Wednesday, March 9, 2011


Somewhere in the midst of living in another country, writing a thesis based in residential neighborhoods characterized by immigration, and meeting people from all over the world I've noticed a theme in my thoughts and conversations lately - the concept of home. In the very global world of today, the question "Where are you from?" becomes more and more complicated to answer - in truth, I don't think it belongs in the introductory chapters of language learning books seeing as the reply nowadays is rarely as simple as "I am from city/country x."

An example of this phenomena - I recently made a new friend in my Oslo neighborhood - a woman originally from Vietnam who just so happened to also have lived many years ago a few blocks from my first NYC apartment on the Upper West Side. She generalized that in her adult life she has not stayed in any one place for more than three consecutive years - herself promoting an idea I have always loved - 'you need no more than two suitcases!'

This two-suitcase (or 100 item or however you'd like to phrase it-) mentality is one I find much tougher in practice than in theory. I even went through the exercise of dispersing (though not necessarily disposing) my New York apartment-life's worth of "stuff" down to two suitcases before I moved to Norway less than two years ago. Somehow I have since (jointly) accumulated a series of minimal yet substantial furniture and housewares that were deemed necessary when moving into an empty apartment. (I largely blame Ikea for making this possible.) After two moves with two suitcases and a bit of time in attempting to make a place into a home, clutter has amounted to the point that if and when we move next, there are certainly more than two suitcases to worry about.

The difference between having a place to live and a home is striking to me - particularly in the difficulty of defining what makes a home. One of my professor's here wrote a dissertation on re-housing displaced refugees and likes to quote John Berger's 'A Home is Not a House' that "Home was the center of the world because that was the place where the vertical line crossed with the horizontal. The vertical line was a path leading upwards to the sky and downwards to the underworld. The horizontal line represented the traffic of the world, all the possible roads leading across the earth to others." All religious connotations aside, I like the definition because there is an inherent amount of mobility - where ever one chooses to place their vertical axis is the place from which they identify themselves within the world around them.

I am, however, finding a bit of struggle with the concept of identity with the act of mobility. My readings on place identity largely link residence - real time spent in a place - with being able to have a personal identity and sense of stewardship over it. My own research is seeing the breakdown of that potential happening in the context of growing rental trends in Oslo - when people can easily move (away from neighborhood/building/apartment problems) they have little incentive to care about or work towards improving the place they reside. Simultaneously, the detachment of property owners understanding a place solely as an investment leaves little personal attachment or incentive - all in all creating a difficult cycle for those of us who seek to maintain quality or promote sustainability in the built environment.

So now I wonder, as more of the world's population increases the rate at which we move and change place, where will we consider ourselves most at home? And can our attention spans alter at similar rates to maintain and steward the concept of neighborhood despite this near constant flux?