Monday, August 22, 2005

Sense of place

Transition days make me sit up and notice. Not necessarily big transitions, like life transitions, but physical ones – days when I wake up in one landscape and fall asleep in another one. Travel days: Yesterday was one of them.

I woke up in a big sparkling two-bedroom condo with a roofed-in balcony and a dining room and a washer-dryer combo on the hot, hot sun-soaked First Coast. Surrounded by clean and new gated complexes of condos with palm trees and pools. Connected by wide roads, empty enough most of the time to jaywalk easily if you’re daring enough to go anywhere without a car. Dotted with pristine office parks and shiny new upscale outdoor shopping malls. That was basically my first impression of Southside Jacksonville.

And then I went to bed late Sunday night in New York. And not even any thoroughly gentrified part but (dare I say it?) gritty Washington Heights, which can be dirty, have uneven pavement and occasionally offer unpleasant smells. Don’t get me wrong: I love New York and on the whole would prefer to be here most of the time. But the difference in scenery and feeling was palpable.

Something that I felt about the area, though, was a kind of emptiness. Please don’t take this the wrong way. There are things about that area and that lifestyle that are very attractive to me. And it may just be a snooty snap judgment that I would come to regret over time, if I spent more of it down there. But I kept looking around and feeling like: What was it like here before? What was here before all the new things arrived? Was it all just forest and marsh? (Are there even marshes in that part of the state?) Basically, I didn’t know – that’s why I keep coming back to my disclaimer.

Overall, I had fun, ate some delicious meals, tried some wonderful wines, got a tan and some sunburn, and really enjoyed visiting with my friends, and I think that feeling of emptiness is more wrapped up with my own issues surrounding suburbia and sprawl and development and the places people call home. I grew up in the suburbs, officially, but we were a five-minute drive from the city limits and a big-city neighborhood that I really thought of as part of my hometown, even though geographically, it wasn’t. And even so, the suburbs I grew up in were denser than the new exurbs and edge cities and latter-day developments that are becoming the neighborhoods of much of America. And these places obviously mean something to people and provide them with an enviable quality of life. But it just doesn’t always appeal to me – at least not right now. It’s strange, but as much as I’d like to have a big apartment and a nice car and more ease of traveling, I prefer the dirt and scruffiness and – more importantly – the history and architecture and culture of this city if I had to choose between them. Perhaps these feelings will change if I were to get married and have kids. Or maybe I have just learned to love the town I’m in – warts and all – and I’ve happened to end up here, so I enjoy it for what it is.

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