Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Identity and Place

I've been reading stories lately about the social upset over rents and tech companies in San Francisco. A lot of Google and Twitter and Facebook, etc employees are moving into geographically compact San Francisco, forcing rents through the stratosphere and resulting in many, many long-time residents having to move. There have been protests at the special bus stops the tech companies run to help employees commute out to Silicon Valley. It's a big deal.

Reading the article immediately made me think of Israel. Both are struggles over how we handle land and, more specifically, how we claim and identify with a particular piece of land.

It's fairly foreign to me. Delaware is the tenth state in which I've received mail in my life. I like to be comfortable in my home, but I don't altogether mind moving from place to place. I've sort of had to be good at it.

Don't get me wrong, I want to stay where I am. I'm happy in Delaware and ten states is more than enough. At the same time, if I found myself priced out of the community or driven away at gunpoint, I might be upset for a day or two, but I'd get over it. I'm not at all connected to place in that way.

Some people are.

What does it mean for someone to be connected to a place? The complaintants in San Francisco argue they know no other neighborhood, something should be done to allow them to stay. Our economic system generally states that housing is sold for market value and if a lot of people want to live in a small space, you either have to build up or raise the prices.

But is there something deeper than economics at play?

For all the reasons I mentioned above, I never really got the theological significance to the land in my Old Testament studies. I recognize it's importance and the ways in which Hebrew society and religion centered around this concept of land - it's the same motivation that makes Israel a difficult place to figure out today - but I never really got it. I have no comparison.

Maybe San Francisco is a start.

I've never been to San Francisco. I think I only know a half dozen people who even live within 100 miles of it. At the same time, I can sympathize with people forced to relinquish part of their identity. I've never been associated with a place all that much. When we moved to Colorado I was "the kid from back east" with all the cultural and social oddities that came with it. I went to college in Boston in 1999 as "the kid from Colorado;" I was the only one on campus. I wasn't a fan of being lumped in with my (temporary) location.

But I can understand a little those people who have no choice, but to associate themselves with a place. If you've never been anywhere else, or you spent significant time in one place, it is part of you. I suppose that's why so many place names in the US mirror those from the old country. My identity, in a way, has been formed as a man without a country, so to speak. In the absence of a place, I'm defined by no place.

I think, and I'm not sure I like this intellectually even as I believe deeply in its truth, that our places do influence us in profound ways, ways that cannot and should not be so callously disregarded.

I spent six years in Vermont. Any Vermonter will tell you, that's about six generations too few to be a "real" native. Yet the nuance of place has forever seared Vermont to my psyche. I still expect winter to start in October and last until May, even though it's been 20 winters since that's been true in my life. I can only eat pancakes with real maple syrup (in a pinch I'll take stuff from Quebec or New Hampshire, but not New York!). As much as I've moved and changed and adapted and been shaped by all sorts of varied geographies and experiences, the place in which I lived during many of my formative years was, in fact, formative, in profound and in real ways.

I can only imagine that runs deeper and thicker and more important with greater years and longer family connections.

I wonder if our reluctance, as a society, to attach real, permanent connection to place comes from our unseemly history. A lot of us (our genetic forbears, anyway) gave up place to come here. It was a sacrifice of identity to forge a new one. Those people were brave. Unfortunately, part of that new identity meant ripping other people from their connection to place by force; it meant killing others and taking their place. Our historical connection to location-based identity is a mixed bag, at best.

What does it say if we grant San Franciscans the right of connection to place, given our past? What does it say for Israel and Palestine - when even the historical chain of occupation is convoluted and likely indecipherable?

I don't think any of us will argue we have a right to live wherever we want. If we did, there would be even more structurally questionable dwellings dangling precariously from the cliffs of southern California. But I wonder if we don't have to accept a person's right to live where they have been living.

I know sometimes unforeseen forces make people move. Rivers change course, volcanoes happen, we dig all the natural gas out from under a neighborhood thus sinking it a dozen feet below sea level in the midst of a terribly hurricane prone marshland, you know, natural disasters and the like.

Perhaps it's time we recognize (or, I suppose, re-recognize, since our ancestors understood this far better than we probably ever will) that place matters. When people lose their identity-defining place, we must mourn. I don't think I'd go so far as to continually rebuild Jersey Shore beach-houses with federal money simply because three generations have vacationed there every summer, but I, for one, must take into account the profound effect of place on people.

For better or for worse, you are where you live - and I think we can all take that a bit more seriously going forward.

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