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.”