A Sense of Place
By JUDY O’BANNON
Secretary emerita, Indiana Landmarks
If I stopped the average citizen on the street and asked, “Do you need a sense of place in your life?” I’m afraid I would get quite a few blank stares. The expression “sense of place” seems to be one of those insider terms developed by us who like old things and devote our lives to saving them. Over the years of fighting for the good cause of historic preservation, we have an innate sense of the space around us. In a way it is a nebulous sort of thing, this sense of place, usually explained with descriptions and anecdotes rather than statistics and definitions.
Maybe it is because the concept describes such a basic need of mankind that we fail to discuss it often. The need to feel part of something outside one’s self is a consuming condition of people. We feel so detached at times from all of life, separated from the greater whole and each other. Technology has made our interrelations even more complex than in “the good old days”. We know more people, places and ideas, but often on an impersonal, come-and-go manner. Too often, we’re alone in a crowd.
We want to send down roots and feel that we understand our turf. And what surrounds us does make a difference. We might not always like the environment in which we find ourselves, but it soaks into our being whether we invite it or not.
The saming of this planet through technology is of grave concern to me. If the entire world looks alike, acts alike and sounds alike, how do I make it personal to me? I play with children in foreign countries and hear them sing U.S. pop songs with the corresponding gestures and I want to cry. How can children draw from the riches of their ancestors when they adopt the pop culture of an alien place?
My family moved with my father’s job when I was a kid. I can pull up in my mind’s eye each of the towns in which we lived. I was always trying to read the environment and figure out how and where I fit into it all. Each new place is now like a chapter in my life. I was formed by those relationships with people, buildings, institutions, and events. I am of the place in which I live out my days. And so the place around me matters deeply to my sense of meaning and purpose.
I have often asked myself why I like old buildings. I have come to the realization that it is because people have rubbed against them as they went about living out their lives. It gives me a sense of perspective. I am everyday acutely reminded by my surroundings that I am a part of tapestry of life and I’d better weave myself into it in a responsible, productive manner.