Why We Study Place

There’s more than one way to understand a place.  In the last blogpost, we wrote about the isolation that comes from living by Lake Superior and how the isolation and a depression seems to live in the bones of Superior, WI.

A closer reading of other readings, experiences and Anthony Bukoski’s work brings out a few more themes – community and resilience.  Bukoski’s Ethel and Eddie danced, Thaddeus Milszewski took geology classes after he returned from the war, widows went on with life.  Nora, the bar owner in The Long Shining Waters took the Lake Superior Circle Tour after the loss of her Superior bar and encouragement of friends.  The bars of Superior are more than watering holes, they are communities where people share their lives and stories.

Barton Sutter in Cold Comfort says it best, “If you love an underdog, then you have to love that city across the harbor. And I do (p. 30).”  I see the people who work to make Superior a better place to live.  I see the community and spirit.  I know where to get good coffee and see friends and take photos of the broken ore boats.  Superior can reflect her harsh climate and has not only rough edges, but gems there, too – trails, Superior Municipal Forest, Wisconsin Point, the Red Mug and the Anchor Bar.  Superior, WI is a very unique place.  I’ve been grateful to give her some of the attention she deserves.

Which brings me to some of the ideas about place that we’ve been able to explore.  We started this project because we wanted to be able to understand how place is created by authors. Place is many things.  For this project, we are interested in place because of the emotional connections people have to place – places they know and love.

When we look at the world as a world of places we see different things.  We see attachments and connections between people and place.  We see worlds of meaning and experience. (Creswell, 2004, p. 11)

Our hope for this project was that we would help create a tool that could be used – as a pedagogy or as a data source – where people could look at their communities, either real or literary, and see a place that was living and breathing.  By stopping to identify the critical elements and describing a scene, the place would go from background to foreground and become a more visible element.  My reflection on this project is that it has worked.  Using places that we know because we have lived in or visited them was a very useful methodology.  It gave us a chance to compare the physical place to the literary one.

When we chose the books for the project, we picked the cities and books for particular reasons.  I chose Duluth-Superior because I don’t live in the Twin Ports, but spend a lot of time there.  Asking about the differences between Duluth and Superior of the locals was getting me nowhere, I had to get creative if I wanted to know more about life on the banks of the mighty St. Louis River.

I think I get it, now. Duluth is the big sister, very connected to the Lake Superior that is visible from most of the city.  It is a place where citizen groups build bike trails, black bears turn up in the parks a few times a year and there is a very big bridge.  People are attached to Duluth.  Superior, though, is different.  She is shaped by Lake Superior’s weather and conditions and the shipping industry, in spite of the invisibility of the Lake in town.  The bars are an important source of community and signs to decorate the landscape.  There are a lot of strong-willed, resilient individuals who are always fighting – life, the weather, the system, the war.  Even when they are not winning, they are fighting.

I’ve noticed that I look at Superior and Duluth differently – I’ve grown to appreciate them as separate cities, unique on their own.  I really appreciate Superior, maybe depressed, but unique in her own way.  That is one of the reasons we study place, to understand and appreciate.

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