Source: EKU Special Collections and Archives Combs Hall 0001-016-00251-04
Posted by Lauryn N, Krasnopolsky, Morgan A. Yocum, and James N. Maples, RICHMOND, KENTUCKY -- In August 2013, Eastern Kentucky University (EKU) President Michael Benson announced several campus improvement projects designed to enhance what is known as The Campus Beautiful. The Campus Beautiful is a term used since 1917 to describe EKU’s breathtaking architecture and landscaping while building a strong sense of place attachment between the campus and the community, faculty, and student body. President Benson’s projects included a new pedestrian entrance way that will replace Combs Residence Hall. Combs (as it is called by EKU students) was located along a busy and highly visual stretch of Lancaster Avenue leading to downtown Richmond. Combs has been home to over 50 graduating classes of EKU students, each generation with memories of this place. In his official announcement of the improvements, President Benson stated that:
“We have talked about the three P’s of people, programs and place. A sense of place and making our campus even more beautiful and welcoming is a significant part of the educational enterprise. The way we present ourselves says a great deal about how we feel toward this institution and our daily work as stewards of the University.”
The authors of this article fully support President Benson’s proposal and appreciate the recent renovations to our shared Campus Beautiful. As sociological thinkers, however, we do note the renovations as an interesting tension between two competing definitions of place: place as experienced by EKU students living in Combs Residence Hall and place as experienced by the university in the form of The Campus Beautiful.
Originally named Earle Combs Hall (after New York Yankees baseball player and 1919 EKU graduate, Earle B. Combs), Combs Residence Hall first functioned as a female residence hall for 242 residents. President Robert R. Martin had Combs built in response to a rapid period of growth at EKU. Combs later became a men’s dorm (aptly called Men’s Dorm #3) before transitioning to a co-ed residence. It was renovated twice to update its technology and infrastructure, first in 1984, and again in 2004 before being slated for demolition in 2013. Active demolition of the building began on October 6, 2014, and concluded around December 1, 2014. A Twitter account (twitter.com/EKUBuilds) followed the progressive demolition of the building while creating excitement about many other renovations occurring on campus.
Exploring the strain between destroying the old to build the new is an important part of understanding the differences between place and space. Place indicates emotional attachment and meaningful connection between a specific location and individual memories and experiences. Places are intimate locations: the place where one receives their first kiss or the place on the interstate where a family member dies. A place is familiar to our minds. It becomes a landmark in our mental map of reality. For example, students may find that only a small portion of campus really enters into their daily lives, such as the dorm and their major’s office building. Likewise, place is often visible or, if absent, somehow marked or interpreted as being present in the subject’s mind.
In comparison, student life (particularly for freshmen) initially revolves around spaces: mundane, often unnoticed locations that are merely physical objects that may (or may not) require interaction. Unlike place, space is decidedly mundane in that it has no emotional meaning. In a student’s daily activities, it is unlikely she will initially attach special meanings to classrooms, auditoriums, and the sidewalks that lead to both locations. This happens with good reason. Our minds are somewhat selective in creating places because of the maintenance it takes to keep up with them.
Dorm rooms are an excellent example of the transition from space to place. Geographer Tim Cresswell (2004) envisions space as the potential for growth, providing the relevant example of a dorm room as a place in transition. The first time a student sees an empty dorm room, it is space to be filled: empty closet, un-draped windows, uninhabited desk, and vacant floor square footage. Upon closer inspection, it will be evident that previous students have lived in this space: names carved into desks, painted-over patches of nicked plaster, or perhaps a coffee stain on the carpet. Moreover, the student will build her own memories in this space, transforming it into place filled with meaning and attachment. As a student resides in this place, memories build upon memories, and these memories remain even as the student graduates as a senior and moves on to whatever comes next. In this sense, place is certainly left open to revision as one definition of place becomes separated from the physical place. Even as place retains present in memory, place can transition back into space for others, or be altered by a competing sense of place.
A critical issue in the discussion place is that place is not the same for everyone, leading to several scholars thinking about the competition over place. For example, James Maples and Lisa East’s (2013) work on historic mountain cemeteries shows that one person’s definition of a family cemetery is another’s definition of a potential coal mine operation site. Derek Alderman (2010) similarly examined how places (such as the assassination site of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) can be revised and controlled by groups to create a singular historical focal point. Alderman notes the importance of power in making this decision, an idea also echoed in Stephen Legg’s (2005) work on place as a political resource. Wanda Rushing (2009) considered how the meaning of place can be adapted through local and national policies as well as power structures such as local government and local elite. Rushing provides the example of Beale Street in Memphis, a historical place physically destroyed in order to create a new sense of place that is easier to commoditize compared to its earlier, grittier definition of place. Likewise, Ruben Rose-Redwood (2008) notes that competition over the definition of place can even come internally from the same group (such as the case at EKU), leading to two perspectives on the meaning of place that conflict.
Prior to its demolition, Combs Hall was truly stuck in this intriguing competition between two places. From The Campus Beautiful perspective, razing Combs Hall represented the potential to unify the campus design by creating a grand entrance and a community park space along a busy street. Yet from a student’s perspective (specifically a student who identifies Combs as place), the building is filled with memories that shaped individual lives over a lifetime. Those memories have now been swallowed by the competing sense of place embedded in The Campus Beautiful. We again return to Cresswell’s work here: in the competition between places, Combs is reduced to space which, in turn, creates the potential for a new sense of place to develop.
Today, Combs Hall is physically lost as a place, and The Campus Beautiful persists in its stead. Combs now transitions into the work of Maples and East (2013) and Rose-Redwood (2008) in arguing whether or not Combs Hall, as a place, can survive the absence of a physical place and remain only in memory. Tim Edensor (2005) argues that this is possible; so-called ghosts of public memories (including Combs Hall) can remain attached to the site so long as they can be institutionalized within a spatial narrative. This could be as simple as a commemoration plank or line on a campus historical tour. Will this be the same to students who shared some of their happy memories at Combs, or EKU alumni returning to campus for homecoming only to find Combs gone? Not necessarily, but place can persist even beyond physical loss. In this sense, it is only time and policy decisions which will tell what comes next for Combs.
Lauryn N, Krasnopolsky and Morgan A. Yocum are Sociology majorws at EKU. James N. Maples is an Assistant Professor in EKU’s Sociology Department. Corresponding author is Lauryn Krasnopolsky at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alderman, Derek H. 2010. “Surrogation and the politics of remembering slavery in Savannah, Georgia.” Journal of Historical Geography 36: 90-101.
Cresswell, Tim. 2004. Place: A Short Introduction. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
Edensor, Tim. 2005. “The ghosts of industrial ruins: ordering and disordering memory in excessive space.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 23: 829-849.
Legg, Stephen. 2005. “Sites of counter-memory: The refusal to forget and the nationalist struggle in colonial Delhi.” Historical Geography 33: 180-201.
Maples, James N. and Elizabeth A. East. 2013. “Destroying Mountains, Destroying Cemeteries: Historic Mountain Cemeteries in the Coalfields of Boone, Kanawha, and Raleigh Counties, West Virginia.” Journal of Appalachian Studies 19(1&2): 7-26.
Rose-Redwood, Reuben. 2008. “From Number to Name: Symbolic Capital, Places of Memory, and the Politics of Street Renaming in New York City.” Social & Cultural Geography 9(4): 432-452.
Rushing, Wanda. 2009. Memphis and the Paradox of Place: Globalization in the American South. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.