Monday, March 3, 2014

Dealing with those sense of place blues

            For some people, a community’s sense of place, those indefinable things that make it distinctive and give it character and authenticity, do not become important until that person moves. The American novelist and poet, Wendell Berry, explained why when he said, “If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are.”
Colonial home in Windsor, Connecticut in 1938

            When I moved to New York State from Connecticut 25 years ago, I had to jump two centuries to identify my new community’s sense of place. I had grown up and spent the early years of my adult life in Windsor, Connecticut, a town whose roots go back to 1633. That’s where I had bonded with the history of special places that the historian David Glassberg reminds us, serve as a crucial anchor for our personal identity in adulthood. When I moved to Malone, NY, I found myself in Franklin County, a county that had been formed in 1808. In order to identify Malone’s sense of place, I had to trade in Windsor’s colonial homes and town greens, for Malone’s Victorian painted ladies and business blocks. Windsor’s role in the Pequot War, King George’s War and the Revolutionary War, were exchanged for Franklin County’s role in the War of 1812, the Civil War and the Fenian Raids. The accomplishments of Windsor’s Oliver Ellsworth and Oliver Wolcott were swapped for the accomplishments of Franklin County’s Luther Bradish and William Almon Wheeler.
Main Street in Malone, NY in 1870

            I basked in Malone’s sense of place for over ten years before I moved to South Farmingdale, a hamlet in Nassau County on Long Island. Once again, I began to search for my new community’s sense of place. This was easier said than done because Nassau County had been formed in 1899, a few years shy of the 20th century! Everything seemed too modern to me. Most of the housing and business buildings in South Farmingdale had been constructed after World War II. Strip malls seemed to be everywhere. I wondered how I would be able to find my community’s sense of place in such a new county. Its history was very short. Everything seemed wrong. Where was I? Who was I?
            Investigation of local governmental authority yielded promising results. The hamlet of South Farmingdale was located within the town of Oyster Bay which had received its charter from the colony of New York in 1667. Despite this, the newness of Nassau County with its 1899 starting point continued to muddy my sense of place waters.
Business block in Nassau County, NY in 1957

            The answer to this perplexing situation became obvious once I focused on the specifics surrounding the birth of Nassau County. In 1898, the western portion of Queens County became a borough of Greater New York City. The eastern portion of Queens County not included in the city consolidation plan included the towns of Oyster Bay, North Hempstead, and most of the town of Hempstead. In 1899, the state legislature separated those three towns from Queens County and formed the new Nassau County. The hamlet of South Farmingdale, within the town of Oyster Bay, at one time had been part of Queens County which was one of the original twelve counties formed in 1683 in the colony of New York. If I thought about my community in those terms, I would be back in the 17th century where I started as a child. My new community’s sense of place could not be hard to find. I had been there before.

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