A Place To Call Home
November 17, 2014

Every once in a while someone asks me - "what brings you here?" More often, I will be asked "what college do you go to?" Perhaps they ask this because I am a foreigner, in my 20s, living in a college town in Arkansas. But no, I am actually married and working here - just like you. Sometimes, they will follow up with a question like "what are you doing in a place like this?"

It's a question I often ask myself. If I were a college student, I would just be here temporarily; this town would be a stepping stone where I'd study for a few years and then move on. But I am working full time - there is no set end date to this chapter in my life. I don't blame people for asking what I'm doing here - it seems ironic that a young expatriate in his 20s that grew up in a city and became somewhat famous for talking about city life is now living in small town Arkansas. I love my wife and would live anywhere for her, and so we live here to be close to her family.

We both mutally agree this isn't the place for us in the long term, and this is a feeling that grows stronger with each year that passes by. It has been tough for both of us. My wife has had a tough time with her career here. For me, I'm having a really difficult time accepting this way of life; it's very different to what I grew up with and what I'm seeking in life. I feel like I'm living in a transitional period, than a settling down period. I find it difficult to get emotionally attached to things (our house, material goods), because nothing feels permanent - or, for the most part, real.

Part of this feeling of unrealness may be culture shock because I am in a new country. The culture of Australia and the United States are not too different - but it's different enough that it's not exactly the same. When you step outside you can immediately tell which country you are in. The laws and lifestyles are close, but not exact. It's familiar, but also unnatural and unsettling (I keep thinking of the film The Bothersome Man). Have I fallen into a sort of cultural uncanny valley?

Perhaps it's not cultural at all, and I'm just an urbanite out of place in a small suburban town. I write about Places and Non-Places, yet I feel a sense of isolation and 'nowhere' everytime I step out of my work onto a parking lot along a highway. I write about how much I love intimate, cosy laneways, and public markets in a town that has none. I have become a reference on Traditional Cities despite living in the furthest place from one.

Am I a hypocrite that should stop writing, or am I just out of place and have not yet found my home? These are questions I ask myself every day as I drive to my office campus. If I think about it enough I go crazy, so to cope I write a blog. Analysing the world around me and writing about it helps because it emotionally dettaches me from it when I think about it in third person.

I feel lost and that feeling fuels me to write, it fuels me to travel, and it fuels me to find a place to call home. I like to pretend I already have a home, even if it's just a transient one.



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sarah • 12.07.2014 • 20:18 PM (MST)
The truth is, that feeling, it never goes away. Sometimes the only way to feel like home, is when you're home. If you cant cope with the stress of living away and constantly feeling this way, which surely is unhealthy, then no sum of money or job should keep you from your comfort. Organize a visit home, or perhaps apply for jobs in your hometown and see if that works out for you. Best, Sarah
NickD • 11.27.2014 • 22:24 PM (MST)
As an urbanist who grew up in the Canadian suburbs, I can understand how you feel. The suburban neighbourhood I lived in as a young child was built in the 70s I think, we lived in a townhouse, although unlike American townhouses which are usually in HOA controlled pods, this one was on a real (albeit looping suburban style) street, and "freehold". It backed onto a large ravine and park system where you could bike 5-10 miles without even a single crossing at street level. There was also a rec/community centre, library and shopping centre just down the street we'd walk to several times a week, even after my parents got their 2nd car. We knew a lot of their neighbours, all sorts of characters, but we knew them at least sort of well. There's 14 families we knew by name, including a dozen kids I played with from time to time and 5 of them quite regularly. Having 20-25ft wide lots made it quite conducive towards spontaneous encounters especially for us kids, and even if there was no-one outside you still had more options closeby where you could ring the bell to see if your friends could come play. And the front setbacks did get used, there were about a dozen adjacent townhouses where we used the driveways and front yards as a big playground (and the neighbours seemed to tolerate us...) I also remember two neighbours would often have little summertime pic-nics of sorts in their front yards while us kids played nearby. Streetview examples of this sort of stuff https://www.google.ca/maps/@43.4399518,-80.5226632,3a,30y,248.18h,82.2t/data=!3m4!1e1!3m2!1suzmVA9Vw17sQQ46ntB39aw!2e0 https://www.google.ca/maps/@43.6458472,-79.731319,3a,30y,107.34h,85.94t/data=!3m4!1e1!3m2!1s2u5MFBnMgDHIQWAGin8ORQ!2e0 https://www.google.ca/maps/@43.5987888,-79.708186,3a,15y,220.63h,81.47t/data=!3m5!1e1!3m3!1sc3ZEzFWTkSFx9uqomFAeow!2e0!5s20090701T000000 Where I lived as a teenager lots were 120ft wide and we had much less spontaneous encounters with other kids although my parents still made an effort to get to know the neighbours. When my parents got a dog after I moved out that helped give a reason to talk to other dog walkers they came across so they got to know more people that way. And still this lower density suburb at least has a pretty nice downtown a 30 min walk away and a few shopping plazas within 20-30 min and many parks and schools even closer. The liveliest parts post-WWII suburbs in Canada usually have a certain combination of features - at least two busy intersecting transit routes leading to a lot of people transferring between them. Dense working class housing like townhouses and apartment buildings so you get a lot of low car households (more like single car than car-free) with pedestrians and transit users. And then near the intersecting bus routes some retail and offices. Ex: https://www.google.ca/maps/@43.5800916,-79.6162082,3a,75y,31.27h,79.47t/data=!3m4!1e1!3m2!1sRuTdomAKICrPbYF95PAugQ!2e0 That neighbourhoods (Cooksville) technically has a few pre-war buildings, but it's much less than Conway and I doubt any part of Conway is ever that lively. Other examples include Jane & Finch, Markham & Lawrence, Finch & Warden, Markham & Ellesmere, Jane & Wilson. Although they are like a lively version of hypertrophic hell. Not sure if places like that exist anywhere in the US though. Otherwise, I think some older small towns in the Great Lakes area and Northeast might be more interesting. Either that or bigger cities like the ones Charlie mentioned, and maybe add in Buffalo, Cleveland, Grand Rapids, Milwaukee and New Orleans.
George Carty • 11.27.2014 • 13:11 PM (MST)
Perhaps the human-scaledness of traditional Islamic cities was simply down to the fact that they were built in an age before automobiles or even transit had been developed. (In fact, they didn't have any wheeled vehicles at all -- as their main beast of burden was the camel, which is incapable of pulling a vehicle). I vaguely remember a blog post by an American (probably a convert to Islam) living in Saudi Arabia, decrying the suburban sprawl there as making American suburban sprawl look environmentally responsible by comparison. Perhaps the climate has something to do with it -- US suburban sprawl is at its most extreme in the desert Southwest -- along with the ultra-cheap gasoline of course...
Zeph • 11.22.2014 • 23:47 PM (MST)
George, I had a good chuckle about that - it would seem that way! I think however that the suburbs would fall under Hanlon's Razor: "Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity." Though while I don't doubt there were - and are - people who feel like that, I don't think it had any real traction. The suburbs were a large and ultimately flawed experiment to spur post WW2 economic growth. They traded community convenience for personal intra-home convenience and privacy: larger and larger homes, with large yards which were meant to mimic farms but ended up as weak parodies of them, 6 ft fences to keep out prying neighbors' eyes. Indeed, I think it's ironic to consider private suburban living as puritanical, given all the seedy things that can go on in the privacy of one's home, where neighbors hardly know each other. And to what Charlie said, while not ideal and rather dendritic, traditional Islamic homes and cities which have been kept intact are still mesmerizing real Places to be, and importantly, human-scaled. (Incidentally, riads with their inner courtyards are based on Roman villa designs).
Charlie • 11.22.2014 • 16:57 PM (MST)
Hey, George. That's a great observation. I did not realize this. There's value in quiet residential areas. I myself wouldn't want to live next to a brothel or gambling parlor either. But maybe I just look back at a childhood spent on the backseat of a car (1.00 to 1.30h a day), and think, waw, what a waste of time. And my poor parents at the wheel, what a waste of THEIR time! I live in one of these 19th century suburbs, next to a commercial corridor stroad. I'm not sure what the atmosphere was 100 years ago, but right now it feels 'lively'. Definitely not Manhattan-lively, but more like an agreeable small town bustle; delivery trucks, pickup trucks, shops, bars, grocery stores, walker and bikers who are actually going places instead of recreating, loitering teenagers, ... real estate agents in my area advertise it as an "urban" neighborhood. I wonder, if this was the suburban atmosphere these 19th century people aspired too, or if they wanted the dead-zones of post WW2 suburbs where there's nobody outside, except maybe a dog walker or jogger. That said, I'll take the Moroccan riad over the American free-standing house in the suburbs anytime. At least such a home is close to everything, and and you still have privacy in your atrium. In a suburb here, you are usually very close to your neighbours, and your yard is small (except for that huge shitty front-lawn that you only need to maintain but get no enjoyment from). That's what still bugs me about the suburbs here! Is that you have to go live far out, away from everything, and you don't even get the advantages of rural living, with lot's of quiet space and large acreage. It's like you lose two times. I apologize for all my complaining... But thank you again for the remark, it's very enlightening and puts things in perspective.
George Carty • 11.21.2014 • 01:30 AM (MST)
Charlie, weren't American suburbs <i>designed</i> to be boring, as part of a post-puritanical ideology (which first began towards the end of the 19th century) that sought to shield the American nuclear family from the moral corruption of city living? This is why suburbia has minimal public spaces, and dendritic street layouts designed to isolate households from each other -- both these features are similar to traditional cities in Islamic countries (which also have a very strong "family first" ethic).
Charlie • 11.19.2014 • 14:18 PM (MST)
Leave! Live is too short to live in a shithole like that. If you don't have satisfying personal ties there (friends, family, executive position at walmart), these places are purgatory. (that is if you ever get to leave, they are hell if you are stuck...). American suburbs are an affront to human dignity. They are ugly, aesthetically and spiritually. These places are black holes for delight, playfulness and wonder. They have no sensory pleasures. They have an unseemly effect on its residents, nourishing an unseemly solipsism for all those who call it home. Those who stay are the ones who have rationalized the awfulness after the fact, or the ones that do not want to be there (the bored teenagers bursting out of their pants to finally go to college, the young family priced out of the nice parts of town, the old people who can't imagine anything else, ...). All of them, understand at some level they are living in a place that has no appeal, besides perhaps the confines of their home. These places are not worth visiting, so why are they worth living in? somewhat tangential remark: Traditional cities don't really exist in the US. But there is still pleasant urban living in this country. The US has many older cities which are growing and only getting better. The mid-west and the south are treasure troves; Cincinatti, Louisville, Columbus, Nashville, Pittsburgh, ... no small cutesy streets, but you can live car free in your day-to-day live no problem without loss of comfort if you are so inclined. They boast tight-knit communities, wonderful architecture & turn-of-the-century character, have plenty of entertainment options, high brow, low brow, redneck brow, all in one. It is invigorating. And best of all, you can make it your own and be in control, unlike in New York, San Francisco, DC, Chicago, or such.. which feel like you live at the mercy of some higher power. These cities need people who like cities (like you), and over time, these cities will be illustrations of the idea that urban living in the 21st century is not only pleasant just for the wealthy at the coasts, but can be pleasant for everybody. Plus, plenty of brownfields in these cities too to construct the open air markets and laneways and cutesy stuff.
Zeph • 11.18.2014 • 10:26 AM (MST)
Thanks for writing this! It's largely how I feel. I'm from the SF Bay Area, and my wife is from where we now live, northern Kentucky (it's semi-rural suburban, though technically in the Cincinnati metro area). We tried living in my hometown, Santa Cruz, CA, but my wife missed her family too much and we moved back here. While Santa Cruz is far from perfect, it was somewhat more walkable and has the bonus of having a great climate year round (it's a beach town). My youth spent there involved a lot of biking to the beach and to downtown. I've lived in various places in the US (suburbs outside of Detroit, MI and in Columbia, SC), and liked the latter a bit more than the former, and I never gave much though about what makes a city worth living in until I discovered your blog. Now living in middle American suburbs drives me a bit nuts. I work from home though, so at least I don't have to commute :) "Am I a hypocrite that should stop writing" - I don't think so. You and your wife both admit that you may move from there. Think of it as a "trial by fire" sort of thing :)