live for granted. They’re too important. I’ve only touched the surface of what we’re learning about how places matter.
As we move forward, we must make sure that the places we make our inclusive for all people. The elderly, young people, funky people, LGBT people, poor people and people of color. Ashley Ford is a writer who grew up in Indiana and now lives in New York. She’s African-American and she recently tweeted about her desire for small-town life, but the obstacles she faces as a black person. Racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and classism are everywhere, even in places like New York City. But all places, big and small, must commit to combatting those hatreds in our communities. We can’t consider the places we make and preserve successful unless they are open and welcoming to everyone.
Here is what I want to tell you as a sociologist who studies place. You are all in the business of shaping and molding places. Of preserving them and making them vital and sustainable and welcoming and open. People may say that this is a low priority, but I hope I’ve shown you how crucial places are. A place can make the process of full of health and happiness or full of loneliness and sickness. A place can be a fertile ground for the growth of lasting and meaningful friendships. Places can leave us lonely and without connection and more likely to turn to addiction.
When we lose a place like the corner store, we have lost more than just a building. Don’t allow anyone to convince you otherwise. We need to fill the world with placists, with people who are unapologetically committed to the importance of place. There’s so much at stake and it’s not an easy task. The lure of the parking lot is always where. But I can’t imagine a more important job or a more important calling.