There is power in pumpkins.
Years ago, a Volume One reader was looking for something local to carve into this year’s jack-o-lantern, and they had a hard time coming up with any kind of iconic imagery. (I’m assuming they didn’t want to stab a boring ol’ “EC” into their big orange gourd.) She commented, “I just kind of realized that we don’t have any iconic local imagery ... simple enough to carve onto a gourd anyway.”
The inquisitive carver got a few suggestions from other readers, including the Sacred Heart bell towers, the Barnes Block turret, Justin Vernon, Old Abe, the trestle footbridge (into Phoenix Park), people arguing about parking downtown, and the confluence of the Eau Claire and Chippewa rivers. Fine options all around, but none of them really struck me as iconic enough. After all (Grammy award winning singers and legendary war raptors notwithstanding), all of the suggested imagery is found downtown. And as much as I love downtown, it’s only part of the Eau Claire equation.
Other places seem to have pretty easy-to-find iconic imagery. Unique skylines and such. The French have their big tower. And wine, I guess. Italy is often defined by its food. New York has a big statue of a lady from France. Canada has a leaf. But Eau Claire is not a whole country or a bustling metropolis with centuries upon centuries of cultural development, evolution, and distillation.
So what images do we have? And how can we use them?
When you delve into these ideas, you encounter terms like “place branding” and “region branding” and “city branding” and “dandy branding” (except for the last one which I made up because it rhymes). Place branding is defined as the “process of image communication to a target market.” It’s based on the notion that places compete with other places for people, resources, business, and who makes the best barbecued ribs.
Other places seem to have pretty easy-to-find iconic imagery. The French have their big tower. Italy is often defined by its food. New York has a big statue of a lady from France. Canada has a leaf.
And all that stuff is very important. A place needs to be known for things – its buildings and destinations, its annual festivals and events, its celebrated pastimes, a nearby mountain or something. You can’t maintain a healthy stable of people, resources, and businesses without noteworthy, identifiable ... things. And if you don’t already have destinations and signature events, you may need to make them, digging deep into the local landscape to figure out what’s cool and what makes sense for your community.
But, as crucial as it may be, I’m not worried about competition with other places. I’m thinking about we, the people, who live here right now. What iconic things are we proud of? What kinds of stuff do we all stand behind or hold up? What unifies us through a unique sense of place? What do we have that few others have? How many questions can I keep stringing together here? Two more? Is that too many? When will it end?
Mostly, I’m looking for an image that could possibly unify us with, if nothing else, a sense of pride. I’ve spent my whole life hearing people insult Eau Claire, mostly because they feel like they’re supposed to. At all ages, from middle school through adulthood, people harbor a vague (and ridiculous) understanding that they can’t like where they live and still be cool. Well, I’ve got news for you.
None of you are cool.
Seriously, maybe one-tenth of one percent of our population is truly cool. If that. So maybe we can stop wasting our energy, fidgeting over our personal image and what people think of us – and our city – and instead try to identify, celebrate, and enhance the things we like. If we, as a city, are undeniably proud of who we are, then attracting people, resources, businesses, and primo barbecued rib restaurants will be a hell of a lot simpler.
Yes, I know, times have been a-changin’. People want to love what’s local and we’ve been supporting each other more and more – valuing local businesses and attending local events. But we can always do better. And I really think having some iconic images would help.
I mean … I don’t have any actual, good suggestions for this. Maybe crisscrossing rivers in the from of an eagle with a horseradish for a head and kubb blocks for feet?
I’ll keep thinking about it.