The Meaning of Places

Let’s define a “place” as an ordered pair of two elements: a geographic element, the location, and a psychic element, the socio-psychological meaning a place has for the people who think it. Many locations aren’t places; undiscovered planets, for example, have locations but no places, since no point on their surface has a meaning for anyone. Likewise, many meanings are associated with things other than places; things like brunch, field trip, and diploma are ordered pairs consisting of a non-geographical object, event, or action and an associated socio-psychological meaning.

If we were to draw a crude Venn diagram, it might look as follows:


Let’s take a spot on the surface of Mars that’s been observed by the Mars rover; is that a place? If the rover sent back a photo (or some other form of data) of that spot, and a scientist saw it, noticed it, and committed it to memory, then it would fall at one extreme of the spectrum of places; it would be among the most meaningless of meaningful locations.

At the other end of that spectrum lie places we can call, for lack of a better word, extremely thought. These are places that exist in many people’s minds, and perhaps have strong metonymic associations. For example, Wall Street in New York is an extremely thought place. Millions of people all over the world have heard of it, know approximately where it is, and associate it with the financial industry.

As a side note, we could question whether metonymy can lead meanings to become abstracted from places. For example, Fleet Street in London has been associated with the national press in the British popular mind for something like three centuries, but in recent decades almost all the newspapers and wire services that were once based there have moved elsewhere in London and been replaced by other industries. Can we still say that a British person who refers to the press as “Fleet Street” is speaking of the place in London, as opposed to just speaking of the industry by a nickname? For another example, take Three Mile Island. Most Americans probably know it as the site of a nuclear reactor meltdown several decades ago, but how many of them know where it is? Maybe some know that it’s in Pennsylvania, but Pennsylvania is a big state. If Three Mile Island has a meaning for many people but few of them know its location, is it really the place that people know? There is a simple test to answer these questions: if a British person were to find themself on Fleet Street, or an American on Three Mile Island, would they consider themselves to be in the place they’d spoken of? Of course the answer is yes.

The example of Three Mile Island is instructive for another reason as well. It may be that a lot of people know it’s in Pennsylvania, but few know exactly where within that state. If it were in Philadelphia, though, surely a lot more people would know its location. This is because it’s a lot easier to know that something is in Philadelphia than to know that something is a bit south of Harrisburg. Harrisburg is not a very well-known place, and many of those outside of Pennsylvania who’ve heard the name probably only know it through memorizing state capitals. Another way to put this is that Philadelphia is a better landmark than Harrisburg, and a much better landmark than “a bit south of Harrisburg.” A landmark, after all, is basically a relatively thought place, as we’ve defined it.

Extremely thought places are not distributed evenly across the countryside, needless to say. In America, they are strongly concentrated in New York City, and this concentration has only increased over the past century or so. For example, shortly before the election of 1940, American publishing magnate Henry Luce could write that a potential uprising against President Roosevelt might be “infinitely vaster than Wall Street or La Salle Street or all such streets”; but in a 2010 book quoting that passage, “[the banking center of Chicago]” had to be added after “La Salle Street.” Although there are still remnants of LaSalle Street’s former reputation (for example, a college networking program for minority students interested in the Chicago financial industry is called “Diversity on LaSalle Street”), outside of northeastern Illinois few people have heard of it. It appears the American popular consciousness no longer has room for two streets associated with the financial industry, one in New York and one in Chicago.

In New York, though, and particularly in Manhattan, meaningful places are everywhere.  For example, take the following exchange from “The Simpsons,” in which Homer stops in at a rural feed store:
Farmer 1: Well, well. Look at the city slicker pulling up in his fancy German car.
Homer: This car was made in Guatemala.
Farmer 2: Well, pardon us, Mr. Gucci loafers.
Homer: I bought these shoes from a hobo.
Farmer 1: Well la-dee-da, Mr. Park Avenue manicure.
Homer: I’m sorry, I believe in good grooming.

Is there any doubt in the viewer’s mind which “Park Avenue” the farmer is referring to? Furthermore, you can imagine substituting “Madison Avenue” or perhaps even “Lexington Avenue” or “Fifth Avenue” without diminishing the accessibility of the reference. These grand Manhattan avenues are all associated with luxury, wealth, and status. Madison Avenue, as the title of “Mad Men” shows, is also metonymically associated with the advertising industry, just as a few blocks over Broadway is almost synonymous with musical theater.

And those are just the streets. New York is filled with other meaningful places, from Grant’s Tomb and Columbia University on the Upper West Side to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island in New York Harbor. There is a certain appeal, sometimes even a thrill, to being in an extremely thought place, which must account for part of the touristic appeal of these sites. Think of all the tourists, for example, who visit the Empire State Building but don’t go to the top. At its base, it’s really no different from any other building–except that few other buildings are known and thought about by people all over the country and the world. Similarly, there’s not much to actually do in Times Square, but it’s one of the city’s biggest tourist attractions simply because it’s so famous. When standing there, you can think to yourself, “I’m in Times Square right now, a place whose name I’ve heard since I was little, a place millions of Americans see on TV every New Year’s Eve.” It’s something like visiting the site where a popular movie was shot; the location acquires significance simply because it lives in so many people’s heads.

Cross-posted at Empire Avenue.

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