10 Reasons why Place Does Matter

by - Sunday, May 25, 2014



This has been a post in the works for over a year, as I try to get my head around making our big move to Seattle and as I read more and more stuff about how Globalism downplays the importance of individual places. If every city has a Denny's, a Rite Aid, and a Target, can every place be treated as interchangeable? But I would argue that place changes everything. Even though I am living with the same man, still shopping at Safeway, and making grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch every Sunday, the lay of our life in Seattle feels totally different because of the lay of the city, the shared social expectations of the people around us, and the weather around us. You cannot lift a life from place to place and have it stay the same, which I imagine is why most people don't change locations too dramatically often, and here's why:



1. Sameness is soul-killing- Don't you just love when films and tv shows are set in Vague City? There are streets and stores and creepy people everywhere, so any city can stand in for any other, right? WRONG! FALSE! Every place has its own stuff, good and bad. People, even in the US, are profoundly different depending on where they are coming from.

"We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time" -T. S. Eliot

Thank God for difference. Sameness might be comfortable and easy, but like leggings, minesweeper, and only traveling to Disneyworld, the ease barely hides the horribleness. You can live comfortably in routine, but you are cutting yourself off from growth and challenges. From knowing that you can. It can become mindless, where the buzz of nothing cuts you off from critical thinking and joy. Place is important because the sameness it offers is authentic, its home, and it does not look like anyone else's the same. Because of this, place will constantly reward travel, because each place you go will offer you something different and make you appreciate home in a new way. I have had some rough trips, but I never regret meeting somewhere new, because that newness is real and wonderful. LA really is so different from Boston which is so radically different from Austin. I have roadtripped across the United States 3 times, and I have been to 40 of the 50 states. Nothing makes me feel  more patriotic (ok, the mountains may be number one) than seeing just how much variation we can fit into one country.


2. Just like people, the more you get to know them, the more colorful places should be- I love my hometown for a thousand reasons, and lots of them are people, but not near all of them. Having the breadth of travel is great, but you have to feel bad for people who don't have a place they know with known and felt depth. Every place is unique, but those individualities reveal themselves over time. More and more of those details become clear the longer you get to know a place, and also like some people, you can tell that this is a whole different animal the second you meet them.

"This is the place of places and it is here" - Gertrude Stein

I have a theory that every relationship need two kinds of time spent to be meaningful- banal and exciting. Dating actually eases into a relationship once you can just hang out instead of going on a real date, but you are in trouble if you go too far in the other direction and things get boring. Family may make its memories on holidays, but you need the down time to create that stability. This works the same way with place. To really know a place, you have to see it at its most and least exciting, because both together can give you a better sense of what this where is. For example, in Franklin, Applefest shows the city off in all its everyone knows everyone, bustling, pancakey, crafty glory, but it can't give a complete view of what the place is (and in fact, the experience of Applefest can vary from year to year so much). In my opinion, some places have a lot more character than others, but each does have its own identity. They aren't interchangeable.

3. You don't make many great memories in a strip mall- Seriously though, you can probably name one, but not many. A beautiful place makes us appreciate being alive or just enjoy being with the people we are with. That's why you don't picnic at a mall. The sort of dystopic nothingness of repeating stores that really are interchangeable can't be good for the soul. You can make memories in inconspicuous places, but place can call us to pay attention and enjoy the moment. I think one of these is our own domestic spaces, but I have so many great memories connected to sight and the way it informs behavior. I remember walking around the Getty with my brother or just exploring Salzburg. Nothing too spectacular happened, but just being in such a great place mae for a beautiful memory.

4. Our environment informs who we are, and it can bring out the best and the worst in us- This was one of my biggest problems with Silicon Valley- it felt like the space as a whole was just about consumption, asking you to buy something, leading you to another place to spend money. There were "downtown" areas, but they were just more stores, and sort of faux centers littered between strip malls.  Because of this, I felt no sense of community or civic duty in the area; any sense of personal responsibility was either self serving (through food and exercise) or too global to be all that useful. Culture is community-made, and places have subset communities. Physical space contains and encourages the growth of these collectives, and our love/ friendship/ and responsibility with each other can encourage us to care. It reminds me of communities that pull together to help each other or to raise money for a cause. Apathy is the worst any of us can do, so any time a place demands we care, it is bringing out the best in us.

5. Place (and weather) transforms people- If you have ever lived anywhere with seasons and watched people out in shorts in 50 degree weather in the spring, you know what I am talking about.


6. Culture and environment are connected, places with deep histories have so much more soul- European cities are so striking, because buildings have been there for hundred of years. At the same time, these old buildings can be used as backdrops for ice skating rinks where they play pop songs and lit like a neon cathedral. The craziest places I have seen this way are Athens and Rome, both of which have so much history that it is literally strewn about, because they have so much old stuff that it takes over the city, stuffed between contemporary buildings. History happens somewhere, but the present happens in the same place.  Jesus was born in a place that still exists in the world, even as we are separate from the time.  I graduated in the same park that my parents did years before. The time may change the place, but the place is still there. I love that.

"From whichever side I start, I think I am in an old place where others have been before me" - Dejan Stojanovic

7. Only lazy fiction takes place in unspecific places- TV, films, books: You know you have found something worth your attention when it treats its setting with respect. It doesn't have to be some sort of Carrie Bradshaw-style extra character in the piece, but really How I Met Your Mother, why does it barely ever snow in your New York? All of these elements transform how we live our lives, so if you are telling the story of someone else's life, it should take place in a place.

8. Spaces and class relationships are always fraught but important- Oh, the history of gentrification- long, depressing, and persevering through time. Time can allow us to feel distance from the awareness of our privilege, but space is not always that comfortable. You have to confront that you are there because someone else was pushed out. Probably multiple people. Places are always saying something, maybe multiple things at once, and not everything it says is easy.

"Find your place on the planet. Dig in, and take responsibility from there." -Gary Snyder 

9. We are responsible for the world around us, and that starts with what is next door- It may be equally horrible if the house next door and a house a thousand miles away burn down. Both are a bummer, but you can do a lot more for the person next door than the person so far away. We should all know what is going on immediately around us, because we are much more likely to solve problems that we truly understand through familiarity and which we can be consistent in addressing. Place can just be a physical limitation, but you can also see it as a call for the first step in what we can do to help as citizens.


10. Kinesthetic memory (smell, gestalt, that feeling of the air) is so invested in where we are- I love putting my feet in bodies of water, because it is always familiar and totally new at once. I love the smell of the water at Great East Lake in Maine, because it smells so much like itself. Every so often, I smell my Great Grandma's basement in the strangest places, and it makes me miss her. Place is made up of so many things, and even a part can tie one place to another, which I think is beautiful.

The wise sage Creed Bratton says at the end of The Office (before being taken away by police) that humans have an uncanny ability to turn the random places we land into our homes. I think he is right, but we don't do it alone. Place itself, the physical location, the cultural construct, the architecture around us can be taken for granted so easily, negated by arguments of globalism, treated as a straw man for our frustrations with our own life, but I think paying attention to place, where we live and where we go, can add profoundly to what we get out of living. We are all somewhere, and that matters.

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