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.