cover“The most famous words about the city of Oakland, California came from the pen of Gertrude Stein. There was, she declared, no “there” there. This line has been widely understood as a casually dismissive judgment upon that city, and it has been used and reused countless times, as a barb directed at a variety of objects. Unfortunately, her quip is also the chief thing that many people, particularly non-Californians, are likely to know about Oakland. Its better-off neighbor Berkeley, home of the most eminent of the University of California campuses, and always eager to demonstrate its cultural élan, has even created a gently witty piece of public art called “HERETHERE” that plays on Stein’s words. The installation stands at the border of the two cities, with the word “HERE” on the Berkeley side, and the word “THERE” on the Oakland side. As you might expect, Oaklanders don’t much like it. There has even been a T-party rebellion, so to speak, in which an intrepid army of knitters covered up the “T” on the Oakland side with a huge and elaborate tea-cozy. 3 This is how they conduct cultural warfare in the Bay Area, where some people clearly have too much time on their hands.

“Yet the irony of it all is that when Stein penned those words in her autobiography, they were not meant as a snappy put-down. She was thinking of something entirely different. Oakland had been extremely important to her when she lived there there as a child, as a rare stable place in an unsettled and peripatetic upbringing. But when she discovered later in life that her childhood home there had been torn down, leaving her with nothing familiar to return to, Oakland lost its meaning for her. The blooming, buzzing confusion of the city no longer had a nucleus around which she could orient it. Saying that there was no “there” there was a poignant way to express this personal disorientation— a disorientation felt by many of us in the modern world, particularly when the pace of change causes us to lose our grip on the places that matter most to us.

“There is no evading the fact that we human beings have a profound need for “thereness ,” for visible and tangible things that persist and endure, and thereby serve to anchor our memories in something more substantial than our thoughts and emotions . Nor can we ever predict in advance the points at which our foundational sense of place will be most vulnerable, though surely a childhood home is a very likely candidate. In any event, when one of those anchors disappears or changes, as it did for Stein, we are left alone, bereft and deserted, our minds and hearts burdened by the weight of uprooted and disconnected memories which can no longer be linked to any visible or tangible place of reference in the world outside our heads. So the memories wither in time like cut flowers, and the more general sense of place, of “thereness,” is lost with them, like abandoned farmland slowly reclaimed by the primeval forest.”

Wilfred M McClay, Why Place Matters: Geography, Identity, and Civic Life in Modern America (New Atlantis Books)