Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Appeal of a Place, Three


Place may be the first of all concepts; it may be the oldest of all words.
-N. Scott Momaday

What we call the landscape is generally considered to be something “out there.” But, while some aspects of the landscape are clearly external to both our bodies and our minds, what each of us actually experiences is selected, shaped, and colored by what we know.
-Barrie Greenbie

The place-maker’s main objective is to speak the past into being, to summon it with words and give it dramatic form, to produce experience by forging ancestral worlds in which others can participate and readily lose themselves.
-Keith Basso

In The Location, The Luxury, The Life, Elizabeth Adams “lays bare the tactics used to motivate the purchase” of resort real estate. Although the book is a case study of her work for the Intrawest resorts, the same tactics were employed on behalf of another Adams client, Legasus of North Carolina and its River Rock development in Jackson County.

Adams devotes a chapter to several of the most powerful means of persuasion available to Intrawest. Reviewing the “fantasy lifestyle brochures” created for River Rock, you’ll find almost a carbon copy of the strategies used at Intrawest.

On Adams’ list, the first requirement in promoting a luxury resort is a stunning natural environment. Beyond that, Intrawest saw its role as transforming and improving upon such “diamonds in the rough.”

Book One of the “River Rock Story” opens with an account of the primal splendor of the Southern Appalachians. We learn that these mountains are “older, and once higher than the Himalayas…with hints of the tropics flirting with rainforests within a few miles of sub-alpine shrubs and evergreens….”

Man enters this “vast and unforgiving wilderness…is seized by the beauty, and awakened by the layered expanses of lush possibility,” suggesting that this diamond in the rough has not yet realized the potential that the River Rock developers recognize in it.

Adams identifies the next attraction of the themed resort development, the concept of a village and the experience of community. River Rock, like Intrawest, meets the need for something missing from the lives of the resort’s target audience:

It’s a place where the landscape connects rather divides households, where children play under the watchful care of the entire community, and despite its newness, where a strong and deep, or “thick” style of neighboring is practiced.

Purchase of a lot is not a lavish indulgence, but a way to bolster civilization:

The nature of River Rock as a community grew from the intangible beliefs and moral guidelines that have always drawn people here. Together, these form the values, or cornerstones of the community – the pillars that any civilization requires to be able to respond to the needs of its residents.

Adams explains how Intrawest creates several neighborhoods within its resort, “multiple places within a place.” This allows the developers to serve many different market segments at once, as each neighborhood appeals to a certain target audience at a certain phase in life. The concept is carried over in the neighborhoods that comprise River Rock:

Five fingers of property. One hand that joins them. Five different places that are really one place, a single community. Your house is at Bear Pen, mine is at Trout Creek, but River Rock is our home.

Real estate project names and themes, according to Adams, are chosen to resonate with potential customers. Generally, these take their inspiration from local culture and heritage or employ “the romance and strength of natural symbols to evoke atmosphere or status.”

Restricting this to the names of dining facilities at River Rock, we find:

Eyrie (‘eagle’s nest’), the Mountain Fusion Restaurant with adjoining culinary school at Grand Tuckasegee Lodge.

Lula Bar, the bistro adjoining Orion

At Trout Creek, in charming Skillet Gap, Copper John

The River Rock Clubhouse at Webster Creek is home to the Bear & Bridle

King’s House, the small diner at King’s Grant

Azalea’s serves Southern gourmet delicacies

Finally, Adams considers the emotional power of language and imagery. Intrawest was selling “an ideal of happiness” as much as it was selling real estate, allowing a person to invest in “both their financial and emotional futures.” Despite their children and their wealth, the target audience still felt a void, and sought:

emotional return on investment….For no matter how great the expected financial return…emotion drives the majority of sales, a realization most evident when one begins to browse the pathos-riddled brochures that turn prospects into homeowners.

River Rock reaches for the pathos by reprinting a song lyric from the band, Cullowhee:

So when my boys get old
Enough, and learn how to
Bait a hook and how to wade

I think I’ll take ‘em fishin’ and
Show ‘em where God stays

‘Cause they’ll never feel
more whole

Than when the whitewater
Rushes round their legs and
The mountains fill their souls

In a final chapter, Adams considers luxury living in the 21st century. How is the upper class changing? What will it demand in the future? To what degree will the bourgeois taste for fantasy shift to a desire for greater authenticity? Nothing in this discussion anticipates the imminent bursting of the real estate bubble. But a recent posting on Elizabeth Adams’ blog updates events:

When I first conducted this study of the new upper class and why they found the world of Intrawest resorts so appealing, the network was at its peak. That was 2004, before Intrawest founders sold the company to Fortress (August 11, 2006) and laughed all the way to the bank. The last chapter in the book deals with the whole authenticity debate; whether Intrawest’s signature ‘fantasy’ aesthetic could possibly have any staying power. Critics like David Boyle predicted a return to the real - a shift back toward the handcrafted, the handmade, the natural and imperfect.

Perhaps the reason for Fortress’s shares dropping from 18.5 when it went public in February 2007 to 5.5 by October 2007, then to an all-time low of 1.87 by December 2008 is more related to an imperfect economy. Still, I think Boyle has a point. I can’t help but wonder, when thousands of years from now a new civilization digs up the area where Tremblant resort once stood and finds all these brightly coloured bits of rooftop and whatnot amid such an obviously stunning landscape, what will they make of it? of us?

This mention of “authenticity” reminded me of that recent lecture on Cherokee ways of naming places. Considering their respective ways of talking about place, it’s tempting to view a strategic storyteller like Elizabeth Adams as the antithesis of the ancient Cherokee storyteller.

On the other hand, they both use language to describe the appeal of a place. They both use language to add meaning that enhances the appeal of a place. What we call Chattanooga was, to the Cherokees “Atsadi anugv’i,” or “a good place to fish.” Initially, the name identified how that particular location met physical needs for subsistence. Inevitably, the name carried connotations with emotional and even spiritual significance.

Is that so different from the way that Elizabeth Adams takes a trout stream in Jackson County and finds the words to give it a greater significance than it would otherwise possess?

It’s not simply a place to catch fish.

The native storyteller of old and the strategic storyteller of today would agree on that point.

Elizabeth Adams opened her book with a quote from Aristotle, the quote appearing at the beginning of The Appeal of a Place, Part 2. I’ll close with another reference to Aristotle, in a fine
article by Amy Langstaff, Silver Tongues and Other Sideshows”:

Aristotle wrote his seminal text on rhetoric partly as a rebuke to assumptions like these. He saw rhetoric being dismissed as an essentially fishy art, when in fact it could do noble work. "And if it be objected," he wrote, "that one who uses such power of speech unjustly may do great harm, that is a charge which may be made in common against all good things except virtue, and above all against the things that are most useful, as strength, health, wealth, generalship. A man can confer the greatest of benefits by a right use of these, and inflict the greatest injuries by using them wrongly." For Aristotle, the fact that rhetoric could cut both ways was precisely why it deserved careful attention.


Anonymous said...

Ms. Adams wraps herself in words as if sense and meaning were merely tools of persuasion rather than instruments of the truth. Her references to Aristotle are actually obscene given her penchant for creating illusion and naming it clarity. She defines and creates place the same way that Tolkein or Rowling created mythical worlds. The difference being is that she is seeking to neither entertain or enlighten but is in fact a literalist creating misdirection and obfuscation to serve as a replacement truth. This is the difference between ancient storytellers who wove myth as a way of explaining and informing and modern day PT Barnums who weave mythlike structures to advance venal personal gain and motive.
If the bonds that tie us together as humans are so cheap and easily created with flourishes of language then can they mean very much? The story of Cherokee place and culture and the history of the mountain families that succeeded them are cartoons when imagined as a simple creative story but they have intense and deep meaning when the interactions of generations build a fortress of connections. The bonds to cove and community forged over generations of contest between man and nature and interlopers and extractors are not simply a coat we can disappear under and come out as different people with different values and aspirations. For those who spend a lifetime acquiring tangible goods without regard to the connections and impositions of community there is no simple and easy way to say, " Now I will wear these intangible bits of meaning and soul and by doing so become a new and better (and presumably more satisfied) person".
When Adams admits her definitions are creations designed to portray and market then she also concedes that the comfort to be gained inside them is false and shallow.
She is a fabricator of the meanest variety. If ever there comes a time when the fools who conceived Legasus Developments are held accountable for their folly then justice would demand that Elizabeth Adams stand in the dock along with them and suffer the same judgement.
But Ms. Adams is nothing but a word slut, a dissembler for hire and a cynical one at that as her Blog posts prove.
What of those who come full of speculative zeal to manipulate markets without regard for community or context without regard for environment both natural and human? What of those like J. Patrick Kennedy, a coldly calculating engineer who's made millions in process management and seeks millions more in selling the good life? In his own words Mr. Kennedy tells us we are not good enough, that we need to market our major product - the good life that Ms. Adams so disingenuously weaves. Mr. Kennedy, whose nearly $40 million in transactions include selling to Centex then buying back much of that after their disatrous foray into marketing the good life, knows what is best for us. Mr. Kennedy, who disavows the damage done by bad design and thoughtless speculation, now seems to be woven into the thread of the Legasus story. What of men like him? Perhaps the light that exposes Ms. Adams and her whorish behavior can provide yet further illumination in uncovering those who see these mountains and their communities as nothing more than a commodity.

dwbrewin said...

Great discussion and comment. I've been watching the whole saga play out since we live at the end of Moody Bridge. I'd love to know if Elizabeth Adams got paid by Legasus since they stiffed everyone else that has done business with them.

dwbrewin said...

Yes, that is scary in that who knows what might be done with the land if all these different people end up with a piece here and a piece there.

I got some real insight into the Legasus folks when they had Phil Mickelson down for their dog and pony show. They used my neighbor's bush hog without asking his permission to clean up the area around the barn, they used another neighbor's old wagon that they took without his permission and they stocked the little pond with all these large trout so Phil would think he was in an angler's paradise. Then, they left them to starve as there is not enough in that small pond to support a large trout population without supplemental feeding. Another neighbor did find out about it though and at least the trout were put to good use by him and his family.

Anonymous said...

And here's another candidate for some spotlight - our very own Jay Coward.
The Coward law firm has long had the reputation for being quick with the quit claim in exchange for legal services. Might even be that the land they own near Legasus came along that way many years.
And Jay himself engineered many of the applications for vested rights that the county so happily approved. The three J's, Coward, Spiro and Dukes had a hand in that fine monument to weedy development that sits across from the Justice Center.
Of course who can forget one of Jay's greatest hits when he appeared tearfully before the Webster Town Board and bemoaned the horrible eyesore inflicted upon that fine upstanding burg - the old Penland chicken house. Yep, Jay knows all about what being a good neighbor entails - methinks he could stand a little cleansing sunshine in the dock with wordy Miss Elizabeth.

Anonymous said...

An unrestrained bravo to William's first comment. 'Dissembler for hire', indeed.


liz said...

dear william, dwbrewin, et al.,

as i was updating my blog i headed back to this blogspot to refresh my memory of gulahiyi's constructive critique and came upon your comments.

i always find it interesting how crass people (often shallow) tend to become when removed from the subject of their criticism by a computer screen and sense of anonymity. it was delightful to come across your name-calling and assumptions as to my character and intent. revealing, to say the least.

as for my supposed "penchant for creating illusion and naming it clarity," i wonder, if my writing about the area was read within a context of unbiased prose rather than an obvious sales tool, if your feelings would be different? i suspect they would.

i'm curious to know how you arrived at the conclusion that i am "a literalist creating misdirection and obfuscation to serve as a replacement truth..." are you saying the River Rock story is filled with lies? perhaps with works of such nature an accompanying bibliography of sources would not be remiss...

"What of those who come full of speculative zeal to manipulate markets without regard for community or context without regard for environment both natural and human?"

what of them indeed... one of the goals at Envisioning+Storytelling (the agency hired to create the River Rock story) has always been to push developers to do right by the land and its people. development is inevitable, yet conscientious development is a somewhat rare occurrence. as strategic storytellers, our mission is to guide developers toward a vision that is at once progressive and sustainable, forward-thinking and respectful. unfortunately, once the story is written and printed, our involvement ends. we are in no position to hold people like Legasus accountable for the final execution of their project. judging by your comments, it would seem they have deviated from their original, altruistic intentions.

in any case, being no longer employed by e+s, i am now in a position to choose my projects and for whom i wield my words. i don't know what you all do for a living, but positively influencing in any way i can the inevitable development of various natural and urban 'diamonds in the rough' remains one of the few ways i can see toward helping us get to a better place environmentally, culturally and intellectually. openly studying, learning from and critiquing my own work and its contribution is my way of remaining transparent and ensuring my own personal growth as a strategic storyteller.

to answer one of your questions, legasus did pay for the story of river rock, and from what i remember, the team was quite moved by the work. they did not pay me directly, but the agency i was employed by at the time, Envisioning + Storytelling, based in Vancouver, BC. feel free to tie them to your rhetorical whipping post as well, as i am sure you will find the entire agency equally deserving.

elizabeth adams