Monday, February 21, 2005

Creating Place

Creating Place
Originally uploaded by chrisbreitenbach.
We left California a little over a year ago. We boarded Amtraks California Zephyr line in early February of last year, pressed our noses up against its murky windows as it pulled out of the Emeryville station and wondered, "Are we making the right decision?" At the time we believed we couldn't make a wrong decision. Staying in Berkeley would have been just fine and, for that matter, so would moving back to Chicago. Both choices, leading toward two radically different sets of experiences, had merits we were prepared to fully embrace. "It'ss a Win Win situation," we'd tell each other daily.

No wrong decisions, and so we made the right one. We've been content to find ourselves living back in what Dan Quayle once called "the great state of Chicago," even if its winters deplorably drag on and on only to teasingly linger through most of its springs. There's a nagging distance here too, a lover's cold shoulder- something waiting to be reclaimed, reexamined and made wholly our own again.

Lately I've been perusing some of the class readers Cathy used while in graduate school. In particular, I've been attracted to a handful of articles that explore ideas about landscape perception, interpretation and a sense of place. I'm probably attracted to these articles because the original move from Chicago to Berkeley in 2001 and our consequent attempts to put down roots in the Bay Area, followed once again by our move back to Chicago in February of last year and our attempts to reclaim our roots, created a sense of being always on the cusp of integrating into a place, of feeling like our roots were shallow and fragile.

When we were living in Berkeley I wrestled with how to best go about creating a sense of place. Was such an amorphous thing at its most conducive when simply left alone and not forced? This kind of thinking is similar to how I feel about traveling abroad- do you make an itinerary and madly rush about trying to "see it all," take the obligatory pictures of the landmarks, pay for the tours, set foot in the required museums- or do you chart your own course, allow for spontaneity and the opportunity to simply linger amongst the natives and soak up an arguably more authentic ambience?

Unfortunately, the place where one lives is not a vacation spot. So maybe cultivating a sense of place or a sense of relatedness is better served by actively seeking out experiences more conducive to its flourishing. Increasingly, the idea that a sense of place magically arrives wholly via the passage of time has come to feel depressingly casual. That's part of it. But how to go out and create place and meaning and experience? How do we interact with a place beyond the superficial level? And how does somebody such as myself, more introverted and socially anxious and plagued by ugly thickets of self doubt then your average person (I could play you my small violin here, but we'll save the self confessions for some other time) find ways to interact more fully with our environments and gain a greater and more fulfilling sense of place and relatedness and experience?

In one of those handful articles I've recently read, The Meaning of Place, urban strategist Peter Smirniotopoulos writes, "The true meaning of place is grounded in theories of cognition, the physiology of memory, the complementary disciplines of anthropology and sociology, and- perhaps most important- the basic human need for community and social interaction." That's a lot to unpack, and yet when Cathy and I were searching to buy our first home last year, it was this "true meaning of place" that we were hoping to find. We eventually, after much looking, bought a place in a neighborhood we adore. The Edgewater/Andersonville neighborhoods we belong to are rich in the possibilities of interesting social interaction and ripe with conveniences, diversity and amenities. (I sound like a brochure.) There's no chance of our neighborhood suffering from what Jane Jacobs called "The Great Blight of Dullness." We love the fact that it's walking distance to urine scented transit stops, gut buster burritos, million dollar homes with sprinkler fed lawns and a few of Lake Michigan's 1600 miles of shoreline. We're continuing to grow into the place we live, both inside and out, though feel like we've barely begun to scratch the surface of its potential.

All this hope for creating an authentic sense of place runs into roadblocks. My current unemployment, a stubborn roadblock if ever there was one, is laden with more ironies and frustrations then I care to detail. I'm crashing into debris each day but histrionics aside (and I could play you my violin!) it's terribly difficult to feel motivated in taking the steps necessary to fulfill this potential. I'm feeling listless. I have a fledging video project I've been tinkering with and its helped me to become more conscious of my environment while allowing me to be creative in an area I've long been interested in playing with. As i've mentioned before, this video project is really a tool to help me interact with the people and places around me in ways I wouldn't probably have the courage to do otherwise. It's a prop and a way to find deeper meanings in the human and geographical landscapes that surround me.

Returning back to Berkeley, then, as we did last week, was bittersweet. It was a place whose deeper strata we were just beginning to discover and incorporate into our lives. It was becoming our home and we were beginning to finally feel an intimate part of its culture rather then just observers of it. Walking its lush streets last week I had a sense of contented limbo- of straddling two places ample in the familiars of kinship. Berkeley is still our home- the rituals we had woven into its landscape, those places we identified so strongly with in the area (its restaurants, the Bay, Tilden, campus, Telegraph, 4th St, Mt. Tam, Mt. Diablo...) were still present and exerting a powerful attraction.

Having only been away a year it felt like we hadn't left at all, as though things had remained fixed even without our presence. The time we lived here, a little under 3 years, had a powerful effect on both of us, one that encompassed both knuckle scraping emotional lows and giddy intellectual highs. The residue from that time still lingers and holds a powerful allure- and returning I simultaneously recoiled from it while lovingly examining the remnants. It no longer belongs so wholly to us as it did a year ago and I found myself wondering how long the enchantment of a place, its intimacies and personal rituals, retains its influence before growing more rounded and remote- decoyed with nostalgia. How long will we continue to recognize ourselves in Berkeley before the details begin to disappear? What are these intangibles we lose?

As difficult as it was for us, we fell in love with the Bay Area. It may simply be impossible not to. The people (engaged, for better or worse), the politics (to the left of Kucinich, a bumper sticker favorite) the food (slow food organic), the natural beauty (big ocean, rolling hills and Redwood awe), the relentless pleasantness of the weather (N. American's only Meditation climate) advection fogs (right thru the Golden Gate), the kookiness (Freak flags still flying proud) are all going to conspire to offer you something unavoidably enchanting if not entirely confusing.

The Bay Area resides in a state full of contradictions and is burdened with one of the nation's most murderously interesting histories. In her book, Where I was From, native Joan Didion writes eloquently about some of California's many contradictions, of its "extreme reliance on federal money," so starkly in contrast with its "emphasis on unfettered individualism," of its reliance on massive government construction projects to irrigate "millions of acres of essentially arid land" while simultaneously subsidizing enormous crop yields that glut national and international markets. Its current governor was, just 3 short years ago, mumbling and shooting his way through a waning movie career when, fortuitously enough, long sought opportunity to hold political office arose in the form of widespread disenchantment with its current governor, Gray Davis and the ensuing Republican led recall drive. Schwarzenegger won the 2003 recall (itself a vestige of California's increasingly troubled experiment with direct democracy, a system which as currently stands allows those privileged few who are able and willing to pony up the capital necessary to hire petition circulators who'll gather the necessary signatures, the affluently singular opportunity to see their pet proposition on the next state ballot) by announcing his decision to run on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno and proceeding to regale the close to 5 million Californians who eventually voted for him by running a campaign with the support of the likes of fellow sex offender, Rob Lowe, and the ample use of well worn one-liners from his films. It's important to note that we voted in this election. It's also important to note that Gary Coleman garnered 14, 242 votes.

But all this aside, and it's a lot to discount, what's not to like? Well, yes, the cost- there's that. According to a report published last year by the Bay Area Economic Forum, "housing prices have continued to rise at a 6.5% cumulative annual growth rate (CAGR), while salaries have flattened." The exorbitant costs of living in the area would have eventually sent us packing barring the sudden appearance of exorbitant paychecks, something I'm having difficulty even receiving with dependable regularity let alone having an account burdened with expendable income. Unemployment's a bitch. Still, we wonder if someday we might move back.

When we left to return to Chicago last Tuesday it was raining. The rains come heavy there from December through February, long stretches of it that sometimes last for days. Everything goes green and so it was while we were there, the Berkeley hills luminously poking up through the fog and Tilden's paths, which we walked on Saturday, verdant and squishy. We came back because when we left we made a promise to return a year later. I don't know when we'll be back next or how much of us will still be there.

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