Thursday, May 22, 2008

This is the Place

Recent conversations about my current hometown, Columbia, Missouri, provide an opportunity for me to talk at further length about place: the importance of place in forming individual identity, the allegiances we have to various places, and what makes for “good” places. I recently heard a BBC interview with co-authors of a new book, The Endless City, edited by Ricky Burdett and Deyan Sudjic of the London School of Economics, in which the editors concluded that what makes for a “good” city is the amount of choice it offers to its citizens. This is part of the attraction of cities; people are willing to put up with nuisances, like traffic, overcrowding, and inflated real estate prices and cost of living, because in cities they can find many of the things they like and can’t find elsewhere. On the other hand, many people are deeply attached to very small places that seem (to me, at least) to offer very few choices. Places – as well as people’s visceral reactions to them – intrigue me. Why do people have such visceral reactions – both to places they like and places they don’t like?

California and Its Detractors

This question has been on my mind for decades now, in part because I spent 14 years in a place that many people love, and that many other people love to hate: Southern California. Having grown up east of the Mississippi River, I spent my first 24 years hearing how weird and unpleasant California was. It was described as being full of “fruits and nuts;” someone (maybe Johnny Carson?) said they tilted the country and all the loose nuts rolled to the West Coast. L.A. was notorious for smog, for car culture, and for traffic that you would sit in for hours every day in order to go to and from work. People in L.A. were supposed to be superficial, concerned only with looks and money. People were the artificial products of plastic surgery; ga-ga over movie stars; lazy sun-worshippers; vegetarians, Hare Krishnas, and followers of other such cultish ideas. As I compile this list I realize that it reflects the fears and prejudices of a very conservative populace, many of whom are either ignorant of the truth (having never BEEN to Los Angeles) or distrustful of people who are not like themselves.

California was nothing like those stereotypes. Sure, there’s a kernel of truth in many stereotypes, and the traffic in Los Angeles is unbelievably bad at times and seems to be always getting worse. But urban problems like traffic are in no way unique to Los Angeles, and the pleasures of living there are seemingly endless – at least, for people who like that sort of thing. I’ll write more about some of the specific pleasures in another post; after all, I’ll be spending a month there this summer, hopefully with some time available for blogging. Suffice it to say that the quality of life available there (especially in Santa Monica, where I lived) is VERY good.

When you are attached to a place (as I was to Santa Monica) it’s rather discomfiting to have people put it down, especially when they do so ignorantly or unfairly. When I was in grad school I went on the job market a few times, and during the course of several campus visits I was pretty astonished at the offhanded California-bashing I encountered, especially coming from people who lived in what seemed to me to be far less desirable locales. One woman in rural Missouri told me about her recent trip to Northern California, but felt compelled to add that she had intentionally avoided Southern California, with the implication that it was too distasteful for someone like herself to consider visiting. This from someone who lives in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, who told me they have to drive 45 minutes to Carbondale, Illinois, to find a health food store or a farmer’s market! Likewise in Memphis, Tennessee, the partner of a faculty member made some disparaging remark about L.A. as soon as we were introduced; and ditto in De Kalb, Illinois, where the natural landscape is entirely featureless. Evidently Southern California’s natural beauty, year-round mild climate, and cultural diversity are still not on the radar for a lot of people in the eastern U.S., who instead have been brainwashed by the negative stereotypes I listed above. I also noticed in myself a slight defensiveness when people would put down L.A.; did they not intend their comments as an insult to me? Or did they believe (which is more likely the case) that I was probably eager to leave the unpleasant dystopia of Los Angeles?

When I finally settled in Columbia, Missouri, during my first semester of teaching, one Architectural Studies undergrad made this comment about L.A.: “Why would we want to visit L.A.? It’s like Saint Louis with palm trees.”

Ann Arbor Bites, Detroit is Fascinating, and Other Unpopular Observations About Michigan

The job for which I eventually gave up my life in Santa Monica was at the University of Michigan at Dearborn, an urban, commuter campus in a city adjacent to Detroit. This was a one-year position, and in fact I was only there for nine months, because as soon as the spring semester ended in late April I moved to Missouri to be with my soon-to-be husband. As much as I had loved my 14 years in California, I embraced the chance to live in a new place, to get to know a major city (Detroit) that I knew nothing about, and to begin my professional life. What was weird about the experience was this: many people, both within and outside of Michigan, think that Ann Arbor is the greatest place in the world (or at least the greatest place in Michigan). I’m not kidding. When I would tell people I was moving to Michigan their response was often a very warm, enthusiastic endorsement of “what a great place Ann Arbor is.”

Weirdest of all is that when I had my first interview for the job, at the College Art Association annual meeting in (I think) Chicago, the two faculty members who interviewed me said, “if you do get this job, we think you should live in Ann Arbor,” and proceeded to describe the necessity for doing so. Mind you, Dearborn is a 45-minute drive from Dearborn. And this was before they had even decided whom they would invite to campus for a second interview; evidently they were giving everyone this advice.

Coming from L.A., where I had spent considerable time commuting to various teaching gigs, I knew I didn’t want to live 45 minutes from the campus where I would be teaching. With my mom’s help, I found an utterly charming apartment in Dearborn – actually the second floor of a 1930s brick house – a five-minute drive from campus. And since I would go to my office every day, including weekends, this was no small consideration. I definitely did go to Ann Arbor too, once a week or once every couple of weeks, but the logic of living near my workplace and commuting to the outstanding research library should be fairly obvious. (Every academic knows that in your first year of teaching you don’t exactly do scholarly research every day.)

What I discovered at UM Dearborn was that the majority of faculty – I would guess about two thirds – live in Ann Arbor, and have nothing to do with the city of Dearborn if they can help it. I was not comfortable with the implications of that situation. I mean, none of the students live in Ann Arbor, so the disconnect between the faculty experience and the student experience is, I think, pretty extreme. And the powers-that-be had a real blind spot when it came to their own biases (i.e., to minimize the number of days they teach, so they don’t have to drive in from Ann Arbor as often).

As for Ann Arbor, I couldn’t understand the prejudice in favor of it. I mean, it’s nice and all, in the way that a lot of upper-middle-class college towns tend to be (like Palo Alto or La Jolla), but it’s pretty corporate (Ben & Jerry’s, Borders Books, and other chains are quite prominent) and it’s VERY white. I think the preference for Ann Arbor over Dearborn had at least a little bit to do with racial prejudice. Of course they would never admit that; the ostensible reason for preferring Ann Arbor is the research library on the Ann Arbor campus. But I think it has a lot more to do with feeling comfortable and safe in the somewhat protected atmosphere of the town. My conclusion is that the UM-Dearborn campus likes to hire Ann Arbor grads because of their shared sensibility (i.e., belief in the superiority of Ann Arbor); those Ann Arbor grads like getting jobs at Dearborn because it means they will never have to leave the safe cocoon of Ann Arbor; and so the cycle just keeps repeating itself.

When I was living in Michigan I never expressed this view to any of the Ann Arborites (it would have been futile). I could certainly identify with their passionate loyalty to their town, which was a sentiment I shared (although for me it was loyalty to Santa Monica); my critiques of Ann Arbor would have been lost on them, or would have been met with condescending expressions of the you-wouldn't-understand variety. While I was convinced that Santa Monica was the greatest place in the country, they were equally convinced that Ann Arbor was, and for them it really was. Our loyalties to the places we call home are so incredibly deep-rooted sometimes that they lie outside the boundaries of reason or argument; they are bound up with identity and self-definition.

By the way, I might be the only person in the United States who thinks Ann Arbor is overrated. I think the problem is that Detroit is so universally maligned that Michiganers won't even try to defend it (even though it's a really cool place); and they want to demonstrate that Michigan does have its hip college towns like other states.

Blog Recommendation:

I recently discovered a fabulous blog on places called Where: A Blog about Urban Places, Placemaking, and the Concept of “Place.” There’s now a link to it on my blog, so I hope you’ll check it out. I was intrigued by his recent comments on Las Vegas as the world-class city of the future (which I’ve suspected for a while, but still can't imagine it becoming sustainable enough to support its booming expansion).

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