Place Identity| A Perspective



by Brendan Colgan

Identity is a very loose and elusive concept. As Erik Erikson – a  German development psychologist and psychoanalyst, known for his work on social development of humans and for coining the phrase identity crisis – once wrote “the more one writes about this subject [identity], the more the word becomes a term for something as unfathomable as it is all-pervasive. One can only explore it by establishing its indispensability in various contexts.” Therefore, we attach words like sexual-identity, ethnic-identity, national-identity, etc to help us narrow in on this ‘unfathomable yet all pervasive’ concept.  For Erikson, understanding identity doesn’t require understanding a definition; rather it requires an understanding of the environment in which this interplay occurs. Though Erikson writes within the context of “children and identity formation”, what he says about identity as a concept, in my opinion, holds universally true and is applicable to our understanding of places-be it a city, nation, or any other livable space.

Erik Erikson

As both a physical and metaphysical space, cities provide people with a platform on which they form individual and collective associations, which in turn become part of the way they identify themselves. Like the physical and metaphysical construction of cities, the identity of people who live in cities is both individual and collective. People have personal associations from experiences at specific places in the city, but there are also things that are built or created that are experienced by the city as a whole. People connect spaces to the environment, state, society, or organization that produced them. These spaces become a way in which experience their own identity as well as the identities of others.

Having a foundation, a reminder of history, that you can see every day is an important aspect of identity. But it is also important to see things that represent a city’s present identity. History strongly shapes present identity but it does not define it. Take Berlin for example, neither the Third Reich nor the Cold Wart define modern day Berliners, but their legacies still have significant implications for their present and future identity.

A beautifully designed government building demonstrates the way members of city  individually and collectively make associations and form identities, as the architecture, richness of materials, and historical significance of the building’s invoke a sense of pride and affluence to native viewers. To understand collective identity, one has to examine the relationship between a physical space and its multiple metaphysical symbolic meanings to different people. A city, as well as a nation or state, creates a sense of political and financial stability through the aesthetic qualities of a government building, which are also invoked as a reflection of the quality inside.  The building may have existed for hundreds of years, but its quality and symbolic design elements will always be representative of the integrity and values of the current establishment. Of course, buildings are not the only factors that instill a sense of socio-economic stability in us, but they are nonetheless a tangible manifestation of our sense of place.

There is a reason that when terrorists attacked the United States on 9/11, they selected targets that represented our nation’s financial, military, and leadership strength: the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and as many believe had it not been averted, the Capitol or White House. It was a physical attack on citizens and resources, as well as an attack on American identity through the destruction of physical spaces held collectively meaningful by Americans and non-Americans alike. The two planes that hit the twin towers destroyed the physical structure of the buildings. Although the structures no longer remain, Americans remember the towers’ significance as a symbol of global financial strength, and since their destruction, have since assigned new identities to the towers. They are now also symbols of sacrifice, resilience, and patriotism.

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