Sunday, May 31, 2009

A Sense Of Place

The Thriving Arts: Thriving Small Communities report that <100k led me to has a number of interesting assertions.

One of the ones that was more surprising to me, inasmuch as I hadn't thought of it, is the necessity of a "sense of place" to a community.

In part, this is because my personal experience left me a little bereft of that as I was growing up. At the age of three months I emigrated from Israel to the United States, and although I can't profess that I felt alienated from America, there also was at least a certain sense of not-belonging, of aloofness from the environment.

The point of my arrival was not helpful to this. I arrived in the middle of Southern California's suburbian wasteland. The community my family lives in now, Irvine, has no "sense of place." There is no center to the city; it has no downtown. It is a chain of disconnected housing developments. It is the epitome of car culture. Most of the city was developed thirty years ago, and there is a complete and utter absence of history.

As a result, people come and settle in Irvine, and their children leave. There are very few families who are ingrained in the community; most are only staying for a while, taking advantage of good jobs and good education.

Nearby, there is a very different small town. Its an arts community named Laguna Beach (all of you reality TV folks know this town). It was founded in the 1930s by a colony of landscape painters. And in the 1960s it became the local hippy hub. Why did it become a hippy hub? Well, because of the artists who were already living there.

The people who live in Laguna Beach tend to be more invested in the arts. There are a lot more galleries, theaters, and amateur programs like amateur theater and an amateur choir.

Why is Laguna Beach so different from Irvine? Well, Thriving Arts: Thriving Small Communities points its fingers toward a number of things I can point to in Laguna Beach (one of the other ones is the fact that Laguna Beach, trapped amongst a series of bluffs, is forced to be built around a central main street right on the beach; another is the fact that the beach itself is an "environmental draw for tourism"). But I think that the original founding in the 1930s created a sense of place for the town--after all, it was landscape painters, and if landscape painters would like to be credited with creating anything, it's a sense of place.

Why is a sense of place important, though? How does it link up?

Last fall I went to the Czech Republic, which is a place that has a sense of PLACE. In fact, the history and the culture has become a generalized excuse for everything, and created an incredibly anti-cultural immobility, but that's a story for another day. While I was there, I had an excellent professor, Jan Urban. Jan Urban was the head of the Civic Forum during the Velvet Revolution, working closely with Vaclav Havel and Vaclav Klaus, the first two Presidents of the Czechoslovakia/Czech Republic.

For Jan Urban, all of the big problems came from a sense of identity. He looked at Nationalism as an extension of a search for identity in 1800s Europe, Nationality being identity based on language spoken. For him, a hugely influential piece of reading is Robert J. Lifton's Thought Reform, which broke down Chinese Re-education methods into a 12 step plan, mostly around the idea of breaking down a subject's sense of identity and rebuilding it along the lines you wish.

He applied those principles when he was in Mozambique, attempting to deprogram child-soldiers from their civil war. His method there was to use soccer to reform their militaristic identity, using the parts of their identity that are already beneficial (team mentality, competitive nature) and stripping away the parts of their identity that don't work in society (mindlessness and violence). We also applied those principles to come up with a way of tackling the PTSD and economic isolation of returning veterans.

If Jan Urban's hypothesis is true (which I strongly believe it is), and a sense of identity is at the center of how we interact with ourselves and our society, than building a sense of place is a large chunk of a sense of identity. And according the report, building that sense of identity is central to building a value of the arts.

This means that at the core of shifting values is shifting the sense of place. Los Angeles, for instance, is a place that is plagued with an extreme lack of a sense of place, and the solution to tackle that was a downtown redesign--which so far has not had any effect on the sense of place of the residents (probably because downtown is not where they live).

If that's the case, then in the next few weeks I intend to examine how the 12-Steps could be used to influence the sense of place of a community.

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