“And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees, just as things grow in fast movies, I had the familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer.”
-F. Scott Fitzgerald
June 19, 2012, Washington, DC: In June 2011, I embarked on a year-long project that would bring me back to each of my hometowns to learn more about the places I’d lived. There were many that had shaped me — from Montreal and Toronto to San Francisco and New York — and I wanted to get a good feel for their geography, their people, their neighborhoods and their pulses. I also wanted to examine, broadly speaking, why people live where they do and what makes a place feel like home. With ample vacation days, multiple frequent flyer tickets, many tanks of gas, several bicycles, and a few good pairs of walking shoes, I covered extensive ground in twelve months. The project, Neighborhood Nomad, is documented on this blog, derived from a love of travel and a longstanding obsession with the power of place.
The study came full circle this weekend, ending up where it started on a Virginia vineyard. And so with the advent of summer comes an opportunity to revisit the year I spent traveling back to my former neighborhoods. I’ve come miles from one year ago, and I’ve logged all of them in hopes of better understanding the places we called home.
Read on for a chronological overview of this year’s travels back home…
May 28, 2012, Washington, DC: As commutes go, this one ain’t bad. Any pessimism you may have about the day ahead is easy to shake off as you cross the Golden Gate through the microclimates between San Francisco and Marin. On the morning drive, the bridge’s paint color of international orange will give you a jolt stronger than coffee. On the evening ride home, this bridge is the entry back into one of the greatest cities in the world.
It was 75 years ago Sunday that the Golden Gate Bridge first opened, and it’s hard to imagine life without it. In many ways, the Golden Gate is a place I grew up.
“Cities make it easier to watch and listen and learn. Because the essential characteristic of humanity is our ability to learn from each other, cities make us more human.”
-Edward Glaeser, Triumph of the City
April 12, 2012, Washington, DC: That right there describes the draw of these places. These places allow us to crowd the streets, listen to music, gather for meals, run into friends, meet strangers. Implicit in the idea that cities make it easier to learn from each other is the idea that they facilitate spontaneous connections. We wander out onto our sidewalks and see where the day takes us. It could lead anywhere. We felt this way on Polk Street in San Francisco and we feel this way on 7th St. in Washington.
Taylor St., Nob Hill, San Francisco, February 2012
“As we write, so we build: to keep a record of what matters to us.”
-Alain de Botton, The Architecture of Happiness
March 3, 2012, Washington, DC: We dined two weeks ago Nob Hill Cafe, my favorite neighborhood restaurant in San Francisco. From our little table on Taylor Street, we sifted through old photos that accompanied a Huffington Post story published that day on the death of one of the few remaining survivors of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. There atop Nob Hill, we scrolled through photos of the very block where we sat, illustrating it completely leveled from the earthquake and fire that destroyed it more than a century ago. The information was available at our fingertips on our phone, as if we’d dug up an old time capsule.
In a sense, we had. For all the talk of the pitfalls of the digital age, we should recognize some of its greatest assets: History is accessible. Readily available information offers us new perspective and insight into experiences we never knew.
Metro Theater, Union St., San Francisco, February 2012
February 25, 2012, Washington, DC: As celebrities prepare to pile into the Kodak Theater for tomorrow night’s Oscars, it seems like a good time to pay tribute to our tiny old neighborhood movie theaters — local joints that kept us close to home, burrowed into a cramped seat surrounded by fantastic ornamental decor, for a Sunday afternoon film. Places like old theaters once anchored their neighborhoods in a small but meaningful way, and too many of them have since closed their doors. I’m rooting for those of them still going strong.
I have a view of one such shuttered movie theater just outside my apartment window. The blue lighted sign still flickers on at sunset, showcasing the old art deco building even though the theater hasn’t shown a film in decades. I’d give anything to walk out my front door, meander around the corner and go to a movie. I imagine someone who lived here years before must have enjoyed such an outing quite often.
February 24, 2012, Washington, DC: Location, Location, Location. Cities sprung up where they did in the first place due entirely to their geographical assets. New York City: A trading post in a sheltered harbor at the mouth of the Hudson River that would later take shape as a critical terminus linking the Atlantic to the Hudson and the Erie Canal. Chicago: A short portage that would eventually connect the Mississippi River to the Great Lakes via the 1848 opening of the Illinois and Michigan Canal. San Francisco: A fort called the Presidio at the mouth of the Golden Gate marking an entry to a Pacific trade route.
Geography has long played a pivotal role in the identities and growth of our cities, not only for the promise of protection, but for the promise of access. As natural terminals, first by water, later by rail, public transit and air, our cities have always served as hubs that facilitate the transport of both people and goods.
But how many of the historic hubs of your city remain relevant to your life today?
A weekend visit to San Francisco’s Ferry Building, followed by a return to my own neighborhood at Eastern Market, has me thinking about the ways in which some longstanding urban cores still have the ability to anchor our cities and our neighborhoods.
“The sea and pine scented air fills me with hope and the belief that all men and women are made better by a visit to this place. The dream of San Francisco is that humanity might live in harmony with nature but at the same time enjoy the benefits of civilization.
Call yourself down through the centuries and see if it is not here that you will return. San Francisco isn’t just a city, it is a jumping off point to eternity. In an ocean of light, this is the place.
-Sean O’Reilly, “Lady of the Avenues”
February 22, 2012, Washington, DC: I’ve held onto this passage by Sean O’Reilly for awhile now, ever since moving from San Francisco to Chicago. O’Reilly’s confidence in the belief that we all come back made me feel better about leaving, and I admired the way he succinctly explained the balance afforded to those who experience life here. “In harmony with nature,” we retain a quite physical, active and tangible relationship with the environment while “the benefits of civilization” provide us with opportunities for cerebral, intellectual and artistic expression.