Discovering our culture of people and place

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Discovering our culture of people and place

By Paul M. Bray

There is Culture and culture. Let me explain the difference so that the culture of where we live doesn’t fall from our consciousness.
The notion of American Culture is almost exclusively associated with fine arts and aesthetics. Many Americans act as if Culture belongs in a museum or concert hall rather than something we relate to in our daily lives. This has been supported by “authorities” who look at the past on the basis of aesthetic achievement. They use their specialized knowledge to value historic art and architecture based on artistic qualities. A rarified world of Culture has been created where most of us tread carefully if at all.

Another way of looking at culture is with a small “c” and to consider it as man’s total story revealed in the man made environment including objects and patterns of life like, for example, the culture of food. The culture of people and place includes the full story of our ancestors.

This came to mind as I finished Alexander McCall Smith’s book Espresso Tales with stories about the residents of a townhouse in Edinburgh, Scotland. The character Domenica talks about old days “when people in Scotland ate tatties and a pass”. I don’t know what tatties are, but Domenica probably doesn’t know Buffalo wings. I agree with her when she tells her neighbor we need to renew the bond between ourselves and our ancestors. She says, “It’s what makes us a people. It’s the knowledge of what they went through, what they were, that brings us together. If we lost that, then we’d be just an odd collection of people living on the same bit of land.

The connection with the past is fragile. With globalization Domenica asks “Who gains if we’re all reduced to compliant consumers, all with the same tastes, all prepared to accept decisions which are made at a distance, by people we can’t censure or control?

Europeans have high culture including great museums, opera and concert halls, but they are also acutely aware of culture in their cities, villages and landscape. The Council of Europe designated the whole of Europe to be a cultural landscape and directed European nations to survey, in effect, every square foot of land for its story whether it is grand or pedestrian.

Those in America who judge our past based on aesthetic or significant historic qualities would not approve of what the Council of Europe initiated. However, through our 19 state heritage areas (originally called “cultural parks” and celebrating their 25th anniversary this year) and a new notion of “cemetery tourism” we have ways to get a better knowledge of our ancestors and connecting with our own culture of people and place.

We are fortunate in our region that the phenomena of cemetery tourism described in the NY Times May 25th article entitled, “In Need of Income, Cemeteries Are Seeking Breathing Clientele” is present in two of America’s finest 19th century rural cemeteries: Albany Rural Cemetery and Oakwood Cemetery in Troy.

Rural cemeteries preceded urban landscape parks like Washington Park in Albany and in the 19th century they offered families a park like experience on weekends.

Today they still offer scenic landscape qualities along with a chance to see the final resting places of notable figures at Albany Rural Cemetery like21st President of the United States, Chester A. Arthur; Albany Mayor Erastus Corning II; architects Philip Hooker and Marcus T. Reynolds; and sculptor Erastus Dow Palmer. Oakwood’s gems include an overlook with a 100-mile view of the Hudson Valley and the Gardner Earl Memorial Chapel with Tiffany windows.

If we want to be more than an “odd collection of people” happening to live in the capital region, let us begin by discovering the region’s ancestors at the two beautiful and interesting rural cemeteries in our own back yard and at our heritage are visitor centers.

Paul M. Bray is Founding President of the Albany Roundtable civic lunch forum. His e-mail is