The importance of place

Amy Davidson has written  a piece for the New Yorker summarizing the last year using seven addresses.  It must have been on my mind after I read it last night because early this morning in that time when you are not quite awake and yet not asleep, I tried to name the street and visualize all the places I’ve lived.  I don’t, of course, remember the first place I went after I was born except from a vague memory of visiting as a very young child.  I do remember with some effort the other places.  Some of them – particularly early rentals as a young adult – were actually pretty awful.  I even remember a couple of the landlords.  But the last, almost 40 years, I’ve only lived at three addresses.  All of them were/are wonderful in their own way.  The seven addresses Davidson picked to remember 2014 evoke feelings from horrifying and sad to wonderment.

Davidson begins with West Florissant Avenue, Ferguson, Missouri and Bay Street, Staten Island, New York where Michael Brown and Eric Garner died at the hands of the police, events which have the potential to change policing as well as the way we talk about race.  Her next set of addresses are where Thomas Eric Duncan was exposed to Ebola and where he first became ill:  72nd Samuel K. Doe Boulevard, Paynesville, Liberia and The Ivy Apartments, Fair Oaks Avenue, Dallas.  Duncan’s illness set off an extraordinary and irrational panic here.  An epidemic never materialized and so, in the American way, we have mostly forgotten that people are still dying in West Africa.  One consequence is that people there no longer seek medical help for problems that have cures because they fear medical facilities and Ebola causing the number of deaths from ordinary medical problems to rise also.

A memorial for Eric Garner at the site where he died, on Staten Island.

A memorial for Eric Garner at the site where he died, on Staten Island.

Have you heard of this next address?

Nathan Road [Hong Kong], which is six lanes wide and cuts through the central Mong Kok district, was closed for weeks this fall, as students and others assembled to protest what they saw as Beijing’s broken promises about free elections. It, along with other gleaming thoroughfares, was the scene of standoffs whose contrasts—crowds holding up umbrellas amid teargassing near destination boutiques and offices—embodied some trade-offs that have accompanied China’s economic rise in graphic, or geographic, terms. (Traffic or democracy?) The barricades on Nathan Avenue were mostly cleared away in a major police action at the end of November. Cars are passing through again, but the story is not complete, for either side.

We hear almost nothing about the students and their supporters these days unless one listens to the BBC.  Right now, no one is sure where the protests are headed and protesters themselves are divided about whether to continue or to rethink tactics.

I had never heard of this next address:  Naem Roundabout, Raqqa, Syria.

The rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham, also known as ISIS, has been geographically disorienting: it has made sudden, sweeping moves into Northern Iraq, threatened the Turkish border, and put out videos, shot in indeterminate stretches of desert, in which hostages are mocked and killed. But there are moments when the group’s brutality and degraded character can be given an exact address, as when, in Raqqa, the Syrian town that serves as its base, prisoners were beheaded and their remains put on display along the Naem Roundabout. (Naem, in Arabic, means “bliss.”)

Davidson ends with the wonderful address of Comet 67/P Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

The Rosetta spacecraft’s trip to this address took a decade and covered four billion miles. On November 12th, after a couple of bouncy knocks, Rosetta’s Philae module landed on the comet’s surface—the first such visit in human history. The lander settled in a shady spot and then, over a frantic fifty-seven hours, scientists at the European Space Agency performed all the experiments they could before its solar-powered batteries shut down. Philae is sleeping on the comet now, but it may wake up again next summer, when the comet next turns toward the sun.

Thinking about the world and one’s own life through place is a fascinating thing to do.  Try thinking about all of your addresses and how they shaped your life and how they will shape your future.  Think about places you have been.  And I can’t wait to see if Philae wakes up next summer.

Photograph:  MARK PETERSON/REDUX

 

 

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