A Sense of Place in Retail

A Sense of Place in Retail

For my concentration, I am studying a mixture of finance, economics, marketing, and philosophy. The reasoning behind my concentration is that in order to better understand the concepts in economics and finance, one must also understand marketing and philosophy. Traditional valuation cannot monetize or interpret factors such as trends or externalities. Other factors such as growth potential must be valued with some creativity. Philosophy and marketing allows me to understand consumer behavior.

The reason I took this class was perhaps not in Gallatin, or at least Gallatin student, spirit. I wanted to better understand retail environments. What makes a store special, what makes a store fail. However, I have found much of what I’ve done in this class to be about past memories. Most often, what makes a place special to me are the people in it and my interactions with them. The physical place is secondary. I only really notice it when it blatantly doesn’t work. When it does work, I hardly remember.

Bringing these ideas into a retail context show the importance of employees having communication skills. Making sure a client is at ease and can find what he/she is looking for is key. Interactive spaces can also make the experience more memorable. Or, when spaces help to solve a problem such as Nordstrom implementing new technology allowing retail associates throughout the store to ring up customers.

After our discussions of placelessness, it became clear how easy it is for many stores to become undifferentiated. Target has been fighting this problem vigorously. While the exterior of the building remains bland, the company has taken great measures to distance itself from the likes of Walmart. Target maintains a distinct red color scheme, has more elegant displays, and has begun differing decor within the store based on each department. The new Urban Outfitters in Williamsburg, Brooklyn has taken extensive measures in place making. The store is a departure from typical Urban Outfitters in that it calls itself a marketplace. The exterior of the building remains mostly unchanged from the original machinery building. The interior of the building is modern and glassy but also made with reclaimed wood and recycled materials. The shelving and furniture are all vintage pieces. This is in efforts to put its customers and ease, to make them feel at home, or at least their aspirational home.

We have had many discussions in class of ideal neighborhoods, buildings, etc. While we may not be able to agree on a solution, we can recognize that there have been many failures. The generic strip mall store has nothing compared to the flagship M&Ms store in Times Square. Other examples of stores that have a sense of place are the Apple store on fifth avenue, or, for me personally, the vintage store– Retro Genie in my hometown. These stores have a sense of place because they work logistically and are visually stimulating in their architecture or merchandising. They are places that allow for positive association, something that creates brand loyalty and trust. So, while I am not be entirely altruistic in my studies, I’ve still learned to understand and appreciate what makes a space special.

The Academy at Charlemont

The Academy at Charlemont

I went to a small high school of about 110 kids, grades 7-12. My graduating class consisted of 16 people, including my twin sister and myself. The school was founded on integrity and community. Classes were never larger than the size of my grade. The school had an honor code which was taken very seriously. This meant I could make up a test alone in the library and no one would worry whether I would cheat or not.

The school is nestled in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts. It has two buildings– the arts building which contains a pottery studio, music rooms, a dark room, as well as a couple offices. The main building has classrooms, a library, a lunch room, and a hall for lectures or plays. The two buildings were erected in the early 90s. Both buildings are utilitarian without any design flourishes as the school had very little money when building them.The grounds of the school consist of a small playground, a gazebo, and two sports fields. 

The spirit of my school, The Academy at Charlemont, is not contained by its buildings or some room. As small as the school is, it exists to serve a huge variety of interests. In my graduating class alone, there were people going to college for music, visual arts, engineering, architecture, and humanities.

The spirit of my school manifests each day in what is called morning meeting. Students gather in the lunch room. The headmaster does attendance by asking each grade to report who is missing. After this, students and teachers alike are free to make announcements. If it is the day following a sports match, students from the team will rise and give a report of the match, complimenting those who performed especially well. There are reminders for things such as blood drives, community service events, school dances, and more. Students even make announcements of lost articles.

I think this meeting represents my school so well because it gives a taste of everything the school does. It also shows how fairly students are treated by allowing them to make their own announcements. For me, my high school experience was not determined by facilities or a small group of friends but rather by the deep sense of community within the school.

Chance Encounters

Chance Encounters

In June of 2014, I moved to 19 Halsey Street. Situated on the border of Clinton Hill and Bed-Stuy, the street and its neighborhood were entirely new to me. Tree-lined, quiet, and welcoming, I was thrilled to call the place home. When my roommates and I were moving in, a neighbor helped carry our things upstairs.

As the year progressed, the neighborhood became familiar. It was a comfort to talk my street, to go to the nearby cafe. I found my favorite nearby restaurants and bars. I found the right grocery store, the right amount of time to give myself when commuting into Manhattan. The neighborhood started to make sense. It all worked.

The apartment itself was great, too. I had a large bedroom furnished with antiques I found in my hometown. I had a private bathroom with a tub, tidy roommates who I considered my best friends. My only problem was my job; it was a boring, unfulfilling retail position but at least it paid well.

Towards the end of the summer, I was walking back to my apartment after work. Before I crossed the street I heard someone shouting my name. To my amazement, it was Willow. Willow and I went to the same high school; she graduated a year earlier than me. My school has a graduating class of about 16 each year. To see anyone, even in my hometown, is an oddity.

Willow and I stood there for a while. We asked about each other’s lives and quickly found we both live on Halsey street. Even more amazing, we both live between Bedford and Nostrand Avenues. This launched a conversation about the neighborhood. Willow was equally enthusiastic about it. We shared where our favorite spots were, how quick the commute is, and how we couldn’t see ourselves living in Manhattan again.

I was never close with Willow but it was surprising how similar our lives had become. Our apartments were both furnished with antiques, we chose the neighborhood for the same reasons, even shopped at the same grocery store. I wondered if this is a product of having a similar upbringing or perhaps complete chance.

Whatever the case, running into people in this way I think is completely of New York. It’s happened to me many times. I run into an old coworker at my new job, a different high school classmate happens to be waiting in Grand Central the same time I am. In New York, you create so many connections with different types of people. You also have people you meet from outside New York coming into the city to visit. These factors, plus the fact that New York is so dense, makes chance encounters seem odd when really it’s a natural part of living in the city.

Disorienting Change

Disorienting Change

The closest mall to my childhood home is the Hadley Mall. It houses major chains such as Best Buy, Target, and JCPenney. The  main attraction is its movie theater. A cinemark with about 20 theaters– the only chain movie theater within a 30 mile radius. Within the mall there are smaller stores, mostly chains, such as American Eagle, Gamestop, etc

The building itself is peculiar. Thinking about it now I cannot imagine the shape of it; it is just a blob with doors and not many windows. The entire building has a uniform buffer of parking lot surrounding it. My only reference points are store entrances and exits to the highway. The hallways in the mall are characterless. The dull beige tiles and fluorescent lighting create a plain uniformity. There is a faint radio or some sort of music always on. It is so quiet that it becomes white noise, adding to a feeling of monotony whenever visiting.

For me, the true placelessness of the mall is that it is always undergoing minor changes. The small stores sandwiched between the large chains never seem to stay for longer than a couple years. Whenever I come home from college and go to the mall to see a movie, one store has closed and something else takes it place. These stores are never anything I shop at. It could be a Pac Sun, a gift shop, or a Bath and Body Works. The stores are always low- to mid-priced, always having a sale, and always half empty. In the concourse of the mall there are small carts that always change, too. They could be selling lotions, phone cases, or jewelry.

Out of this constant flow of change creates a feeling of mindlessness. I never take my time to notice a store and by the time it inevitably leaves, I can’t remember its name. This constant change is discussed by Edward Relph. At first, it may seem counterintuitive: that change would make somewhere memorable. When something changes, I notice it. It creates a memory. However, when the changes keep coming and coming in the same place, the memories start to bleed into each other. On top of that, you have no reason to hold onto that memory of change.
I guess placelessness in a mall is to be expected. How could a mall ever be memorable or create a sense of place? Especially in an indoor setting where the stores only have the ability to customize their displays rather than designing an entire building. I also begin to wonder if a mall even needs a sense of place. It isn’t meant to be a special place. That’s not what people seek; they are there to shop. I think a sense of place develops naturally, in places where it’s meant to be, not a mall.

32 Conz Street

32 Conz Street

There is a house that has been in my family for over 180 years. It was built in 1828 by a well-known mason who then sold it to my family. Every generation on my father’s side of the family has lived there. Even myself, for the first couple years of my life. The most peculiar thing about the house is its shape. It is round.

After walking past the house, one would guess it is made of cement or stucco. In reality, it is made up of bricks that are covered with a greyish plaster on the outside. In the rear of the house, there has been a small addition and garage built in the early 20th century. In the original part of the home, there are four rooms on the first floor and four more on the second floor. Each room has a fireplace although only two still function. The floors are old, scratched hardwood and they all slant towards the center of the house. The basement is dim, somewhat musky and uneven. There are large wooden beams supporting the house. The floor is poured concrete that has many cracks and bumps. There is an old furnace left there after the new one took its place.

While the interior of the house may be nothing unusual for a home built in the 19th century, the exterior is unlike anything in the town or anything I have seen ever. Why is it round? The history of this house is not completely clear. It is such a cornerstone of my family’s history that the stories I hear often feel exaggerated or romanticized. I will tell you the story I have been told.

Before the house was built, there was a terrible flood that destroyed many houses. The flood was violent and the surge of water crushed the sides of houses. Given this, a builder set out to create a house immune to water surges. By making the house round, the water would simply flow around the house. A few years after the house was built, there was another flood. Now since the house is still intact, I assume it must have survived that flood. This was confirmed to me when one day my father showed me an image of one of my distant relatives in a small rowboat. I cannot remember my exact relation to him or the year but the man is eye-level with the second floor of the house.
Shortly after the second flood, the city commissioned a dike to be built to prevent future flooding. That dike was erected in the backyard of this house. Now, when looking at houses in this neighborhood, it is unthinkable that such a devastating flood is possible. Back then, it must have been a concern of many. Beyond appreciating this house for its shape, I love that it has a reason for it.

Accepting the Vernacular

Accepting the Vernacular

The vernacular of Northampton, Massachusetts, the place I grew up, is hard to characterize. As I have discussed in previous posts, the town is very old, dating back to the 18th century. Its population has remained relatively the same for over 40 years. It avoided the suburban boom. Many of its houses were built in colonial times and the roaring 20s. The vernacular of the area is that of diversity. Its main street features independant retailers and restaurants. Its citizens are liberal and many belong to the LGBTQ community. If one goes to Northampton seeking the vernacular on a country level, it won’t be found here.

A nearby town, a 15 minute drive across the Connecticut River, contains what Northampton is too embarrassed to have. Here there are malls, strip malls, chain stores, megaplexes, fast food, and anything else a typical suburban town would contain. Interestingly, Hadley itself is far too small to support so many chains. The neighboring towns account for much of its business. Those two towns are Amherst and Northampton.

Both of these towns pride themselves on their individuality. Both are college towns with bustling (for their size) town centers filled with unique shops and restaurants. In Hadley, the number of chain stores vastly outnumbers the independently owned ones. It’s important to note that Amherst houses the University of Massachusetts (UMass). UMass enrolls nearly 30,000 students. This creates essentially a third minor city in the surrounding area. It contains students from many backgrounds and thus it makes sense there would be a strong desire for chain stores because they are familiar for many people.

The local vernacular is the town center of Amherst and Northampton but the country-wide vernacular is Hadley. It’s a strange juxtaposition that couldn’t exist any other way. If parts of Hadley were to assimilate into Amherst and Northampton, the towns would lose their character. I think of the existence of Hadley as a compromise. The neighboring towns recognize that what Hadley provides as a necessity but keep it just far enough away to preserve the sense of place in their own towns.

Subscribing to Suburbia

Subscribing to Suburbia

In April of last year, I visited a friend in Texas. More specifically, a census-designated place called The Woodlands. Conceived by oil kingpin George P. Mitchell, The Woodlands was meant to entice people from the city with suburban life and a sense of belonging. The community was intended to range from affordable to expensive, houses big and small. It would also comprise of shopping centers, offices, entertainment, etc. It was meant to be a community which had everything- one’s personal and professional life, all in one area. Building began in the late 70s and continues today.

The friend I visited is a former banker turned writer. He moved here after being sued over a non-compete contract. His father had retired in the area. To occupy himself he bought a steak restaurant. A year later he sold the restaurant, married a cocktail waitress, and was expecting a child.

Driving from the airport, I started to get a feel for what the Woodlands was. We drove past wide boulevards lined with office buildings, we passed a large commercial center with shopping and restaurants, eventually we made a couple quick turns and pulled into a cul de sac containing large, similar brick homes.

The next day we take the baby in the stroller to walk to a restaurant. My first thought was why not take the car? It was a typically hot texas day. John assured me it was walkable. The first leg of the walk felt normal, typical sidewalks in suburbia. 10 minutes later, the sidewalk inexplicably ends. John leads me down what seems to be a grey area of two houses’ yards. This leads to a dirt path. The next bit of walking is unpleasant. Loud cars race past us as we make our way. I’m amazed his baby isn’t crying yet. Eventually we have to cross a wide, busy street that has no crosswalk. There, we walk through a large, half empty parking lot and make our way inside the restaurant.

The madness of walking to a restaurant no more than a mile away from John’s home was one of numerous reasons why The Woodlands didn’t make sense. It just never felt quite right. There were wide rivers that were not for swimming buy kayaking was allowed. There were mexican-irish restaurants, office spaces built next to vacant office spaces, and wide grassy areas only open when there was a musician.

My problem with The Woodlands was that it felt like to be a part of its community, one had to accept its rigid standards. Its spaces felt so one-use-only. Sidewalks were basically decorations. If you wanted to go for a walk, you had to drive to the park. All the restaurants closed at the same time. The movie theaters all played the same movies. The community only works for a certain type of person and it makes no effort to bend to suit others.

John is an outlier of The Woodlands. He doesn’t accept its norms and is always against its current. That’s a tiresome way to live. Like many other suburbs, to live there one has to allign with its culture. I know I say this as a young, naive college student but living in an area like The Woodlands where most of my lifestyle decisions are already made for me sounds abysmal. I would take chance and freedom any day.

Bed-Stuy's Troublesome Expansion

Bed-Stuy’s Troublesome Expansion

I live in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. In recent times, it has experienced massive levels of gentrification. The prices of homes has surged. There are new construction projects littering most blocks, some additions and remodels but also many completely new constructions; new constructions replacing old brownstones. There are new restaurants, most of them more expensive than their predecessor. I am a sign on gentrification, too.

Reading Jane Jacobs’s Downtown is for the people, her critiques and descriptions of a changing downtown are so alike what is happening in Bed-Stuy, it’s uncanny. Near my apartment, there are two main streets that are commercial hubs: Fulton Street and Bedford Avenue (The Bed in Bed-Stuy). Fulton Street is the grittier of the two. It is the street subway passengers exit onto. It houses many bodegas, low-end chain stores, as well as more high-end commercial sites such as a health food grocery store, a wine bar, and a french restaurant. Bedford Avenue seems only have a couple bodegas and a grocery store until recent years. There are no old, large commercial buildings. Now, it contains multiple cafes, restaurants of varying prices and cuisines, and multiple bars and small concert venues. 

Jacobs argues for planners to not simply consider a building or a block but to consider the entire street. The new construction on both Bedford and Fulton is largely awkward. It looks completely out of place. On Bedford, there is a new apartment complex; it is modern with boxy windows and plain concrete. It has been there since before I moved to the neighborhood, about eight months ago. On the bottom floor of the building, its commercial space is still vacant. The building is large, approximately six brownstones wide. I use brownstones as measurement because that is what lines the rest of the street. They have divided the space into two commercial units. The problem with this is that there are no other spaces like that on the block. I don’t think anyone knows what to do with so much space. I imagine the space is more expensive than space below unrenovated brownstones. This means it would be a huge gamble for a restaurateur to occupy the space. In one of the other new constructions on Bedford Avenue, one business took the risk of opening in its large commercial ground floor unit. The business is a strange combination of cafe, copy center, package shipper, and most strangely of all a sewing bar where people can rent sewing machine workstations. I hardly see anyone in the store. Just like Jacobs said for streets, large open spaces are undesirable in urban areas. No one knows what to do with them.

The biggest culprit of the wastefulness of open space is a commercial development on Fulton Street. It is a U-shaped building with offices on the top floors. The ground floor is only half-occupied. The restaurant that occupies it is not a fearless Brooklynite opening their first restaurant but an Applebee’s. Jacobs states the exact same thing in her book: new developments will be occupied by chain restaurants. It is completely unsurprising. The building itself has a large courtyard that is perpetually unoccuied as Fulton street is loud and busy making for an unpleasant place to sit and talk. The Applebee’s is large and half a flight of stairs away from street level. No other type of restaurant has the capital or ability to absorb that much risk than a chain restaurant. It does not better a neighborhood. It strips it of its culture. Its so frustrating because most of Bedford Avenue does it completely right. The businesses make good use of their buildings and only occasionally is there a modest remodel of a building in order to satisfy the needs of a commercial space. Bed-Stuy is not bursting at the seams. It does not need massive developments. The character of its old buildings is what brought me here.

False Landmarks

False Landmarks

During the winter break of January 2015, I spent two weeks visiting Buenos Aires with my friend Max. We went just the two of us without ever having gone before. We did not know anyone there or what exactly we wanted to do. We simply went. After doing some research, we rented an apartment on AirBnB in, based on our research, the young, bustling area of town.

Around the sixth night of our visit, Max and I went out bar hopping. We started by taking a taxi to a drum concert, about an eight minute drive. The problem with taxi rides, and Buenos Aires in general, is that it can be incredibly difficult to orient yourself. Aside from a couple fast, busy streets, most are small, winding and one-way. The architecture of the city is a mixture of old European and 60s brutalist. These conflicting styles change so quickly that there are few neighborhoods that can be defined by their architecture. 

The concert goes on for about two hours. There we meet some friends we made the other night at a bar. We enjoy a couple beers and as we are making our way out of the concert, I am careless and follow our new friends, not thinking about where we are going and where it is in relation to the concert venue or my apartment.

We go from one bar to the next. The people in Buenos Aires go out very late. It is typical, even expected, that one does not arrive at a major club until 2:00 am. Most of the bars feel relatively the same. There are flashy decorations, loud music, the same young, buzzing crowd. The walks between bars slowly become more and more of a blur. Like the architecture, even the sidewalks vary in their stones or paving. This makes it impossible to recall a certain street because each one has the same patchwork of stone. In the article by Emily Singer, she explains that the brain creates memories in place cells that give us a sense of place and way to navigate; that we begin to remember places and then piece them together with another memory, eventually forming a map. The problem in Buenos Aires is that the seemingly unique two types of mismatching sidewalk next to each other can be found two blocks away, or the European limestone mansion next to a 60s high rise building that seemed so distinct just simply is not.

Towards the end of the night I have to excuse myself. I had too much to drink and it was already 4:00 am. I am never out past 2:00 in New York. My friends tell me vaguely where to go. I am told a major avenue near my apartment, something that I would actually be able to use to get home, is near the bar. The instructions of how to get there though, are not clear. Leaving the bar, I try to reflect on my mental map of the city. During my walk, I see a couple landmarks I have stored in my brain. I keep walking and start to doubt myself. Was that the right gas station? Is it Arraoz or Arriz avenue that I saw before?

After twenty minutes of frustration, I hail a taxi. I tell him my cross streets. Two words I memorized as soon as possible. We drive in the opposite direction of where I was walking before. Five minutes later we reach my apartment. I thank him and leave embarrassed by having paid for such a short taxi ride.

Confusion in Direction

Confusion in Direction

Giving directions in my home town, a small city of 30,000, is not easy for me. It is a typically New England place with many colonial and victorian styled homes. The streets are winding and usually in need of repair. The traffic scant and drowsy, stop lights hold no more than a few cars. There is a city center. It has rows of townhouse-like buildings no more than six stories high. The center houses many restaurants and shops and is not more than a squared half mile. There are some small rivers but most are hidden by brush and walking trails. The major river, the Connecticut, is the dividing line between another town. Outside the town center, houses are spread out suburbia style. Even further out, there are farms and some large estates.

When I am asked to help someone with directions, I do not know where to start. For one, I know so few street names. The roads in my town are often short and often change name halfway down them for no reason. It could be Ryan road for half a mile, then after rounding a bend with no other streets or intersections, it becomes South street. Beyond that, there is only one major highway and when people ask for directions it usually does not involve it. There are some smaller state highways, although highway is not how I would describe them, that connect the neighboring towns. However, there are so many of them and they all have such similar names (W-40, W-42, etc) that I can never recall those either.

When I look at Lynch’s research and his five basic urban forms used to describe areas, I realize I do much of the same in my direction-giving. However, in a small city with no other city nearby, the directions become much different.

Paths are not a very reliable way to describe how to get somewhere. The only way I would describe a path is busy or not. I cannot use the names of paths. As almost all roads are the same two way, two lane, little traffic roads with a steady amount of curvature, they are hard to differentiate. There are no grids or major pathways.

The city has one main edge: the Connecticut river. This can make direction giving easy, but almost no one would ask for directions here because it is right off the highway.

Districts. There are three districts of northampton. The city center, the suburbs surrounding it, and the rural countryside. This may sound simplistic but keep in mind how small this town is. The drive from city center to countryside would take about ten minutes.

Nodes are where the city begins to make it easier for giving directions. Because it is old New England, many intersections are clumsy and do not make sense. Street lights are also infrequent which makes things easier. Certain nodes that acrew traffic are also notable.
Landmarks are what I use to navigate my city. I notice small things that are hardly even landmarks because I have been here so long. This makes me terrible at giving directions. I remember a street because one of the houses has a peculiar mailbox or another has a flower garden. There are other more typical landmarks like a baseball field or a school but those are infrequent. Giving directions in my city is hard but my map of it is clear, I just cannot share it with anyone else.


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