October 09, 2017

Place Character, DIY Place Branding, and the Yinzernet

Colby (1)By Colby King

How do you describe the place that you live? Is your neighborhood friendly? Is your campus cool? Is your city hip?

The way we talk about the places we live both reflects and contributes to their place character. This concept is often a little tricky to understand at first, but my students come to appreciate how it helps them make sense of how we socially construct meaning about the places in our lives.

The concept of place character emerges from the social constructivist perspective in sociology and, as Krista Paulsen explains, refers to the active creation of meanings associated with a place and the patterns in local social life in those places. Just like other social constructions, place character is in part formed through the various ways we talk about places. If you’ve ever described a place as hip, or congested, rundown, or friendly, you’ve participated in socially constructing that place’s character. Place character, then, relates to what Mark Gottdiener calls the socio-spatial approach to urban sociology, and relies on urban semiotics, or the study of symbolic social meanings applied to city settings.

One of the most vivid, and most fun, examples of an expression of place character is the “Dream of the ‘90s” video from the TV show Portlandia. In this video, Fred Armisen’s character from the sketch comedy show explains to Carrie Brownstein’s character that in Portland, Oregon, life is as if the 1990s never ended. Fairly or not, the video paints a caricature of a city filled with hipsters pursuing seemingly odd hobbies without apparent concern about their economic circumstances. Portland is “the city where young people go to retire,” Armisen explains.

Members of city government and other local institutions are often interested in trying to reshape the place character of their towns. To do this, they may develop what are described as city branding activities. City branding is typically an institutional, top-down effort to influence a city’s place character, with the hopes of making the city attractive to potential investors or skilled workers who may be considering moving to the city. The documentary World’s Largest provides several vivid examples of city branding efforts in American small towns, centered on sculptures which celebrate the towns’ character - examples include an apple, a boll weevil, and a buffalo statue. The place branding efforts are attempts to draw economic activity and they also illustrate how place character is constantly being reshaped – both deliberately and organically.

This is all related to, but not quite the same as the online videos created by Pittsburgh Dad and Greg & Donny. If you live in western Pennsylvania or are part of the Pittsburgh diaspora (people who have moved away from Pittsburgh over the past generation or so), you are likely already familiar with Pittsburgh Dad. Both webseries involve actors portraying and parodying characters of their parents’ generation, emulating the Pittsburghuese dialect and referring nostalgically to local characteristics of life in western Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh Dad, for example, roots for the Steelers and taunts his neighbor, Tom, a Ravens fan, every time the Steelers beat the Ravens. He also rants about the possibility of building a Pittsburgh sign at the top of Mt. Washington.

In our research, my co-author Laura Crommelin and I considered these videos as part of what we described as the “Yinzernet,” which we define as online representations that parody and celebrate Pittsburgh’s regional identity and distinctive local culture. Viewers in the diaspora may watch these videos to relieve their homesickness. For locals, they may be a way of expressing hometown pride.

Also, though, we think that these videos express a nostalgia for elements of the city’s older, predominantly white, working class culture, at a time when the city’s perceived character is transitioning from a rusty, industrial city to a hip tech industry hub. While the city of Pittsburgh has made branding efforts that celebrate this transition, we see Pittsburgh Dad and Greg & Donny as a form of do-it-yourself (DIY) place branding that emerges in conversation with new narratives about Pittsburgh’s place character.

How do you talk about the place where you live? Have you seen examples of place branding, or DIY branding where you live? How do these efforts impact how you think about this place?

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