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Monday, April 12, 2010

A sense of community, history, place, and family

One of the hazards of reposting my blog posts from Another Monkey to Facebook is that discussions that I would love to see happen within the comments section of the blog post - and therefore become as much a part of the permanent record as the blog posts themselves - instead take place in the comments section of the post in the private cocktail party of Facebook, and are therefore as ephemeral and soon to be inaccessible as the blog posts themselves. For example, to see the comments for this post from just over a week ago, I had to go to my own Facebook profile and select "Older Posts" repeatedly until I found the right one. (I don't even know how far back these "Older Posts" go.) Here are the comments, with the names obfuscated to preserve the anonymity that Facebook demands its users abandon:

Commentor 1: So do some people consider that Northeastern Pennsylvanians have only a 96% resemblance to humans? But look too human to resemble a cute cartoon? *

Me: Well, the way I'm spinning it, it's starting to look like the 4% difference is what everybody else has given up - a sense of community, a sense of history, a sense of place, a sense of family. Once you have divested yourself of those things, people possessing them seem disquietingly strange. But more on that later.

Commentor 2: I agree about the uncanny point and made it myself **-- that's why I described my experience as culture shock. Culture shock is NOT revulsion and antipathy. It is a predictable psychological disorientation caused by having fundamental assumptions challenged constantly. Which I did not expect to find in the Scranton area.

Revulsion and antipathy are merely part of a culture shock experience ... it's not as much of a criticism as it seems ... if you follow. Culture shock contains other elements. I just didn't realize that I was going to find culture shock someplace so close.

Your last sentence was something I was wondering about for the last year I was there -- I did admire the sense of community, history, family, place there. But there's a next set of questions, which is: What kind of community, family, history and the like? How are they different? Are these differences something I agree with or not?

When it comes to entering (or exiting) a strong culture, you first have to realize that the culture works. It has been successful. Culture is essentially a group adaptation mechanism to the area's history. The question becomes: Worked at what cost and what benefit? The Valley's culture chose stability over excellence. Aversion to risk, not risk-taking.

The result is the Valley is rock solid in many ways, but it's a very defensive, hunkered-down culture designed to survive harsh winters and economic tough times, but without the commensurate flexibility to enjoy the benefits of risk-taking. As a result, as group thought, it's extremely insular and not terribly open to outside ideas. That's the negative. The positive is that you feel safe, secure and comfortable within that culture -- and the people are very nice to boot. The negative is that some people may chafe against those restrictions, or allow themselves to be limited by cultural peer pressure. Others gladly seat themselves within that comfort zone.

Anyway, that's what I saw. I'd be interested to hear what you think. Cheers.

Commenter 1: Wow, this is way deeper than the discussion of discomfort with 95% human appearance vs 96% human appearance that we heard on Studio 360 (or was it On The Media)? More, please.

...none of which actually made it onto the original post.

I want to elaborate on the statement I made about about "a sense of community, a sense of history, a sense of place, a sense of family."

First off, a retraction: I do not truly believe that these are senses unique to the residents of Northeastern Pennsylvania and absent in all other people everywhere else. Indeed, these senses are absent in many of the residents of this region, and are demonstrably present in other people elsewhere. Actually, I have somewhat recently fallen in with a group of very unique individuals who are united by their shared senses of these qualities, despite the fact that they are from incredibly diverse locations and backgrounds. (But more on my Sideshow friends some other time.)

A sense of community. Recently there has been a movement to rebrand Northeastern Pennsylvania as "Upstate Pennsylvania." This has fallen flat, primarily because the very notion of "Upstate" raises all sorts of questions: Upstate from what? Philadelphia, tucked in the lower right-hand corner of the state? Pittsburgh, in the lower left? Harrisburg, in the lower center? Are we lumping Erie and Scranton into the same demographic group?

But more than just spatial proximity, community comes from shared interests, as well as from the other three items on this list: history, place, and family.

There are many communities and sub-communities within Northeastern Pennsylvania. Foremost in my mind is the Wilkes-Barre - Scranton region, a contiguous collection of municipalities stretching roughly from Carbondale in the northeast to a point to the southwest of Nanticoke. It is a typical outsider's mistake to assume that all of these places are exactly the same, a homogeneous smear of people and culture undeserving of distinctions. I have a friend - a very intelligent friend - who, for years, has been unable or unwilling to comprehend the fact that my hometown of Nanticoke is not, in fact, Scranton, despite my numerous (and occasionally strident) explanations to the contrary. Finally, through the intercession of a NEPA expat of this friend's acquaintance, she was finally willing to concede that Nanticoke is not Scranton - and immediately followed up with "But Wilkes-Barre is the same as Scranton, right?" (Is the Bronx the same as Brooklyn? What about The Hamptons? I mean, they're all New York, right?)

One measure of this: our local TV news. Once we had three local networks, each with its own local news broadcasts at 6:00 and 11:00: WBRE, based in Wilkes-Barre; WDAU (later WYOU) focusing more on events in Scranton; and WNEP, generalizing itself to the entire Northeastern Pennsylvania area, even reaching out to the Poconos. Times have changed, and a simgle entity purchased WYOU and WBRE, and eventually shut down the WYOU news programming. But WNEP and WBRE continue strong. When I once asked some friends in mid-Northern New Jersey what their local news broadcasts were like, they looked at me funny and said, "well, we get these stations out of New York City..."

A sense of history. You need only mention single words - Avondale, Knox, Agnes - and people will know what you're talking about: the worst mine disaster (in terms of deaths) in this area in recent history, the incident that ended mining in this area for good, the tropical storm that unleashed a flood that nearly wiped out the Wyoming Valley - and would have, if not for the efforts of another Flood. More than that: our history lives all around us, both as the old buildings that once served as banks and businesses and schools, and as the physical scars left on the land by decades of coal mining, the culm baks and mine fires and rusting coal breakers and creeks and streams that run orange with acidic mine leachate and stink of sulfur. We know what coal mining bought us, and we know what coal mining cost us. We know what this area once was, and we know where it is today, and we know where we would like it to be tomorrow.

This is something that we are losing, and losing quickly, as the old-timers die out and their children move away and the newcomers arrive with no interest in the history of the place they have come to. Not always; not all of them. One of the people I know who has taken the strongest interest in the well-being of the City of Wilkes-Barre isn't even originally from around here. And there is always hope that one day, some transplant from New York or New Jersey or Philadelphia will take a look around, at the culm banks and coal breakers and orange-brown creeks, and say "What the hell is all this?" Thus does wisdom begin.

A sense of place. Plato (or was it Socrates? or was it Plato putting words into Socrates' mouth?) suggested that the way to instill patriotism in the natives of a land would be to tell them that they have been formed of the very land itself.*** Nobody in Northeastern Pennsylvania believes this, as far as I know, but this place does get under your skin. The mountains, the forests, the rivers and streams - even the ugliness, the scars and the degradations. I think those of us who think about such things carry the idea of Northeastern Pennsylvania as a place around with them, and reflexively compare every other place to it.

A sense of family. This one is the hardest to justify. I'd like to say that people in Northeastern Pennsylvania have a unique sense of family, a closeness to ancestors and siblings and descendants and aunts, uncles, and cousins that goes beyond what is seen in other areas. But I don't know if that is true, or if maybe it was once true and is true no longer. I think maybe the nursing homes are just as filled up with the elderly who have been put out of sight and out of mind by their uncaring offspring, that there are as many old folks dying slow, lonely deaths by inches in the little houses that crowd together throughout Northeastern Pennsylvania. I'd like to think that abandoning your parents to their own devices while you strike off to make something of yourself in the Big Wide World is something that only happens elsewhere. But I think maybe that is just a pretty lie that I tell myself.

And none of this is unique to Northeastern Pennsylvania. None of it is even necessarily characteristic, except for certain carefully selected subsets of the population.

Yet I know that there are individuals who measure their success by the degree to which they are lacking in all of these things: no ties to any one community, no concern for the trivial details of the place where they happen to be, no awareness of the space they occupy beyond the roads that carry them from the place where they live to the place where they work and back again, and who recognize family with visits to nursing homes on the appropriate holidays and, if possible, the necessary funerals.

And what about you? What about the place where you reside? Are you - and is it - suffused with a sense of community, a sense of history, a sense of place, and a sense of family?

*The title of this post was "The Uncanny, a prelude" and the commentor is referring to the "Uncanny Valley" in robotics, referenced in an article mentioned in the original post.
**Commentor 2 was at the same party where this issue came up.

***Yeah, like I'm gonna look this up. Listen, it was something one of my college professors said nearly a quarter of a century ago. I don't recall the exact book. Maybe the Republic. Or the Timaeus?


Linkmeister said...

Hawai'i does have that sense of place and history. For a while there people were worried, but the rate of its loss has slowed down in part because the flow of newcomers from the mainland has slowed as the economy tanked. But there's an effort to educate even the newcomers in what's called The Aloha Spirit, a "it's a small island, we all have to get along together" attitude.

hedera said...

It's hard to have a sense of family and community when your family is all over the map. I grew up in Napa, California; none of my immediate relatives lived there. Some of them lived in Alameda and San Leandro (close enough to visit at holidays). Some lived as far away as Kansas, or Michigan.

My husband, living with me now in Oakland, California, has a sister in Pennsylvania (Clarion, if you're interested) and a brother in Illinois, just outside Chicago. My only sister lives in Las Vegas. Where's the sense of community and family when your entire communication is by telephone and email?

We don't even own the house I grew up in any more; we sold it after Dad died, because (a) Mom couldn't handle it alone (in fact couldn't handle living alone), and (b) we needed the money to support her in independent (later assisted) living. So I grew up in Napa but I know almost no one there now - my last close friend in Napa died a year ago at the age of 62. (Pulmonary embolism.)

Nanticoke may be different from California - I'm not sure the coastal cities of California have much of a sense of place, community, or history. Oakland, of course, is so battered by poverty and crime that it barely has a sense of present, much less of history; it isn't the same town it was even 20 years ago.

I'm not sure what point these observations have, but I felt I wanted to share them.