Historian McClay speaks on place

By Fleming Smith

Executive Staff

On September 16 in Guerry Auditorium, noted historian Wilfred McClay discussed the question, “Does Place Matter?” McClay argued that a concept of place is intrinsic to a person’s life and that above all, place is about connection. “[Place means] learning about your embeddedness in the past, in history, the ways in which you’re not, and never can be, a wholly autonomous act, but are enmeshed in the lives of those around you and those others who came before you,” said McClay to the audience.

McClay acknowledged that what “place” means has changed due to globalization. “To say that place matters is to swim against the most powerful tide of our time,” he said, referring to increased use of technology and global transport. “It sometimes seems as if the world is in fact becoming placeless,” he continued. “But place does still matter, and we ignore it at our peril. We are corporeal beings, grounded in the particular.” Place can be fundamental to identity, McClay argued, no matter how it’s interpreted—what matters is having an interpretation and finding those “particulars.”

Lacking a sense of place, often associated with being rootless, may even endanger sense of self. “We need places to be fully human,” said McClay. He noted that while technology may offer more resources, it can be dangerous to consider a website or media platform as an actual place. Doing so runs the risk of “forgetting the reality of our environment, of our connection to the earth” in McClay’s words. McClay also suggested that place is inextricably linked with being invested in the world as an active participant. “You can’t be a citizen without being a citizen of some place in particular,” he mentioned, continuing the theme of groundedness and belonging.

So how can place mean something once more? McClay recommended urban planning, creating the kinds of streets and neighborhoods that cultivate a sense of belonging. He especially bemoaned the destruction of old, historic districts in order to make way for newer and more modern designs. McClay argued that such renovations ignore the “human elements” of these areas. “You could spell out every aspect of place, structural aspects, and still not reach the heart of the matter; because place isn’t a logical, physical thing. It’s a spiritual thing,” McClay described. Any planning, he suggested, has to take the spirit of a place into account to be truly successful. “Place matters most when it becomes radiant and full of presence through the riches of imagination and memory with past, present, and future joining in unengineered harmony,” said McClay at the end of his talk. Place, he argued finally, should not be of dreams, but of realities. A sense of place can be cultivated by everyone because place can “take on a life of its own, a presence that no amount of forethought could ever see, and no machine could ever make,” said McClay. Above all, place allows for infinite possibilities of connection and belonging. “This is the imagination of placemaking,” said McClay with conviction, “and it’s a kind of everyday magic that cannot be planned, although it can be planned for, hoped for, and sought.”