Archive for July, 2009

Knowledge of place taken for granted

When you live in a place for a very long time, you can sometimes come to take things for granted. Little things, like knowing where the grocery store is and the best way to get there (even if there’s road construction), and knowing how to find the sugar and milk once you’re in the store, become second nature, and so we don’t even think twice about them day to day. But these many little bits of local knowledge – and the mental geographical map of the place where we live – are truly and vastly more important than we ever consciously realize.

Because I’ve lived in Appleton my entire remembered life, I take the knowledge of where the grocery store is in my home town for granted. So a small task, like running to the corner store to get milk when we run out, is no big deal. Just a quick trip, in and out. The location and layout of the store are familiar to me, the cashiers are my neighbors and friendly, the milk nearly the exact same price as always.

As I contemplate moving to a new place soon, I find myself wondering casually how long it will take me to gather the same knowledge of my new town as I have of Appleton. For instance, how long will it take before running to the store for milk in Bloomington is second nature?

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Still, I likely needn’t worry too much. While the Walgreens in Bloomington will be in a different location, its layout will be probably be the same as the Walgreens in Appleton. Perhaps this predictability is part of the reason national chain stores such as Walgreens, Target, Wal-Mart, and others have such success and universal appeal. Apart from their considerable purchasing power, these national chains have nearly the same layout in every town across America, and so they look familiar and appealing no matter where you are. In a fast-paced world, where people commonly move many times in a single lifetime, knowing where the milk is in every single Wal-Mart across the country contributes to the easing of displacement.

In a way, this is a way of bridging towns and cities together by the similarities they possess (though many would argue that having a Wal-Mart in common is hardly a cause for uniting in celebration). However, a supermarket with a common layout and appearance also means less uniqueness is preserved in the smaller stores in the area. Smaller stores serving local neighborhoods, where we meet our neighbors working at the counter, share a conversation with our elementary teacher while reaching for apples, and greet the old widow from the local Rotary Club over at the deli, offer greater opportunity for engagement between individuals than do giant Wal-Mart Supercenters with entire aisles of only bread, that serve sometimes multiple communities, where people rush through the over-sized store in order to get their shopping done quickly.

Should we trade familiarity in space (knowing where the milk is) for familiarity in people (knowing the person behind the deli counter)? Knowing people in your neighborhood, I think (and many experts would agree), leads to healthier, happier people. The more connected we are to one another, the more chances of having extended relationships,* of becoming friends, of knowing we can rely on one another when needed. And the more we recognize others we may need, the more we see the possibility of them needing us, too, making us feel purposeful, included, needed, wanted. The more communal we are with those around us, the more of a community we will have.

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Because I believe it is extremely important to know the place we live in, I will likely start gathering bits of local knowledge the moment I move to Bloomington. Indeed, I have already started logging away on a miniature map in my head knowledge from my two visits to the city: where the farmer’s market is, where the university and my apartment are, that there are in fact two branches of the Bloomington Bagel Company. Paul and I will be taking a local paper when we arrive, both for the purposes of learning about our new town and to get the coupon deals in the Sunday edition. The day after we move in, we’ll go knock on our neighbors’ doors and introduce ourselves. I plan to ask people familiar with Bloomington in my master’s program for recommendations for doctors, the best place to get shoes or books, and where’s the best cup of coffee in town. I want to start building connections with those around me, and indeed, as I’ll be so far away from my family, I’ll inevitably need these connections.

I am excited to move to a new place, to have a new city to explore. My mind is like a sponge when it comes local knowledge. We’ll just have to see how long it takes me to navigate the nearest grocery store to find the milk.

[*This term is used in holistic education literature to refer to the encounters occurring between teachers and students in places outside the classroom (for instance, the grocery store). I use it here to refer to outside encounters between individuals of all types (for instance, seeing your coworker at your son’s Little League game, seeing your music lessons teacher walking her dog, seeing the woman who works the deli counter at the gas pump next to you, etc.).]

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