I walk in and something to the likes of ammonia blasts into my nasal canal and brings with it a strong sense of nostalgia. I walk a few steps to the front desk and the lady behind it says nothing. She just sits there wearing disney-themed scrubs and continues to look at her computer. There is a sign in sheet on the counter where I follow the instructions and check-in, writing my name and the time of my appointment.
I turn around to a room full of chairs, a few filled with patients that look more miserable than myself. There are a few magazines from three years ago sprawled on a dull coffee table. The pictures that adorn the walls look like stock photos that I have seen in places that are as boring and dreadful as this one.
I sit patiently, tapping my finger on my knee, waiting for my name to be called. I watch as other people get called and then brought like cattle through the swinging door and into the private office.
Without even telling you where I am, I’m sure you have already guessed it. And, most likely, you are dreading my experience at the doctors office with me because you have experienced the same exact thing. How is that? I went to the doctor in San Diego, California and given the introductions on the first day of class, I don’t think anyone else(or anyone who is reading this) went to the doctor in the same town as me, never mind the same exact doctors office. Yet, somehow, we all know this experience and recognize the doctors office for it’s terrible, unique smell, it’s stock-photo clad walls, it’s disney scrubs, and the dread of the whole experience.
The Western doctors office, for all the good that it does for people, does very little good for the individual on a personal level. Anything beyond a x-ray, a test, a scan, a prescription, or the like, a doctor has to reference a patient elsewhere. This is because of the placelessness of not only the experience of going to the doctor but also the aesthetic of the doctors office that immediately takes on this nature of placelessness.
It really is unfortunate because if the doctors offices made more of an effort to create a more unique ambiance and cultivate a personal relationship with patients, I am sure they could help so much more. In a class I am taking, a homeopathic doctor came in and told us about his practice. He explained how his initial consultation with a patient can last up to two hours. This is because he wants to get to know his patients, every detail, because those minute details could be the reason the patient is feeling some way or the other. He explained how in homeopathy it is crucial to look at the whole because the cure to one persons ear ache, for example, could be much different to the cure to someone else’s ear ache. It is this personalization and lack of structure in this alternative atmosphere that allows it to be more of a place, in experience and in aesthetic. He does’t wear scrubs and he listens to his patients beyond the words “I hurt my ___” and “I am feeling ____” (fill in the blank with whatever ailment). What he gives, says, or prescribes the patient is decided after the patient is done explaining their situation. Whenever I go to the doctor, I feel like a prescription is written for me before I even finishing explaining my symptoms. With that said, I think the doctors office can create a sense of place by losing the mechanic order of operations that it utilizes so that it can have better quality sessions with patients which will result in patients returning less.
Where is my sense of home? Like Pico Iyer, I’m not always sure how to answer. In one sense I’m from Southern New Jersey, yet for the past ten years, I’ve wanted nothing more than to get as far away from it as possible. It’s not that New Jersey is a bad place to grow up. Many people grow fond of this place and community. However, I think I became disillusioned by the suburban life because of things that occurred during my time there. I think that had a lot to do with how I grew up rather than where I grew up.
I had a troubling youth, to say the least. Up until my 18th birthday, I had been abused. I lived with this torment for many years. A growing fear manifested inside of me, and then I began developing a growing defiance for all authority figures. The growing contempt leaked into many facets of my life that caused things to spiral out of control.
Because of this, I would end up traveling a difficult path in life. When I decided on my 18th birthday that I would leave my home for good, I had very little money to sustain myself. In spite of this, I knew I had to leave in order to find my own sense of self that I couldn’t seem to find at home. I ended up in various places throughout the next 3 years. All of these places were scattered along the NJ coast. One of which was a dilapidated dwelling on a mainland in NJ. This was the first place I would call my own and it was the cheapest I could find at $400 a month. The room was on the third floor in an attic. The owner of the house was addicted to Oxycontin, and he used my rent money to support his pill habit. During my time there I remember feeling a deep need to improve my circumstances. I wasn’t complacent with where I was and I feared that if I stayed there any longer I would become something I never wanted to be.
After months of living there I discovered that my cousin had lived in the room I was staying in two years prior. He was eventually evicted after he developed a heroin habit and couldn’t keep up with the rent. After that discovery, I knew I had to do something to improve my life. That was a defining moment for me. Finding myself in a home that was not ideal, cozy, or filled with love was necessary for my development. Home for me is not a place I have ever wanted to return to. Home for me has always been a stepping-stone for the next phase in life. I will always be looking for the next phase in life. I need not settle down just yet because I only want to continue to move forward.
About five years ago my family thought that it would be brilliant to give my seventy-something year old grandfather an electric cigarette. This old man who smoked tobacco since he was a teenager, and loved it, did not say thank you for the gift. Instead, he said—“this is like having sex with a sex doll, I do not want it.” I have not really been able to relate to his feelings then many times in my life other than the instance when I tried an Oculus Virtual Reality headset. I was amused and decided to entertain the experience of being somewhat immersed in a digital space, but I could not truly enjoy it. At least, not as an alternative to reality—like some people portray them in dystopian narratives.
A place that only exists virtually, but can somehow be felt with my (some of my) senses sounds confusing to me. And, although I do not think virtual reality will catch any great momentum, there is a possibility that it will. Maybe we will be able to travel anywhere and experience anything from the comfort of our living room someday. My imagination goes a bit nuts with this possibility, I imagine myself going to all of those buildings I study in my history of architecture class, perhaps even visiting recreated structures from the past, and even entire cities that no longer exist. The possibilities truly are endless. However, the fact that I cannot feel the space with ALL of my senses if the confusing part. In reality, virtual reality is only good if we want to indulge our eyes. That is simply not enough.
I put those uncomfortable black goggles on and looked around a digital jungle. Everything was accurate for a fake jungle, the colors, the plants, etcetera. But it was too easy. By easy, I mean that being in a real jungle is humid, the floor is often muddy, the noise of the monkeys, birds and rivers can be quite overwhelming. All in all, it would be more sensorially challenging or demanding to be in a real rainforest. That is what I want when I travel (now an elastic term, since you can travel through goggles, I suppose). On a similar note, that was what my grandfather wanted when he smoked, a bit of pain in the throat and smelly fingers.
This is all a bit of a rant against the notion of Placemaking 2.0, but in its defense, if it is used in a safe context I believe it has great potential. For instance, it would be a lot better for children to be engaged in history class if they get to sit in the Roman colosseum for a couple of minutes after their lecture about it. Or, even better, being able to share distinct realities around the globe, a kid in NYC visiting a normal house in Cabul through VR. Imagine how successful that would be in creating more sympathy towards people and cultures foreign to us? Even if I question the authenticity of virtual spaces, it all depends on how we use them. Although, it is important to keep in mind that the essence of a place (Oxford Dictionaries: A particular position, point, or area in space; a location.) is its physicality.
One of my first jobs growing up was as a bus boy for a restaurant called The Clam Bar. I had gotten the job because the owner was a friend of my family and both my sisters were waitresses there. The Clam Bar or Smitty’s as some locals would call it captures the essence of the traditional vernacular landscape in many ways. The restaurant features some of the best seafood I have ever eaten in my life. The clam chowder and anything on their specials boards is worthy of any foodie’s attention. This hidden gem is set back on a back bay off the Atlantic and has an ambiance of pure tradition. Rather than being caught up in the vicious circle of ornamenting a fashionable décor—Smitty’s keeps is simple. The wallpaper tabletops have been there longer than the owner who bought the restaurant many years ago. The dining room chairs are simple black cushioned seats. The walls feature art from the local artist and have seaside themes. When waiting in line for the bathroom queue members can enjoy candid Polaroid pictures on a bulletin board of past and current employees who may, or may not have been drinking. All things considered, Smitty’s harnesses a nostalgia that keeps locals and tourists coming back year after year.
Aside from the restaurants décor, the vernacular landscape of Smitty’s is predicated on its climate. Smitty’s is a seasonal restaurant and is only open in the summer months. However, there are no air-conditioning units and only small fans placed in the corner of the dining rooms. This keeps the summer vibe inside. On hot days in august, it is particularly amusing, but also frightening when an elderly man orders a burning hot cup of New England Clam chowder for lunch. Moreover, on any night in the summer the wait time for a table at Smitty’s ranges anywhere from 45 minutes to 3 hours (no reservations). What would usually be considered a drawback is actually a quintessential feature of the place. Because the restaurant acquired a BYOB liquor license patrons are encouraged to enjoy wine or beer while they wait outside for their table. This creates an anticipatory build up and also gives patrons time to socialize with each other, enjoy a drink, and take in the bay view. Outside the restaurant is lined with park benches that give off a summer park vibe. At Smitty’s waiting 3 hours for a table is often the highlight of the night.
“Free Wi-Fi”. This is music to the ears to anyone trying to get a faster connection on their phone so they can finish their comment on Facebook. The internet has because a place where everyone and anyone with a smartphone or a laptop live in many hours a day. At least once a day, someone either asks me ‘Do you have an Iphone/ android charger?’ or “Hey, what’s the wi-fi password?” People are so connected to their phones now in age.
Where I work, there is a private Wi-Fi and the public sucky Wi-Fi. I usually have around 20 parents (not even kidding) ask me to sign them in to the better Wi-Fi because they need to ‘check something.’ I always have to say no, we can’t do that because every single staff member has a unique sign in to the Wi-Fi.
At home like 3 years, I look up and everyone is on their phone or tablet or laptop doing something and have to say their names a few times before I can get some attention. I tried unplugging the Wi-Fi once to get a question answered about where my shoes were. Let’s just say I never did that again. And luckily, they have started to look up more and less at their phones.
When I am in the train, most people are listening to music, playing games on their phones, or texting, since Wi-Fi underground is now a thing too. No one looks at each other or talks to each other. People would rather google the directions that ask anyone on the train for them (not like you could since everyone is jamming to music and can’t hear you).
When I am in the elevator of my building, and I am guilty of this, I whip out my phone and look busy so I don’t have to have any conversations with my neighbors even though I have known these people since I was almost 2.
Technology has created a huge disconnect between people. People don’t communicate as much anymore. People would rather talk to google or Siri than talk to each others’ face. People have more social anxiety and shyness because it is so easy to type something that say something.
For me, this makes me angry because I really enjoy face to face conversations. There is an authenticity to talking in person than just typing up an over-thought text. Technology and the digital world doesn’t create memories. I can’t remember what I posted last week, but I can remember the awesome conversation about food I had with a friend in person. I can’t remember when I took a picture with my phone, but I can remember the things I did that day. The digital world pushes us to live a zombie-like boring life if we stop interacting with other people. I believe that people, especially millennials, are realizing these things are trying to revert back to a bit less technology, and more memory making.
Gentrification has been affecting many minority communities for some time now. Many white people go to black and Hispanic communities looking for cheaper rent and whine up kicking many Hispanics and black people out of their homes and begin gentrifying the area. The local stores start turning from authentic Mexican restaurants and fried chicken spots to Froyo and Starbucks. Rent starts to increase and you start to see more and more white faces in the neighborhood. Often times this is met with retaliation. People don’t welcome white people with excitement. People sue if the landlord is trying to kick them out to increase rent. People start coming together to sign petitions and fight back.
Washington Heights has already started to be gentrified. Last year, the first white woman moved in to our building after the woman prior to that was evicted after rent was too high for her. In my building, most residents don’t really talk to her (mostly because many don’t speak English) or give her a “mal de ojo” (a bad look) when she turns around. On top of that, our landlord is beginning to offer up to 10K to have residents move so they can redo apartments and rent them at a much higher rate. The residents have fought with the building manager and the super because they are trying to force ‘outsiders’ to the building. “Stop bringing white people here” “Your kicking us out of our home”.
This isn’t just in my building. It is happening all over Washington Heights. Washington Heights is slowly going from all Latino to partly white. A lot of college white kids come to Washington Heights to take our spaces at 800 dollars more than my rent, but 500 dollars less than the upper west side. This is also changing the type of stores around. Most streets to the left of Fort Washington is all Jewish and White. You find dog grooming business, the ‘nicer’ daycares, froyo, beautiful laundromats and much more.
This all creates a war because Washington Heights natives are being pushed away and out and everyone is getting very defensive and upset. When such a strong sense of community I built around the struggles we all go through and the similar stories we all share, it’s hard to break at part. Everyday I hear stories of fellow Washington Heighters fighting to stay in their apartments and fighting to keep Washington Heights the way it is. Just this week, two stores nearby closed down and are most likely going to be replaced by a fancy cafe place or a popular shopping store.
Honestly, I don’t know how it will end. Landlords and business owners see opportunity in large amounts of white people coming to our area, and only worry about the money they offer. The community keeps fighting back, but I’m not sure how long it will last in this capitalist country.
I have worked in an elementary school for 2 years now. I realized that the school itself lacks a sense of place for the teacher’s and I believe this is also common across teachers in charter schools. At KIES, the school I work at, every classroom has the same rug, shelves, eno board, kidney tables, student tables and chairs. Aside from that, the teachers can do whatever they want with the classroom. This is true for all KIPP Elementary schools in NYC. The teachers decorate the classrooms to make the room liked and enjoyable for the students. They put together a nice door for the kids to feel welcome, and they put motivational quotes and vocab walls.
This made me realize that the teachers’ sense of place is not attached to the building at all. Their sense of place is attached to their students. Which is why teachers are either gone as soon as the students are, or stay to make sure the next day is successful for their kids. Often times teachers say FINALLY on their way out, or do a happy dance when they can finally leave these boring building. I pointed out in a previous blog post that the teacher spaces in the school sucked. This discourages teachers to love the staying and working in the school and I believe it decreases utility a lot. Teachers aren’t as happy as they should be and only come to work to be with the kids, and then be gone.
Administrators and the OPS team should attempt at transforming these places to give teachers more of an attachment to the school so they are happier and more productive. Firstly SPACE. The teacher rooms are either crowded or not functional which causes them to not be used or ignored. The colors in the rooms are depressing (dark grays, ugly purples) and the furniture is so awkward (small tables with big chairs or vice versa). The lack of attention is a waste of money and a waste of space.
My goal for the upcoming summer is to suggests ways to make these spaces more usable. I’d like to transform one of the rooms by removing a huge copier (and moving it elsewhere) to make space for 2 tables that can seat 8 people. I’d have the tables face each other, with one side against the wall so people have space to walk around and work quietly. I’d put frequently used supplies in an organized bin in the middle of the table so teachers have what they need to work. I’d have a small printer in the left corner near the door. I’d keep the microwave, and coffee maker where they are and just have everything there more organized and actually filled with supplies.
I think implementing these changes is a great step forward to increasing staff happiness and having a stronger school staff community as well. The teachers will begin to hang out more in the “nice working room” and hang out with each other which will strengthen community and create fond memories which other. Often times the OPS team and Administrators miss the importance of not only having the school please children and parents, but also the educators.
I was writing a paper about a tomb/ sacred place that was destroyed by ISIS in July 2014, and I thought this was a great topic to talk about for placelessness. ISIS destroyed The Mosque of Nabi Yunus, also called Jonah’s Tomb. This was a place where many Muslims, Christians and Jews since the 4th century took pilgrimages to. In 7th century BC, the King of the Neo-Assyrian Empire built a huge palace. In 4th century BC, the Church of the East, built a Church and a shrine in the name of the Prophet Jonah. Jonah was this guy who believed that people should be punished for their sins regardless if they feel sorry about it. Throughout his journey, God tries to teach him that you must forgive people and allow people to feel bad and ask for forgiveness. Many people went to Jonah’s Tomb to embrace their faith and learn the lessons that were taught to Jonah.
After July 2014, when ISIS destroyed the tomb, people could not take pilgrimages there. The tom is now all rumble and is indistinguishable. The shrine and the church were the physical objects carrying the sense of place that Jonah’s Tomb had, so when destroyed, it was gone. Pilgrimages are not only about getting closer to god (which is something you could, potentially do at home), but also about going to these physical places and learn. Without a physical place to go, thousands of people that went to the shrine, cannot go there anymore.
(Before ISIS destroyed Jonah’s Tomb)
This is interesting to look at because although the teachings of Jonah are in the old testament and are known stories, the tomb itself was the representation for Jonah. Just like Mecca and Jerusalem, without these sacred/ religious places, people have no physical object to tie something to, and can’t fulfill what they need to continue their religious journeys (often times).
Across Central Asia and the Middle East, ISIS has been destroying and defacing sacred places which stir a lot of issue in religious communities. For Muslims, one of their Five Pillars is to take a pilgrimage to Mecca. If someone had destroyed it, it would raise a lot of issues. ISIS has destroyed from Buddhist temples, to Christian shrines, to even Islam related places.
I believe the destruction of many of these religious places won’t be permanent problem causers and will begin to shift a lot of the world religions from being external faith and proof of belief to a more private and one on one connection to God, or whatever deity that is believed in.
Since I was born, my mom and the rest of my family would take my cousins, sisters (once they were born), and I to 181 street to hang out and shop every weekend. All along 181 street, especially on Saint Nicholas, you can find Latino street vendors. You find the lady my mom has been buying arepa from for 15 years, and the other lady that has contributed to every cheap pair of sunglasses I have ever owned. You can find women and men selling fake Gucci and Calvin Klein purses. You can find makeup and jewelry at a discounted price. You can find fresh fruits and veggies for sale. You got a new phone? You can find a guy selling cases and phone accessories too. The streets of 181st street have always been full of these street vendors changing as the season changes, coming and going.
The sense of place of these specific vernacular vendors is the beliefs Latinos carry over to the United states when they come to make money and make a better life for themselves. Many immigrants come here to the US ready to work extremely hard. Since I was a kid, my mother always told me the key success was hard work. Same with a lot of these workers. When I would stop with my mom, they would look at me and tell me I had to work hard to make lots of money and give my mom nice presents. Many of these vendors would tell stories about when they were younger and give small teachings to the kids and adults stopping by.
These vendors created a comfortable place for people to stop in the middle of the block to shop and converse. These conversations, and interactions created a strong sense of place for many Latinos in Washington Heights. So much so, to this day, my grandmother comes to 181st street at least twice a month to do what we used to do when I was smaller. She comes from Dyckman/ Inwood area (20 street blocks up) to a familiar place.
I recall one day asking one of the vendors, “why don’t you open up a store and sell are your things?” The response always stuck with me because the sense of place created by being a street vendor was greater to these people, and even me at the end. She told me: If I go in to a store, no one I know will know where I am. I’ll just disappear and the friends I have made over the years won’t know where I went. Sure, I’ll have customers if I ever opened up a store, but it’s not meaningful if it’s not with people I know. Also, who wants to pay store rent? That’s a lot of money.
Vernacular places are important because they are made to fit the local places they are in, and often times ties to sense of community and represents a lot of values in said community.
After the tremendous gaffe that was the grand finale of the 2017 Academy Awards ceremony, an article began to float around Facebook titled “Did the Oscars Just Prove That We Are Living In a Computer Simulation“. While I scoffed at this idea at first, believing it to be pretty far out there for a New Yorker article, I began to recall my prior studies of Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation; a work which serves as the primary foundation for nearly every “computer simulation world” theory and The Matrix film trilogy.
According to Baudrillard’s theory, “Simulacra are copies that depict things that either had no original to begin with, or that no longer have an original,” and, “Simulation is the imitation of the operation of a real-world process or system over time,” and that due to the fact that we live in such a photo-saturated, media-influenced world, there is nothing truly original anymore. We are all simply a simulacra of somebody else’s concept, which has led our world to become a simulation.
However, Adam Gopnik’s article mentioned above, takes the simulacra/simulation concept to the next level: “The people or machines or aliens who are supposed to be running our lives are having some kind of breakdown. There’s a glitch, and we are in it.” While this concept is tied to the Oscars, the Super Bowl, and, very transparently, the wild outcome of the 2016 Presidential Election, the idea ultimately runs quite deeper than social events and politics, as this theory is apparently very well-known, wide-spread, and accepted by certain circles of the academic communities.
According to Gopnik, the penultimate outcome of this discovery is that, “if we are among the simulated minds, then we exist in order to be stimulated minds: we exist in order for the controllers to run experiments,” meaning that all wars, genocides, and major world-changing events were caused on purpose by other beings just so that they could observe our reactions. However, my counterpoint to this theory is that what sense does it make to create beings that have such a strong sense of place? More so, how would this theory impact how we understand ideas such as the “hearth” and the “cosmos” and our overall attachment to certain places– is everything irrelevant, or are we wired the way we are for a reason?
While we may have a concept of creating simulated worlds– i.e. playing the Sims, Sim City, Zoo Tycoon, etc– these worlds that we create largely differ from this simulation that people believe we might be living in: avatars in these games are temporal and finite, they have no concept of space or place, and they are easily disposable. In terms of humanity, losing one of your Sims, while tragic and annoying, doesn’t have much affect on the game or the characters that they interact with, and if that Sim was married or another Sim’s child, the affected partner or parents don’t seem to grieve their dead. In terms of place, Sims don’t care about their homes much unless something is broken or messy– they eat, sleep, play with gadgets, and go to work, but the overall style of their homes isn’t pleasing to them as much as it is pleasing to its creator: you.
However, if we are essentially someone else’s Sims, why do we feel as strongly as we do? Why do we love as hard and get as attached to places? Is our sense of place now simply a simulacra of the places we knew of the past, or are we simply a simulation that has been planned and programmed to feel this way?