By Wilfred M. McClay
Gertrude Stein’s famous line about the city of Oakland, California — that there is no “there” there — has been widely understood as a summary judgment against that city. Unfortunately, her quip is also the chief thing many people know about Oakland. Its better-off neighbor Berkeley has even created a gently witty piece of public art called “HERETHERE” that plays on Stein’s words. It stands at the border of the two cities, with the word “Here” on the Berkeley side, and the word “There” on the Oakland side. As you might expect, Oaklanders don’t much like it. There has even been what you might call a T-party rebellion, in which an intrepid army of knitters covered up the “T” on the Oakland side with a huge and elaborate tea-cozy. This is how they conduct cultural warfare in the Bay Area, where some people clearly have too much time on their hands.
Yet the irony of it all is that when Stein penned those words in her autobiography, they were not meant as a snappy put-down. She was thinking of something entirely different. Oakland had been extremely important to her when she lived there as a child, as a rare stable place in an unsettled and peripatetic early life. But when she discovered later in life that her childhood home there had been torn down, leaving her with nothing familiar to return to, Oakland lost its meaning for her. The blooming, buzzing confusion of the city no longer had a nucleus around which she could orient it. Saying that there was no “there” there was a poignant way to express this personal disorientation — a disorientation felt by many of us in the modern world, particularly when the pace of change causes us to lose our grip on the places that matter most to us.
The need we all have for visible and tangible things to anchor our memories has countless ramifications. We can never predict in advance the points at which our sense of place is most vulnerable, though surely a childhood home is a very likely candidate. In any event, when one of those anchors disappears or changes, as it did for Stein, we are left alone, deserted, burdened by uprooted and disconnected memories which can no longer be linked to any visible or tangible place of reference in the world outside our heads. So the memories atrophy, and the sense of place is lost with them, like abandoned farmland slowly reclaimed by the primeval forest.
Footprints of Vanished Places
Although “place” is the most general of words, the things to which it points are very specific. “Place” as a concept is highly abstract, but places in particular are concrete, tangible, intimately meaningful. Each place is different. Each of us comes from just such a particular somewhere, and considers some place (or places) “home.”
Each of us knows, too, that “a sense of place” is as much an achievement as a given condition. Although one could argue that a “place” is ultimately merely a point on some coordinate system, such a flatfooted assertion misses the inherently phenomenological character of place. Which explains why not all places are equal, and some places are more fully “places” than others. In a frenetically mobile and ever more porous and inexorably globalizing world, we stand especially powerfully in need of such stable and coherent places in our lives — to ground us and orient us, and mark off a finite arena, rich with memory, for our activity as parents and children, as friends and neighbors, and as free and productive citizens.
Please read the rest of this story, and come back to Nooganomics when you’re done.