June 1st, 2015

Why place matters

The man had just explained how his violent behavior was the norm in the poor urban neighborhood where he was raised and I responded with a simple acknowledgement of how difficult it must have been to grow up there.

Then he surprised me with a question. Did I know anything about Mallorca? Only that it is a beautiful island in the Mediterranean off the coast of Spain, I replied. The world traveler agreed and added that in his eyes, the rough neighborhood of his youth is every bit as beautiful.

Of course it is, I reflected silently and wondered what made me simplify something so complex as a person’s perception of the environment that forged his identity. As the migrant son of a small factory town who landed in a place of education, culture and material comfort, I should have known better.

I had heard the jokes about my place of origin and had seen the grim economic statistics but my perception is still colored by my memories of the good experiences I had there. What made me think it had been otherwise for him?

I knew the part of the city where the man spent his childhood and young adult years but my knowledge was that of a visitor and not a native. We talked about the broad avenue of tired shops and the street where the old state hospital once stood, the place where a classmate and I traveled for our psychology practicum two days each week. The other three days we spent on campus learning the intricacies of the pre-Exner Rorschach and how to calculate an analysis of variance with pre-computer tools. I did not tell him how I got to his neighborhood or what we saw along the way. There was no point in detailing the long subway ride and how my friend and I made sure we would travel together though we got on at different stations.

Living farther way from our destination, I boarded first and made my way to the first set of doors in the first car. When we reached my friend’s stop, she entered the same car if she saw me there and, if not, waited for the next train. We both appreciated the company on such a long trip, first the subway to the end of the line and then a bus that snaked its way through tortuous streets clogged by morning traffic and more than the occasional police car or rescue vehicle.

Not many years later, I would start hearing the stories of some of the people for whom these vehicles came. There was the grandmother who raised her two grandsons to study hard, dream big, respect authority and stay away from the windows when there was shooting in the street.

The day a bullet smashed through the front window and buried itself in the opposite wall brought a cruiser with police checking that all were safe. They were, at least for the time being, but the boys told the story over and over in their therapy sessions and complained about the restrictions on their freedom that their grandmother imposed out of love and desperation.

Stories like this were not meant for my world traveler and he wouldn’t hear them from me. Nor would he hear the story of how I started working in a program for school age children in the outpatient division of this same hospital after I had completed my post-doc. He might have been one of the kids who came to our after school program for tutoring or to participate in activity groups or in individual psychotherapy to clear his head of things far worse than I ever saw from the bus window. He might have been any or all of these kids, but he wasn’t. He was too young to be a part of the after school program which closed its doors three years after I began working there.

He did know other good things about his part of the city that remained and we reminisced about some of our favorite restaurants and the attractive square at the end of the main thoroughfare. This place was the neighborhood he had credited with teaching him to be violent but in his eyes it was as beautiful as Mallorca.

I haven’t been back in decades and what I know of the area comes in the form of newspaper and television accounts of drug dealing, robberies, shootings, neighborhood improvement projects and an annual Mother’s Day march to end violence. The event, organized by a woman whose son was killed in the crossfire of rival gangs, attracts thousands of marchers each year. They are united in their shared grief for lost loved ones, dedication to helping one another bear their sorrow and determination to make their city a safe place to live.

Architectural historian Dolores Hayden reminds us of the importance of studying the history of places without falling into the trap of relying solely on the accounts of the privileged classes who sometimes hide the identities of the people who matter most. She describes how the Chinese immigrants who built much of the U.S. railroad system in the 19th century are rarely mentioned in histories of American labor during this period and searches for evidence of their presence.

Environmental psychologists tell us that place and identity are closely related, each influencing the other. All of this tells me that if I want to understand my world traveler I have to know the place that shaped him. He sees beyond the dangerous streets of his neighborhood to something beautiful, reminding me of how I shaped my own childhood memories, telling me to pay attention to the story he is about to tell.

Alan Bodnar is a psychologist at the Worcester Recovery Center and Hospital.

By Alan Bodnar Ph.D.

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