I’ve been in DC for the week, which has been an interesting coda to my recent travels. Although I’ve previously lived in DC for a fair amount of time (two years as a kid, three years in college) and can lay claim to a certain urbane smugness in knowing it well enough, it’s also a place where I never quite found my footing – by which I mean both that I lacked a real sense of community and belonging when I lived here, and that, while I know certain axes well, I nonetheless have consistent difficulty orienting myself within the actual space of the city. I know how to get from one place to the other; I just have frequent trouble figuring out where I am.
I don’t want to carry the metaphor too far, but I think it’s useful to recognize that the mental maps we make of different places affect how we view those places, and vice versa. I was struck by this during my recent month in Cleveland, where I (mis)spent most of my youth – like most young people growing up in a less-than-glamorous locale I chafed at the perceived constraints of my environment, and my mental map of Cleveland reflected that. It was a static and rarely-changing landscape, institutional and bereft of urban dynamism. As soon as I could I escaped to San Francisco, a place which, in its hills and rolling fog, fast-paced tech economy and activist politics, seemed to churn with possibility, rife with all that Cleveland lacked; but what I found there was a city so well in place, drawing so much talent and interest, that I felt extraneous. My mental map was so full of churn that it pushed me out.
Coming back to Cleveland this past July I was able to re-evaluate that old map; it had been long enough, and the changes dramatic enough, that I was forced to revisit my old perceptions and recognize that the Cleveland I believed to exist no longer did. There are still constants – the Cleveland Orchestra never disappoints – but neighborhoods once so familiar as to be stifling have been reinvented, and the North Coast thrums anew with possibility. I have lived in fourteen different addresses since high school but being back at my parents’ house for a bit I realized that the most beautiful place I’ve ever lived is in Cleveland Heights, tree-lined streets priced for the middle-class and housing stock that outshines anything I saw in Marin County. Wandering around DC I still struggle to navigate the spatial memory of spiritual displacement (I was unhappy a lot while I was here) but in Cleveland, a fresh perspective challenged so many of my old sensibilities of the city as a place of limitation and gradual decline.
I think it’s important to consider this kind of mental mapmaking when we consider our own relationships to community. In my training here this week one thing we’ve discussed is differential approaches to assessing a community: one can approach a place by looking at its needs, or by looking at its assets. A recent post at The Urbanophile took on the same question, in the context of Cleveland, deriding civic boosterism as an easy mechanism for ignoring real problems – but while an asset-based community map will highlight different elements than a needs-based community map, the bottom line is that they share a common goal of strengthening placemaking, of encouraging remaking, investment, and action. Capitalizing on strengths and addressing serious needs are complementary strategies, and both are necessary (particularly in the case of Cleveland, which almost nobody perceives as having assets at all*). Rather than an either/or, we might seek instead to regularly challenge our perceptions – whatever they may be – and discover with fresh insight the possibilities already embedded in our communities.
*Seriously people, the Cleveland Orchestra is widely regarded as America’s best. Suck it, New York!!!!