You’re probably on one of American Airlines’ silver birds right now, which means there’s a 50-50 chance you’re flying somewhere that is not your home. What do you think about that place? Is it nice? Not nice? And how did you form your opinion: from having visited before, from reading about it or from hearing something a late-night comedian or your golf partner said?
I studied geography in college — a lot of it — and one thing geographers learn is that there is good in every place. Geographers are not naïve but are always curious, and they find interesting things in all places. They are indisposed to simpleminded, binary reactions — the stuff of entertainers and others who lack perspective on genius loci, a fine Latin phrase for the special or distinctive qualities of place.
Let’s take an example: What comes to mind when you read the words New Jersey? Tony Soprano? Refineries and chemical plants? Dreadful traffic jams on the New Jersey Turnpike? Well, perhaps. In my experience, that state name also conjures up lots of positive images: a black bear in a quiet pine forest; a barbecue with friends in a pleasant and leafy suburb less than an hour from Manhattan; picking plump blueberries in the Pine Barrens region; the low hum of brainpower while walking the campus of Princeton University; and the best Portuguese cooking this side of Lisbon, Portugal, in the Ironbound neighborhood of Newark.When we think about place, of course, it’s not just about you, the visitor. It’s also about the people who live there. Most residents are inherently proud of their place, whether they’ve been there for many generations or arrived more recently. It’s home — where they work, raise their kids, play and watch sports, worship, volunteer and try to make it better. Solid scientific evidence shows that pride in place — placefulness, if you will — makes us happier and better people, enriches our communities, makes us more secure and more welcoming to visitors. Conversely, when residents do not embrace their home place, quality of life in those communities suffers. The negative becomes self-fulfilling; gloom creates more gloom.
“Placism” has not yet been recognized as a societal ill, but disrespect for place surely is insidious. Truth is, stereotyping is a bad idea, whether it comes to people or to places. Some years ago, I flew home to the Twin ?Cities (not on American Airlines). I grew up in suburban Minneapolis, but at the time we were living in St. Paul. I gently mentioned to the flight attendant that she forgot to mention St. Paul in her announcements, to which she replied, “Well, that’s like going from bad to worse.” Ouch, but not uncommon. The people in the business of carrying people to places ought to be among the first to celebrate the destinations’ rich diversity.
When I was in graduate school in the 1970s, some alarmists extrapolated the growth in national chains like Burger King and Walmart and predicted that the United States, and perhaps many other nations, would become homogenized. Local accents would disappear. Cajun cooking would only be found in a museum. That hasn’t happened to the degree they worried it would. And it won’t happen, because place is woven into culture, and vice versa.
At first glance, globalization does seem to be erasing distinctive aspects of place. We marvel at the long line at the ?McDonald’s in Shanghai, and our kids really want a ?T-shirt from the Hard Rock Cafe in (choose one: Moscow, Munich, Mumbai, from a few of the “M’s”). But on closer look, what may really be happening is that certain marketable aspects of American popular culture — backed with plenty of commercial muscle — are washing over the Earth without necessarily taking down the distinctly local.That’s not to say that the world, especially the world we experience when we’re on vacation, isn’t filled with inauthenticity. Las ?Vegas comes to mind, with its miniature Eiffel Tower, Manhattan skyscrapers, et al. (In fairness, there is a school of thought that holds Vegas as genuine, but only in its ability to be genuinely and perfectly ersatz.) For too long, the Caribbean has been promoted as either a blank canvas or “paradise,” with little respect for local sensibilities and authentic place-making.