The contrast was stark, the transition unsettling. We entered the subway on West 86th, near where it meets Central Park West, with the sounds of horns, children’s screams and sirens ringing in our ears. We could see the local grocer, and the homeless man who had staked out his piece of sidewalk. It smelled like pretzels and sewers and fresh coffee. A whole world existed within a couple of blocks, colliding, shattering, unfolding all around us. When we finally emerged from the city’s depths, four (delayed) trains and three hours later, we were in the stark white arena of the airport terminal. Staff wore uniforms. The walls were white. It smelled faintly of citrus floor cleaner. It was hard to tell it was New York City at all. There was no hyper-local culture here, only the dehumanizing experience of being trapped in a tunnel with numerous angry strangers while being shuttled between one drab and unfamiliar station to the next, followed by being made to feel less valuable than my luggage by the vast majority of the airport staff.
If you have ever been to an international airport, you probably know how we felt. This is a non-specific experience for a non-specific age. Travel is dehumanizing precisely because it is efficient, and often takes place as a transitional stage between places, not as a destination in itself. In fact, we experience this a number of ways as the world copies and pastes bits of itself over and over in different countries.
And yet we crave uniqueness and belonging. This is why many of us travel for pleasure in the first place, to experience new ways of living. It’s also the reason neighbourhood restaurants still survive in an era of chain restaurants’ economies of scale, and why Cheers makes people sigh with nostalgia. Online, we carefully cultivate very specific and personalized networks of imagined communities in the virtual world, circles of people who share our interests or backgrounds. We celebrate the nooks and crannies of places.
A few posts ago, I wrote about what makes cities great, in the form of a Hierarchy of Urban Needs, and suggested that at the top level (the “self-actualization” stage), a city becomes a beacon that represents ideals. Through a virtuous process, as a city of the imagination, it attracts others who identify with what it represents and who work to build networks within it and help it achieve its potential. It becomes a place.
And the opposite…
Just as it is said that the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference, the opposite of places that draw people in and foster their passions must be a generic, interchangeable non-place, a freeway, perhaps, or an airport or suburban shopping mall. This concept of the non-place, or non-lieu in the language of its birth, was initially put forward by Marc Augé, a French anthropologist. Augé has defined non-lieux as “spaces in which no lasting social relations are established.” These are generic anyplaces that are unknown but somehow familiar, in the sense that instead of this particular grocery store you could be at any grocery store, in any town in North America (or, with a few tweaks in language and symbols, the world).
Non-lieux are notable for producing unanimity, and also for their ability to dehumanize. If people are just passing through, there is obviously a benefit to utilitarianism and ease of use, both of which often come at the expense of beauty or uniqueness. (Think: bus stations, highways, or airports.) And there is little incentive for those doing the passing to improve the spaces, or individualize them, rendering them anonymous. 
I have been grappling in my everyday life with the sense of being in a non-lieu for a while, and wondering if (ironically) it is the place I’m in that lends itself to such unspecificity. I stumbled across a description of where I live recently that seems to sum this idea up perfectly, and it’s worth quoting at length (particularly for lovers of Burt Bacharach tunes):
Reflecting on the tune, “Do You Know the Way to San Jose,” [Dionne] Warwick was quoted as saying: “It’s a beautiful little city. I was made an honorary citizen. I’m accused of putting it on the map and overpopulating it.”
I contemplated that statement for a long, long time. She was accused of putting the city on the map. Not thanked, not congratulated, not applauded, but accused. For me, it put everything into perspective, since now, 40 years later, it often seems like many people in San Jose still don’t want to city the be known for anything. They live here because they don’t want it to be an interesting place.
In my opinion, the San Jose condition will always involve the conflict between urban and suburban, small town and big town, or what constitutes a “major city” and what doesn’t.
A-ha! A veritable non-place in my midst, and one I’ve written about before as feeling transitional, and slightly unrooted. It’s ironic, really, because that song is about how San Jose is an anchor that provides a home and peace of mind in contrast to the “great big freeway” that is L.A. (another non-place!).
But I have started to wonder about the distinction between somewhere being a non-place generally, and a non-place to me. As Augé says, in non-lieux one finds “a total absence of symbolic ties, and evident social deficits.” This sounds a lot like the experience of being an immigrant, doesn’t it?
Moving to a new city can feel like entering a “non-place.” As a newcomer, you are unfamiliar with its norms. You move inefficiently through it because you aren’t aware of traffic patterns or even the geography. You have yet to demarcate what will become the familiar signposts of your life (the coffee shop on your way to work with the friendly staff; the quirky graffiti on the brick wall near your apartment; the alley you cut through as a shortcut that erupts into a riot of flowers and stray saplings each spring).
And thus a non-place might be a matter of time, not of the place itself. Usually a sense of place is built with repeated exposure. Little parts of a space become “yours” and you build community through enjoying them with others. Eventually you begin to share your discoveries, recommending restaurants, giving directions, and encouraging others to join you there. You might even join a community group to improve it in some way, to give back what you gain.
Non-places may also just be another word for loneliness. I read recently that space “has been viewed as container of populations with particular demographic characteristics, and as stage on which networks of social interaction take place. The boundaries of spatial experience are seen to coincide with a social world rather than with a particular area.” In this way places hold different meanings for different people at different times. Perhaps they are only non-places insofar as they are lacking in connection, not anything inherent to the spaces themselves. Airline employees feel differently about an airport that they see every day than passengers who are just visiting once. Those who feel more rooted contribute more to platemaking, and this can be to the detriment of the diversity of the place since newcomers don’t often feel this way.It seems that the strength of a place is in its social bonds.  In order for places not to feel like the hotel rooms, supermarkets, and airports Augé talks about, we need to invest in them. So in order to feel rooted, I’ve learned I had to give something of myself away. Even in generic suburbs, which Augé wrote were (merely) areas of “circulation, communication, and consumption,” people eventually develop an affinity or sense of rootedness based on having grown up or lived there, and known others there. They become … places.
So here’s hoping for a place, in time, for everyone passing through a non-place time, whether airport or grocery store or city. Explore. Connect. Make it count.
1 It should be said that some airports have tried to overcome this sense of placelessness. I saw one excellent exhibit on Louis Comfort Tiffany and another on old and new doors from around the world while waiting for a late-night flight out of San Francisco Airport recently.
2 This is from a lovely 1976 essay by Anne Buttimer titled Grasping the Dynamism of the Lifeworld.
3 There are roughy five thousand photos on flickr of signs to SJ, riffing on the song. This is one of them, courtesy of user John ‘K’.
4 I’ve just realized that a suitable one-line summary of this post/blog, and my life, may be: Social capital is the answer; I don’t care about the question! Thank you, Robert Putnam.