Thursday, June 10, 2010

Why We Stay

It has become my habit each year to greet the onset of Hurricane Season, and each year, I sit down at my computer with the fear that I may have run out of new things to say about it.

Somehow, that's never a problem. Sometimes I approach the season with humour; other times, with frustration or sadness. This year, as we check our emergency kits, stock up on new batteries and non-perishable foods, and consider whether or not this is the year we should finally buy a generator, I think it's time to answer the perennial question posed so often by people who do not live here:

"I don't get it. Every so often, a storm comes and wipes you guys out. Why do you stay? Why don't you move someplace safer?"

So, if you have ever wondered this about us Gulf Coast residents ... or people who live in fire or earthquake zones ... I shall atempt to answer your question.

My answer is not intended to offend anyone, but I have noticed that, more often than not, people who ask this sort of question usually do not hail from a place with a great deal of its own history, or a place with a truly unique culture -- a local culture distinct from the homogeny of McAmerica. Either that, or the unique and wonderful place where they live is fortunate enough to have unremarkable weather and stable geology.

If you live in a subdivision outside of a relatively new city, a city less than a couple of generations in age, a city that maybe wasn't a city until the interstate highway allowed the heart of town to develop around its multi-lane concrete arteries ... let's call it Anywhere, USA ... you might not understand why people can so passionately cling to a house and a patch of ground in a geographic location which routinely plays host to earthquakes, floods, brush fires, or weather that can kill you.

If you live on Anystreet in a subdivision in Anywhere, USA, your house, be it modest or grand, probably doesn't look terribly different from all the other houses on your street. I'm sure it's a very nice house, but it may be one of seven different floorplans, with a choice of five tastefully neutral exterior paint jobs: ecru, camel, cream, sage and mocha. You may have subdivision restrictions dictating what sort of fence you can build, how tall it can be, and what sort of things you can park in your driveway. If you read the fine print of your subdivision restrictions, you may learn that you can't plant a vegetable garden that's visible from the street, that your front door must be painted one of three specific colors, that your bird feeders, barbeque grill or your kids' basketball goal must not be visible from the street, and that you must have a certain sort of mailbox at the end of the drive. They may even tell you how many pets you can have, and what breeds they must be.

All of these strict requirements are often policed by a stringent homeowner's association, with the goal of a community so uniform in its neutrality that it can be decreed to be imbued with "good taste" and, hopefully, high property values. Individual self-expression is probably frowned upon if you live in such a community.

Most Americans don't have the sort of job that makes it difficult to consider living elsewhere. Perhaps you are a chemical engineer, a nurse, a computer programmer, or a math teacher. You may be a police officer, an accountant, a welder, or a mechanic. No doubt you work hard for a living, and you value the time you spend at home alone, or with your family, on the weekends. You probably love your home, and, as far as I'm concerned, there is absoltuely nothing "wrong" whatsoever with your choice of home or your way of life.

But living in a relatively new subdivision, in a relatively new city, and having a mobility-friendly job seldom comes hand-in-hand with a strong sense of place and a warm sense of community.

If you have kids, they are probably in a decent public school district, and no doubt there is a wide selection of familiar American chain restaurants, a hospital, a Home Depot, WalMart and a bank within reasonable driving distance of your home. If you are religious, a place of worship in the faith of your choice is probably not far away, along with a convenient Texaco station, Albertson's or Safeway supermarket and a CVS or Walgreen's drugstore. The local mall features a Gap, Toys R Us, Petsmart, Old Navy, Pottery Barn, Stein Mart, and Bed, Bath and Beyond, along with other similar, familiar franchise stores.

You probably know only a few of your neigbbors reasonably well, and you may have only a nodding acquaintance with the others.

If you live on Anystreet, you probably weren't born there. You may have been born in Boston, Cleveland, Detroit or Buffalo, and perhaps your parents have retired to Phoenix. Maybe you have a brother in Alexandria, Virginia and a sister in Los Angeles. If you're lucky, you see them a few times a year and you go out to eat at the Outback, Chili's or Applebee's in their neighborhood. You don't have to look at the menu. You already know what you like.

And of course, anyone who has served in the military, franchise store managers, contract nurses, and those who work in the world of corporate management or consulting ... if that sounds like you? Then you knows all about getting transplanted from Anyplace, TX to Anyplace, CA or Anyplace, FL. If you live a life where you are transferred a lot, those familiar chain stores and restaurants can provide a needed sense of familiarity and continuity to your and your family.

But you can always do it someplace else.

If you are an American and, and you have wondered why we stay here on the Gulf Coast, and what I've said so far sounds something like your life ... I'd guess that your family, while happy and content, probably has no deep roots in any one place for more than one generation. You and your siblings likely grew up and moved far away from home, and from each other. Your own children will eventually get jobs as pharmaceutical reps, or insurance agents, or restaurant managers, and they, in their turn, will move far away to New York, Sacramento, Raleigh, or Dallas, where they may purchase a house much like yours: on a street in a subdivision, with a familiar chain supermarket, bank and drugstore, with good schools nearby, and familiar franchise retailers close at hand.

Like you, your children will probably consider themselves to be reasonably happy with their lives, and, like you, your children will have difficulty understanding those of us, in other places, who keep rebuilding after Mother Nature knocks us down.

"Why don't they move?" you may ask the television when the news features stories of people rebuilding after another hurricane, another wildfire, another Midwestern flood. "Why don't they move to another city, to a safer place?"

If you live in Anywhere, USA, and you program computers for a local bank, and your spouse is a physical therapist, it's likely that you can easily imagine mobility. It's different if you are a jazz club manager, a tour guide, a shrimper, a Creole chef, a trombonist, a costume maker, an underwater welder, or a maker of fishnets. How many places in America can a parade float builder look for work?

You may think of your childhood home, not as a city or region, but rather as the house and immediate neighborhood you grew up in, which is probably in a different city or state than the house you live in today. And I'm willing to bet that today, as an adult, if you are a resident of Anywhere, when you think of "home," you think of the house you live in, and not your general region.

If, in the unspeakable event that Anywhere, USA gets blown off the map or burnt to a pile of cinders, you can probably imagine collecting your insurance, dusting off your resume, and relocating to Reno, Denver, Miami or Bakersfield. You can get a job programming computers for another bank. Your spouse can find work at a hospital. On the weekends, you may eat dinner at an Outback or TGIFriday's, and even though it is in a different state, the food will taste the same, although you will try to find subtle differences. Your teenagers will buy their clothes in a different shopping mall, but the plastic sack they carry home will bear the same logo from the Gap or Urban Outfitters.

And so, if circumstances force you to relocate, it is not so terribly hard to imagine shopping at a different mall, programming computers for a different bank, driving through a different McDonald's, or buying your groceries at a different WalMart. It's not so difficult to imagine moving into another new (or relatively new) house or apartment, in another subdivision full of mocha-, sage- and cream-colored houses, and calling it home. And because you can easily imagine calling a new place, "home," you may not be able to understand those of us who have difficulty with that concept.

If, on the other hand, you are a person who lives an a venerable old city with a strong identity of its own, like San Francisco, New York or Chicago, in a neighborhood where family-owned businesses have been handed down for generations, you may feel a twinge of empathy with people who, like you, buy their groceries at Langenstien's, fill their prescriptions at Uptown Delivery Pharmacy, buy their lunch at Guy's Po-Boy's, and drink their beer at the Buddha Belly (where you can also eat lunch and do your laundry). You understand people who buy dog food at Ott's Pet Shop and tacos at the Flying Burrito. Yarn comes from the local yarn store, not Hobby Lobby.

If you live on a ranch with deep roots in Western history, and you worry about wildfire when the grass begins to turn brown in the summer ... or if you can glance out your window in San Francisco and gaze upon a row of turn-of-the-last-century homes, glinting in the morning sunlight in shades of mango, carnation pink and violet, and you worry that they may not survive another earthquake ... then you will understand the firm sense of place held by a New Orleanian or someone on the Florida coast.

And we, in turn, will understand your desire to cling to your home, and although we may fear earthquakes or fire a bit more than you fear tornadoes or floods, we will understand why you stay.

Likewise, if you are lucky enough to live in a small town, devoid of suburbs, malls and big box stores, or if perhaps you live on an island, in a place with a culture and rhythmn and cuisine of its very own ... or if you live in someplace outside of America, a place with a rich culture going back thousands, rather than hundreds, of years ... you will understand this possession of place with a fierce clarity.

I was born and raised in New Orleans, and although I've lived in Baton Rouge since 1979, New Orleans is my home ... but so is all of South Louisiana. My roots run deep here, even though my ancestors mostly arrived after 1880. The rhythm and spark of our culture run strong in my veins. You don't need to live here very long to feel it. You just need to reach down, touch the ground and take its pulse.

I don't stay here because I like the weather. And even though I bemoan the onset of our beastly summers, and complain mightily about the heat, and threaten to retire to the Pacific Northwest or Ireland any second now ...

...somehow, I'm still here.

And it's not because I like the suffocating summer heat and humidty. It's not because I think hurricanes are exciting or because the occasional tornado or toppled 100-foot tree adds a little pizzazz to my day. It's not because I like cockroaches the size of a grown man's thumb who can fly. It's not because I like worrying about the spring floods overtopping the levees, or because I like stupid politicians who play on people's fears instead of inspiring their dreams.

I stay because South Louisiana isn't Anyplace (although I see the tendrils of Anyplace taking firm root in newer parts of Baton Rouge). I suppose I could wax poetic about live oak trees, gumbo, zydeco music, the primal scent of a cypress bayou, traditional New Orleans music, jambalaya ... but I won't, because I'll give you some credit for already knowing about those things, and for understanding that those very things are precisely what make this entire region distinctly and magnificently different from Anywhere, USA.

This hurricane season, those of us living on the Gulf Coast of the United States of America are facing the worst oil spill in U.S. history in the opening weeks of what is expected to be a fierce hurricane season. We are entering hurricane season with a growing catastrophe already on our hands, because getting some measure of control over the spewing well is just the beginning of a long, hard road -- exactly in the same way that the disaster was only beginning when Hurricane Katrina's winds died down.

There is already an unimaginable amount of oil out there in the Gulf just waiting to make its slimy and suffocating way onto shore and into the marshes, just waiting for the turn of the tide ... oil that will be pushed even further into our delicate marshes and wetlands when storms start marching across the Gulf this summer.

Even without any assistance from hurricanes, the disaster is just beginning to unfold.

How you can help: ABC news has posted some good links to assistance agencies here ....

Please click the link and see what you can do to help.

I will continue to post contacts for helping agencies as this disaster continues to unfold.

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4 Comments:

At 8:38 AM, Anonymous elizabeth said...

As always, a true and thought-provoking post. I abhor the homogenization of America and while I live in a city (Birmingham) that is not of my birth, I support local businesses and connect with my neighbors as much as possible. God only knows how much damage this oil spill will cause - my thoughts are with you and all my Gulf coast friends.

 
At 8:49 AM, Blogger Dez Crawford said...

Thank you, Elizabeth, for your kind thoughts. BIrmingham may not be the city of your birth but it sounds like you've latched on to its sense of history and its place in the world.

 
At 12:45 AM, Blogger Jo at Celtic Memory Yarns said...

Sounds of applause from south west Ireland.

Understand every word you say, and a few you don't, dearest Dez. Lived in another country for 25 years, could feel the roots tugging nonstop. Now back where those roots go deep - even though one couldn't call it economically vibrant or even surviving here right now!

The place that has the right scent, the right feel, the right echoes, the right memories -fortunate are those who have such a place to call home.

 
At 5:06 PM, Blogger Lindy said...

Hi, Dez.

What you are describing is "love of place", belonging to a place. Many Americans have no idea what this is or what it means. I am currently living is the Sonoran Desert of AZ. Very few people who move to the desert were born here. Very few people who live in Phoenix or Tucson and their respective megalopolises have any sense of place nor any sense of belonging. This is the reason (one of them) that the famous novelist, Barbara Kingsolver, left Tucson and moved back to her roots in the Appalachian Mountains. This is the reason I, along with my husband, have purchased a tiny piece of "our place" back home in rural northern MI where we will build a small home and spend the remainder of our forevers there.

You wrote a beautiful and moving essay. Thank you for sharing your "sense of place" with your readers.

Lindy

 

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