The Meaning of Place in America: How and Why it Shapes Lives

 
 

While globalized technology promises to make human beings more like each other than ever, our places of residence and origin still differentiate us, whether by shaping our cultural beliefs, our habits, or our manners.

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Places attract certain kinds of people and they shape lives. Place is where we satisfy needs from the basic to the complex. It is also where we pause our movements and reassess the question of who we are.

Next to wealth, place may be the last great differentiator in American life. Even the rich lead vastly different lives from one another depending upon where they live. The great leveling of access to consumer goods has helped put the individual on a smaller stage and brought locality to the forefront. Thanks to technology, the human race is more integrated than ever, but differences as serious as cultural beliefs and customs, and as superficial as manners, persist thanks to the places from which we come and where we live.

Starting Anew 

With the advent of the internet and its impact on the occupational world, certain segments of the professional upper class gained the freedom to live and work where they wanted—and took advantage of it. The management eccentric Tom Peters expressed the logical extreme of this trend when he proclaimed the virtues of laboring (at a computer) from his farm in Vermont in The Pursuit of Wow! (1994). Most of the elite have chosen conventional paths, like the hedge fund managers who work from mansions in New Canaan or Malibu. But even with the crisscrossing and relocating owing to choices about place, the stickiness of cities’ personalities is still there. Behavior continues to evoke the personalities of metropolises.

There’s an old story about the ways pedestrians deal with “Don’t Walk” signs at crosswalks in three major cities. New Yorkers famously proceed without hesitating as long as a produce truck won’t beat them there first. In Los Angeles locals patiently wait for the signal before they take a step forward even if there isn’t a car in view. Washington, DC, splits the difference: pedestrians obey the light but reconsider if someone else makes a move. Then they only follow if that person looks richer than they are.

The crosswalk example is city character writ small. It reveals the hyperactivity of New Yorkers, the docility of Angelenos, and the insecurity of Washingtonians. It pulls the curtain on shared vulnerabilities and sucks newcomers into the habit. Conformity in crowds is a hard thing to resist. Move to these places and you may think you are staying true to your roots, until you are at a packed crosswalk and you do what everybody else does.

Giving in to one variation or another of the crosswalk example will give the arriviste pause. Who are we really, and who were we before, if we are so malleable in response to the predispositions of a place not our own? What is our relationship to our hometown if we succumb so easily to the minor indignities of elsewhere? Perhaps our giving in is a reminder that the deeper things about our hometowns—ingrained worldview, attitudes—are what really matter and are at risk when we are taken somewhere else and turn into someone else.

Of all the localities we may possibly have in a lifetime, the one in which we grew up is the one in which we have the strongest roots. Usually that is our parents’ home. It is ironic to claim it as “ours,” because we don’t have any direct personal claim. Instead, that place took possession of us. We learned our first language there, not by choice. We were educated by its culture, not by choice. In short, we were shaped by a decision about place not made by us.

Our first home is also the place that we don’t understand until we leave. If we leave for good we go from insiders to outsiders in our hometown, a journey that upon completion can deliver a jolt of an epiphany. The Chinese-American geographer Yi-Fu Tuan wrote, “Things too close to us can be handled, smelled, and tasted, but they cannot be seen—at least not clearly.” It takes distance for us to see what sources contributed to shape the present self. That’s why You Can’t Go Home Again became a pop culture catchphrase.

Identity is then at stake when we move. Mobility signals our ability and effort to challenge the historical burden we've carried. When we try to change our identity, we begin constructing a new one retrofitted over the old. Americans have a habit of making this transition with a mix of idealism and practicality that allows them to put the concerns associated with this off to one side to be answered down the road. We usually migrate in a whirlwind and deal with the esoteric consequences later.

“How far should I live from my dream?” and “How far should I live from my hometown?” are twin questions. When we leave we go as far as it takes to get what we want, whether that is someplace far away or close enough to return to often. Either way we are gone and express pride in being able to move out and on with our life. But there’s also the melancholy of having to leave home and never being able to return the same way. It’s through that prism that we become the new person in the new place.

Freedom from Place

In an earlier age, ties to local civic institutions were hallmarks of elite status. Now, escaping those relationships seems to convey something more impressive. It shows autonomy in the wider world unmarred by the fate of one place or another. These are often people who move later in life to get richer or more powerful elsewhere, who accumulate networks full of contacts in different parts of the country, and who only know neighbors who also are in their peer group. They are the kind of people who finance far-flung companies and political campaigns.

Public intellectuals from opposite ends of the political spectrum like Samuel Huntington on the right and Christopher Lasch on the left warned about the rise of a class of global super-elites who were chipping away at the bonds of country, culture, and social compact in the chase for money and influence. In his last book before his death, Huntington in Who Are We? (2004) charts the “denationalization of elites.” The super-successful of the 1990s, he contended, thought “nationalism was evil, national identity suspect, and patriotism passé.” The economic rewards for this viewpoint were too fruitful to pass up in such a period of rapid globalization.

Lasch, on the other hand, viewed the elites’ abdication of place as a problem specific to the contemporary American idea of success. In Revolt of the Elites (1994) he blamed such social stratification on the elite class not living up to its responsibility to serve the community the way their aristocratic forbears had. American success had become too personal, and allowed its recipients to indulge their whims and prejudices at the expense of the community and the country. The dissonance between personal success and public responsibility grew as strivers became less dependent on public institutions for their achievements. American society, argued Lasch, chose upward mobility over virtue as the primary goal of social policy. Place was just another obstacle to be dealt with in that trajectory, not something to be nurtured.

Places and People

Lasch pinned down a modern conflict between two American ideals, meritocracy and community. Places and the civic institutions they shouldered were being sacrificed to the ethos of achievement. American cities steeped in character and tradition (Detroit, Philadelphia, Cleveland) were thinning out as strivers moved to brighter vistas to capitalize on opportunity, building up new centers of the country but not laying down new roots. Some were looking to be liberated from that; others were too busy maintaining ties elsewhere to bother with it. At the trend’s cynical bottom there were those who used the strategy of placelessness to overcome the unsatisfying places to which they had relocated. In any event, the meritocrat had bested the community man.

This is now old news, and enough time has passed for us to observe the impact of placeless people on the places in which they live. The ironic effect has been the upscale homogenization of these pockets of America. Detached people in detached places tend to like the same things after all. David Brooks, in a pair of early-2000s books (Bobos in Paradise and On Paradise Drive) that serve as coda to the Lasch critique, observed that as upper-class people congregate around one another they just tend to become more like themselves despite their lame attempts to break out of their status group (a phenomenon he dubbed bourgeois bohemianism).

Cities are particularly vulnerable to this outcome. In a recent Wall Street Journal column, Ryan Sager cites new research showing that pairs of friends are more likely to have similar lifestyles and opinions in cities rather than in smaller localities. “For all the admiration heaped on cities as sources of creative frisson,” he writes, “there’s nothing magic about concrete and good cappuccino that keeps us from sorting ourselves into social satrapies.” As the crosswalk example shows, groupthink can be most blunt on the largest scale.

Groupthink is driven in large part by aesthetics, which is something still tied very much to place rather than class. One finding Sager describes is the distribution of iPhones and Android smart phones. The iPhone dominates in cities because it is the chic product, and dense social networks in urban areas promulgate the trend. Android is more popular in low-density areas because its phones are valued more for usefulness than flash.

The smart phone choice indicates a larger value preference people make about utility versus aesthetics in where they live. Some will overlook a morose setting if it affords convenience or space; plenty of suburbs left over from the 1970s are founded on this compromise. Others are acutely aware of their surroundings and have to be continuously reinforced by them to feel good. This need is what drives affluent households to construct once unthinkable life-work combinations—the lawyer who commutes to New York from his family’s Oregon beach house—on the aura of living in a beautiful place.

Attitudes about aesthetics shape tastes, a critical ingredient to relationships. Tastes in music, humor, fashion, cuisine, and other elements of style provide both a dialogue and a tacit understanding for two people to share and cultivate. You are more likely to find the person who matches the subtleties of your tastes in a place that matches them in the generic sense.

What sociologists dub “weak ties”—the tangential connections that some in the field argue undergird social networks and lead to strong ties like marriage—are mainly location-based. They are the friends-of-friends, professional colleagues, and neighbors-met-through-impromptu-gatherings, courtesy introductions, and on errands. In other words, they are the people we were hoping to meet but had not been planning to meet when we did. For this exhilarating experience, we can usually thank our surroundings.

The Power of Place 

Place can be the key to a fulfilling life: the incubator of successful relationships, career acceleration, and meaningful avocations. Happiness with where one lives is a quiet satisfaction propelled by everyday reminders. How do we find that if we don’t have it? It would be prudent to base the search not on a desired image makeover but rather on one’s sense of self. Choosing a place is choosing a living environment that refines the feelings and perceptions of who we are. A place should help bring out what we see as our best self and support our pursuit of what we find to be important. 

We can predict that Americans will embrace the search for home as they always have, and it will continue to be future-oriented rather than faithful to the past. Community ties will be ruptured and institutions weakened in the quest for matching self and place in a large and diverse country. A super-elite will remain above the fray of locality altogether. But the power of places to draw people in and shape their lives will remain a potent force in American life. Those who get to make this choice about where they live should need to answer the question Humphrey Bogart’s character in Casablanca asks of Ingrid Bergman’s in Paris: “Who are you, and who were you before?” 

Rich Danker is economics director at the American Principles Project, a Washington-based policy organization. Xixi Chen is an instructor at Guangzhou University of Chinese Medicine.

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