The Genius of a Place

The Genius of a Place

Bruce has been lamenting something for quite a long while – the loss of the local. He remembers vividly the differences encountered town to town, as a boy in Denora, Pennsylvania; Holden, West Virginia; and Mayfield, Ohio. The stories of his youth are rich with details that put you in those places and nowhere else. Here is his remembrance of Holden:

Holden sits at the head of an Appalachian valley, nestled between two hollows (‘hollers’) that extend in opposite directions. Island Creek (the coal company’s eponym) flows out of the western hollow, through town and the valley until it empties into the Guyandotte River five miles away in Logan. The densely forested mountainsides rise in easy slopes or drop steeply according to the rock they are made of; the hollows reach and dwindle between them like spindly fingers. The three mountains that enclose Holden are capped with exposed rock formations sculpted over time by the elements and are named for their shapes. Massive Tank Rock tops the eastern ridge. Hole-in-the-Head is part of an extended ridge line to the west; as you look that way from town daylight streams from its pass-through. Umbrella Rock is the fossil-ridden, mushroom shaped behemoth that presides over the far side of middle ridge, unseen from the town below. An abandoned telephone pole stood a ways up on the south slope facing town, but it went mostly unnoticed each year until December, when the company constructed a lighted Christmas tree, using the pole as the trunk. The whole of it – mountains, hollows, creek – was my playground to discover and explore on bike and on foot, and I did with my friends, every daylight hour.  I remember finding fossil imprints of ancient marine life embedded in Umbrella Rock and pondering the ocean that had left them in such a place.

Driving west from Logan you arrive in Holden after taking a left to cross the bridge over the creek. Holden was very compact, squeezed into shape by the mountains and water, but it was very lively as the headquarters town of the company, then in its prime. On the right, a three story brick building housed the company store and offices. Across the road a single-story building held a movie theater with a marquee, and the beauty salon and town drugstore. The drugstore was typical of the time with a soda fountain and lunch counter, and sold everything from medication to toys. Mr. Reynolds ran the store and served as pharmacist and soda jerk too. I spent a good many afternoons at that counter, eating hot dogs and drinking vanilla cokes with my friends. A small triangular park lay beyond the store, nicely landscaped with flower beds planted and kept by the Holden Garden Club. The Garden Club’s members were mostly Holden’s womenfolk, who also tended to the flowers at the foot of the Welcome to Holden sign outside of town. The Catholic church faced the park a block beyond the drugstore. We attended mass there, and many children took piano lessons in its basement. As you passed the church the road curved left and became a residential street that led to the school, up the eastern hollow.

If you were to go straight on the road from Logan (instead of forking left over the bridge to town) the western hollow lay ahead. Just beyond the bridge a long narrow lawn lined with ancient sycamore trees – too big to climb, even then – stretched between the road and the creek. The lawn ended at the start of Beebe Street. Beebe Street was really an abandoned rail bed with sidewalks on each side lined with small company houses that faced each other across it. The tracks had been dismantled long before when the coal seams in the upper mines were worked out, and there were barriers at either end to disallow cars and other vehicles. I lived at the far end on the southern side. The road from town skirted behind the houses across from mine and continued up the hollow. A gravel alley backed the houses on my side, and beyond the alley Island Creek flowed at the bottom of a of the steeply rising mountainside.

The one mile walk to school took me through town each day. All of my friends and the other kids of Holden attended the town’s three-story brick schoolhouse which housed two classes each of grades 1-8. The stately three-story brick and stone structure sat on the hillside above the road and had grand curved stone stairs to carry us up from the street to its pronounced entrance. While not greatly embellished the school was the most distinctive building in town. The movie theater, salon, and drugstore were inviting and pleasant, but the company buildings were plain and unremarkable.

On school days I left the house with my older sister and we walked along Beebe Street collecting friends along the way. Two doors down, my best friend David Copley. Three doors down, Patty Turner, my sister’s best friend, and then, Albert Young (the preacher’s son), Linda Long (whose older brother Randy played drums in a band that practiced on the front porch. I remember “Incense and Peppermint” …)  At the last house we picked up another good friend, David Mayo.

The sidewalk led to the abandoned railroad trestle spanning the creek, and we crossed there. Just before the trestle on the right was a huge tree where David Mayo and I built a many-level treehouse one summer.

Across the trestle the sidewalk began again and continued to the town center, past the company store parking lot on the left where, on weekends, we made villages out of the appliance boxes left for us (a perk of knowing the store manager, who was my friend Keith’s dad). The company “clubhouse”, used mainly by visiting executives, topped a steep rise to the right. The ground leveled enough beyond the clubhouse to form an oddly-shaped makeshift ball field, with left field sloping up to the clubhouse, and we picked up games there at every opportunity, the field’s irregularities notwithstanding. The fenced public tennis court served as our home plate backstop. Other times we actually used the tennis courts to play tennis.

Across town and past the church we came to the neighborhood at the foot of the other hollow, and there we collected Ralph Brown (whose father taught wood shop), red-headed Tommy Harmon, and Tasha Taylor too.

Report card days were ones to remember because of Mr. Reynolds at the drugstore. I’m not sure if he owned the store, or if the company did, but everyone in town knew it only as Reynolds Drug Store, and that’s down to the man he was.

Mr. Reynolds was a kind middle-aged man whom all of the town’s children knew and liked. He was fond of us too. He provided Principal with coupons for free milk shakes, to hand out to all honor roll students. This turned report card day into a fateful day of reckoning. Each and every time anticipation built up morning through afternoon, even more as I went to the office to pick up my report card. “Did I make it? YESSSSS! MILK SHAKE! I mean, Honor Roll”. When the final bell rang at the end of classes the honor roll kids were off in a flash, running full speed to the drugstore to collect our rewards. But no matter how fast I ran I could never catch Keith or Barry – I was always third in line.

Holden was a place made by people’s relationships with/to each other, and in response to a distinct geography. How unlike today’s world where the siting (and use) of new buildings reflects only commercial interests – adjacency to consumers and transportation networks, or tax-advantaged land. We go to CVS because it’s on the way home, rather than visiting Mr. Reynolds, whom we know and who knows us. And we drive everywhere, which means we have few opportunities to experience the small scale – few spontaneous interactions, few smell-the-roses moments, little up-close and personal. Walking knowledge of a place is finely grained and rich, in especial contrast to the mental maps we make from motor vehicle navigation.1 It makes for a different kind of attachment to the earth beneath our feet and to each other. What strikes me most in Bruce’s recollections are the accounts of play: wide-ranging, unfenced and un-shepherded, opportunistic and proprietary. He came to know the world deeply and on his own terms, while at the same time making Holden with his tracks and traces and leavings.

In small towns (and discrete city neighborhoods) family-owned eateries and stores were layered in and woven together with local recipes, crafts, and traditions, regional building materials, language dialects and accents, customs and music, indigenous flora and fauna, and the-people-who-stayed. Together they made unique places. Places like these could be claimed, owned, remembered and embodied – they got under your skin as you lived there, and they stayed with you after you left, enlarging your sense of the world. Place was a part of you just as you were a part of place. Then, too, discovering the alternatives and possibilities presented by other places was an impetus for travel. Bruce took me to Holden thirty years after he left to share his remembered place, now a part of me, too. Authentic experiences of the outside world predated the iconic, which is a capture and promotion of authenticity that in fact undermines it.

Nowadays there are only artifacts (and stores that specialize in selling them to us, hawking the remembrance of place). Geographic fabrics are frayed, undone, even as tourism economies promote unique identities, and farmers’ markets spring up everywhere. You may recognize some of the remnants we have found and known throughout our lives. Bluestone paving and curbs, brownstone buildings, and clapboard siding in the northeastern U.S. are features derived from indigenous resources (timber and bedrock), as are limestone fenceposts in Kansas, and the limestone and brick architecture of Indiana University. (Indiana building-stone is renowned.) Here in Connecticut the Merritt Parkway passes under a series of bridges (constructed in the1930’s) unlike any I have seen elsewhere1 Much of our local masonry is credited to Italian-American craftsmen and displays proprietary techniques and stylings honed and passed-down for generations. In Seattle, residential landscape style still reflects traditions and aesthetics introduced by Japanese caretakers, who found the local climate familiar and welcoming to their horticultural expertise and preferences. But for the most part local flavor is disappearing and/or homogenizing, original stylings having given way to standardized materials and methods.

And so everywhere looks more and more the same, as the tokens of mass culture embed themselves and accumulate, as memes spread, as people refer to the away rather than the here, as people stop inventing and instead import, as the distances between us shorten both really and virtually. To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, ‘there is no there there’ anywhere anymore2. Even contemporary attempts to revive place – Main Street restorations, adaptations and reuses, New Urbanism, retro stylings – often miss the mark, as they replicate each other, rather than grow organically from distinctive soils3.

This is more than nostalgic fondness for the times and places of our youths. Ethnographers are still discovering homegrown and isolate cultures in our midst, documenting the one-of-a-kind outcomes that result from the longterm inward and iterative interactions of people and geography4. Randall Hester wrote of the attachment to place that is inscribed by daily living5, and the urbanist Jane Jacobs recognized and asserted the value of places made by small scale actions and changes, moderated by people living together as neighbors6. Landscape (and other) designers look for and pay heed to these expressions and manifestations. We have a term for the spirit of places thus made, so well represented by small-town America of the twentieth century: genius loci, which simply means genius of place. My teacher Anita Van Asperdt instilled in me the necessity of and desire for knowing a place deeply, before designing. She also provided methods and tools to uncover and appreciate genius loci: sensory mapping, art-making, and encountering people informally, while they create place in the everyday. Local histories reveal a lot, too, about persistent values and touchstones of identity.

I took her imperative to heart as I developed a proposal for Bay City, Oregon. Bay City was a place unlike any I had ever known, and I spent many, many hours there discovering and learning, before I began a design for the empty lot in the center of town. Here is a record of my experiences as I got to know the town.

  • BC-bldg-OPT
  • BC-box-OPT
  • BayCity-4pc-collage-OPT

What I found in Bay City:

* a desire to welcome visitors * teens who liked BMX biking * a beautiful park * a slide on a hill that sloped towards the creek * The Landing restaurant * The Art Center *  lovely houses * the namesake bay, silted-in and separated from the town by a state highway  * a variety of building setbacks and orientations * overgrown gardens and verges * an unused tennis court * people on horseback * patriots * rhythms and pathways * moss * an RV campground * a dying timber industry (with no replacement) * frugality * cloudy rainy weather * no sidewalks * the sound of speeding wheels on asphalt * a forest * hidden places * open spaces * independence * community *

Next:  a proposal for Bay City


  1. designed by George L. Dunkelberger.
  2. from Everybody’s Autobiography, about her hometown, Oakland, California
  3. Newer baseball stadiums reflect the loss of the local in another way. Before free-agency, players stayed with teams for long times; they were rooted in their host town and very much a part of its identity. As free agents though, players came and went, and so both team and town lost a large part of their local ‘brand’. New stadiums are an attempt to re-brand teams – to tie them to place by architecture, as a replacement for the players who were adopted and built into a town’s psyche, and so represented its genius.
  4. e.g. Stalking the Native View by Mary Hufford, The Genealogical Landscape and the Southern Sense of Place by Barbara Allen, and Wisdom Sits in Places by Keith H. Basso
  5. Hester, R. (1985). Subconscious Places of the Heart. Places, 2(3), pp 10-22
  6. The Death and Life of Great American Cities
error: Content is protected !!