Audubon Terrace, the American Geographical Society, and the Sense of Place*

By Flad, Harvey K. | The Geographical Review, October 2004 | Go to article overview

Audubon Terrace, the American Geographical Society, and the Sense of Place*


Flad, Harvey K., The Geographical Review


John Kirtland Wright, in his centennial history of the American Geographical Society (AGS), Geography in the Making: The American Geographical Society, 1851-1951 (1952), described geography as a highly diverse discipline, eclectic in focus and scope. Wright was the librarian of the AGS from 1920 until he became director in 1938, a position he held until 1949. He was also elected president of the Association of American Geographers (AAG) in 1946. His presidential address was highly original, an intellectual tour de force that opened the door of the discipline to its humanistic roots. The address, "Terrae Incognitae: The Place of Imagination in Geography," was in many ways far ahead of its time, and it laid a foundation for intellectual inquiry in the discipline for years to come (Wright 1947; Lowenthal and Bowden 1976).

Two decades later David Lowenthal, research associate in cultural geography at the AGS, along with Yi-Fu Tuan, a geographer at the University of Minnesota, developed further a humanistic geographical focus in the discipline. While at the AGS, Lowenthal integrated environmental perception, environmental history, and cultural landscape in studies of the meaning of place (Lowenthal 1961). Contemporary geographical scholarship--the discipline in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century--is rich in such research, whereas academic geography from the 1950s through the 1970s was often too caught up in the positivist mode of analysis to consider seriously humanistic approaches and qualitative rather than quantitative methodology. Nonetheless, even as the "behavioristic spatial science" of the time held forth as the discipline searched for its "scientific" core, a "new geography," with roots in the cultural, historical, behavioral, and humanistic approaches of Wright and Lowenthal, emerged (Johnston 1991, 161-162). Place--and the human capacity to imagine and create a sense of place--began to emanate from the AGS's Audubon Terrace home in New York City (Figure 1) and enter the mainstream of geographical thought (Lowenthal and Prince 1965; Lowenthal 1968, 1975).

In the early and middle decades of the twentieth century, Audubon Terrace--named after the ornithologist John James Audubon, who had owned the land it occupies--held many of the elements of the "power of place" that Dolores Hayden (1995) ascribed to structures in the urban fabric. In the mid-1960s the terrace, on the west side of Broadway between 155th and 156th Streets in Upper Manhattan, became a constructed place in my growth as a geographer and in that of many other scholars. It thus became a significant link between the "profession" of geography as "notarized" by membership in the AAG and the geographical "imagination" that emerged at the AGS.

SERENDIPITY AND PLACE

In my many conversations with some of the most creative and original scientists and humanists, I have discovered that serendipity has as much influence on a person's life's passages as does hard work. Serendipity is not "luck" but, rather, being open to opportunity, challenge, creative questioning, and imaginative ideas. It was a serendipitous moment when I literally walked off the street into the AGS headquarters on Audubon Terrace in 1965, with no knowledge of what this "geographical society" was all about, and wondered whether there were the possibility of a job at the Society. I was quickly ushered into the office of Acting Director O. M. Miller (Figure 2), who was clearly surprised by my inquiry but remained unruffled. "Mait" Miller was one of the most unflappable of people and a truly warm human being, albeit somewhat opinionated. He was a major figure in the AGS's map publications and an honorary fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

With an undergraduate background in English and geology, I had just spent two years in Nigeria as a Peace Corps volunteer. During that time I had traveled through much of the continent and had often directed my travels to places that were on my mental map of Africa: the spot in the center that was Lake Chad; the Congo, so reminiscent of the mythic story of Stanley and Livingston; and following the journeys of Mungo Park in the very part of the continent I knew so well.

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