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.
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.
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
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.