Monday, February 27, 2012

Place and class

Several of the comments on my last post have been pursuing the connection between class and geographic mobility. And if we understand "class" as being about more than just income and education level, then yes: the perceived ability to move far away from where one grew up does correlate with class; it's about how many and what kinds of connections and opportunities one has.

If your college friends come from all over the country and then fan out to jobs and graduate programs all over the country once they leave, then you have a different sense of what's possible in your life (whether or not you personally choose to leave the city or state in which you grew up). Some of my students literally do not know anyone who lives more than a few hours away, and though our region does feel the gravitational pull of Boston and New York (their baseball and basketball teams are the ones locals here root for), the students who actually move to those cities after graduation--or indeed to any others, or who move out of this state--are almost exclusively those who already have family or friends there.

So in thinking about what it means to be rooted or rootless, I'm partly thinking about class. But one peculiarity of being an academic is that, unlike most people in "our class," we actually do up and move anywhere. The other people in our class? Not so much. They move to the coasts, basically, and in lesser numbers to places like Atlanta and Chicago, Austin and Houston, Minneapolis and Denver, and the bigger, wealthier college towns. I guess I had always known this, and it's certainly true of my college friends--but I still think of my class as figuring out their lives and as not having settled down yet. But at Cosimo's (ahem) 20th college reunion last summer, I realized that no one apart from the academics and a few quirky entrepreneurs lived anywhere but those places. I met person after person, waiting in line for the ladies room or making small talk at the bar, and they all lived in Fairfax or Fairfield County, or in Newton, MA, or in metro L.A. or S.F. And though they were all friendly and interested in who I was and what I did, they all seemed puzzled by where I lived. Like I said: it's not a place that people move to.

So my point, if I have one, is that even the class that seems to have infinite geographic mobility, doesn't. There are real restrictions on where, say, a high-powered corporate lawyer can have a career, and hence where he can live, but there are also cultural and class restrictions that operate to keep us where "our kind of people" live. If we're not living near our actual families (and of course I do know people who have moved back to their childhood homes), we're living near our families of affiliation: people with similar educations, professions, and interests. I'm not interested in criticizing that choice; indeed, if one can't or doesn't wish to go home again, it makes sense to choose one's new home based on the relationships one has or expects to build with the people there.

But those roots are relatively shallow, even for those who live in major metropolitan areas. And as Shane noted in his comment, those of us who live in more unlikely places often wind up doing a version of the same thing, which is to say, socializing primarily with other transplants. I have a few friends who are locals--former grad students, people I've met through arts organizations, or people I know from my church. But the people I'm closest friends with are others who moved here for jobs (mostly in academia or the medical sciences); some have put down roots here and some haven't, but none are likely to retire here. Sometimes I feel like a real local, or at least a civic booster and aspiring local; at other times I feel like I'm part of a community of expats.


Withywindle said...

I bet this would be a little different if you had a kid. You would strike up at least casual friendships with the parents of whomever it was your kid was playing with, going to school with. This can be a pretty-class-bound experience too, of course, both explicitly and within the class-locality overlap, but it would still localize your acquaintances (and maybe, in time, friends) a bit more.

(At the very least, it might introduce you to the college-student-babysitting-community!)

I'm not saying this as a Huge Dichotomous Experience thang, but as something that matters at least on the margins. Frankly, my wife does more of these sorts of social interactions, and I don't have any close friends from this group. But I have a whole bunch of mildly friendly acquaintances in the neighborhood now, with whom I chat, and whose recommendations now influence how I spend my time. (E.g., the children's puppet show I just saw.)

Security words Shicl Fonfo, who I think is a shady entrepreneur in the Deneb asteroids.

Flavia said...


Yes, this is true, and I've thought about this--about the ways that children ground one, in useful ways, to the place that one is transplanted into.

Still, it's hard for me to foresee many of my transplanted friends who have kids remaining here past their own retirement: once the kids move away (and they tend to), why stay? I had a good friend who taught at a nearby institution and who moved here by way of Chicago and Boston, and whom I considered somewhat of a model: he and his wife loved this city, were here for 27 years, raised two kids, and his wife had built up a private practice here. They sat on all kinds of charitable and arts boards, and knew seemingly everyone in the city. But once the kids were in college he idly started applying for jobs elsewhere, until boom! A nice one came through and they pulled up stakes and moved hundreds of miles and several states away.

There's nothing wrong with this--in many ways, the idea of having two or three successive places, over a lifetime, where one puts down roots for 10+ years is quite appealing to me. But it's a different kind of relationship to place, and the roots, as I say, are much shallower.

hd said...

As an academic on parental leave right now, I've been thinking about how the experience of having children connects with place and class. Here's the thing: until I had kids, I thought that rootlessness was the way to go. I grew up in a working class family and I wanted to _get out_ of town. And I did. It should be a success story, right? But here's the thing: now that I have kids, I am envious of those in my neighborhood who have lived here their whole life, because they have tremendous resources I don't--a whole life time of connections that I really could use right now. I'm not sure how that maps onto the discussion of class and place, but until I had kids I didn't want that sense of rootedness. I linked it with a class-based mentality that I very much tried to transcend. And the irony is that now, I long for it.

okay, back to nursing...

Flavia said...


Yeah, I think that's part of what I'm getting at in these posts. Though I grew up not particularly associating rootlessness with class advantage (my great-grandparents were immigrants, my grandfather rode the rails back & forth across the country as a teenager until he joined the Marines, etc.), I've definitely always seen it as being about self-determination, about ambition, about not getting stuck somewhere. And as I've gotten older, that idea has fused with certain ideas about class.

But there are ways in which rootedness can actually aid the aspirational: a significant minority of my students couldn't attend college if they couldn't live with their parents while doing so (or if they couldn't call upon their parents and siblings for child care), and it's equally true for older and more stable people like us: life's a lot easier for academic moms with parents nearby who provide child- care, for example, or with a brother-in-law across town who's a contractor, or whatever.