Sunday, December 03, 2006

Knowing My Place

[With this post I'm taking a break from the photo competition series. Am saving the top winner for last, so stay tuned!]

Lately I’ve been reflecting on a sense of place and what makes one feel comfortable in a particular place. These reflections have been prompted by a month’s stay in a newly built suburb of Portland, Oregon. This housing division is being built in an area that formerly contained rugged northwest woods on steep hillsides. Everywhere you look, tall evergreen trees are being chopped down and the land bulldozed to make room for yet another street of beautiful upper middle class homes. This complete alteration of the natural environment imparts a sadness to this otherwise cheery family neighborhood. I wonder about the animals being displaced and the effect on the ecosystem. I’m not inspired to do any exercise walking here even though there are consistent sidewalks, a park that seems perpetually empty, and hills that would provide a good aerobic workout. Imagining what this area must have looked like a mere five years ago puts a damper on my motivation to walk.

On several occasions in the past month when I was in downtown Portland I noticed that I suddenly felt more at home. So marked was the feeling that I would describe it as being almost a physical sensation. Not something I could ignore. I think it had to do with being in an urban setting again. Although Portland doesn’t have skyscrapers like NYC, it does have tall office and apartment buildings, public transportation, shopping areas that are not malls, parks with people in them, restaurants that are not national chains, traffic, bridges, and pedestrian walkways along the river – all of which make me feel at home. Although I grew up in a suburban area, I moved to NYC as a young adult and have spent 38 years there. It is not surprising, then, that an urban area would feel more like home to me.

Sometimes people are drawn to places by the weather. For example, many people retire to Florida and Arizona to escape the cold northern winters. If weather were a determining factor, I don’t see why anyone would move to Portland. It rains all the time. Nearly every day. And quite often it’s not just drizzle. People here don’t even count drizzle as rain. They just say it’s wet outside. Moss grows on trees in Portland -- it’s that wet! Once when I was here in the spring, rain turned to hail the size of golf balls – the largest hailstones I’d ever seen. Lately it has been snowing. That’s something of an improvement because the temperature isn’t cold enough for the snow to accumulate on the ground. With all this precipitation, needless to say even a few hours of blue sky during the day is an event. The clouds are always hovering in the distance, threatening to move in and darken the day or unload more water. In fairness, I must say that all this rain makes for a stunning spring. When the grass gets green and buds appear earlier than most places in the US and the trees and flowers come into full bloom in March, I’m sure Portlanders’ spirits soar. And in summer when it rains the least, it’s not as hot as many other places around the country.

By contrast, I would say New York City is weather-neutral. By that I mean the various types of weather balance themselves in such a way that none seems to predominate. Hot, cold, wet, dry - you get a little bit of everything. And each season gives you some clear days that enable the Manhattan skyline to look its best and leave you as breathless as the first time you saw it. That said, I'm not sure anyone would move to NYC for the weather either. Throughout all the seasons New Yorkers are forced to interact with the weather because we do so much walking in the course of our everyday lives. We walk to the grocery, the laundrymat, the pharmacy, the bank, the restaurant, or to the subway or bus stop. We dress for the weather, whatever it is, because we know we’ll be out in it every day. We have a relationship with the weather. We brave the heat and the cold, and though we may complain loudly at times, we take pride in our ability to endure it.

More than weather or setting, I think familiarity is the strongest factor in making one feel comfortable in a given place. And familiarity builds if you stay long enough. In my neighborhood on the Lower East Side of Manhattan I love knowing the cashiers at the vegetable market, the dry cleaners, the pet store and the bodega (small corner grocery store, like Pantry Pride or 7-11 in Portland). I love knowing exactly what I’ll get when I order from the neighborhood restaurants. I love knowing the City well enough that I never get lost. I love the variety of smells and sounds that serve as a backdrop to the diverse mix of people, dogs, and drama you find on the street. I guess if I moved I would eventually become familiar with a new place. I would grow accustomed to the weather and get to know the people in the shops. I would redefine drama and make my peace with driving everywhere and shopping in malls when necessary. But it would take time. Another 38 years perhaps.

I am very lucky to live in a place that makes me feel so good. I wasn’t born in New York City. I chose it. I’ve become part of it, and it’s become part of me. And being away so long, I surely do miss it.

© 2006, Linda Mason Hood
Truffles, Turtles & Tunes Copyright Statement


mbg said...

I miss New York, too, after only living there seven years. It grows on you. even though we're surrounded by almost-old-growth pines, I still miss the quirky people on the subway and those guys who emerge from nowhere with umbrellas for sale on every corner as soon as it starts to rain...
love ya, Melissa

BG said...

Nice post. Looking forward to being back in NYC soon.