Defining Your Project

We've prepared this Toolkit for people who are strongly attached to a place. This section will help you identify the causes for that attachment and define for yourself and others why this place matters. Clarifying your interests will help you to pinpoint the most effective actions.

Places are frequently important for more than one reason and to more than one group of people. As you build your case, discover as many of the distinct reasons and stakeholders as you can. Paying attention to the many ways in which a place is valued, or at least perceived, will help you identify fellow supporters for protecting a place, as well as potential opponents.

 

Step 1: Does Your Place Matter?

Does your place have meaning to others, as well as meaning to you?

Plenty of places have private meaning for people; but in our work at Place Matters, we've found that places most likely to attract support for protection are those that also have public meaning. So an important initial question to ask is whether the place that matters to you also matters to others.  

The distinction isn't always clear; a first test is to consider if the place has meaning for anyone outside your immediate family or circle of friends.

If you care deeply about a particular place, the answer to the question of whether it matters as much to others may seem like a self-evident "yes," or even irrelevant. Still, we encourage you to consider this question honestly, and early on. It may save you many frustrating months of effort trying to save a place for which there are no other advocates.

Step 2: Identify Values

Articulating what makes a place significant is a key part of a successful project.

Place plays a critically important role in our lives but space and place are often taken for granted. The eminent geographer Yi-Fu Tuan wrote that place is "immediately lived rather than deliberately known." The emotions, memories, and sheer everyday-ness bound up in our experience of places can make it difficult to see and articulate what is important about them.

Places are frequently valued for several intertwined reasons that can coexist and complement each other, but also compete and cause conflict. For example, in New York City, as the rising value of church properties persuade authorities to privilege economic values and sell the land, neighbors and congregation members mount vigorous protests. In Queens, the future of a huge open space is contested because some value it for birding and others for ballfields.

Try to identify the reasons that your place is valued, and also identify the people who hold the values—the stakeholders. Doing this early in your effort will help you negotiate and frame the most effective advocacy strategies.

Based on the hundreds of places that have been nominated to our Census of Places that Matter, we have developed a few overarching categories that seem to describe the values people attach to places. You may find our categories useful, or you may develop different language from ours to express your vision about the importance of a place. The essential thing is to know why you care, because that will help you develop a compelling argument on behalf of your place.

Value: History/Memory

Places matter because they are tangible reminders of our past. When something very dramatic has happened on a site, it seems able to call up the past, to transport us to another time. Other places work more subtly; they may not be notable for a single historic event, but in their continuing existence they help us to better understand a time period, a social class, or a way of working, playing, or living. 

Places can be important for historical reasons even if the physical structure has been destroyed, or there never was a structure attached. Think of Civil War battlegrounds throughout the South; although often simply open fields, they carry profound historical and cultural significance. 

The Asch Building and Teatro Puerto Rico are examples of places that matter because of their associations with history and memory.  

Martha Cooper

(Former) Asch Building
Washington & Greene Sts., Greenwich Village, Manhattan

In 1911, the Asch Building was home to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory and site of the worst factory fire in New York City history. When fire swept through the building that year, 146 young female garment workers died—many of them leaping to their deaths when locked doors and missing fire escapes blocked safe escape. Public outrage swept the city, and while the factory owners received no greater punishment than fines, the event prompted the establishment of the Bureau of Fire Investigation with powers to improve factory safety, and helped spur the continuing organization of the city's workers, particularly within the garment industry. It is now part of New York University and called the Brown Building.

(Former) Teatro Puerto Rico
490 E. 138th St., Mott Haven, The Bronx

In the 1940s, Puerto Ricans began settling in the southern areas of the Bronx, in a sense, extending the borders of El Barrio-—the thriving community across the river in East Harlem—where more than half the city's Puerto Rican population lived. Teatro Puerto Rico was once a boxing arena that attracted Irish and Italian Bronxites. By 1948 it catered to growing numbers of Puerto Rican neighbors with Spanish-language variety shows that featured la música jíbara (country music), comedians, Mexican movies, and popular music stars such as Bobby Capó, La Lupe, Tito Rodríguez, and Tito Puente. The 2700-seat theater closed in the 1970s and is now a church.

Value: Longstanding Use

Places are also valued for the traditions that they harbor and enable, and the activities they host. In New York City, such places include Our Lady of Mount Carmel Grotto in Rosebank, Staten Island; or Bohemian Hall & Beer Garden in Astoria, Queens.

Even places whose physical presence is unremarkable can foster important traditions. The West 4th St. Courts, aka "The Cage," an outside basketball court in Manhattan, has sub-par courts but is enormously valued because for over thirty years, it has brought together some of the best street basketball players in the city. And while there are still places in the city to hear underground rock, few had the history or down-and-dirty, bare-bone ambiance of the club CBGB on Manhattan's Bowery, which was founded in 1973 and closed in 2006. 

Nathan's Famous is a place of longstanding use to several generations of New Yorkers. As you read about this place, think about the places in your community that may link people together in activities pursued over years or decades.

Nathan's Famous
1302 Surf Ave., Coney Island, Brooklyn

Nathan Handwerker started selling hotdogs from a stand at the corner of Surf and Stillwell in 1916, and in the 1940s the Handwerker family erected the distinctive and beloved establishment that still sells Nathan's hotdogs today. It has been called one of the best-known restaurants in New York City, and writer Calvin Trillin has described the Nathan’s hot dog as “the most quintessential representative of New York.” Its prime location near both the beach and the subway made Nathan's an essential part of every Coney Island visit. "Nathan's hot dogs only taste good you when you eat them at the original Nathan's," claimed one advocate.

Value: Community Enhancement

Some places may not host a specific longstanding use or mark a historical event, but they provide character, enhance the aesthetic beauty of an area, facilitate gatherings by groups, or act as local landmarks. A particularly old tree, a strange looking house, a wall mural, or a corner store where people play dominos: Such a place may have no "function," but community members recognize it as a valuable element of the neighborhood. The brick wall around St. Patrick's Cathedral in Manhattan is not only historic and lovely, but also adds immeasurably to the feel of the neighborhood and provides a convenient backdrop for social gathering.

Sometimes, these places matter because they represent an important service or achievement. Brownstone Books in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn is valued for being the first bookstore to open in the community in decades.

Hua Mei Bird Garden and the Calder Terrazo Sidewalk enhance life for local residents and businesses, and for passersby. Think about the places in your community that may improve local life in tangible or intangible ways. 

Hua Mei Bird Garden
Sara Delano Roosevelt Park at Broome St., Lower East Side, Manhattan

The Hua Mei Bird Club, an informal convocation of Chinese men, gathers here mornings, nearly daily, to share their passion for the exotic fighting thrushes known as Hua Mei. The birds are said to have come into fashion through the tastes of a particular Chinese emperor. Each bird has its own distinct song which changes—or is refined, some owners argue—when exposed to the songs of other birds. The pleasant, rectangular garden was purposely crafted for the Club's use in an inspired burst of community activism in the 1990s.

Calder Terrazo Sidewalk
1014-1018 Madison Ave., Upper East Side, Manhattan

Alexander Calder's terrazzo sidewalk is a unique work by an artist famous for his mobile sculptures. Installed in 1970, the sidewalk is 75 by 15 feet, and is made up of black-and-white parallel and diagonal lines and crescents. According to the nominators, the owners of three adjacent art galleries commissioned Calder to design their shared sidewalk. It is the artist's only sidewalk and his only work in terrazzo. It is installed in a part of town that was the center of avant-garde art before it moved downtown, when there was still a concentration of galleries that represented Calder.

What About the Economic Value of a Place?

You may well find that you must consider the economic value of your place, that is, its value as property. You may believe that its historical value should be weighted more heavily than its potential economic value, or that the historic or aesthetic value ultimately enhances its economic value. But it's unlikely that you can ignore its economic value to others. So, consider this aspect of the value of your place as early as possible in your efforts.

Step 3: Find the People Who Care

A place-based project will work best when backed by those who have an interest in the future of the place.

Who—besides you—may care that a place survives? Reaching out to these stakeholders and learning their varied perspectives on a place may foster surprising alliances, attract additional funds and supporters, and ultimately provide resources and open doors that will help you complete the project more effectively and efficiently.

At the very least, reaching out to others who care about this place will help you to determine where others stand on the key issues. You may discover that you have more allies in protecting it than you thought.

Here are some general suggestions for identifying stakeholders:

1. Identify the groups that use the place, have an interest in the place, or would be affected if the place were lost. In the case of Nathan's Famous, for instance, this might include:

  • The individuals and families that eat there
  • The people who work there
  • The residents and visitors who use it as a visual landmark
  • Historians of New York City
  • Tourism and economic development professionals

2. Try to be as specific as possible when you identify constituents. General categories (business owners, local activists) are less useful than detailed information (e.g., what kinds of businesses? activists for which constituencies and/or issues?). You may learn that the demographics are more varied than you originally knew.

For instance, you may believe that a particular corner store is of importance to the local Latino community, only to discover that its real relevance, more specifically, is to those community members who are from a particular village in Mexico. Or that the teenagers using a particular park are all skateboarders, for example, or students from a local high school.

3. Public spaces, in particular, can host the activities of multiple groups who barely recognize each other's existence. Cast your net widely.

Step 4: Identify Threats and Opportunities

Identify issues that should shape your campaign goals and influence your project timeline

Along with defining why you care and identifying your allies, you'll want to learn about any special threats or opportunities. We focus here on threats because so many protection efforts begin in the face of an immediate threat, such as the demolition of a structure. But it's worth trying to plan for long term viability. Doing so before danger strikes will help you avoid threats and recognize opportunities, such as the chance to obtain ownership of a property, or a grant that will pay for educational materials.

It can be useful to distinguish among three kinds of threats:

Threats to the physical structure or appearance of a place
Think about the physical structure of the place you care about, including the architectural details or design that lend it character. Is the structure under threat of demolition, or is it suffering from age or neglect?

Threats to longstanding uses or to the activities that take place there
Think about the activities that take place on the site. Is this what you most care about? It may be that the activities are threatened even if the physical structure is not. Dwindling community interest, increasing costs of operation, and zoning and legal changes that regulate permitted activities are among the many factors that can affect the continuation of longstanding uses.

Threats to the "meaning" or story of a place
The meaning of a place can be threatened not only by destroying the structure, but also by ruptures in historical memory. Think about the memory or history, that is, the story that the place embodies. Does this place convey a forgotten piece of our past particularly well? Do you care about the place because it's a reminder of past events that have been suppressed, or recounted incorrectly or incompletely? Is it the last place left of its kind?

These types of threats—to structure, use, and story—are often intertwined. Still, sorting threats into these categories can reveal priorities, which may help you if you are confronted with difficult choices. For instance, you may discover that you care as much about an activity that happens at the place, as about the place itself. Moving it to another site and sacrificing the place might be the best or only way to preserve the activity. Although we'll continue in this guide to speak in terms of protecting a place, the suggestions in this Toolkit can also be used in protecting an activity that matters to you and to others.

When considering both threats and opportunities, it's important to consider ownership. Assess how much control you actually have over what happens to the site, and plan your outreach and your project accordingly.

Step 5: Formulate Goals

Clear, written, specific goals for your effort can help you advocate more effectively for your place.

Consider your answers to the questions we have asked you so far. What values, stakeholders, threats and opportunities apply to your place? Based on this information, what do you want to achieve in your campaign for your place?  Writing down a specific, clear goal or set of goals for your efforts will help you form a deliberate plan for achieving them, keep your project on track, and explain and present your case to others for protecting a place that matters.

Often it makes sense to formulate a statement of goals with the help of as many stakeholders as possible, so that everyone's views are accurately represented.

Based on our experience with Place Matters, we suggest that one or more of the following three (sometimes overlapping) goals may provide useful starting points:

1. Preserving the Structure

Projects to preserve a structure focus on the physical aspects of a place, such as the interior and exterior architecture, craftsmanship, design, and decoration. These projects could take the form of securing ownership or financial support to restore or renovate a structure or prevent its demolition; obtaining official historic recognition in order to protect it; or expanding public appreciation of the structure.

2. Retaining Longstanding Use

Projects that retain longstanding use focus on the activities hosted by a place. These could include the "official" uses as well as more informal uses that have evolved over time. Such projects would seek to sustain use by shoring up finances, increasing the numbers of users, promoting the importance of the use, protecting or finding a new site for the use, and so on.

Gaining landmark status for the structure that houses the use is not included here because "use" is generally not a recognized criterion for landmark designation.

3. Interpreting the Story

Projects that interpret the story seek to let the public know what this particular place can tell us about our history. Interpretation is education. Interpretive projects can include: organizing walking tours, public discussions, and celebrations; putting up place markers; writing articles and books; publishing web sites. Some projects prioritize heightening local recognition of a place, while others seek broader recognition through strategies such as gaining landmark designation.