I woke up in my new Knoxville home, rolling off the tattered mattress pad serving as my temporary bed onto the laminate wood floor, covered in a layer of dust.
What was this barren room? I had left my comfortable, cozy, love-filled Michigan home to move South and start a new adventure, but in the early morning light the emptiness of this new habitat was overwhelming.
Restructuring your entire life has a way of bringing your values—and neuroses—into sharp relief.
I was frantic those first couple of days, insisting on unpacking each box, hanging each painting, arranging each book on a shelf. I couldn't handle living in a half-lived-in place. (My cat couldn't handle it either: She dove into an uncovered AC vent and remained there for an entire day. My certainty about her tragic demise did not help my already stress tangled brain.).
As the dust from moving settled—and was Swiffer-ed up in my cleaning spree—I felt myself relaxing into this new space. A few weeks in, I found myself nestled into a cozy nook of my room, cat on my lap (she decided against living in the AC vent when she realized there was no food there), reflecting on what made me so hectic those first few days.
Moving, for me, was an experience filled with breaks. I sold my house. I said goodbye to friends I had shared a home with for four years. I said goodbye to colleagues I had shared a profession with for eight years. I stepped off the path of a career I had been dedicated to for over a decade. I left a city I had invested in. I paused the narrative of my life, swerving off the plot line that had been developing for so long, back to the brainstorm phase that I hadn't seen since high school.
So, I needed stability. And the only controllable element in those first few days was my living space. I set up my furniture, finding comfort in the pieces that provided continuity from my Grand Rapids history to my new Knoxville endeavor. I placed plants around the room so I could cohabitate with and be inspired by their growth, progression, and resilience. (Remaining alive requires grit and determination, especially when you are a succulent under my care.) The essence of a place is its feeling, so I appealed to all senses: I lit candles and incense, hung artwork, and laid a soft blanket on my bed.
Comfortable, grounded, soft, cozy, intimate.
Yet, no place is completed only by holding feelings. It must also hold memories, and in a new space those memories must be co-created. I'm so grateful for my housemates, who have filled the space with laughter over ridiculous tactics to remove a cork from a wine bottle and comfort found in hugs for late night tears. Our porch has been blessed with candle-lit dinner parties, weekly yoga practices, one-woman dance parties and a cohort of star gazers.
The memories are pouring in, filling the emptiness so exposed in that early morning sun's unforgiving brightness.
What does this intimate account have to do with placemaking on a larger scale?
Any place—be it a bedroom, a home or a city—needs similar things. Just as I needed stability, a city needs organization and structure. Some regulations, roads, building codes, and zoning laws to define where things will happen and how development can go forward. The city also needs life, in the literal sense of greenery, plants, and nature, but in the figurative sense too. Festivals, celebrations, spaces to exalt are integral to making a place filled with vivaciousness. Creativity and art help to instill positive feelings into a community and can completely transform an alleyway from creepy to cultural, an electric box from mundane to eye-catching. Finally, the city too needs memories. It needs its history—to know where it's coming from, what it's building on, who its downtrodden have been and currently are. And then it needs to create new memories. Invite those downtrodden to be part of the creation process. Expand the definition of who the place is for. Allow all to come together in their place which they serve, because it serves them.
I feel lucky, as I settle in here to this AmeriCorps, Knoxville, Southern, scruffy, brainstorm-stage of life. I'm an explorer in this terrain, searching for new landscapes, documenting my travels, and deconstructing the culture of this life phase. I've learned a place is tangible, yes.
But the feelings and memories you place inside the structure are the things that truly put it on the map.
Connie Flachs is a West Michigan transplant who has fallen in love with the beauty and community of the Midwest. A passionate communicator, she connects with others through the mediums of dance, writing and activism. Connie is the co-founder of Better Body Image Conference, a nonprofit that advocates for valuing and respecting bodies of all sizes and shapes. She has danced professionally with Grand Rapids Ballet for eight years and performed as a part of various community projects including ArtPrize, the Rapid's Wave commercial, Embody GR's Dancing with the Stars, Fountain Street Church, and Eclectic String Music Ensemble. Her curiosity has pushed her to pursue an associate degree from Grand Rapids Community College and a bachelor's degree in Community Health, Nutrition and Sustainable Food Systems from UMass Amherst. She's excited to see where her thirst for learning and wanderlust leads her next and always up to meet new people over coffee. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos courtesy of Connie Flachs.