All Around Us
Whatever it is I feel when I encounter Little Rock, my hometown, that thing wants to be expressed. It wants a language by which to understand itself. I’ve shirked that task for some time now, out of fear, which masquerades as preoccupation.
It’s not the object itself; the city abides, smugly content to be overlooked, stubbornly eschewing both bigness and smallness. (For this reason, the place furnishes a meager legacy of commenters, the way having been cleared by so few prospectors.) Instead, my fear derives from the inherent challenge of defining any place, an undertaking reliant on so many distinct seams of thought. In truth, the task unnerves me because this place summons such disjointed feelings.
Since I left home at seventeen, I’ve grown accustomed to the way proportions shrink upon my return—which is fine. The journey here usually spans two flights, and on the latter leg the plane will miniaturize, from cabins of four-abreast seating to three. A similar effect happens if you’re arriving by car, the bounds of your seat shrinking from the anticipation of being freed from it. I often feel enlivened walking down the airport’s sole terminal, my ego enjoying a rapid regeneration from the place’s shrunken dimensions after the world had diminished it.
Outside the airport, the sky asserts itself first, always. Presses down on the landscape, restrains it, like a vertical threshold, dwarfing everything in scale. It’s as if the spine of a book has been cracked, the pop-up figures of the landscape now further out and achieving a new breadth. This doesn’t feel like diminishment, necessarily. Another way to see it is as a kind of expansion, one’s consciousness given more space to encompass, a larger field upon which to inscribe itself.
Recently I made a return to Little Rock that felt valedictory. I dreaded leaving Brooklyn, where I’d lived for a decade, knowing myself as someone who did not take breakups well. Also, my self-identity had grown reliant upon the vanity of being from elsewhere. I feared losing that novelty would feel like a regression. And then after some months, I was embarrassed by how much I did not miss Brooklyn at all, that I could easily acclimate myself, and feel contented, in a place one could describe so humbly as one’s “hometown.” I couldn’t afford the luxury of missing New York, still chastened by the feeling of having misspent my time there. I had no more time to spare. Soon, even my embarrassment disappeared.
The first new capacity I learned here felt like a recovery of the ability to discover new capacities. But I needed language for this place, a mechanism through which to work these insights. Many of these perceptions were just moments of coming into consciousness, of noticing. But they nagged me. If I could just explain this place to myself, the moments of dislocation and of recognition, then I’d possess some new thing worth having, assurance of a grown-up mobility. Perhaps I wanted the assurance that I could manage to leave again. Perhaps I just wanted the self-possession of a frequent flier, to walk with that kind of knowing in my limbs. This series then, “All Around Us,” will record my search for that language. These dispatches will process my impressions of Southern landscapes—discreet neighborhoods, tranquil plots of land, boisterous downtowns—in order to understand what “the South” means. Recording my impressions seems especially possible now, as I’m in transit between lives spent in disparate places.
I’ve quieted the rabble in my head, and on my desk, to a few subjects—urbanism, photography, philosophy, and travel writing, all of which render some concept or terminology that seem useful for the process of understanding space and fixing on a point within that expanse in order to frame it, a place.
In reading for this column, I approached urbanism skeptically, suspicious of its root, “urban,” for what that idea has always meant to me: the antithesis of natural or rural (and therefore of “Southern”). The word “urbanism” felt too new and had the gloss of a real-estate development. It reminded me of the pitches I receive from friends and relatives about why I could in fact tolerate their city—a special accommodation, like a private lounge at an airport. I’d come across the classic texts of the field via recommendations, for The Death and Life of American Cities by Jane Jacobs and The Power Broker, Robert Caro’s Robert Moses biography. But I’d never believed those books, nor urban planning as a discipline, held much value for me as a Southerner. I assumed the field would render no insight into my affinity for the town squares throughout the Delta, with their glacially dilapidating antique and floral shops, their city halls and jails, the conspicuous proximity of sturdy trees to those jails. What would urbanism tell me about those places—what could it reveal about why I was drawn to them, or why I felt no compulsion to save them, felt content to watch impassively as they decayed, like ruins? The urgency I felt to understand those places—the longing to keep some of them, the resentment that sometimes incited my neglect—seemed a much different conversation than those of development and gentrification that occupied my city friends. And yet I now understand the discipline’s capacity, that it encompasses architecture, landscapes, and built environments. Urbanism extends broadly enough to engage ideas of community, and distance and interpersonal engagement, ideas that concern Southerners as much as any other region that might more readily accord with the idea of “cities.” Seven of the fifteen chapters of the Congress for New Urbanism are devoted to sections of the South—some designated for states, some to regions of states, and some specifically to cities—meaning “the South” contains new potentialities for what “urban” might mean.
Besides, philosopher Mark Kingwell posits in Concrete Reveries: Consciousness and The City that “natural” should be considered an artificial term: “I would argue that nothing is natural until we make it so, and that nature is a concept that always exists by contrast with something else (artificial, awkward, human, urban).”
Landscape Historian John Brinckerhoff Jackson says that the word “landscape” carries a distinctive power because it “suggests to us the variety and beauty of the world, especially that familiar place where we live and work and celebrate with others. It suggests far more than scenery, more than what we call the natural environment, because it is essentially the handiwork of a society seeking to make an orderly and prosperous habitation for itself while at the same time seeking to exist in harmony with the rest of creation. It is a kind of collective work of art, never brought to perfection.”
This process of making a place through interacting with it and thereby giving it meaning mirrors the action of my mind whenever I arrive at home and begin to negotiate the squat manmade structures strewn against the foliage and firmament of the airport zone in Little Rock, so much like the liminal areas one confronts on the rims of most towns. Land and sky jostle out there for supremacy, the atmosphere invariably gaining an advantage. And then Little Rock exerts its need to be realized, my want to know it as a place activating my faculty for perceiving and describing it. This of course, as Kingwell points out, evolves from a desire to know myself, assuring his reader that “place is so important to whom we think we are.”
Jackson extends this idea when he writes that “a landscape is something else. It is a source of self-recognition; it allows us to respond emotionally to the visible world and recognize that we belong to it and continue to take part in its creation and re-creation. It is essential to our full identity as social beings.”
Both Kingwell and travel writer Geoff Dyer establish a connection between the human sense of place and our sense of time. Dyer, an essayist much acclimated to locating himself through chronicling his travels, defines The Lightning Field, a Land Art project in New Mexico, as “an experience of space that unfolds over time.” Kingwell takes up this thread in explaining that “Contrary to common belief, cities exist in time rather than space: this is part of what makes them places. Or rather, we ought to say that cities make space timely, and so change our own relation to time (Architecture, Vincent Scully said, is a conversation between generations.).”
The Southern places I endeavor to know are defined by time as much as they are by location—the mode of transportation one uses to arrive there, whether by car or by foot, the method of traversing that place once having arrived, the famously contemplative pace by which Southerners inhabit a space, and the long-held belief that a Southern sensibility is by necessity an elegiac one as the region is in a perpetual state of dying.
The significance of time when contemplating place recalls the work of William Christenberry, whose photographs, as Teju Cole describes in the New York Times, “collectively show something of the passage of time in his corner of the American South.” Scholar William Ferris writes, “Our understanding of place and how it shapes Southerners is sharpened by Christenberry’s vision for his work.” Christenberry’s desire to contain a place—or “possess” it, as Ferris puts it—becomes so rapacious that he employs various methods of pocketing fragments of his local environ—first photographing it, then creating miniature reproductions of the buildings he’s shot. His photos will appear familiar to any Southern neophyte because the gestures and strategies within the work are those most Southerners would employ to contemplate the region. The familiar, yet strange hallucinatory quality of his work imbues my own sense of the region; critic Andy Grundberg argues that “the intertwining of memory and imagination is the essential constant in all of Christenberry’s artwork, including his photographs. . . . the past is at once palpable and evanescent.”
What Howard Fox calls the “unifying continuum of the often divided worlds of fine art, vernacular art, and daily life” established by Christenberry’s work also accommodates that of William Eggleston, who was “drawn to the vernacular, to the quotidian and the disregarded.” This insistence on the validity of things that exist without pretense becomes crucial to my attempts to discern the South, and Little Rock within it. “The accidental, awkward, or ‘badly composed’ are as much a part of the work as the subject itself. This casual roughness bestows an authenticity that makes artfulness seem utterly false,” wrote Adam Weinberg, Director of the Whitney Museum, of Eggleston’s work. Both Eggleston and Christenberry achieve a feat I would establish as characteristic of much art responding to the South in that it, according to Weinberg, “prove[s] that the banal can be elevated, the cast-away can be recuperated, and the prosaic can be poeticized.”
Vernacular here extends beyond speech, beyond a simple “Southern accent.” According to Witold Rybczynski, the term “vernacular,” when deployed by architectural historians, refers to “popular, traditional, nonacademic techniques and forms of building.” The vernacular enables architects such as Auburn University Rural Studio’s Samuel Mockbee to produce, according to critic Andrea Oppenheimer Dean, “the most futuristic constructions [that nonetheless] look anchored in their neighborhood, because their scale fits and their shapes spring from the local vernacular.” Visual artists like Christenberry and Eggleston expand the term’s meaning to refer to a visual cue, the ordinariness of subjects in their photographs. Still they, along with Mockbee, all display a fealty to the landscape and an appreciation for the quotidian or overlooked. “I pay attention to my region; I keep my eyes open. Then I see how I can take that and reinterpret it . . . We don’t try to be Southern, we just end up that way because we try to be authentic,” said Mockbee. These artists exhibit an earnest reckoning with socioeconomic diversity, because as Rybczynski points out, “vernacular spaces are used by the majority of the population,” necessitating an exploration of social class.
In my search to understand how Southerners fathom place, it feels vital to study other artists, both to validate the undertaking and to seek some illumination on the impulse’s source. Perhaps it’s a literary impulse, the same mimetic need to collect or possess a place that inspired Alice Munro to capture provincial Canadian outposts, or Elizabeth Strout to collect town life in coastal Maine, or Eudora Welty to trap the voices and smells of Mississippi. Perhaps it’s an attempt to validate all the private pleasures I take in discovering my hometown over and over again. Something about my enthusiasm feels indulgent, and disingenuous, maybe even a bit twee; exploring the work of artists like Christenberry, Eggleston, and Mockbee allows me to substantiate the truth of my own impressions.
All three artists also acknowledge the legacy of race in defining the region. In “The Mnemonic City: Duality, Invisibility and Memory in American Urbanism,” scholar Craig Barton writes of how “‘place’ is codified by the relationship of form and space to a series of social, political, and cultural forces which historically have shaped the form of any given city.” He demonstrates how race can shape a particular place. “As an example, in a city like Selma, Alabama, one finds an urbanism of duality, where there are in fact two separate ‘cities,’ one black and one white with areas of overlap or superimposition. These cities are constructed or formed by a series of fragments codified by responses to the specific narratives of black and white culture.” Nothing feels truer than this about my sense of Little Rock—a place I always experienced as one particular location smothered beneath a series of distinct overlays.
Newly returned to Little Rock, this year I will attempt to catch the Southern vernacular on the air—the sounds that warp my senses and have conditioned me to experience this place in a particular way. But my ledger of subjects should be considered makeshift, a nod to another Southern tradition: one of making do with whatever is close at hand.
“All Around Us” is a part of our weekly story series, The By and By.
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