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Cultivating a sense of place

June 17, 2009

One month ago. Palmerfest, an annual block party in Athens, Ohio.

Partygoers, mostly Ohio University students, caused a near-riot, starting a bonfire in the street, burning couches and throwing empty beer bottles at police. Asked for comment, some members of student government blamed the debauchery on students’ lacking “a sense of place” — they argued that if students felt more ownership and “community” toward the place where they were temporarily residing, they would treat it more kindly.

There is some truth in this. Yes, “sense of place” sounds like a touchy-feely public-relations term. And I wouldn’t say displacement was the cause of the near-riot — other factors, such as copious amounts of alcohol, likely played a larger role. But sense of place is a real phenomenon, and it’s an important one.

Sense of place is hard to define, but, like U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said of porn, you know it when you see it. It’s a sense of belonging, a sense of comfort, a sense of knowledge. After three years in Athens, I think I’ve developed at least the skeleton of one. I know which way to drive on Congress St., and I know that Court St. is referred to as “Uptown,” never “Downtown.” I know the names and faces of most city, county and state officials (several I’ve met in person), and I’ve run into the many of the university’s top administrators at various places on campus. I know who Manasseh Cutler is and why he is important to the history of the city and of the university to which it is so closely tied. I’ve seen the annual Halloween block party, I know that the first rule is not to touch the police horses without permission, and I know that for the first time last year City Council experimented with hosting a beer garden. I know that the Chinese takeout that now costs $4.50 used to be $3.75, then $3.95, and then $4.25 before coming to its current price. I know not to wear flip-flops when it rains, because the brick streets are slick.

Obviously, I don’t have that in-depth knowledge of Greensboro yet after being here three days.

Some jobs require a sense of place to be done well, and most news jobs at newspapers fit into that category. The sense certainly makes a better copy editor: Is it Friendly St. or Friendly Ave? Who is the mayor? Greensboro College was originally known as what? What team plays at the baseball stadium just recently built? Bonus: What other Triad city is trying to build a stadium? You’ve got a 50/50 chance here, if you know what cities make up the Triad.* Like with many copy-editing quandaries, it’s not  about knowing the answers — it’s about knowing what to look up. With no knowledge of the area, you have to look up everything. That makes you very thorough, but not very efficient. And you still might miss things, simply from never encountering them before.

I’m trying to get a feel for Greensboro. I’ve been walking around, driving around, talking to people, picking up the free alternative weeklies, listening to local radio, brushing up on my local history and, of course, reading the News & Record. And I think it’s working. I’m not going to be a Greensboro native by the end of the summer. But I think I’ll have at least some sense of place.


  • From everyone: Any thoughts on the general idea of a sense of place?
  • From people who are/have been in a similar situation: What helped you the most in acclimating to the local culture?
  • From Greensboro and North Carolina natives and long-term transplants: What should an Ohioan know about living in this city, region or state?

*The answers: Ave., Yvonne J. Johnson, Greensborough Female College, the Greensboro Grasshoppers, Winston-Salem.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. June 17, 2009 1:47 pm

    Nice post! I edit a local magazine, and never really thought about how the fact that I’ve lived here a long time – 20 years in my current location, another 18 or so in the general area – made the copyediting so much easier.

  2. June 17, 2009 1:56 pm

    Awesome post! “Sense of Place” is now entering my innocuously-deep phrase lexicon.

  3. Emily Hanlon permalink
    June 17, 2009 2:24 pm

    You mentioned a sense of place is related to knowledge – I would take that a step further and say it’s also highly political. It’s difficult to talk about “sense of place” without getting into questionable insider/outsider dichotomies. Still, I think the Palmerfest riot brought to the surface a lot of class issues that have always been existent in Athens – inevitable due to the fact that there’s a major university situated in an a poorer region. If you asked a lot of the people who were involved in the debauchery I’m sure they would say they do feel a sense of place and belonging to this area – but I think that feeling comes from their connection to the campus and entitlement to having their “true college experience”.

    It’s easy to see why community members were outraged about Palmerfest. I talked to the owner of Decorative Injections about it and he was like, “we’re here working, they’re here playing.” For people who reside in Athens, who invest energy in its development, who probably are not in the top tax income bracket – it has to be embittering to see these college students setting furniture on fire/throwing things at the police, getting national attention and adding another layer of invisibility to the non-student community.

    But then, every student at OU isn’t this guy. Those who were involved in the worst of Palmerfest don’t represent the majority of OU (or at least I like to think so). There are a lot of students, faculty, researchers, other university staff who contribute and put a lot into this area. Just because they didn’t grow up here and they’re associated with the University doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be able to lay claims to having a sense of place here.

    So in a nutshell, what I’m saying, is all this sense of place stuff is murky. I know nada about Greensboro. Good luck this summer!


    • Natalie DeBruin permalink*
      June 17, 2009 2:39 pm

      Thanks to everyone for the feedback.

      Emily — You’re definitely right that it’s very murky. And there’s obviously a difference between the sense of place felt by someone who has been working and living in an area for 30 years and someone who has been there, relatively responsibility-free, for less than four.

      Some students take Athens very seriously — they realize that people actually live there, and they’re at least aware of the Appalachian poverty context, if not actively involved much beyond the university. And then there are some (like that guy) who are trying to cram in as much “fun” as possible before entering the “real world,” not realizing or caring that they are already in somebody’s “real world,” and that their actions have consequences borne by the areas’ residents.

      I certainly hope most OU students are of the former variety. Sometimes I wonder.

      “We’re here working, they’re here playing.” That one’s going to stick with me.

      Thanks for the good wishes — I’m sure the summer will turn out fantastically — and thanks for always making me think just a little more beyond the surface.

  4. June 17, 2009 8:48 pm

    We’re delighted to have you. By the looks of this post, you’re doing everything right. I sneaked back into the office today after some time off. Let’s talk tomorrow.

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