Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production

Vol.3.4: Everything in Its Place

One of the little existential lessons of retirement is that the instincts one has acquired for the length of a career don’t “retire.” I think about cities and urban life as much as I always did, confirming that my interest in those subjects always transcended my “job” teaching about them. I’m writing about them as much or more than I ever did. I still have a tendency when reading a book or an article to instinctively think how this or that observation or fact might fit into some course I used to teach, or some lecture I might give one day.

Also, calls from two journalists last week for phone interviews, reminded me that not everybody knows (or cares) that I am “retired.” But one of those interviews that resulted in some quotes in print today in the San Diego Union Tribune identifies me as a “retired urbanologist” (I always preferred “urbanist”). Actually, I enjoyed speaking about my favorite subject again, and I realize that, owing to my transcendent interest in it, and also the instinct to communicate one’s thoughts and observations, “retired” will probably always have quotation marks around it for me.

Sunset on a Yangtse town © 2001, J.A. Clapp

Sunset on a Yangtse town © 2001, J.A. Clapp

Both interviews were related to the subject of how cities in general, and San Diego in particular, respond to tragedy and catastrophe, a subject in which I have had a long interest. It inspired me to exhume a piece of my own published shortly after the San Francisco earthquake in October of 1989.

San Francisco: The Persistence of Place

It is an incontestable fact of life that the two fundamental dimensions of existence are Time and Space. What exists is always somewhere, at some time. But for each of us these dimensions have particularity. Time and space become circumstance and place.

This might sound like idle philosophizing; but nothing brings it down to reality like an earthquake, or any like catastrophe. Most of the time, where we are, and when, seems of no great moment, and we go about with little wonder that this or that time or place might change our lives, or end them; but we have probably all found ourselves at one time or another “in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

In the San Francisco Bay Area and environs, during a 15-second period around 5:05 PM on October 17, 1989, circumstance and place intersected with great consequence in the life of those cities and their inhabitants. Like great, jagged sweeps on seismograph paper, that date and those 15 seconds became uniquely etched in the lives of those who experienced them. Others can try to understand what it was like, perhaps empathize, but they can only share the experience by analogy or imagination.

Perhaps this observation is close to the obvious. But its implications are not. It is not obvious to many who are not San Franciscans why anyone would want to live in a city under constant threat of geological oblivion. San Franciscans are ever aware of this fact; it goes with the territory. Nevertheless, they will again stubbornly rebuild on their faulted promontory, however the subterranean gods of plate tectonics may conspire to shake them off. It may seem irrational; but it’s also very human. Since the time when prehistoric people made burial places into shrines, places, which are locations of geography and memory, have been a persistent feature of human existence.

Places connect our pasts, presents and futures; they are spatial-temporal dimension of our identity and biography. When we consider this, it is less puzzling why Italians rebuild towns on the lava-ravaged slopes of Vesuvius, why Johnstowners return to their floodplain, why Beirutis cling to their living hell. It is why our hometowns remain special in our memories long after we have left them. We may even connect our aesthetic or spiritual existence with places in which we have never physically been, like Jerusalem, Rome, or Mecca.

But let a catastrophe level our city, or that epicenter of place, the home, and we become literally “displaced.” The shock and confusion we read on the faces of the victims of such catastrophes is certainly engendered by their material losses and the dangers which they have experienced, but it also owes to the psychological disorientation of seeing those containers of memories, their homes and familiar surroundings, askew or in rubble, the solidity of the city itself made fragile and impermanent. They have become bereft of the prime orientation of their personal compass. It is their need to regain their sense of place, mentally as well as materially, that impels them to rebuild, as much as possible, as it was, where it was. For a time they may find shelter, but it will not be “home”.

Places are, therefore, locations that are permeated with meaning and memory. Their importance to lives is why
we resist their obliteration by the forces of change, natural or man-made. They are as sharable as what is evoked by a city’s name, or a neighborhood, and can be as discrete and non-substitutable as home, or where we remember being when we heard the war ended or Kennedy was shot.

As a place San Francisco can only be San Francisco precisely where it is, at the tip of the Monterey Peninsula,
astride the San Andreas Fault. Move it anywhere else and it is no more San Francisco than would be an ersatz facsimile of it at Disneyland. Its location is inextricable from its history and identity. San Francisco’s is where the fog can 
roll through its urban canyons as thick as cream, where Summer and Winter can change places, where the topography is vertiginous in both form and beauty. And it is a place indelibly marked by memories as well as anticipations of when the earth decides to quake, roll and roar in defiance of man’s ancient habit of place-making.

For a brief time, as we sat comfortably in our own places, and vicariously shared its tragedy, we also admired the powerful bonds of San Franciscans to each other, as well as to their chosen place. It is not a trait unique to San Francisco, but in witnessing their courage in the dark hour of their city it made all of us San Franciscans. For those for whom it is the city, the place to be, there seemed little doubt that it will remain, whatever the Richter may ordain, the only place to be.

©1989, ©2003, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 12.7.2003)

San Diego American Planning Association Journal, December 1989, pp. 1, 3.Re-printed, APA Northern Section News, Vol. 8, No. 58, April 1990, pp. 1, 4.