Why Place Matters: Geography, Identity, and Civic Life in Modern America by Wilfred M. McClay and Ted V. McAllister, eds., (New York: Encounter Books, 2014)
In any collection of essays, the most important objective is choosing the right topic that will open up and stimulate further discussion. The contributors on their part must represent diverse views, yet propose solutions that point in the same general direction.
In this respect, editors Wilfred M. McClay and Ted V. McAllister achieved success in their excellent book, Why Place Matters: Geography, Identity, and Civic Life in Modern America. It is a collection that challenges the reader to enter into discussion, yet also points toward organic solutions outside the box of modern academia.
The subject matter of this book is very important: the notion of place in an increasingly global and digitally disembodied world. It strikes on a profound chord since the sensation of rootlessness and anomie weighs heavily upon postmodern society. Place really doesn’t seem to matter.
Modern technology and gadgetry have supposedly annihilated time and space. People no longer need places to call their own since it no longer matters where they live. Everyone is connected to their devices and supposedly “liberated” from the past constraints of traditions, family ties…and places.
However, this book proves the contrary. As Wilfred McClay notes in the introduction, “We stand powerfully in need of such stable and coherent places in our lives—to ground us and orient us, and mark off a finite arena, rich with memory, for our activity as parents and children, as friends and neighbors, and as free and productive citizens.”
McClay and McAllister invite the reader to consider what happens when there is no sense of place and all places are made to look the same. This becomes all the more necessary in a polarized nation where points of unity are lacking. And one of these points is the actual physical places to meet, converse and associate. There needs to be prolonged and committed dedication to place. Otherwise, cities are reduced to empty shells and homes become that which the architect Le Corbusier famously called “machines for living in.”
The contributors lament the ruin of so many American cities by rationalistic, postwar planners. Brian Brown notes that, “the rational planning model was based on the mistaken notion that science could be substituted for the practical knowledge of ordinary citizens.” He stresses the need for “the messy web of mediating institutions” such as families, churches and nonprofits that were sidestepped and normally help fill “the needs of belonging and participation.”
Christine Rosen points out the contradiction of modern mobility that avoids commitment to place as an expression of freedom, yet consents to be “tethered in novel ways—not to a hometown, or to a particular social background, but to our devices themselves” from which we are ”never disconnected, and never really free from the demands of daily life.”
The detachment from place is also the product of extreme individualism, since it incites people to withdraw from public or community obligations and engage only in the intensely narrow perspective of self-interest. Co-editor Ted McAllister explains how this failure to think beyond self-interest leads to an impoverished society where “the rich world of political and civil associations” is absent. Such a disconnect leads to a breakdown of civil engagement since one loses “the means of producing loyalty, a sense of duty, and a love of what is one’s own.” It prepares the way for the bureaucratic state to intervene.
Permeating the whole book is a respect for the organic nature of man. It is very natural for one to look for a place to call one’s own. It is a refreshing outlook that has long been abandoned by social planners and economists who see all things through an economic prism without any connection to society and place. In Why Place Matters, one finds a rare appreciation for beauty, providence and stewardship which are essential to making the concept of place attractive. The contributors tell of encouraging trends of people yearning for organic, place-centered practices that promote the “messy” way of doing things and which often prove much more effective overall.
Why Place Matters is a book that stimulates thought on what place means in today’s world. Not every contributor will exercise the same attraction upon the reader since the angles do vary. However, the work was itself the organic outcome of conference talks which reflect this variety. America needs more books like this that go beyond the superficial discussion of trendy topics or political scandals. What is needed is deep discussion about place and all those things that really matter.
Spero columnist John Horvat II is a scholar, researcher, educator, international speaker, and author. Recently his book Return to Order ranked first on Amazon in four countries.