Creating a sense of place

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Jan. 25, 2007

Dear Julie,

If the head of the American cultural body is New York City and San Francisco the heart, the Midwest is its solar plexus. Art originates in the midsection. It flows out from there, like a river.

In the chakra system, the second chakra is the seat of sexual and creative energy, the place where wonder is experienced. The third chakra, nearer the solar plexus, controls our ability to connect and belong. It's all about emotions.

Lots of artists have belonged in the Midwest: Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton and Jackson Pollock. Musicians, too: Louis Armstrong, Fats Domino, the Neville Brothers, Elvis Presley, B.B. King, Johnny Cash, Tina Turner and Chuck Berry. Writers who have hung out in the middle of the country include William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams, T.S. Eliot, Jack Kerouac and Anne Rice. It's no coincidence that many lived along the Mississippi River. Writers, artists and musicians have always loved rivers. Rivers are spawning grounds for creativity, maybe because they nourish and purify like art does.

Garrison Keillor lives on the Mississippi River. For a while he moved his radio show to New York City but eventually returned to Minnesota. Something about Minnesota evokes Lake Wobegon. Something about New York City does not.

Art, even the most abstract kind, evokes a sense of place. And what is a sense of place but an emotional attachment?

I've been thinking about attachments as the city begins revising its blueprint for the future. Comprehensive plans always include goals and objectives for land use, community facilities and services, housing, transportation, recreation and historic preservation and the economy. Usually absent is a vision of what the community wants to become over the next 20 years.

Here's mine.

Two tests should be applied to every part of any such plan: Does it improve the quality of life of the people who call this home, and does it preserve whatever makes Cape Girardeau Cape Girardeau?

The planners should keep in mind that people are drawn to green places and the river.

And that everyone benefits from living in a community that values the youngest and oldest among us while creating places to play and opportunities for those in the middle.

Most cities want more shopping malls because of the revenue, but shopping malls don't have a sense of place. Downtowns do.

Like many cities' downtowns, Cape Girardeau's fell into neglect when the chain stores moved in on the interstate. But the city's downtown remains beautiful, in part because it's walkable and has a sense of community. Much more could be done by the city to improve the quality and quantity of the housing stock, the key to restoring the downtown vitality.

The city has taken big steps in recent years. We have a new bridge connecting us to the rest of the world and finally have the beginnings of a public transportation system. A new performing arts center opening in the fall will be a home to artists and people who want to become artists. It will become a place the rest of us can go to be nurtured. A destination library is proposed, and a library branch on the south side of town is a major need. Also parks on the south side that serve people who actually live there.

For some time after moving back home from California, DC and I missed being there. But now I would miss being here. Being part of a community is participating in creating a work of art on a grand scale.

"Some luck lies in not getting what you thought you wanted but getting what you have," Garrison Keillor said, "which once you have got it you may be smart enough to see is what you would have wanted had you known."

Love, Sam

Sam Blackwell is managing editor of the Southeast Missourian.

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