How are places made?
This summer, I went on holiday with my partner and his family to their beach house on the East Coast. His grandmother has been coming to the same spot since the 1960s and his mom and her siblings practically grew up there - spending every summer and most vacations. As we drove around, it was clear that every house, every beach, even every milestone on the island’s main road was rich with memories and significance for them. After talking to other people on the island, it seemed that this sense of wonder - of the specialness of the place - was widely shared among the island’s summer visitors. But, as anyone visiting someone else’s childhood home would know, that nostalgic wonder is not easily passed on. It was a pleasant place, but the myth of the island added very little to my experience of it.
Everyone has their own special places - spaces tied to specific memories or feelings. As cultural theorist de Certeau writes, “Haunted places are the only ones people can live in.” Yet what interests me isn’t so much that places have personal meanings, but how these meanings become collectively shared - and who is included in that collective. The big question for me is how is it that certain viewpoints become popularized - become the ‘dominant’ one - and what happens when they do.
Living in Portland in a rapidly gentrified neighborhood, it is abundantly clear to me how quickly image of a place can change and be remade. Over the last 20 years, Portland has been experiencing an extended moment in popular culture. From Portlandia to the town’s unofficial slogan ‘Keep Portland Weird’ to endless articles announcing how Portland is a hipster’s paradise, a very specific image of Portland has emerged. Let me note that to say this is an image is not to the same as saying that it is fabricated or invented out of thin air. Indeed, when we look at the beginning of Portland’s cultural boom, when rents were low and it was possible for a lot of people to pursue their artistic interests and hobbies, this vision of Portland as a creative mecca had some foundation. A designer and strategist that I greatly admire - Eric Hillerns - wrote an interesting article at the height of the ‘hip Portland’ boom in 2011 which discussed the idea of Portland, the Brand. He suggests that Portland’s ‘brand’ (and here, I read something similar to ‘imaginary’) developed side by side with the self-presentation and internal design of its residents. He wrote that Portlanders have a different “internal architecture” so that,
If you ask someone from Portland what they do, they’ll likely reply, “I’m a gardener.” Or “I make things.” Or “I like to write little books.” Rarely will the Portlander initially reveal, unless firmly pressed, what they do for a living; that they’re an accountant, a pediatrician, an insurance advisor, or, as we’ve come to learn: a stripper.
This is an interesting thought - that the molding of places mirrors the shape of its people. And when the image of the place is such a romantic one, its quite a flattering way of framing oneself. I think that this is part of the reason that such a specific image of the city has been so strongly promoted by some residents, journalists, artists, and so on - whether consciously or unconsciously.
The key thing about an image, though, is that it can outlast the economic and social realities that gave rise to it. I would argue that that is the case with Portland - as a result of the housing and job markets, the influx of new residents (myself included), and the rapid gentrification of neighborhoods, Portland is no longer affordable for many creative types. Yet the vision persists as people need it to support their identity and self framing, even when the foundations for that identity may have slipped away.
So why does the popularity of this specific version of Portland matter?
Place images do not arise fully formed and shared out of collective minds. Certain imaginaries are marked out as more legitimate because “while everyone may have a unique version of what a place ought to be, there is only one site. Power then dictates which version of place gets to be produced” (Davis 2005).
Over time, dominant images and shared imaginaries do something - they coalesce to form what sociologist Rob Shields (1991) dubs a “place-myth”. Place-myths, which are not necessarily “faithful to the actual realities of the site,” become durable and spread because of “repetition and widespread dissemination” (Crouch and Lübbren 2003) - as we have seen in Portland. This matters because place-myths have consequences - they inform political decisions, immigration patterns, architecture, and design. Over time, places are remade to match the myth.
Thinking about places in this way is a productive starting point to questioning the power dynamics and imaginaries that circulate around specific locations. I think this is helpful as a marketer - but also simply as a human.
p.s. I wrote my dissertation on a similar topic - specifically, on the imaginaries informing dereliction tourism in Detroit. If you’re interested, you can check it out here: