Why Do Old Places Matter? Individual Identity

Posted on: January 8th, 2014 by Tom Mayes 31 Comments

The Eternal City—what better place to find answers to the question: Why do old places matter? Tom Mayes, a 2013 Rome Prize winner in Historic Preservation from the American Academy, is in Rome these days and is contributing a series of posts about his experiences and research. Join us for his periodic essays and add your thoughts to the discussion.  You can also read more about his project in a recent interview at the American Academy in Rome.

Old places embody our identity

“Old places are who we are.” “They give us a sense of self.” “They tell us who we are as a people.” People frequently use these phrases when talking to me about why old places matter. Sofia Bosco, the Rome director of Fondo Ambiente Italiano (FAI), an Italian preservation organization, told me recently, “These places are testimonials of who we are. They represent the identity of every one of us.” Old places—our homes and churches, our neighborhoods, schools, main streets, and courthouse squares, are all part of our identity and of who we are.

Ramah Presbyterian Church and Cemetery, Huntersville, N.C. | Credit:  Thompson Mayes

Ramah Presbyterian Church and Cemetery, Huntersville, N.C. | Credit: Thompson Mayes

People have long recognized the crucial connection between identity and old places. In the ancient world, Cicero chronicled the “indescribable feeling insensibly pervading my soul and sense” on returning to the place where he was born and where his father and grandfather lived. 1 More recently, architect and preservationist James Marston Fitch wrote that “[preservation] affords the opportunity for the citizens to regain a sense of identity with their own origins of which they have often been robbed by the sheer process of urbanization.” 2

Each of us can probably think of a place, like Cicero’s childhood home, that seems to embody our identity, but how do old places “tell us who we are?” What exactly is this relationship between old places and identity? In earlier posts, I described how old places are critical for people to maintain a sense of continuity and of memory. Identity is closely related to both continuity and memory—they are part of the same package. In this post I’d like to look at individual identity, which will be followed by a future post on national or civic identity.

For more than 30 years, psychologists, sociologists, philosophers, and architectural theorists from all over the world have actively studied the relationship between place and identity, and have developed a variety of definitions and processes for looking at “place attachment,” and “place–identity”—how a person’s identity is tied to place.  Although there is no consensus about the definitions or processes, most studies seem to accept the notion that “the use of the physical environment as a strategy for the maintenance of self ” is a pervasive aspect of identity, and that “place is inextricably linked with the development and maintenance of continuity of self.”3

The way places inform our identity and the way we create identity out of place is complex and multi-layered, and there is no agreement about how it works. The Turkish architect Humeyra Birol Akkurt offers a useful summary of a number of other scholars’ definitions of how our identify ties to place:

 

  • “…a set of links that allows and guarantees the distinctiveness and continuity of place in time,”
  • “the bond between people and their environment, based on emotion and cognition,”
  • “…symbolic forms that link people and land: links through history or family lineage, links due to loss or destruction of land, economic links such as ownership, inheritance or politics, universal links through religion, myth and spirituality, links through religion and festive cultural events, and finally narrative links through storytelling or place naming….”

Other writers have noted a sense of pride by association and a sense of self-esteem. Akkurt notes that one scholar theorizes that for any particular place there are as many different place identities as there are people using that place.4

The Norwegian architect Ashild Lappegard Hauge summarizes a key finding as “[a]spects of identity derived from places we belong to arise because places have symbols that have meaning and significance to us. Places represent personal memories, and … social memories (shared histories).” Hauge concludes that “Places are not only contexts or backdrops, but also an integral part of identity.”5

People seem to recognize intuitively the way older places symbolize meaning, significance, and memories. Yi-Fu Tuan, the influential geographer who pioneered the study of people’s relationship to place, wrote, “What can the past mean to us?  People look back for various reasons, but shared by all is the need to acquire a sense of self and of identity… The passion for preservation arises out of the need for tangible objects that can support a sense of identity…”6 Old places, then, provide tangible support for our sense of identity.

The American Academy in Rome. | Credit: Thompson Mayes

The American Academy in Rome. | Credit: Thompson Mayes

But there also seems to be something bigger at work. It’s not as if we simply decide what our identity with place is. In fact, some theorists say the relationship between place and identity is inseparable. One writer, in summarizing the findings of Edward Relph, a geographer who pioneered theories about place, stated: “…the essence of place lies in its largely unselfconscious intentionality, which defines places as profound centres of human existence.” 7 Or as David Seamon summarized Relph’s idea, place is “not a bit of space, nor another word for landscape or environment, it is not a figment of individual experience, nor a social construct….It is, instead, the foundation of being both human and nonhuman; experience, actions, and life itself begin and end with place.”8

Our place identity is not static, however. It is dynamic. It changes over time. As anyone who has been reading this series of posts knows, I grew up on a farm in North Carolina. Without any question, my identity is tied to that place—to the frame farmhouse where I was raised, to the cedar trees that line the fences (I can smell the cedar as I write this), to the very quality of the light on the green grass of the cow pastures. I am nurtured when I return to that place. But my identity is not tied only to that place. I also have an identity connected to places where I have lived, worked, or visited—from the leafy-green campus at Chapel Hill, to the brick sidewalks and apartment buildings of Dupont Circle, to 1785 Massachusetts Avenue, the former Trust headquarters, to a 1950s cement-block riverside fishing cabin in West Virginia.  And I look forward to having my identity further defined, enhanced, expanded or clarified by Rome and by other places I will know in the future.

Although our identity with place changes over time (and can be re-created in different places), the places that form our identity act as “tangible objects” that support our identity. Our old places—if they continue to exist—serve as reference points for measuring, refreshing, and recalibrating our identity over time. They are literally the landmarks of our identity.

Eastland Mall Sign, Charlotte, NC. | Credit: Stewart Gray

Eastland Mall Sign, Charlotte, NC. | Credit: Stewart Gray

A place that supports our identity may not be particularly old, although many of them are (or have become so over the course of our lives). Eastland Mall, which opened in 1975 in east Charlotte, and which was part of my adolescence, was demolished last fall. Its “Rising Sun” logo signs are being preserved as public art through the efforts of the grassroots E.A.S.T. community group, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Preservation Foundation, and the City of Charlotte to continue the community memory of a place that was once considered to have “embodied the spirit of the city.”9  The demolition company tearing the building down established a contest for people to share their memories (the head of the company met his wife ice skating at the mall). A man has even had the Rising Sun logo tattooed on his arm.

I’m glad E.A.S.T. saved the signs, but I wish that more of the place remained. Documented by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Preservation Foundation before its demolition, the vacant building had an evocative beauty that makes me think that the city might have been a richer place in the future if we had figured out how to reinvent the old mall in a way that saved this “tangible object” of my teenage memories and identity. Perhaps our society would be a bit more stable and humane—and sustainable—if we didn’t build and replace our buildings every 35 years, with the resulting erasure of recent memories and identity embodied in them, and the inexcusable waste of demolition.

My great-grandfather’s house, Huntersville, N.C. | Credit: Thompson Mayes

My great-grandfather’s house, Huntersville, N.C. | Credit: Thompson Mayes

When the places that are part of our identity are threatened, lost or destroyed, our identity may be damaged. As indicated in the earlier post on continuity, when the place is lost, there can be devastating effects on people—a reaction comparable to grief. I grieve for many lost places. I’m sometimes mad about the unnecessary loss—from New York’s Penn Station (which I never even knew), to Chicago’s Prentice Hospital, to my great-grandfather’s gentle white clapboard house.

People survive the loss of places that support their identity. And many times these places survive in memory. But the continued presence of old places helps us know who we are, and who we may become in the future. Think about the places you’ve lost that make you mad—they may have been part of you—and let me know what you think about how old places embody who we are.

Notes:

1. Cicero, The Treatises of M.T. Cicero, Yonge, C., Ed. London: H.G. Bond, 1853.

2. Fitch, James Marston, Historic Preservation: Curatorial Management of the Built World  (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1982), 404.

3.  Twigger-Ross, Clare L., and David L. Uzzell.  “Place and Identity Processes” Journal of Environmental Psychology  16, 206, 208 (1996).

4.  Akkurt, Humeyra Birol. “Reconstitution of the Place Identity within the Intervention Efforts in the Historic Built Environment,” The Role of Place Identity in the Perception, Understanding, and Design of Built Environments, Casakin, Hernan & Fátima Bernardo, Eds., 64-64 (citations omitted).

5.  Hauge, Ashild Lappegard.  “Identity and place: a critical comparison of three identity theories,” Architectural Science Review, March 1, 2007.

6.  Tuan, Yi-Fu. Space and Place: the Perspective of Experience, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press 1977, ebook Locations 2826, 2990.

7.  Akkurt, 64, summarizing Relph.

8.  Seamon, David. “Place, Place Identity, and Phenomenology: A Triadic Interpretation Based on J.G. Bennett’s Systematics.”  The Role of Place Identity in the Perception, Understanding, and Design of Built Environments, Casakin, Hernan & Fátima Bernardo, Eds., 5.

9.  Gray, Stewart.  Survey and Research Report on the Eastland Mall Signs, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Preservation Foundation, May 30, 2013.

About Tom Mayes

Tom Mayes is the deputy general counsel for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. In 2013 Mayes was awarded the Rome Prize in Historic Preservation from the American Academy in Rome.

Historic Sites

31 Responses

  1. Sr. Maureen

    January 9, 2014

    Thank you! so relevant.. You can be sure this article will be well quoted from places like FrancisEmma and Belmead Mansion on the James!

    • Tom Mayes

      January 13, 2014

      Thank you Sr. Maureen — please add your own thoughts about why places like Belmead matter!

  2. Rebecca

    January 10, 2014

    Some who are moved from place to place as children have identity in a number of places. My formative years 2-5 were in Virginia and I now visit there to see my daughter who lives 30 minutes from my childhood home. It moves something in me and I love it. But I spent school years in S. California where my body feels most comfortable. My mother was Finnish and when I visit her childhood home in N. Michigan something of the Finn awakens in me. I also feel strength in historical places, reminders of our national identity such as the Civil War, death of our leaders etc. it seems that a rolling stone such as myself identifies with the sky, the wind, the mountains, the prairie. Yet there are times I do envy those who have strong ties to one place, a farmhouse, a small town, a bayou.

    • Tom Mayes

      January 13, 2014

      You’re absolutely right — people have identity from many places — I love the phrases you’ve used to describe the way you feel in different places — “my body feels most comfortable.” and “something of the Finn awakens in me.” I think it’s important that we try to describe why we feel these connections to places, and how different the responses can be from place to place –

  3. Ginny MacKenzie Magan

    January 10, 2014

    To me, another way that places interact with identity is that we use them–today–in somewhat the same way others did in the past. This creates a connection, a metaphorical dialogue, with history that is rare–but natural. More than most bits of the past, buildings are artifacts that–because our relationships with them are functionally (even sometimes emotionally) similar to those of their former users, form connections across the years. We are part of the past and it is part of us and this is well evidenced by our built environment.

    • Tom Mayes

      January 13, 2014

      I’ve not thought about this idea that the way we actually use the buildings creates a “metaphorical dialogue with history,” but I think this idea has great power — it captures the multi-dimensional experience of space, time and connections that occurs in old places. Thank you.

  4. Mardelle Poffenberger

    January 10, 2014

    I am a “history geek” and do living history, so I already have a huge respect for “old places”, but, when I go into high schools where the kids don’t care about “the past”, I explain to them that knowing where you come from gives you pride and helps you get to a better future.

    I look back at the bedroom I had in my parents house, then, after school, the one bedroom apartment I rented, then the one bedroom condo I owned, eventually marrying and now live in my “dream home” with my husband. Looking back gives me pride in where I am now.

    I can also look back at my parents, grandparents, great grandparents, etc. and see what they had, how they did things, and how life in general has changed. This gives me pride and encourages me to move on. As a society, if we look back at the struggles our ancestors endured, knowing what they were up against, what tools they had, and how they survived and succeeded gives us the knowledge and pride to succeed for ourselves. We all have the same survival instinct, but without knowing from where you have come, you can not be proud of what you have overcome.

    Sure, we can take pictures of the “old places” then replace them with “modern stuff”, but there is no way to better understand than to actually see, walk through, and touch those things from the past. As the old saying goes – “I read and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand.”

    • Tom Mayes

      January 13, 2014

      You’re absolutely spot on in saying that “there is no way to better understand than to actually see, walk through, and touch those thing from the past.” The tactile, spacial and other “atmospheric” experience of a place cannot be replicated. The way the light looks, the smell of the air, the texture of wood, stone and brick — these are not captured in documentation –

  5. Al Justice

    January 10, 2014

    Places, speak to our discovering nature of our individual worlds, from the playpen to wherever. We venture outward from our mother’s breast, and define our locus of control and life from that point.

    Old places, are that kinetic memory of our journey, and sits in the same room with scents, tastes, sounds, textures, and so on. We are indeed, attached to our journey through experience.

    I’ve found that my experience of ‘where they walked before me’, is not necessarily your experience of the same, even in the same environment. Nonetheless, my experience of my journey is sacred, to me.

    But this means what to you-this individual perception of place. It means if you are/were my family/community, we survived and discovered this place together. It is a road map not only to our mother’s breast, but to the experiences that also gave birth to our individual discoveries.

    Now some would agree that we tend to remember the ‘good’ experiences of our journey through life, and memorialize those things and places. So what is it then that gives value to places we may not have even visited but valued? Civil War monuments or something like that?

    That, is where life becomes political, and where I leave the discussion.

    • Tom Mayes

      January 13, 2014

      Thank you for this thoughtful response — your opening comment reminded me that there are theorists who say that our places are extensions of ourselves. I love the phrase “Old places, are that kinetic memory of our journey…”

  6. Pat

    January 10, 2014

    Thank you for reminding us to remember those special places. I spent many wonderful hours as a child with my grandfather who was a State Park Supt. in Minn. To this day I can smell the forest and the stream and see the images of my childhood. I visited the park as an adult and was so overwhelmed I could hardly breath.

    • Tom Mayes

      January 13, 2014

      Thank you for this beautiful evocation of what it is like to return to a place of personal memory and identity. Nothing can replace the full sensory experience of returning to a place — smell, light, air, touch, sound — a full body and mind experience triggering memory, emotion, history, connections.

  7. Elizabeth Simon

    January 10, 2014

    I think that places not only define who we are, but can also influence who we would like to be. Historic buildings preserved and shared can add bits of identity, subtly influencing visitors’ perceptions and worldviews. For example, Jefferson’s Monticello, Washington’s Mount Vernon, and numerous less famous residences dotting the nation serve to teach us something of their former occupants’ personalities, thoughts, and ideals; to make those qualities relevant by linking them to our own lives and times; and to influence our thinking about what the nation and its people were, are, and should be. Even uninterpreted buildings can speak through their architecture, purpose, and uniqueness. They are a part of our collective identity because they are part of our history, and for the millions who visit them they also offer ways to revise and add to identity based on earlier ideals.

    • Tom Mayes

      January 14, 2014

      Thank you Elizabeth, for this thoughtful response, which highlights the way our places influence us, as well as how we obtain identity from them. Please look for the next post on civic identity, which explores the ideas you have stated so eloquently here –

  8. Karima

    January 10, 2014

    This is a terrific article and well written. The effect of a place on our spirit and psyche is a hard thing to articulate. We humans are more vulnerable than we like to acknowledge. We do feel grief when a special old place is lost. And what I have found is that acceptance of the loss of a place is a bit easier to process when you have fought hard to save it from destruction.

    The fight for the protection of old places because of their connection to the spirit and psyche of a person, family, and community, is, in essence, the public good that historic preservation provides.

    • Tom Mayes

      January 14, 2014

      Karima — thank you for your response, and for emphasizing this idea about the public good that historic preservation provides — I agree!

  9. Liliana

    January 11, 2014

    Where we came from it is as important as we are now. Some people find History boring but one can’t forget that History is someone’s story, someone’s life.

    Furthermore, we need to learn from the past so we can have a better future.

    • Tom Mayes

      January 14, 2014

      Preservation is indeed about creating a better future — informed by the past — thank you.

  10. Gerald Trowell

    January 13, 2014

    I so identify with place as a source of my self-esteem, my identity, my peace of mind, and my place on this continuum we call life past, present, and future. Three places in particular are special to me: the house and land I grew up in in Lena, South Carolina, as well as my paternal grandmother’s home in same small hamlet and my maternal grandmother’s home in Barnwell, SC. Forever etched in my memory, they give me strength that I can’t even fully fathom as well as comfort in knowing “there was a place”.

    • Tom Mayes

      January 14, 2014

      Gerald — thank you for this response, which beautifully captures the important idea of continuity and identity provided by old places –

  11. Michael Mayes

    January 13, 2014

    I still grieve the loss of our great grandparents’ house, later my grandparent’s house. It was the central hub of our lives and our family heritage. When it was demolished I felt a part of me crumbled with it. I have so many cherished memories of the many times we spent together there in that magical place of our youth. I miss my grandmother and the close relationship we had and the house helped me hold on to her in a way. When I visit my mom and look across the road to where the home once proudly stood I still feel the real pain of loss and always will. There are many places I feel a strong tie with, some gone and some still remain, but they will be forever locked in my memories. I really can’t imagine the life of the transient American who has moved from city to city, and state to state their entire lives. What sense of belonging will their children have when they become adults? What will they tie their childhood memories to when every other year those memories are tied to a different place with no real connection? I feel extremely blessed to have those strong, deep roots that will forever keep me tied to a past that gives me daily strength.

    • Tom Mayes

      January 14, 2014

      Hi Michael! (for everyone — this is my cousin Michael, who knew my Great Grandfather’s house far better than I did because it was his grandparents’ house).

      You know I grieve with you about the loss of that place — it pains me.

  12. Rachel Russell

    January 13, 2014

    Tom, You have always impressed me with your intellect and intuition. I especially love the concept of grief when a place is lost. That lost place is part of the foundation of our self. Many of us from New Orleans really understand that concept. It still hurts to remember our favorite places lost in Katrina.
    And I’m glad to hear of your connection to Eastland – I was trying to help them find a sign company to safely remove and preserve the sign. Charlotte is slowly becoming a city who cares about their past.
    Keep up the great work you’ve always been doing and continue to do! It inspires all of us who know you.

    • Tom Mayes

      January 14, 2014

      Hi Rachel — great to hear from you and thank you for these kind words — and for helping with the Eastland signs. Katrina will continue to exact a toll for years to come — please keep up your good work!

  13. Tracie Mayes Stewart

    January 14, 2014

    First, hello cousin! Michael Mayes posted your thought-provoking article and I found it fascinating. It made my heart sing to see Ramah Presbyterian Church. I used to go sit on the rocks there while at Davidson and think about who I was and what to do with my life and make of this legacy. And then to see the Mayes Homeplace brought back many special memories. I confess although I am two generations away from having lived there somehow Mayes road is “home.” (I am Monty’s daughter, John’s grand-daughter, Lamont’s great-granddaughter, and DW’s great-great granddaughter.) I thought about your article and my strong reaction to seeing these old places, I realized that I believe that this delight in the places that formed us – whether directly or through collective memory – is literally a part of how we were created. I am a Presbyterian minister and as I read your article I had a bit of an Epiphany. Since before Father Abraham humanity has defined itself in terms of place with God’s blessing. We delight in the land and define ourselves by place in many ways. When we lose those places, a real part of us dies. For example, the exile of the Israelites after living in the Promised Land broke their hearts. The psalmist cries, “How can we sing the songs of Zion in a strange land?” This has fascinating implications as one thinks about the US as a land of those displaced from their homes in one sense or another. We are all either immigrants (who left their home)or Native Americans or African-Americans (who were forcibly and violently displaced from their homes). Perhaps we too often fail to preserve our old places and instead be enthralled with the modern to avoid the psychic pain of this displacement. We build not for the ages but for this age. I wonder what this means for my sons who are growing up in the suburbs and strip malls, in places dictated not by the heart but by employment. I am so grateful my mother-in-law has decided to refurnish the family farm so that my sons and their children will have a place that is forever home. And I have tried to give them that feeling at Mayes Road as well by telling them, “his land is a part of you. It is sacred.” You have given me much about which to think and I look forward to reading more. Thank you and Blessings!

    • Tom Mayes

      January 15, 2014

      Hi Tracie — how wonderful to hear from you. Thank you for your thoughtful response. I hadn’t remembered the great verse from Psalms about singing in a foreign land, but it beautifully expresses the grief of losing a place of identity. Like you, I worry that people growing up in the eternal present of many American places do not have access to the stability, identity and memory that old places provide. I hope you’ll write a sermon on this topic!

  14. David Brown

    January 14, 2014

    Great article, Tom. When you were writing about the influences of various places from various points in your life, I was instantly reminded of the Madeleine L’Engle quote: “I am still every age that I have been. Because I was once a child, I am always a child. Because I was once a searching adolescent, given to moods and ecstasies, these are still part of me, and always will be… This does not mean that I ought to be trapped or enclosed in any of these ages…the delayed adolescent, the childish adult, but that they are in me to be drawn on; to forget is a form of suicide… Far too many people misunderstand what *putting away childish things* means, and think that forgetting what it is like to think and feel and touch and smell and taste and see and hear like a three-year-old or a thirteen-year-old or a twenty-three-year-old means being grownup. When I’m with these people I, like the kids, feel that if this is what it means to be a grown-up, then I don’t ever want to be one. Instead of which, if I can retain a child’s awareness and joy, and *be* fifty-one, then I will really learn what it means to be grownup.” I think there’s a connection here with her sentiments and those you are expressing as well. Take care – and we’re looking forward to having you home with us again soon.

    • Tom Mayes

      January 15, 2014

      Thank you David — I suppose we could think of the presence of old places as a wrinkle in time!

  15. Junita Bognanni

    January 21, 2014

    Yet another thought-provoking post. Thank you for this! The question you posed at the end brought out an unexpected response. I remembered a bar in Chicago, The Artful Dodger, that was torn down by a condo developer–like so many old buildings in Wicker Park. Who’s to say how special the place really was architecturally. For me, it embodied my twenties. Nights spent drinking and talking with friends about the directions we hoped our lives might take. I wish I could walk in there today with those same people and feel that same sense of anticipation, excitement and fear of the unknown.

  16. Rachel Rivera

    January 21, 2014

    Tom, what a beautiful post! It touched on so many things I still wrestle with and meditate on. I am an archaeology student of the Ancient Near East, so the stories of REALLY old places are always in my imagination. I am New Orleans-born and Louisiana-raised. I am long gone from there, though, b/c I was treated much as an unwanted foundling by my father. Thus that “place” represents grief of a different kind–and unresolveable ambivalence–for me, because of the experienced reality lain over the memory of a city I had so loved as a very young child. But most interesting, my maternal great-grandfather was originally from Oxford, England. In 2011, after decades of dreaming of visiting England, I finally spent 3 summer weeks there, staying with an English friend living in a village north of London. It was an amazing experience of feeling so at home, so fundamentally RIGHT, in that particular lush and well-tended landscape, and moving among the endless OLD buildings still repurposed again and again. Now the memories of the places I saw are endlessly in mind. I may have to return for a longer time… It made me wonder if a sense of place can’t also sometimes be encoded in the very genes we inherit from generations and generations of ancestors. Many thanks for these thoughts and your lovely writing!