Can you go home again? (An exercise in psychogeography)

January 13, 2014 § 4 Comments

The erstwhile J Toguri Mercantile, Chicago

The erstwhile J Toguri Mercantile, Chicago

Can you go home again?

According to Thomas Wolfe, it’s out of the question. Wolfe aside, it is a question that has been much on my mind since last summer, when I visited my hometown, Chicago, after an absence of just over three years. One’s relationship with one’s hometown is always bound to be complex, but – despite having moved around a great deal since going to university – I was surprised by the distress this return caused me. Chicago felt like a foreign country to me. Over the years since I first moved away, I’ve watched with helpless anger as places that occupied an important place in my life and my personal geography of the city – mainly cafés and small, funky shops but also grandly ramshackle old buildings – have been inexorably swept away by Starbucks and luxury condo developments.

Coming out of the Art Institute on my first day there last June, I found one of the last holdouts of what I think of as ‘my’ Chicago – a marvellous poster shop where I spent countless hours (and a not inconsiderable amount of cash for decorating a succession of dorm rooms and apartments) over the years – was, you guessed it, now a Starbucks. Google saved me from a painful fool’s errand to Lakeview to visit the dusty, inviting Japanese emporium I used to frequent by telling me that it had closed its doors four months previously – but the sadness of knowing it was gone was no less sharp for not having seen it with my own eyes.

There was also the fact that Chicago seemed… small. It must sound comical to call a city of nearly three million small, but consider this: I have lived more of my adult life in London than anywhere else, and in the last three years the American cities in which I’ve spent the most time have been Los Angeles and New York. You could drop Chicago into any of them at least three times. Suddenly Chicago – which, as a child and a teenager, I thought the ne plus ultra of cities – felt small, provincial and on a one-way journey to hopeless blandness. When I boarded my plane to New York at the end of my stay, I felt a palpable relief.

Since the age of eighteen, I’ve moved cities thirteen times. (No, I haven’t lived in thirteen different cities – many of these moves have been between the same handful of cities, but it is an impressive or alarming number all the same, depending on your viewpoint.) I might have assumed that would inure me to the shock of finding that I no longer felt at home in the city where I grew up. Not so.

This experience has gotten me thinking about London, my adopted hometown. London is so vast and protean that whole chunks of it that never were or are no longer part of one’s personal geography can become foreign countries, never ventured into – even if once a central part of one’s life. Here I’m thinking of the three neighbourhoods I lived in during my student years, none of which I’ve been back to in years – Harringay, Stoke Newington and Highbury. I haven’t been back to Harringay in twelve and a half years, Stoke Newington in eight, Highbury in nearly five. How much have they changed in the intervening years? And how much have I changed in that same span of time?

How will it feel if I try to go home again?

I’m going to find out – by going back to each, armed with my camera and memory, on successive weekends. An experiment in psychogeography, if you will.

Let’s see how it pans out.

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