by Michael Bell

A rumination on things that Used to Be There.

"Tradition is the illusion of permanence" —Woody Allen, Deconstructing Harry (1998)

Anyone who has lived in Rhode Island for any length of time is familiar with the custom of giving directions according to where something used to be.

In his introduction to "Vanishing Rhode Island," Paul Buhle writes about Rhode Islanders' penchant for giving directions according to where something used to be: "The immediate joke is on the visitor, since he or she cannot possibly recognize something that does not exist anymore. But more importantly, the joke is also a pained recognition that something essential will be lost if we allow ourselves to forget the vanished or abandoned brewery, movie theater, mill, or meadow; it is as if the images of the scene, including ourselves in the scene, simply cannot be put away without giving up some precious part of ourselves as well."

Unfortunately, I knew of no convenient linguistic label for this phenomenon until a friend, Betsy Loring, asked me to read a draft of her novel, set in Rhode Island. Like any good writer, she included enough local color to help the reader become familiar with the ways of Rhode Island; even if her book is never published, Betsy has made an enormous contribution to the lexicon with the term "invisible landmarks."

When we think about giving directions using invisible landmarks (and I use "we" because I catch myself doing this more frequently than I care to admit), we chuckle. But I believe that Rhode Islanders give these directions in earnest; if they do reflect on the absurdity of the larger picture, it is only after the words have already come tumbling out. Giving directions according to where something used to be may be so ingrained in Ocean Staters that they don't even notice it. To newcomers and outsiders, however, this custom is maddening and, on the surface, inexplicable. If an inquisitor knew where the Miami Diner used to be, he probably wouldn't need to be asking directions to Shaw's Market, Broad Street, or Roger Williams Park.

Rhode Islanders revere the past. Actually, one might say that Rhode Islanders can't let go of the past. For example, my house is still referred to as the "Hamblins' house" by older neighbors who remember when the Hamblins lived there more than twenty years ago. After I move away, I presume it will become the "Bells' house"! According to those who write about Yankee customs, this kind of retro-thinking is characteristic from Maine to Rhode Island. However, using invisible landmarks as points of reference seems to be Rhode Islanders' own version of framing the present in terms of the past.

Sharing laughter over this practice is, in itself, a traditional Rhode Island pastime. But I believe that the invisible landmarks practice goes deeper than the humor derived from it (not to suggest that humor is trivial or without its serious implications). An implicit assumption, quite familiar to folklorists, is that local knowledge is universal, the "that's-the-way-it-is-because-that's-the-way-I-learned-it" phenomenon. Thus, even if you are not from my neighborhood, surely you know where the East Ferry was. Everybody knows that, but if somehow you don't, then you should seek enlightenment. If you do ask, "What was the East Ferry?" you may be informed, after an appropriate explanatory, contextualizing narrative, to look for a bridge instead of a ferry and thus be sent securely on your way. If you do not seek enlightenment, then, maybe, you don't deserve to know where you are or how to get to where you want to be.

Put metaphorically, using invisible landmarks for directions is akin to throwing down the gauntlet, daring someone to ask: What was the East Ferry? If you ask, I can connect not only to you but to my personal past and my community as I remember it. If you listen, you may experience vicariously this personal and community history. If you respond with a similar story, we affirm our shared humanity; in the unique, we find the universal. Do you have the time, patience and volition to ask, to listen, to respond?

I have formulated several criteria for identifying invisible landmarks. To be considered an invisible landmark for this article, the structure or site must be:

  • Altered (either structurally or functionally) to such a degree that what it once was is no longer evident or obvious.
  • Used for giving directions or getting one's bearings; that is, part of a community's shared cognitive map.
  • Situated (or formerly situated if no longer extant) in a prominent, visible space, such as on a corner or at an intersection.
  • Important to a community in the sense that it is part of a community's esoteric knowledge and meaningful in terms of shared past experiences.

Four Invisible Landmarks

The following brief examples illustrate the kind of treatment and interpretation I intend for what I hope will one day be a larger project. The East Ferry is discussed in more detail because I had the resources to develop a fuller folklife interpretation. The four landmarks I have chosen to discuss are:

Do you have a story about an Invisible Landmark? Drop us a line at and tell us about it! Be sure to tell us your name and town so that we can properly credit you.

Michael Bell, formerly Rhode Island's official state folklorist, is the author of Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England's Vampires.

This article last edited February 25, 2002

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