Monday, May 24, 2010

Place Setting

Place setting: (noun) The locale in which an author selects his or her story to occur.

People get emotionally attached to the stories they read in print or see on television or in the movies. Some readers and/or viewers get so attached, they want to visit the location in which the story was set.

Tourism groups capitalize on such interest. The Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island still gets mileage from “Somewhere In Time,” an old movie with Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour. Marquette, Michigan still benefits from being the setting for the book and film “Anatomy of a Murder.” Seney, Michigan uses Hemmingway stories to draw tourists. Central Iowa cashed in on “The Bridges of Madison County.” Some communities in Kansas gave in and began promoting themselves based on “The Wizard of Oz.” Sometimes the tourists get ahead of the local chamber of commerce. Apparently fans of “Twilight” were flocking to the Pacific northwest looking for the story’s locales (those locales are now capitalizing on it).

Conversely, place-based fiction uses a place’s existing popularity as a hook for readers. A number of books are placed here in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and it’s fun to recognize familiar places in the stories. And it’s fun to live in a place deemed worthy as a locale for so many stories.

I have not yet heard of tourist agencies commissioning authors to develop stories just to increase tourist interest (i.e., a town’s version of the song ‘GTO’), but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that some have. I know of one university that only half-jokingly was encouraging an author to mention the U in his next work placed here in the UP and thereby getting some students to choose to come here based on that.

Place setting: (noun) The arrangement of plates, bowls, glasses, utensils, napkins and mats in preparation of a meal.

Riding the coattails of authors’ works can be a bonus but is probably not the best place-making strategy. Communities can write their own stories, so to speak. They can make investments that put the features in place to encourage particular activities for which their communities can become known.

A place can capitalize on a natural event. Birders are prime ecotourists (in fact, the Audobon Society has members leave calling cards at restaurants and hotels stating that birders are supporting the local economy). North Platte, Nebraska draws lots of tourists in the spring when the sandhill cranes are migrating through by the thousands. Whitefish Point draws some birders as well, but not as many as North Platte. Could more publicity work for Whitefish Point?

A place can become known for people activities. Interlochen, Michigan is known as a center for the performing arts, mainly due to the Interlochen Academy. Curtis, Michigan, a village up here in the UP, is hoping to take a similar approach, but without the academy. Curtis has invested in an arts center and is drawing artists and writers for workshops. Maybe it will become Curtis’ claim to fame.

It recently occurred to me that all of the Michigan waters from the tip of Whitefish Bay clear to the end of the St. Marys River are in Chippewa County. But it’s not enough just to say that we have these spectacular waters. We need to make investments that would support the ways in which people can interact with the waters and each other. It’s not ‘place making.’ The place is already here. It’s helping people take advantage of what the place already offers.

Place setting: (verb) Preparing a place for people to enjoy. Facilitating the interactions of people with the features of a place.

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