Roots, Place, and Identity

A friend and I were batting around a question that’s puzzled both of us: What happened to the town we used to know? I didn’t see the change as sharply as he did, because 1) I’ve been here during the gradual shift and 2) when I came back from Grad School, some of the larger cultural differences matched what I’d been around at Flat State U, so the “fish in water” effect was present. But we agree that something changed and not for the better, at least to us.

After talking things over, and chewing on the idea for a week or so, I think it’s the problem of roots. If a place forgets or chooses to ignore its roots, the culture changes. Add a large influx of people who never knew those roots, or who prefer certain aspects of their home culture to what they find here, and you get more change. Federal influence might also play a role in some city policies that seem to have encouraged anti-social behaviors among part of the population, but that remains a large unknown. Without roots and a memory of the past, what gives a place an identity? Cultural features? Is New York City* nothing other than the Met, concerts, Wall Street, the Natural History Museum, and Broadway? OK, in that case, the Village as it used to be, perhaps?

I admit, there’s an element of nostalgia for me, not so much for my friend. He was looking at the rougher side of the city, one I only knew by reputation. Everyone knew about That Bar, the one where they frisked you for weapons and if you didn’t have one, you could rent one. (I kid, but just a little). If you wanted trouble, you went to these neighborhoods, or to that one area after about eight PM. During daylight and before eight it was happening and cool, and the bars kept things lower key. After eight? All bets were off. And everyone knew it. Crime happened elsewhere, to be sure, but there was “the bad side” and the rest of town. Today? Very different.

When I grew up, roots were part of the local identity. Ranching and the west were close at hand, and celebrated. Rodeos, pow-wows, cattle drives, ranching heritage, all played a huge part in how things worked. Local magnates were ranchers, bankers, some oil and gas men (and That One Guy, who eventually left town for greener pastures and was not missed.) Today . . . We’re supposed to be finding a new identity, bringing in lots of young people from Elsewhere (“if they come, they will build it” was the city government’s motto for a while. Thus far that hasn’t really happened that I can see.) Calls rose to spend more time talking about Hispanics and African-Americans, both their role in building the region, and the discrimination they suffered. They had a role in history, and certainly should be recalled in the city’s roots. But history is not a 0-sum story. We should be able to include all the area’s pioneers without kicking out any. This region was ranching and cowboys and farmers and oil patch and proud of it. And because of that, certain things were expected – civic participation, self-reliance (we’re relatively isolated and had to be self-reliant), helping neighbors, church participation, and self-governance.

Things are different now. “Bomb City” is supposed to be the new nickname for the largest city. Um, that should be Albuquerque or Los Alamos, in my opinion. There are still rodeos, but they’re not what they used to be. Native Americans are included in the history, but we don’t have many pow-wows, if any. There’s less about the good people of the past and more about the sins of the past. A lot of people from outside the region, state, and country have moved in, bringing new ideas and some serious challenges. What had been off-beat local shops are now variants on coastal boutiques, with more of a coastal vibe. The older western-ranching-cowboy past is not something the new people know about, or honor the way older people did and do.

What is the local/regional/state/national culture? Human geographers have begun talking about the negative aspects of “cosmopolitanism,” of being “a citizen of the world.” Citizens of the world don’t have roots, and they bring what they like to wherever they go – London, Paris, Tokyo, Singapore, Ft. Worth, Denver. That’s not entirely a bad thing, but neither is it a purely good thing. A sense of place, of common culture, provides strength when tough times happen, and gives younger people an identity to help support and sustain them. Americans are an idea people. We are based on a culture of ideas and shared heritage. Not blood, not soil, not common religious denomination, but an idea and shared heritage and mythology.

Who are we? What is $PLACE$? It’s not something most of us sit down and try to define, but perhaps we should. What makes the place you love, or like, or want to live in or near, what it is? The physical environment? The people? The culture? Yes?

I’m not sure we as a city/region/state/country have done that often enough, deeply enough. Mayhap we should. But how do you put roots into words? How do you get a community to say clearly, “This we are, this we believe, this we like. If you want to change it, you first must understand why we have kept it, and only then ask us to change.” I don’t have an answer, nor do I know how to go back to “the good-as-I-remember-them days” even if it can be done.

*I know that the boroughs and neighborhoods are different from Manhattan. I’m grabbing Manhattan because it is what most people think of when I say “New York City.”


9 thoughts on “Roots, Place, and Identity

  1. This little corner of East TN is changing rapidly, between the Urban Exodus and developers discovering cheap land (it was cheap before the rush, anyway).
    We came here because we liked it the way it was at the time, including the slow pace of change and the generally easygoing local attitudes. Seems some of the newcomers hate the rural lifestyle, and are determined to put everything under NYC rules. (People have fireworks on July 4th! REEEEE! “My dog”* freaks out over all the noise, despite the highly soundproof character of the newly-built houses! I saw an old geezer wearing a pistol in the grocery store and now I have PTSD!!!)

    * In my experience, pets encountering unfamiliar stimuli look to their hoomans to see how to respond. If you freak out, your pets will too. Remain calm, and they’ll adjust better.

  2. To a significant degree, this is happening all over as nationality companies, media, etc push for uniformity, either implicitly or explicy ignoring local values and history.

    There has to be a deliberate effort to maintain local uniqueness and most places don’t try, or by time they do it’s too late.

    Often when local values are claimed, they have been coopted or modified by outside forces. One example is big Texas rodeos with massive corporate advertising that espouse liberal values, ban weapons, have lots of rules, etc.
    I find the most uniqueness in local places that haven’t had an influx of people or money.

    • Schools also play a major role.
      Woodrow Wilson held that the purpose of education, was to make children as unlike their parents as possible.
      A lot of academia has subscribed to this vision for over a century. It got major boosts when certification became mandatory, and the Department of Education was created.

      Legislatures can mandate a course in state history, but they can’t keep teachers from teaching that nothing interesting ever happened there, and “History” only happens in other, more interesting places.

  3. I recently went back to my place of birth in Ohio, the first time in 30+ years. I was surprised at how small it had become. Distances that I thought where “a good distance to travel” even when I was driving back in the 80s seemed like just a short jaunt. Even my old home seemed minuscule. I wondered if it was because I have become so used to distances out west where traveling 30 miles to get to town is pretty common.

    People wise, it was like I was almost in a different country and I had some problems understanding the attitudes of even some of my friends. Truly the past is a different country.

  4. It seems the more ‘inclusive’ a city becomes, it actually has the reverse effect, with less inclusion than there was. I know being gone for now over 50 years from my hometown, I see the glaring changes (not for the better), while those who stayed have excuses for what has happened, rather than admitting things have gotten worse. It also doesn’t help that a state line splits the town, and local politics played a large part in the splitting of the city, one side booming while the other fails… Sigh

  5. There’s additional complications in that sometimes people think stuff has changed– when, actually, they changed. I mostly see that in jumps from teen-and-unattached-adult to adult-with-adult-children (especially divorced), I think because the two states seem like they should be pretty similar…and they’re not.
    Yeah, you’re living on your own, but everything else is different, especially your responsibilities.

    (I have some relatives who never really left high school, so that may be the “real” problem.)

  6. Benjamin Franklin “. . . in this world, nothing is certain except death and taxes.”

    And change.

    • Indeed. It is the type and direction of change that we often can shape. (If a tsunami eats Seattle, or The Big One launches San Francisco into the Pacific, that’s a bit outside most people’s pay grade.)

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