Last month, I announced the creation of a new semi-regular column here at York Staters: Stops Along the Way. The new column, of which this is the first installment, is meant to celebrate and explore the geography of our lives and especially those “little” places where, to quote the introductory essay, “we rest for a moment, gain knowledge, joy or assistance before continuing upon our myriad of journeys. These places are not destinations in the proper sense of the word, but are the planned or unintended links in the chain that makes up a trip.”
For this first essay, I want to explore further the idea of symbolic geography and how the identity of a community can be tied up in the places that make it distinct. In particular, I want to focus upon a new project from Traditional Arts in Upstate New York (TAUNY), a non-profit based out of Canton “dedicated to documenting, preserving and promoting the folk arts and folklore of New York’s North Country.”[i] This year, the organization began to put together a fascinating program called the “Register of Very Special Places” (RSVP).
The Register operates similarly to the National Register of Historic Places in that it is a selective listing of places of cultural importance that conveys certain tangible benefits and an aura of importance to the site. Individuals and groups nominate sites to both registers, gathering together necessary evidence and justifications for the selection committee.
Where the two Registers begin to differ is in what they recognize and celebrate. The National Register attempts to protect those places that witnessed events that shape the destiny of our nation. The RSVP, on the other hand, is in one sense humbler and in another of potentially much greater relevance to our daily lives. The RSVP, you see, documents and protects those places that make the North Country communities come thrive. They are living places, and the Register celebrates and protects our living present, not the memories of events in the distant past. As TAUNY writes:
Is there a place in your community that’s very important to local people? A place that’s been around for some time and would be sorely missed if it were suddenly gone. One that has its own stories to tell?
At TAUNY, we call such places cultural landmarks or “Very Special Places.” Around the North Country these treasures might include barber shops, fire stations, ghost houses, kids’ summer camps, a tree or boulder, a drive-in theater, general stores, hockey rinks, local diners, ethnic churches, a footbridge, roadside attractions, Grange halls, hunting clubs,, a public sculpture, a factory, school houses, etc.” (emphasis original)
TAUNY’s project is eminently local: submissions are done by local people—probably mostly amateur historians—and are judged by a committee also made up of locals. The State or Federal government are not involved, this is a recognition by a (relatively) small non-profit based out of Canton.
The benefits of joining the RSVP include: the sites profile being placed on an online gallery, copies of the submitted information would be placed in local libraries for community use and the site will be given an “attractive, locally crafted slate marker.” Listing also might be helpful in future applications to the National Register and could be useful in developing tourism.
The deeper benefit of the RSVP, and the one attractive to me personally, is that “your community will have the satisfaction of actively participating in preserving your local landmark and conserving your local way of life.” The Register is a physical recognition that our communities have lives of their own, that they are distinct. That Johnson City or Olean or Indian Lake couldn’t be replicated somewhere else. The combination of people, tradition and geography profoundly shape our characters as individuals and the lives that we lead. Instead of focusing upon the epic and distant—the National Historic Landmark or National Park—the RSVP turns its eye instead to the places in which we live. In celebrating our own lives, we in turn find ourselves empowered, realizing that we—and the places in which we live—are inherently valuable.
[i] All of the following quotes are either from TAUNY’s website or from their pamphlet “Register of Very Special Places”