Terrain.org Essays.
View Terrain.org Blog.





by Tom Vanderbilt

The world grew cheap, as worlds must.
                         — Henry Adams, Mont Saint Michel and Chartres


There is a place I know, a quaint, prewar Main Street of a classic American small town, whose scale and legibility evoke the comforting grace of reminiscence.  On this street, though, most storefronts are vacant, and curled "For Rent" signs hang dimly visible through streaked glass.  An old art deco moviehouse is also empty, awaiting its conversion in better times into a brew pub, while a former McCrory's discount store houses an unflourishing "laser tag" emporium.  The street, lined with retro wrought-iron lamp posts and redwood benches that speak of an earlier effort at revival, is utterly quiet. 

To label this environment Hopperesque misses the point; Hopper's scenes of absence and stillness at least command a certain dignity.  Here one feels only abandonment and the gnawingly desperate hope that it will not always be so empty.  To shed the gloom that accrues in such a setting, I go in search of a cup of coffee and some sign of vitality, preferably in the local diner that my imagination tells me just has to be around the corner.  It isn't, however, and so I soon find myself a short drive away, in another place, sitting in some chain restaurant, looking out onto an anodyne commercial strip with its colorful signs, arrayed in a brusque line, like notes on the page of an impossibly dissonant symphony. 

There is an odd comfort to the view and my anonymity here.  Geographers maintain that humans seek out spaces where they are afforded a panoramic vista yet can remain personally hidden.  A well-honed instinct tells me that I should find this place absolutely blank and cold, but instead it functions as a surrogate for a place elsewhere, where I would not be a stranger.  This landscape provokes a moment of the antisublime: rather than being convulsed by the beauty and omnipotence of nature, I am dully respondent to something so unimpressive it seems built for no higher purpose than my own most immediate needs. 

Even more unsettling is the sense that the nearby Main Street, too, felt like so many other Main Streets I have recently visited-dead quiet except during the heart of business hours, during which the remaining evidence of the city's vanished prosperity turn into a depthless backdrop for tourist trifles, and just waiting for Starbucks and other icons of gentrification to wrest it out of economic despond.  To be sure, there are always a few local intrusions.  In Beckley, a struggling coal mining town in the south of West Virginia, the Bob Evans Restaurant at which I ate was the same I would have found in suburban Chicago. Yet here, near the cash register, small statues in the shape of praying hands-made out of coal-were for sale.  And despite the prophecies of the homogenization that telephone and television would bring, it is a decidedly regional accent that blares from the speakers of so many drive-through restaurants, or around one's seat in the 30,000-foot high utter placelessness of an airplane seat. 

Still, if these are the only facts that announce locality, they can hardly compare with the overwhelming suspicion that every place in America is beginning to look the same.  Not only on the suburban strip but in many of the country's once-distinctive towns and cities, where a uniform tint of planned-unit developments and "themed entertainment retail" has swept across local economies, a leveling wave is turning the vernacular terrain into a monocultural corporate moonscape.

One place is Larimer Square in Denver's Lower Downtown.   Photo by S. Buntin.

Suspicions that place has become extinct are shared throughout the country, from academic colloquia to art gallerys to community groups. "We are becoming an increasingly placeless people," warns English theologian Philip Sheldrake. "Everywhere, people, money, goods, and knowledge flow so effortlessly from point to point that place becomes an irrelevant concept," enthuses American management theorist William Knoke.  As the resident of an Ohio town told the Columbus Dispatch about her community, "many of us go off from our hometowns, come back a few years later and everything has changed.  We find a new shopping center or mall that looks just like the mall in every other town."

This sort of anxiety underlies the fresh spate of books that at once decry the loss of place and argue for a reassertion of its primacy, invoking terminology that ranges from the coldly technical to the preeningly spiritual.  In Home From Nowhere, a sequel to his 1994 book The Geography of Nowhere, James Howard Kunstler sees the increasing similarity in landscape as a larger failure of culture, a resignation to the terminally abstract:  "Suburbia fails us in large part because it is so abstract.  It's an idea of a place rather than a place."  The introduction to William Vitek and Wes Jackson's Rooted in the Land, a collection of essays whose authors range from West Cost sociologists to Amish farmers, observes that we "are perpetually on the move-every three to five years, from place to place, and no place in particular," and that "any discussion of a life lived in place and in common with others will seem quaint, romantic, idealistic, and thoroughly backward looking." 

Such books are in themselves signs of a larger turn toward place, a gradual disenchantment with the life that standardized convenience and global interconnectedness have given us. Together, they sound a ghostly lament that somewhere in our lifetime a wrong turn has been taken, with the master narratives of a better past in danger of slipping away, rendered obsolete but still retrievable-like the dormant software of an outdated computer.  Activists rally to stop the entry of chain stores and sprawl development, less out of NIMBY parochialism than a desire to preserve the vestigial character of their community.

Historic sites across the country have blossomed into pilgrimage destinations on the order of Disneyworld, as government funding for place markers, walking trails, and interpretive centers increases, and new magazines like Historic Traveler chart the way.  Urban designers talk of a "downtown renaissance."  Small-town newspapers, after having been pushed aside for years by the wire-service filler of regional papers and network news, are reportedly enjoying an upsurge in readership.  Migration patterns are shifting again in favor of rural life, the New York Times reports, as evacuees from city and suburb alike seek new forms of community.  The New Urbanist movement, seeking "traditional neighborhood development" as a corrective to the wasteful and human-slighting patterns of suburbia, wins praise if not impressive numbers of commissions.

Yet we are everywhere surrounded by paradox.  In my futile search for that local diner, I came upon an unsettling realization:  On Main Street, where I had most expected to feel a sense of place, I found nothing; on the generic strip, I at least felt a part of a vital and functioning order.  Why have, to me at least, sense of place and placelessness become so intertwined?  What does place mean in a system in which places are meant to instantly appeal to a local as much as to a tourist? 

Another place is downtown Richmond, Calif. - Photo by S. Buntin.


The geographer Yi-FuTuan contends that we Americans have never had much of a sense of place; instead, our national ideal revolves around space-the vast, inexhaustible reserves of land across which we strive restlessly, our unvanquished pioneer spirit always favoring newness over tradition.  The land itself demands a refiguring of what place actually means; as Ellen Meloy in The Place Within writes about Montana, "I felt that rootlessness might find root in a place of this size." It was believed, in the middle of the last century, that our habitual peregrinations-which led de Tocqueville to ask "Why Are the Americans so Restless in the Midst of Their Prosperity?"-would slow as the amount of fertile land diminished.  Then, wrote a Census Bureau official, "the inhabitants of each state will become comparatively stationary, and our countrymen will exhibit the attachment to the homes of their childhood, the want of which is sometimes cited as an unfavorable trait in our national character."  Rootlessness has hung around in America for quite some time.

Did place perish with the railroads, which ushered localities into a network of standardized time (reigning in a diffuse range of some 200 local times) and the flattening flow of goods and people?  Or was it the steamboat? In 1845, as the vessels plied newly dug inland routes, a writer gushed that they had "almost annihilated space and time" and enabled travelers to whisk "from place to place with the speed of thought." 

More recent technologies such as film and virtual reality are said to create visual places more real than their actual referents, a process that Stephen Doheny-Farina in The Wired Neighborhood describes as the "virtualization of everyday life and the concurrent demise of geographically bound, physical communities."  He writes of a Vermont photographer who, in his photographs of classic "New England" scenes, carefully omits things like gas stations and condominiums with the help of high-tech legerdemain.  But this too has gone on for some time.

The early 19th-century landscape paintings of Thomas Cole, for example, which are often taken today as rock-ribbed representations of an intensely local and untouched landscape, were not always what they seemed. In his painting of Kaaterskill Falls, for example, Cole obliterated with his brush the ugly intrusions of the already encroaching tourism.  He delivered only the European-inflected image of nature that his aspiring neo-Romantic patrons desired, much the same way tourism ads only show blindingly white beaches (with no other people) or car ads wind-swept mountain vistas (with no other cars).  

Dating the fall of Eden is a spurious proposition, however, as is believing that the decline of America's built or natural environment is a novel condition.   Thomas Jefferson, surrounded by what are now the safely landmarked and cherished treasures of the national heritage, wrote that while England's architecture was "the most wretched style I ever saw," he did not mean to except America.  H.L. Mencken, touring by rail past the Pittsburgh suburbs in 1927, an era presumably innocent of the gaudiness of contemporary suburbia, bristled at the "unbroken and agonizing ugliness, the sheer revolting monstrousness, of every house in sight," claiming that in 25 miles "there was not one in sight that did not insult and lacerate the eye."  One has to wonder about the urgency and prevalence of contemporary assertions in the place literature that "our streets used to be charming and beautiful," or that "we have come close to making civilized life impossible in the United States."

Another place is downtown Boulder, Colo. - Photo by S. Buntin.Civlized life is, in fact, proceeding quite well in this country, if we take the precepts of mass consumer capitalist society as civilization's blueprint.  "The chief work of civilization is to eliminate chance," announced a J. Walter Thompson pamphlet in 1909, a task so arduously undertaken in this country that it now defines the very landscape.  If the mass consumer economy offered a vision of the good life in which one's individuality could be fully demonstrated by choosing from a range of mass-produced goods, it also promised that particular places-in themselves sources of chance, risk, and market inefficiency-could be reproduced on a national level.  That the road, the route through which the new national sense of place flowed, should itself become a kind of place is a foreshadowing of what would later happen everywhere. 

The automobile linked distant places with a newfound temporal proximity, enabling a mass tourism that gave Americans access to a vast new range of places that previously could be summoned only in the realms of literature or the imagination.  That exposure opened the way for places to be sold as the fantasies they had been, so as not so spoil the illusion held by those who ventured there (the publication of Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind brought in 1937 tens of thousands of Tara-seeking tourists to Atlanta, where a cottage industry sprang up selling the city's real and fictional history).

Mass tourism demanded adventure and authenticity, yet also risk-free environments and a certain measure of the comfort of home, which partially explains the rise of what architects call "place-product-packaging" in roadside America.  The concept, applied first to gas stations in the 1910s, motels in the 1930s, and fast-food restaurants in the 1950s, was to create a familiar place, connoted by brand names and recognizable standardized architecture, where travelers would find a product that was as metaphorically close to home as the familiar brands on supermarket shelves. 

These places had little relation to the setting in which they were built; they created their own environment, which flourished or perished depending on the national company's ability to sell the brand.   Hence was born the branded landscape, where a riot of monotonous variety was brought to towns grand and provincial alike, turning streetscapes into serial repetitions of logos and building designs, drafted en masse in some distant office.  Just like a brand, which one marketing expert defined as information that is relayed to the consumer, "reducing or eliminating the need to find about a product before buying it," the branded landscape holds no surprises-it is landscape that reads to one rather than being read by one.

By now, the branded landscape has moved far beyond gas stations and motels, into spheres of human activity one might have thought beyond the reach of franchising.  It has permeated the most distinct quarters of the country, turning memorable townscapes into a predictable sea of identical coffee shops, bookstores, children's play spaces, back-rub parlors, faux diners, and nature stores.

As the outcome of social organization, it is not surprising that the contemporary built environment speaks of interchangeability, displacement, and mobility-where houses once had attics and flats above the garage in which to keep long-term family possessions and members of the immediate family, people now rent "self-storage lockers" near the less upmarket strip malls and move the elderly to "senior living centers."

 Since Levittown, housing developments built on Taylorist logic have been the domain of a handful of large developers and energy company subsidiaries. Housing is casually referred to in the real estate press as "product," and in the frequent reporting of "new housing starts" there is a further echo of Detroit:  the numbers once given of cars rolling off the assembly lines. And the housing market is contracting even further, a trade journal reported, with mergers looming as companies seek regional diversification to meet the 20% annual profit returns expected of any other respectable exchange-listed firm.

One place is The Crossings in Mountain View, Calif. - Photo by S. Buntin.


"In our days," Karl Marx once wrote, "everything seems pregnant with its contrary."  So it is too with our conception of place, and nowhere is this contradiction more evident than in the nation's cities, long a tangled object of societal contempt and admiration.  The next-wave theorists noisily herald the coming collapse of the urban form, as people, in the words of George Gilder, "choose to live anywhere they like while working with anyone they please on the Net; they will leave behind crime, crowds, and corrupted schools, they will flee cities."  Yet urbanity continues to exact a tremendous pull on even the most devolutionist digital imagination: from Computer City to Silicon Valley.

William Gibson claims that the World Wide Web "is happening the way cities happened... It is a city."  The Web, for all its placelessness, fetishizes location-"sites" and "areas" are visited, users are "@" a certain "address," "chat rooms" are entered. And so too are cities yearned after as places, even as the Republican suburban majority legislates the city into slow fiscal oblivion.  Cities respond by remaking themselves according to that kind of exterior mythmaking, reifying urban phenomena in low-risk, high-concept conceits:  instead of cafe society we have "Cafe Society," a cafe in midtown Manhattan whose wall signage announces that it "is about breaking down the barriers that artificially separate humanity" (just like the original cafe society did, presumably without advertising that it was doing so), or "Public Space," provided by the Sony Corporation, also in Manhattan, where the social conventions that once governed urban spaces are replaced by polite tabletop lists of regulations.      

As we grope toward place, we find fiction.  During the Sunday morning TV chat shows, ads show yeoman farmers-the symbolic backbone of the Republic-in Grant Wood surroundings, using geosynchronous technology to help fertilize their tracts; never mind that the sponsor is the sort of agribusiness concern that has in fact made the family farmer obsolete.  As the scorched-earth development of "Edge Cities" blights farmland and woodland with its low-density drone, to the joyous hymns of economic growth, our citizenry ventures forth in ruggedly outfitted vehicles to celebrate the bounty of nature in distant parks, where a temporary thrall in the wondrous splendor of the country's Arcadian foundation induces a mourning for its loss nearly everywhere else.

The hunger for place is perversely backgrounded by a proven preference for the system of standardized convenience that has helped to imperil it.  To reconcile the psychic tension between those two poles, the notion of place, freed from its traditional moorings, has become a carefully packaged product.  If we once sought to keep the "machine in the garden"-Leo Marx's phrase for the survival of pastoralism in a mechanical age-it is now more apt to say that the machine makes the garden possible; or even that we have drifted so far from industrial and pastoral that either can "take place" only in theme parks, museums, and preserves. 

Cities long ago stopped being physically advantageous centers of trade and have instead become a nexus of images and slogans, traded intensely in the market of perception, which help them rank high in corporate site selection and livability indexes.  Las Vegas, a metropolis founded on the fantasy environment, is the country's fastest growing city.  Its "New York, New York" casino recreates the New York of the visual imagination, while the real New York slouches towards Vegas with its themed extravaganzas and new family-style tourist image.  The Mobius exchange of images and themes is due to come full circle when the planned Las Vegas theme restaurant is built on the "New 42nd St." 

Another place is Old Town Suisun City, Calif. - Photo by S. Buntin.This is how places are now fabricated, a process as conducive to its times as speculative mapmaking was to the age of Vasco da Gama.  Place has become but another nondurable good in the info-tainment economy, as witnessed by the American television producers who flock to Vancouver, where shows "set" in U.S. cities can be filmed at a cheaper rate and with no sacrifice of realism.  If manufacturing operations can easily be sent abroad, place too can be outsourced to the most favorable nodes of the global economy. 

These diffuse phenomena are signal events in a moment of historical transition.  While on the surface they are testaments to the primacy of place, what they unwittingly suggest is that place as it was once known has already been eradicated.  Taken as a whole, the grassroots attempts at making place are less coordinated than those global forces that undermine locality, and often the places that are now celebrated are themselves a product of the same forces, just as they were when John D. Rockefeller was helping to build Colonial Williamsburg and Henry Ford founded Greenfield Village. (When a car manufacturer pines after the pastoral America his invention has helped to eliminate, the shadow of historical eclipse has been fully cast). 

The corporate housing developers, who indirectly bring upheaval to established communities by siphoning people and tax dollars into subsidized sprawl on suburban peripheries, nonetheless expertly tap into the craving for place and community.  An ad for a New York State housing development boasts that it is "Westchester's fastest growing community," as if there weren't some inherent tension between the stability that healthy communities require and the social and infrastructural strains that come with a vast influx of new residents. The community's name, "Heritage Hills," confers an instant history that is as patently absurd as the "old-fashioned" pitch used to sell machine-made bread. 

In the former "New Town" of Valencia, California, where the idea of community is summed up in concepts like golf-oriented "lifestyle villages," the promotional literature speaks of new neighborhoods being "introduced" and "released" like new brands of breakfast cereal being thrust upon a test market.  In a video for Valencia, the voice-over narration that accompanies a set of grainy, black-and-white home movie images asks "are you yearning for a place where childhood was a time of innocence?"

Place, like memory, grows more potent with distance, and a bit of conjured nostalgia can give invented or vicarious places a startling reality and resonance beyond that of experienced places, as well as establish some psychic foothold-a coherent narrative-in a world whose space and time is mediated by distant and unknowable forces.  Yet if place was once able to trigger memory, today it is often the perceived memory that triggers the place, hence CityWalk in Los Angeles, Chicago's Navy Pier, and New York's South Street Seaport.  The hunger for the "real thing," those places draped with actual historical connotation, can reach absurd dimensions, summoning a frantic desire to stop time and history.  

There are few contemporary themed places that usher in the kind of reverence heaped upon places associated with the past, regardless of whether or not those places are authentically of the past (Valencia as a town didn't exist in the 1950s, yet their promotional video leads off with the home movie footage of that era).  The shock of the new is no longer the new, for that is what we as consumers have come to rather wearily expect; rather, it is the past, with its simpler narratives and inferred sense of place, that has the ability to epater la bourgeoisie

Another place is a new subdivision in Golden, Colo. - Photo by S. Buntin.


Perhaps articulating a sense of place is only possible when it is gone, when, like a memory, it has slipped into the past, safely removed from the needs of the functional present. As Proust wrote, "remembrance for a particular form is but remembrance for a particular moment."  The problem in considering place is not only its sheer abstractness-it is at once as brutally present and ineluctably distant as the global economy-but the sense that it is perpetually in media res, that, like history, it shuffles along faithfully in step with its own teleology. 

The language surrounding so many historically preserved sites suggests that they just happened , before they were ossified in amber as a "historic place" precisely by being taken out of history.  The inability to think of these places as once having been active agents is at one with the inability to confer a future history on places that are now active agents, and so, grafted onto the landscape is a universal template of convenience and evanescence. 

This feeling is intensified by the experience that place, like time and history, has never moved so fast as in this century, and especially since World War II, after which 75% of the nation's housing stock was built.  As much of that housing hurtles towards its Detroit-worthy planned obsolescence (there will be no This Old House in the future for the suburban houses of today), and the impermanence only heightens with the surge in "manufactured housing," the preferred tag of the mobile home industry, which now accounts for nearly one-third of new housing.  Suburbs spawn other suburbs, and the land-use patterns spiral out of proportion to increases in population. 

It is as if the building of the interstate highway system, with its emphasis on dispersal and connectivity, forever made place only an interruption of motion, the ancestral hearth reduced to a billboard's promise that "If You Lived Here, You'd Be Home Already."  The completion of the highway led the landscape historian John Brinckerhoff Jackson to comment that "a landscape tradition a thousand years old in our Western world is yielding to a fluid organization of space that we as yet do not entirely understand, nor know how to assimilate as a symbol of what is desirable and worth preserving."

Place-both in the imagination and on the map-is being radically reconfigured, and the implications are too important to be left to the arcane proceedings of geography journals or the wall texts of conceptual art; rather they lie at the heart of so many social concerns, from the welfare of workers to the rise in wealth inequality, and underlie so much of our social vocabulary (such as: redlining, zip-code marketing, redistricting, white flight).  For the shock troops of corporate managerial philosophy, place is an outdated notion, a barricade in the bandwidth that impedes the proper functioning of global business. 

William Knoke, in Bold New World , enthuses about the "promise of placelessness" augured by the twenty-first century, as musty location-bound institutions like church and family are whisked into the vaporous pull of the data stream.  With the goading banter common to leadership texts he notes that "most, but not all of us, in industrialized countries will enter the realm of placelessness over the next two decades; some trailblazing organizations and individuals already have."  Loss of place, while enabling one's credit card to be "everywhere you want to be" and one's package courier to deliver "the world on time," engenders nothing good for the average worker.  For isn't the workplace everything, from "workplace safety" to "organizing the workplace?" 

Yet another place is a new residential neighborhood in Westminster, Colo.

Judging by corporate relocations, the ability to change place more quickly has nothing to do with benefiting workers.  Those who move capital and labor around the globe revel in mobility; those who do the work and generate the capital know it better as displacement.  As yet, a picket line cannot be laid across a fiber optic cable, and no matter how wired the world, place is still the prime determinant in the physical organization of class and racial difference. 


Why have most consumers decided that homogenous, locality-defying environments are places?  In a recent survey of home buyers in a gated community, 57% said they agreed with the statement, "I'm tired of the sterile uniformity of most suburbs."  But still they bought. Was it simply because the market made nothing else available?   Or have we largely decided that no matter how sterile or uniform, these suburbs adequately serve our need for place, whatever that is now taken to be?

Place, despite its illusory permanence, is  not an immutable and canonical constant: what is reviled today may one day be sanctified. Emerson once wrote that while to some the new factory villages and railways may have been an interruption of the "poetry of the landscape," it may also have been the case that these "works of art" were "not yet consecrated in their reading."  To argue that we have given up on real places risks missing the obvious: that someone who works or shops at a suburban chain retail outlet probably considers it just as valid a place as the general store their forebears may have frequented 100 years ago.

Planet Hollywood, Las Vegas casinos, and CityWalk are, in the spirit of this age, revered places; conversely, there are but a handful of contemporary libraries, courthouses, or office buildings that warrant a second glance.  What we need is a new way of thinking about place in a placeless age, a way to turn the confining gesture of "knowing one's place" into a liberatory promise, a way to demarcate-and not retreat from-a world whose blurred contours of time and space resist focus. 

This last place is in Tualatin Commons, Tualatin, Ore. - Photo courtesy of City of Tualatin.

We pin great hopes on place: that it will hold our history and shared traditions, that it will provide a safe haven in a world of flux, that it will ensure social cohesion (as in the confidently drawn borders of nations), that it will define who we are.  What is lost in the overarching prescriptions of what place should be or how the disappearance of traditional place will corrupt society is the fundamental precept that we all inherently make our own places, as transient as time or as lasting as our lives.  This truism escapes the real estate developers, who hawk places where the American family will miraculously be able to flourish, seemingly out of the soil itself; and many of the philosophers of place, who hinge social betterment on the simple task of tearing down what is ugly and getting back to a time and place most of us never knew.


Tom Vanderbilt is a contributing editor to I.D. and The Baffler, and author of The Sneaker Book: Anatomy of an Industry and an Icon (The New Press, 1998). He is currently working on a book about the architecture of the Cold War.
Print   :   Blog   :   Next   



Boyer, M. Christine. The City of Collective Memory. Camridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994.

Daynard, Jodi, ed. The Place Within: Portraits of the American Landscape by Contemporary Writers. New York: W.W. Norton, 1997.

Doheny-Farina, Stephen. The Wired Neighborhood. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996.

Knoke, William. Bold New World. PLACE?: Kodansha, 1996.

Kunstler, James Howard. Home From Nowhere: Remaking Our Everyday World for the 21st Century. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996.

Longing and Belonging . Exhibit Catalog for SITE. Santa Fe, NM, 1995.

Vitek, William, and Wes Jackson, eds. Rooted in the Land: Essays on Community and Place New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996.


Home : Terrain.org. Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments.