What makes a landmark? This question has been much on my mind this week as news reports of targets and strategic locations filled the airwaves. All landmarks must have visual impact to make them stand out from the surrounding landscape. Beyond the qualities of the structure itself, a landmark must be an icon for its place. Buildings, natural features, and public works of art can all serve as landmarks - and sometimes as targets - because of their symbolism for the people of the area. A landmark becomes imbued with meaning, often even beyond any original intent.
Back in September 2001, Al Qaeda operatives didn't select the World Trade Center and the Pentagon as targets simply because the buildings were big and easy to spot from the air. They chose to attack buildings that were seen as symbols of the United States and our country's position as the world's leading economic and military power. Short of attacking every American resident, they hoped that striking our symbols would cut us to the quick.
Inside the towering steel and glass walls, though, the stories of those who worked inside revealed a different story. Yes, there were stockbrokers and captains of industry among the victims, but just as many WTC workers filled in the rest of the socioeconomic spectrum, reflecting the polyglot diversity of New York City and the rest of the country. In that respect, the WTC did serve as a symbol of America, although the symbol had a different meaning for Americans than for the attackers.
The dean of cultural landscape studies, John Brinkerhoff Jackson, thinks the greatest symbol of America is neither a natural wonder nor a building, although it is made by humans. As our grand national landmark, he suggests the grid system of townships and ranges imposed on two-thirds of the U.S. land mass, thanks to Thomas Jefferson and his Land Ordinance of 1785. Anyone who has flown over the midsection of our country - or driven the perpendicular streets of Spokane - has seen the Land Ordinance at work. Debuting in Ohio and marching relentlessly westward across the continent, the grid inscribes survey lines upon the land, dissecting the country into townships six miles square. Subdivisions of each one-square-mile section - the quarter-section (160 acres) and the quarter-quarter-section (40 acres, otherwise known as "the back forty") - have entered our lexicon of both language and geography.
Applying Enlightenment rationality to a bumpy spheroid like the earth had some fascinating consequences, such as the problem of convergence. Lines of longitude converge at the poles, so township boundary lines drawn to true north would eventually be less than six miles apart as the surveyor moved north. Early surveyors solved the problem by jogging the north-south lines just a bit every few miles to correct for the earth's curvature while maintaining townships of six square miles. In Iowa, the town of Correctionville sits in the notch formed by one of these correction lines and in the heart of downtown stands a monument to the jog. Correctionville would have no raison d' & ecirc;tre if not as a concession to the curvature of the earth, and the town's central landmark states so with pride.
As war rages in Iraq, I can't help thinking about the ordinary citizens of Baghdad, those who've tried to carve out a life despite the repression. Even if the bombs aim to destroy only military targets, what is the psychological damage of seeing so many familiar landmarks destroyed, erased from the map, and reduced to memory? Bricks and mortar can be replaced, certainly, but landmarks become the vessels for our stories, our memories, and our lives. Can we still tell our stories when pages are missing?
Given the week's extraordinary events - and our celebration of the best aspects of our home region in this issue - it may be worth the time to pause and think about what the symbols of Spokane might be. The design for a proposed University District just east of downtown Spokane, covered in this space last week, features a basalt tower in the heart of the district. The tower would serve as a central landmark and public gathering space, and even perhaps a defining iconic image for the district. Landscape architect Elizabeth Payne and her students at WSU Spokane's Interdisciplinary Design Institute said the plan was an attempt to create "a sense of place in an area that hasn't had a sense of place in more than a century."
Mayor John Powers also recognized the need for a landmark to achieve a cohesive identity to the proposed district.
"I think a defining point is critical for a district," he said. "Downtown has several defining benchmarks. The first is the clock tower, in the heart of our central downtown park. The twin stacks of the Steam Plant Grill are another defining signature of downtown Spokane. The twin spires of the downtown cathedral, the edifice and the massive structure of the Davenport Hotel... all those things tell you that you're in downtown Spokane."
What do you think? Is there a landmark in Spokane that defines the city for residents and visitors alike? Let me know. Send your responses to firstname.lastname@example.org
Publication date: 03/27/03