"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Being From Somewhere - The Myth of Place

Bobby Fawkes  was born and raised in New Brighton, Connecticut, a small industrial city in the Connecticut River Valley. As such New Brighton was home to the captains of industry who made it one of the most important manufacturing centers in 19th century America and later to successive descendants who continued stewardship of Trower Ball Bearing, Marshall Tools, and Hopkins Steel until their children finally gave up on manufacturing and the city itself.  By the late 70s few members of the first families of New Brighton lived there although most of them kept their summer homes on Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.

Connecticut River Valley

New Brighton was also home to the immigrant workers and their families who were laborers in the city’s factories. Mainly Polish, they lived in the North End of town in a community little different from those they had left. Only Polish was spoken in the neighborhoods and shops, and although the Mass was still in Latin in Bobby’s day, the sermons at St. Aloysius were all in the heavily accented language of Silesia.

Image result for images new england early 20th century factories

Professionals – doctors, dentists, and lawyers – were divided by ethnic origin. Most of them were Polish and had an exclusively Polish clientele; and the rest – Jews and Italians mostly – served their particular ethnic group.

Tradesmen, teachers, plumbers, painters, and carpenters were of mixed origins. There were Jewish pharmacists, haberdashers, and jewelers, but not exclusively. The butchers and grocers were by and large Italian, but as the Puerto Rican community grew, the trade diversified.

In short New Brighton like most cities was stratified and segmented by class, origin, ethnicity, and economic status and rarely did members of one group intermingle with any other. The wealthy Anglo-Saxon families of the West End kept by themselves at the Green Meadows Country Club, Muirland Hill Country Day school, Hart Haven and Gay Head on the Vineyard, and at Andover, Exeter, Yale, and Princeton.

The Polish workers stayed in the North End, and the lower-middle class workers lived throughout the East and South Ends of the city where rents and housing prices were low, access to Marshall Haverford Park was easy, and bus service to the center of the city accommodating.

Image result for image polish cathedral new britain ct

After Bobby Fawkes had left New Brighton, he was often asked where he was from.  His accent didn’t give him away – because he had been educated at Andover and Yale, and had grown up with the children of some of the oldest families in New England, he never acquired the particular and unique accent of Central Connecticut. The accent is so unique and specialized, it is only spoken by those who grew up in Plainville, Bristol, Newington, Meriden, Berlin and one or two other towns within a very small radius.

Yet, how would Bobby, even though he spent his entire life in New Brighton until he left college for a Midwestern graduate school, have such an accent? Of course to the practiced ear there were telltale signs. His vowels were slightly broader than the purely received pronunciation of the Vineyard.  He had a trace of a glottal stop in words like ‘but’ and ‘hot’; but for all intents and purposes he could have been from anywhere.

When he answered ‘New Brighton’ when asked where he was from, the questioner always looked puzzled.  If they were at all familiar with the town, it was because of its factories and its Poles.  It was Rust Belt, old, and decaying like most small cities of the Northeast. Those who had some familiarity with New England history were aware of its importance to the Union cause during the Civil War.  In fact, most historians had agreed that if it hadn’t been for the New Brighton’s hardware, industrial, munitions, and armaments factories, the War would have gone on for years.  Yet none of this computed or featured at all in others’ appraisal of Bobby Fawkes.  He might be from New Brighton, but he was definitely not from there.

Bobby’s parents lived in the same house in the West End until they died in the late 90s; and he had visited them a number of times a year. The town still had memories – the hospital where his father had been an attending physician, the Potter Elementary School where he went before Muirland, Johnny’s Smoke Shop where he and his friends bought girly magazines, and Frederick Law Olmsted’s Chestnut Hill Park where he played baseball.

Herbie Swanson’s house was still on Bigby Road, Bruce’s on Harford Drive, and Nancy Harper’s on Reservoir Road. Yet these were all random bits of remembered experiences and had nothing to do with New Brighton per se. They were part of the pastiche of his memory but did not fit into the nature of New Brighton, the place, the communal culture, home.

Image result for images olmsted parks new england

If any geographical distinction suited him it was ‘New England’.  When he answered that to questioners, they nodded and smiled. There was congruity in his accent, his Ivy League dress and demeanor, his confidence, and his Anglo-Saxon looks.  Of course he was from New England.  How could he be from anywhere else? Stereotypes and preconceived images are always far more important than the real thing.

Soon after graduate school Bobby took an assignment overseas, and for many decades spent more time in Europe, South Asia, and Latin America than he did at home.  He was more familiar with Paris, Calcutta, and Buenos Aires than he was with New York or Washington.  His views on culture, religion, community, and history had changed significantly, and by the time he was fifty God, the Church, parsimony, enterprise, and Christian probity – the characteristics of his New Brighton sub-group – had undergone such revision that they were barely recognizable.

Image result for images calcutta

As he got older, even the most tenuous threads that had sewn him and New Brighton together were gone. Place was gone.  Neither Paris, Delhi, Quito, or Washington DC where he now lived made any difference to him at all. Moti Mahal, Nizamuddin’s Tomb, Brasserie Bowfinger, and a hundred other mini-places all over the world were mnemonically quilted just like Nancy Booth’s house, the green, Jimmy’s, and Potter Elementary.

Image result for images brasserie bofinger paris

Personal identity has become an important concept, especially one’s race, gender, and ethnicity. Who you are has less to do with your abilities, interests, intelligence, and spirit than your color, national origin, or sexual orientation. However identity is constructed today, place is not in the architecture.

The United States is now over 85 percent urban and cities today are even more divided by race, class, and economics.  One cannot be from Wilmington DE, for example; but from one part of it; and that one part will share more in common with similar parts of Hoboken, Bethesda, and Columbus MS than with other communities within it. In other words, place has disappeared from the lexicon of identity.

The books of Thomas Hardy are melodramatic potboilers, but they are also hymns to rural England, especially his fictional county of Wessex.  Place is not only important, but essential to understanding the characters in his novels. Nineteenth century writers from Tolstoy to Hugo to Hardy – and Hawthorne and Twain in America – all wrote about the primacy of place and its influential role in shaping one’s character.

Image result for image tess of the d'urbervilles book

Cyberspace and the Internet are rubbing out any last vestiges of place as an important feature of American life. Virtual reality is already replacing place and the here-and-now with fictional and highly individualized creations of an alternate reality. Place itself has no meaning at all except as backdrop for virtual adventures.

An anthropologist who has for years been fascinated with place as a concept and as a personal reference, insists that place still is important.  He has become politically active in preserving the integrity of an exclusive island in Puget Sound, one similar to Martha’s Vineyard or Nantucket in the East. It has a long and storied history, and many of its families were settlers, adventurers, and entrepreneurs of the early Northwest.  It has tradition, cachet, and natural beauty.  He has family and personal ties to the island which to back over 150 years. The island is so important to him that he and his associates have organized to resist any land development which changes the character and ‘integrity’ of the place.  The island has an intrinsic value.  It is a complete environmental, social, and cultural whole.  It is the epitome of place; and it is in many ways his home.

Image result for images towns on islands puget sound

He has argued about his idea about the sanctity of place for years.  Those who did not agree contended that he was preserving an anachronism at best and an elite enclave at worst.  He dismissed those contentions and insisted that he is preserving a way of life that has more value, character, and worth than any other place he has lived or visited.

“Home is where the heart is” is an expression of place sentimentality; and “You can’t go home anymore” is no different.  The first greeting card aphorism suggests that physical place is meaningless compared to the life of the soul.  The second  implies that place – as an integral, indivisible component of our experience – will always exist; but we simply cannot revisit it.

Image result for you cant go home any more images

Physical place used to matter; but it hasn’t in decades. Place is now virtual, individualized, personal, and exclusive. Whether sedentary – i.e. living within familiar idea or virtual worlds of books, ideas, and theatre – or dynamic, creating fantastical virtual worlds of imagination and daring, place is no longer in New Brighton.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.