Know Where You Live

There is a creeping sense of sameness in most North American cities and towns. We’ve been unable, or unwilling, to resist the hallmarks of suburban sprawl: box stores and malls, with their cookie-cutter appearance and mass consumer goods, have homogenized our cityscapes and our individual sense of style.

Municipalities are concerned about their brands, as well they should be.  As potential visitors consider their vacation options, as businesses determine where to locate offices, as associations choose convention sites, the attributes of the local brand weigh heavily. The city that doesn’t know and can’t effectively promote its brand is destined for anonymity.  But in their excitement to position themselves as the next “city of the future”, many municipalities fail to consider the value of a backward glance.

Knowledge of local history should be the foundation of any well-differentiated municipal brand identity, but the historic environment is usually an undervalued and vastly underused asset. Retaining a community’s local colour, conserving its treasures, and marketing its unique stories doesn’t just keep blandness at bay. Because authenticity is a prime measure of worth in any brand, it is a very effective selling tool.

A grand narrative without local relevance is like a shopping mall map without the “you are here” arrow.  That arrow is local history.  It might seem unlikely that New York City’s world-famous identity could ever come under assault, but even the Big Apple can suffer when local history is neglected. One defender of that history, the New York Historical Society (NYHS), exhorts New Yorkers to “Know Where You Live.” This message may not, unfortunately, be heard for much longer.

New donors have enabled the NYHS to escape financial instability, but at a price: jettisoning its city emphasis so it can “think big” and participate in the telling of grand public narratives.  There’s nothing wrong with setting local events within a broader context.  But critics point to an NYHS exhibition that has been expanded to illustrate the national scope of slavery, instead of focusing on slavery in New York City. To concerned stakeholders, this proves that the new mandate minimizes local events and leaves New York’s history underrepresented.

Another place where municipal identity is neglected is our own capital. In a series of recent columns on municipal museums, Ottawa Citizen columnist Randall Denely noted that city museums don’t give the city’s history “the treatment it deserves.”  The estate of Braddish Billings, the American-born pioneer who was first to carve a farm out of Ottawa’s wilderness, is described as “casual” and “amateurish,” a “pretty package” that doesn’t tell an effective story.  Colonel By’s Commissariat Building that supplied the building of the Rideau Canal – now the Bytown Museum – is ideally situated to tell Ottawa’s early industrial and military story, but Denely says it is equally ineffectual. And no one even seems to know whether the city archives, about to be evicted from their present location, can be moved into a suitable environment.

Clearly, city leaders don’t understand the value of local history as a tool for understanding the city’s identity and promoting its brand. Ottawans should “know where they live,” but Ottawa’s story has been drowned out by the grand Canadian narrative.

Municipalities need a better model. Ottawa, and cities like Toronto that recently have jumped on the brandwagon, can look to the Boston History Collaborative (BHC): a partnership of civic and business leaders who know there is much more to Boston than the Tea Party, the Kennedys or the Red Sox.

Boston may have launched America’s grand narrative, but it also risked being swallowed by it. Brands fail when they lack authenticity, but also when their attributes aren’t effectively communicated. The Boston History Collaborative keeps local history alive in order to develop new convictions about what Boston stands for: a world-class city of firsts in patriotism, healthcare, science, technology, the arts and education. BHC succeeds because it educates local businesses about the strategic benefits of aligning themselves with the local Boston brand and, through their efforts, the task of telling citizens “know where you live” becomes self-sustaining.

Not long ago, National Geographic Magazine named Vermont as “one of the top destinations in the world for its preserved rural character.”  But last spring, the National Trust for Historic Preservation put Vermont on its list of “endangered” historic places because of Wal-Mart’s plan to “saturate” the state with seven megastores.

Wal-Mart may run a brilliant business, but its supersized developments have hurt small communities. National Trust officials fear that if Wal-Mart’s plan is executed, the characteristics that define Vermont – historic towns, quaint villages and pastoral landscapes – will be lost.

What does the public want?  The Wall Street Journal derides Wal-Mart’s opponents as Boston’s and New York’s “Birkenstock set” who use the state is a weekend paradise.  Lost in this debate are Vermont’s less influential permanent residents, the Journal contends, who “are expected to forego low prices and variety” that urbanites take for granted.

Vermonters, native or otherwise, are acutely aware of the benefits of their local identity.  They know where they live. Are they prepared to sell out their state’s local colour for low prices and convenience?  I’ll put my money on them voting against jeopardizing their legacy. They will think twice about undermining the small, yet vital, historic main streets, which the National Trust has helped revitalize.  Local history is worth defending. As one pundit wrote, “Nobody is going to mail home a postcard of a Wal-Mart.”

(Originally published in Muse (Canadian Museum Association), November 2004)

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