Progress and the Spirit of Place

Thirteen years ago, after a short stint of semi-homelessness (homeless by federal definitions, but I only slept in bushes a few times), I moved into a house which was to become my home the better part of my adult life.
I have stories of the place, for a place is not just a background or setting for a story, but it is a story in itself.  Sun-soaked evenings upon a porch overlooking a lake and the mountains, clinging to the edge of the most interesting and living neighborhood in Seattle.  Strangers have stopped and stared, taken photos and waved, sometimes looked longingly, sometimes shaken in frenzied prayer at the abode before them, a hundred-year old house with (Viking, pirate, prayer and upside-down American) flags waving in breezes which spun storms of dancing sun-motes reflected from an ancient disco ball.  Salvaged plants and bells adorned the crumbling banister over which I’d look, sipping tea, sometimes unclothed, at the strange, adorable urban world into which I’d rooted.
And I’ve paid 250 dollars a month for my place in this house, this city, this world.

And Then Progress Came

I’ve been here long enough to remember the economic collapses and downturns and recessions or whatever words we summon to describe what happens when each new wave of “progress” ebbs out back to the sea of failed ideas.  With each new surge came some grand plan whole classes within the city embraced, a new idea (which seemed always an old idea, one those old enough might remember) to usher the ambitious into the future.  I got here just before the internet start-ups started ending-down.  Money everywhere, new restaurants and clubs and stores to sell to all the sorts of people who knew what they were doing, knew they were living the future.
And then that ended, and people fled.  I’ve never really figured out where most of them went.  I didn’t know many of them, because they had more money than I did.
Then biotech.  Suddenly the largest university here started down-sizing its liberal-arts department to make way for all the new science students, canceling its direct-transfer agreements with the community colleges to attract more out-of-state, out-of-country tuition.  Whole streets were razed to make room for the future, and people who’d lived in places like mine found themselves scrambling to find new places to live.  But there were fewer and fewer places to which to run, because with all the new “industry,” all the new progress, came the new buildings replacing the old.
A little later (when the rush for bio-medicines began to lag, when we all realized it would take decades to make medicine from genes, not weeks) came the “housing bubble.”  Suddenly everyone wanted a house, even if they didn’t want to live in one.  Suddenly it was the “thing to do,” and I couldn’t escape the conversations at bars discussing how it was an easy way to make money.  Middle-class white homosexuals started leaving the “gay” neighborhood for other places where there were houses, and when people decried the change of the neighborhood’s character, ridiculous and irresponsible articles in the local alternative papers (written by white gay men) declared “the gay ghetto” to be a dangerous notion, a primitive throw-back to the time when people didn’t like gays.  Gays had to progress, and home-ownership was the future.
That didn’t last so long, either.


The Spirit of Place

Recently, there’ve been a few brutal crimes against sexual-deviants in my neighborhood, accompanied by utter shock that such a thing could happen in our brave new present future.
Under all of this has been a completely different change, unmarked by most because it is not a measure by which we mark things.  Spirit of place is not something many people can speak of without getting blank stares.  It can be defined in multiple ways, cannot be scientifically measured, and is therefore not quantifiable and does not enter into most conversations when one discusses displacement of people.
But it is something that is felt, anecdotally, by those who stay in a place long enough to become part of it.  Live somewhere long enough and you will know it.  Participate in its growth, open yourself up to its personality, and you will know it well.
“The neighborhood has changed,” goes the most common complaint, the most common remark.  “I don’t recognize it any more” is another.  And sometimes, “The Hill is dead.”
Buildings go up, buildings are torn down.  Streets are widened, narrowed.  Faces change, faces flee.  Conversations between strangers diminish, conversations into wireless devices increase.  Familiar bars and cafes disappear.  New ones arrive, different, sometimes adequate, sometimes less so.  But things are different.
It’s facile, puerile, and utterly shallow merely to utter “people don’t like change.”  I love change, I love things being different, but I do not like things disappearing, being torn down, being destroyed and rebuilt.  I don’t like prices increasing, I don’t like rents getting raised.  I don’t like feeling unsafe, unfamiliar in the city I’ve chosen to make my home.
What I do like, what I crave—is being part of the spirit of the place.  There is a simple yet profound joy in tending a garden which needs (really) very little help from a human to grow—participating in its existence, being part of it is much of the pleasure and provides much of the meaning.  On a larger scale, a neighborhood requires the people within it to exist, and requires certain things of certain people to maintain it.  The old man wearing skirts and bells is one of its shepherds, as is the old hunch-backed lady who still manages to smile despite being bent at an almost perfect right-angle.  The bartenders, the shop-keeps, the baristas, the bus-drivers, the leather-queens and street-punks and all the “normal” people in between them tend the Spirit of Place.  They are each replaceable to some degree, but not all at once

Capitalism and Displacement 

When we decide to move from one place to another, to leave a city for a new one, or a suburb, or the countryside, we individually weigh multiple factors.  Amongst those–and I dare say a significant part of them–are economic and aesthetic factors.  Where jobs can be found is often the most important, but so, equally, is where a good and interesting life can be lived.  We each experience this as a set of decisions based on free-will, but there is an external engine which affects these internal decisions.
In most of history, when there are large-scale migrations of whole groups of people, it is usually due to war, famine, or natural disaster.  But in Capitalism, in the forced-march of Progress, this is the every-day.  Economists refer to it as “mobility,” and it was recently a thing for politicians to blame joblessness on the immobility of certain workers living hundreds of miles from open job positions.  We move for “opportunity” and flee “cost.”  We re-locate for cheaper housing, or livelier neighborhoods, or to avoid poverty.
One of the most useful ides of Marx is his description of how the demands of Capital(ism) alter social relations.  The birth of Capitalism in the 1700’s in England began a process of endless displacement which started with farmers who rented their land no longer able to afford these rents and fleeing to the new factories where they could still find a way to survive off their labor.  These migrations emptied villages and flooded towns, broke apart old friendships and customs and families and, quite importantly, disconnected people from the sense of place they once felt.  They left one location, one Spirit of Place for another, one to which they were new and unaccustomed.

Capitalism and Progress

A short diversion is useful here, to explain how the Progres and Capitalism relate.  Adam Smith, the first evangelist of Capitalism, is known for many things, including “the invisible hand of the market” and the doctrine of self-interest as benefiting all.  However, one of the most important contributions he made to the justification of Capitalism gets ignored quite often, his doctrine of the “imperative of improvement.”  He justified the taking of native lands in North America by the virtue that they were doing nothing with it, that is, not improving it.
Improvement is one of the imperatives of Capitalism, for, to compete with others, one must constantly be producing more, or better, or more efficiently.  This imperative became quickly the very ethic of Capitalism, its command: improve or die.  An economy must grow every year or it is dying, one must make at least a little more each year than the next, charge a little more rent each year, etc.
And one of the ways to do this is to destroy what was before, which cost less, and replace it with something that generates more money.  An old apartment building housing only 30 people for which those tenants would only ever pay $600 a month gets torn down and replaced by 60 units at twice the price.  This is improvement.
This is Progress.
This is displacement
Modern materialism and secular scientific pop-philosophy has left us with very few ways to define what has happened around us.  We can point to the sadness we feel when the familiar goes away, we can talk of our fear or frustration. We can use terms like “gentrification” or “character” to describe the processes of our loss, but it all falls ultimately flat.
Understanding the external forces of this changes helps somewhat, which is why I will never relinquish my Marxism.  But even still, it fails to describe that certain specific thing we collectively experience when everything changes around us, the cause of the shared trauma.  And it’s a “first-world problem,” particularly, as the land we’re living on is not ancestrally ours and was taken from people experiencing even more significant trauma (and death) from the coming of whites.   But it is a trauma nevertheless, experienced on a numb level which leaves us full of words which never quite describe our rage and loss.

The Genius Loci

A pagan concept helps significantly here.  In latin, the Genius Loci was the name given for the spirit of a place, an existent guardian spirit.  Many pagans believe such a thing really exists, but one does not need to be a pagan to see the use of such a concept.  The Spirit of Place can still exist to a materialist, a Christian, or an agnostic with as much meaning as to one who believes it can be named and spoken to.
There are migrations to this city from other cities, foreigners flooding in with their strange customs and disregard for this Spirit of Place.  I’m not talking about immigrants (who tend as a whole to be more aware of the concept of Spirit of Place than most Americans).  I mean, in Seattle’s case, southern California. But where they are from doesn’t matter (though if I hear another group of heavily-cologned straight men shout their Orange County zip codes at each other across the street on a Friday night…).  What matters is that they are new, they do not yet know the Spirit of Place, and they alter it.
And I would be remiss if I did not point out these people experienced the same pressure as we do now.  While I want to vomit a little when I think of some of them being mere refugees from other Genius Loci, displaced by the engine of Progress, it is more-than-likely true,
Another way to look at it exists, though—the pain of the Spirit of Place, the confusion of the Genius Loci, the loss it experiences as whole parts of its long-time devotees flee from its boundaries and new ones come in, too new to be known by it, too money-obsessed to spend the effort learning of its character and personality, maybe even too traumatized by previous loss to embrace a new Spirit of Place, still clinging to old ideas, old familiarities.
To be fair, admixture isn’t bad.  New blood, new ideas, new faces—these are all what keep cities alive, what refreshes and expands the personality of a city, what strengthens and fortifies the Spirit of Place.  Change is not bad, but nor is it inherently good.
Cities can expand, neighborhoods can grow.  But when the guardians of the guardian of a place are chased out, when what made the place safe, interesting, exciting and alluring to those who lived there and those who wanted to live there flee, this is not a thing to be celebrated, nor, really, even to be sighed at.
It is to be mourned.

4 thoughts on “Progress and the Spirit of Place

  1. I am surprised you’ve gotten so few comments on this thoughtful and well written post. This is such an important conversation, I think. It comes down to the complexity of relationships – between different circles of people, within human communities, between people and the land, between people and the spirits of place (these are different, to some degree, I think), even between the living and the dead. I am of the opinion that these days folks as a whole have gotten either lazy, less skilled, or less interested in relationship building and maintenance. Or perhaps we on average have dissociated so far out from our own selves that it no longer occurs to folks to connect in locally. (One who is disconnected from one’s own physical form is less likely to want to connect in with the sentient, non-sentient, corporeal and noncorporeal others around – when we connect with those literally in front of us, we have to be present in our own skin att least a little. I think lots of folks find this to be too confronting to want to do it).

    This is important conversation to be having, and thank you for calling it out.

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